Article excerpt


When Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez died in March 1999, large numbers of Chileans took part in the funeral and burial rituals that followed. As the body was transported from the Salesian Church (La Gratitud Nacional) to the Cathedral in Santiago, two kinds of visual symbols could be spotted around his coffin. There were posters with photos of those who were arrested and disappeared in the years of the Chilean military government carried by their relatives, and there were also flags of the Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez (FPMR) carried by Chilean youth.2

Why were those symbolic representations closer to his coffin? It is possible to suggest that members of the military organization wanted to be seen in public. However, that would not be enough reason for their appearance. Those two groups were there because they recognized that it was the Catholic Church led by Cardinal Silva Henríquez that had defended the human and political rights of Chileans at a time when those rights were suppressed. After the suppression of all political parties, including the Christian Democrats (PDC) by 1974, the only organized voice was the Church and the only organized place to seek support and help was the Vicaría de la Solidaridad.

This paper expands aspects of the history of the Vicaría de la Solidaridad created by Cardinal Silva Henríquez in 1975. I suggest that such history is crucial to understand the opposition to the Pinochet regime before the introduction of the new constitution in 1980. It was the Catholic Church represented by the Vicaría that was the only possible voice on behalf of the persecuted and those stripped of their human rights (Vicaría de la Solidaridad 1992). It was the Vicaría that allowed politicians and intellectuals to continue their public mandate of serving citizens. At the same time, it provided a physical location for those preparing possible grounds for the restoration of democracy in Chile.


The military coup took place on September 11 1973, and as a result thousands of Chileans were arrested, killed, forced into exile, or disappeared (i.e. the desaparecidos)3. The military government led by a junta gave the recognition of primus inter pares to Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, who acted as leader of Chile from 1973 to 1990, when the first democratic elections took place and Patricio Aylwin became President of Chile.

Cardinal Silva Henríquez had tried to find a solution to the political crisis of Allende's government in August 1973, when on the August 19 that year he had invited president Salvador Allende and Patricio Aylwin (then president of the Chilean senate) to his house for dinner. However, the possible political solutions that could have worked at that time were not found. Nevertheless, it was clear that the Cardinal had been involved in the political life of the nation since he was appointed archbishop of Santiago (1961) and Cardinal (1962) by Pope John XXIII.4

Cardinal Silva had been sympathetic to the agrarian reform of President Eduardo Frei (1964-1970), and had generated internal reform within the Chilean Church after Vatican Council II (1962-1965). Such reform extended to the landholdings of the Catholic Church that he proceeded to minimize in constant conversation with Pope John XXIII. Between 1970 to 1973, the Cardinal was open to dialogue with all the parties involved in the Popular Unity (UP) government of Salvador Allende, and had to mediate in times when a number of his priests joined the movement 'Cristianos por el Socialisme'.5 Therefore, the taking over of the government by force through a military coup took him by surprise and saddened him. On that day (Sept. 11, 1973), and after hearing the news he wrote a 'Letter to God' in which he unfolded sentiments of petition for a more peaceful Chile, and described the events of the day as 'a time of trial, of anguish and pain for all the country'.6

His relations with the Pinochet regime were cordial, however the Cardinal used his own contacts in order to be able to alleviate suffering. …