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Issue #1691      July 1, 2015

Justice for the victims of Chile’s dictatorship

The Australian connection

Lorena Pizarro is a prominent human rights activist and member of the Central Committee of the Chilean Communist Party. She is here on behalf of the National Campaign for Truth and Justice for Chile to campaign for the extradition of Adriana Rivas, a woman who lives freely in Australia but has been requested by the Chilean government to be extradited, as she faces serious charges of human rights violations in Chile.

Lorena made public speeches and met Australian parliamentarians and human rights groups during her recent tour of the country.

She took some time out of her schedule to speak with the Guardian about the history of persecution and current challenges faced by the Chilean people, and also about her campaign in Australia and how it concerns us all.

Lorena Pizarro.

Guardian: We have noticed there’s been quite a transformation in the Chilean government in recent times. The Communist Party has gone from being excluded by the Pinochet* constitution to now being member of the government. How did this transformation happen?

Lorena Pizarro: It has been a long and painful process for the party and its militants. Our party was highly persecuted; a high number of our members were tortured and killed. And that persecution changed at the end of the dictatorship. It was not so much a direct persecution, it was a different kind of persecution in that it was made invisible, and it was marginalised. Not only the Communist Party but also the social movements in Chile were subject to it.

So what the party and the left movements did was that they strengthened their bases, and this is what happened towards the end of the dictatorship. For many years of the period of transition in Chile we had to, as we say in a colloquial saying, “we had to dance with the ugly person”.

In the demands for making a democracy, in that transformation of a society, which was trying to heal and overcome the wounds of the dictatorship, we had to rediscover and recuperate all the things we had lost under the dictatorship. That kind of transformed the persecution that was shown towards us by marginalising us.

We saw how many new political leaders still held power and ruled in the old way of the dictatorship. Thus what we saw under democracy was people in power upholding those same dictatorial values, working in conjunction and co-governing under the same system. But the Communist Party and other social movements and left parties continued to work and build from outside the government, within social movements. So what they did in the post-dictatorship period was continue to denounce and speak out that under this transitional government nothing had changed and we were still living in a post-dictatorship era.

What that post-dictatorship period meant was that we continued to live under authoritarian law and rule; under a system that still maintained the violation of human rights. The health and education systems and the labour laws were inherited from the time of the dictatorship. It was still a system of incredible injustice and social marginalisation.

So, as the years went by there was a great movement created in opposition to all this, which meant that in 2011, as a starting point with the education movement, with new and young vocal leaders from within the student movement (including some high profile young women leaders from the Communist Youth, who were leaders of different student federations), a strong movement began that said, “no more, we need to change this country.”

That created a new coalition, a new force in the left movement in Chile. And in the right wing the more vocal and radical became even more conservative and close-minded. On the other hand, the strength of the social movements forced the old coalition and government in transition, and pushed for the inclusion of the Communist Party to begin a new process in the country that moves towards real transformation in Chile.

All that meant the creation of a new coalition in Chile, with a new majority, which is based on a government program that looks to end what was inherited from the dictatorship. Also, we seek to end those institutionalised things we inherited from the dictatorship, and among those are included a real end to the 1978 constitution that is still in effect today. That is how the Communist Party now has a presence not only within government but also within the parliament.

G: You mentioned the youth. We have seen the progress of student leaders like Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola. Is it just a question of outstanding individuals or has there been a process within the party and its youth organisation (La Jota) to develop these young leaders?

LP: The Communist Party has always had the Communist Youth with a large presence in Chilean society through the youth. Now Camila and Karol are better known for their roles as members of government. But lots of other members of the Communist Youth are also councillors and leaders in other organisations around the country.

That’s always been the case, this representation of people coming out of the Communist Youth, but what has happened now is that subjective and objective conditions have aligned. This means that these leaders have been able to come forward with much more of a social backing, backing from a grass roots social movement, because there is a possibility of real change in Chile. I think that this youth represents not just hope for Chile but also around the world.

G: In general, is the Communist Party happy with the progress made with the new government in various policy areas? I have noticed the student protests have started again.

LP: I think social protest is always important and the Communist Party always supports protest and social movements, regardless of which government is in power.

At the moment there is a national strike of teachers in Chile, and the president of the teacher’s federation is member of the Communist Party. They don’t agree with some of the legal reforms made to the teaching sector.

I was looking at the news this morning. The education commission, headed by Camilla Vallejo in government, has managed to stop the progress of that law until the government can sit with the teachers and discuss the points that are in dispute.

The Communist Party is part of the government and loyal to the government program, but understands that the government, our government, must fulfil a program that was created in conjunction with popular support. We want that program to be supported from within the government, from within the rank and file, from within the population, and outside support as well.

G: You are here speaking chiefly on human rights issues in Chile. What questions are still outstanding from the Pinochet era? Could you tell readers about the Australian connection to all of this?

LP: I think that in Chile as well as in a majority of other Latin American countries who have lived under military dictatorship, there were processes of transition from dictatorship to democracy, which meant impunity for those who violated human rights.

When I discuss human rights abuses, I am speaking about those in the military and civilian population who supported those dictatorships. Different countries within the continent as well as the families and human rights groups, we all have had to fight long and hard against that impunity. The only difference being in Argentina: about 12 years ago the president of Argentina, Néstor Kirchner, did away with the impunity laws and there began a real process of ending impunity. I’m speaking of Argentina specifically because that really showed the responsibility of government and state in the fight against impunity to be absolutely necessary.

In Chile the situation is a little more advanced than other countries in the continent. We have imprisoned the head of the secret police, Manuel Contreras, and there are other agents also in prison. There are judicial processes currently underway.

We have the right to hear all of the truth and have all of the justice delivered. This means that the government, the state and whole of society, we all must take charge. We need to ensure that this never happens again.

We have in Chile at this time about 70 agents of the secret police of the dictatorship in prison. I have to say that although they are in prison, the one they are in is a luxury prison. It’s a completely different type of prison to that of a common prisoner held for other offences.

I have to say, also, that it wasn’t only 70 agents who upheld the brutality of 17 years of the dictatorship; it couldn’t have been just 70. Plus these 70 are all from the military, no civilians have been charged. It was the political and financial sector of the right wing that upheld the dictatorship for 17 years, and none of those civilians have been charged. So the debt of the Chilean state towards the population is enormous.

I signalled at the beginning there are some cases being investigated. Amongst those investigations are two current investigations about the execution and disappearance of two parts of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the 1970s. This investigation led to the discovery of an elite brigade – the Lautaro Brigade – within the DINA (Directorate of the National Investigation Agency), the secret police of the dictatorship. It was discovered that one of the agents was responsible for the death of Communist leaders is Adriana Rivas.

Rivas has been living in Australia since 1978. When she visited Chile in 2007, the minister who was heading her investigation ordered her arrest. She was detained for a few months. Then she was bailed under condition that she does not leave the country and she had to sign in with authorities every so often. She broke those bail conditions and escaped Chile via Argentina and returned to Australia.

When the Chilean state realised that somebody has escaped that justice system, they issued a warrant for her arrest via Interpol and they ordered her extradition. An extradition request was sent to the Australian government.

In Australia a large campaign began headed by the National Campaign for Truth and Justice in Chile, to seek her extradition, and it is not just supported by Chileans but also by other social groups, unions, etc.

I have been invited by the national campaign, to lend my support to the extradition demand, to build a bigger movement, so that this extradition can take place and she can return to Chile to face justice. I could not say no to this great task that means a lot to us.

I have been here since last week; I have been in three cities, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. I will be meeting with parliamentarians, social organisations, union leaders, speaking at public meetings, trying to gather support and trying to build this campaign for the extradition of Adriana Rivas.

What I have found is a profound respect, lots of like-minded people who respect human rights, who understand that the crimes she committed are serious and who will support our campaign.

G: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

LP: Although I discuss the particular issue of Adriana Rivas’ extradition, who is accused of aggravated kidnapping and torture of seven members of the Communist Party, I would like to point out that this issue affects everybody, not just Chileans.

This woman committed violations against people, against human rights. She is currently free. This affects all of us because there is a person living in Australia who has committed these serious crimes, and the defence of human rights should be something that concerns all of us. This is how we link this issue with Australians.

So far, whoever I have met here has been horrified at how Adriana Rivas continues to live free, and how the Australian government, despite one year since the extradition request from the Chilean government, has not answered the request and has not moved to extradite her swiftly.

We are also working with a legal team in Australia. We are getting advice from Dr Christopher Ward who is a specialist in international law. We are working the legal side of this campaign to achieve this extradition. I will be meeting different parliamentarians in Canberra, the Chilean ambassador in Canberra and various human rights organisations and social activists.

The website for this campaign is:

* General Augusto Pinochet was the fascist dictator of Chile between 1973 and 1990. He came to power in a bloody US-backed coup that ousted elected socialist President Salvador Allende. The dictatorship left behind a constitution that made it extremely difficult for left forces to be represented in the national congress.

Next article – The China syndrome

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