Monday, February 22, 2010

Just Returned from Santiasco; and Justice, Impotance, and Crimes Against Humanity

Spent the past weekend in the nation's capital. Didn't have as much time to visit museums as I'd liked, but with Santiago only being about an hour and a half away (via bus), I'll have plenty of chances to go back.

I did have the chance to find out why it's called "Santiasco." It's not that it's actually disgusting, but it's just generally a pretty underwhelming city. Not in size by any means mind you, Santiago is massive: a population ~6 million people, though with it being February an estimated 2 million Santiguinos are out of town on vacation. But it is, to be quite frank, rather bland and uninteresting for what one would expect from the social and political center of the nation. Obviously, there are plenty of things to do and see, but it really just doesn't have much character of its own, like a Buenos Aires or Madrid (to name two Hispanic cities that I'm familiar with). Lots of malls, smog, and Las Condes, an upper-class suburban neighborhood community who could be regarded as the base of the Chilean right and president-elect Piñera. Yuck.

Valpo on the other hand is another story. Literally, whereas Santiago's draws are the museums and parks and restaurants and such that you go to a city of its size to enjoy (and seek to spend as little time as possible getting from point A to B!), Valpo is the complete opposite: it's bursting with character and is a spectacular city to wander and get lost in, but it really doesn't have much to offer in the way of things to "do" (most of those kinds of things are located instead in nearby Viña). I love it here, and after being in Santiago for a few days I was longing to come back.

One thing that did strike me while in Santiago is the number of museums and sites dedicated to the victims of Pinochet's torture regime. I had the opportunity to visit the Parque por la Paz at the former site of Villa Grimaldi, one of the most notorious detention centers during the 70s and 80s and where thousands of political dissidents lost their lives.

What's so striking to me is that a number of them opened only a handful of years after democracy took hold and while still on the cusp of that military government and of course, long before any real attempts at holding any of the torturers, murderers, and other-human-rights violators accountable for their crimes (which of course has yet to happen at all on a broad scale, and is almost certainly unlikely to ever happen). Pinochet in fact would have still been serving on his self-appointed Senate seat, which he held until 1998, at the time that the Parque por la Paz opened in 1994.

I believe it is remarkable that these gestures can be made, even by the state itself, in the absence of any real attempts, or even discussion of an attempt, at exacting justice and holding these men and women accountable for their crimes against humanity. Even outside of the torture, rape, murder, and kidnappings, the Pinochet regime was even so bold as to track down and assassinate opponents on foreign soil, including the notorious car bombing of Orlando Letelier in Washington, DC.

Of course, there is a significant discourse about what exactly it means to "hold the wrongdoers accountable" and what the implications are under such circumstances, especially when democracy is still so fragile in the years immediately after the dictatorship is over. But the fact of the matter is that in the Chilean case, and in so many other of these situations where severe human rights abuses are acknowledged but their perpetrators left unaccountable, it was never truly a matter of "the justice" of such actions. Instead, as my girlfriend says, having several family members who were imprisoned and tortured under Pinochet for their nonviolent political activities and beliefs, it's a matter of "la impotencia" to even consider legal accountability for these crimes.

Again, this is why Piñera’s election is so important for Chile. So much of media coverage, especially at the international level and by corporate interests, is focused on the narrative of the “progress” that Chile has made now that it can elect a right-wing president. But what progress is it when that President had close ties to the dictatorial regime and may be returning these same criminals back to power?

And of course the same can be said here in the United States in the wake of the torture, repression, and extrajudicial killings perpetrated by the Bush regime. Former Vice President Cheney was just on national television last week (crawling out of his lair to be on ABC News, mind you, not FOX), boasting about his support of and authorization of the US government’s use of waterboarding, one of the common methods of torture employed by the Chilean secret police at Villa Grimaldi. I recall a conversation I had with Boston University professor and author Andrew Bacevich before he spoke at Butler last spring on this very issue of holding the Bush Administration officials guilty of these transgressions accountable. I was trying to make the point that having a legal inquiry into what happened is essential for reestablishing the legal precedent against these actions (considering there already is a significant body of international and US legal writings regarding waterboarding as a torture method and the illegality of such methods) and preventing these crimes from happening again, while Dr. Bacevich, an ardent critic of the Bush Administration, argued the point that it was simply not politically feasible nor prudent to pursue such a course. Be sure to note that neither of us got around to the issue of “justice,” for it so often is merely a secondary issue to the “practicality” of criminal proceedings, if it is even considered at all.

But what really is to be said about the “impracticality” of these measures where in Chile a democratic government has been established for 20 years, and in the United States we are supposedly the most exemplary “democracy” in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world? Per Slavoj Zizek, we don’t actually believe in such things as “justice” and “democracy” and “human rights,” but instead we believe that we believe in these values. And here it's also worth recalling that much of the discourse in the mainstream media in the United States on the issue of waterboarding didn’t merely focus on whether or not waterboarding was in fact torture or not, but on whether or not “torture” in and of itself should be completely ruled out for use against terrorists!

Of course, part of the reason that states won't have these investigations, or when they do they are such toothless examinations as the ongoing UK invesigation regarding the leadup to the Iraq War, is because the responsibility lies with too many of those still in power. This is especially true here in the US, where so much of the political elite is so established that the US still refuses to join the International Criminal Court out of fear that people in Washington may actually be held accountable for their actions, and even the "progressive" Obama Administration still continues to carry out shady Bush-era tactics such as indefinite detention and extraordinary renditions (a brief scan of Glenn Greenwald's superb blog can quickly bring one up to speed on this). One might even make the case that all nation-states have at least some blood on their hands. But again, this should only further call into question the legitimacy of our political authorities and of the state itself, and we should not be afraid to ask these questions if we truly think we believe in "justice," "democracy," and "human rights."

In other news, later this week I'll be going to Cajón del Maipo, a forested area about an hour SE of Santiago that's a popular place to camp and go rafting and such. Definitely looking forward to it. In the meantime I'll be posting my most recent NACLA article and try to get some posts in before I take off.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post and links...they've entertained me for two days now.