Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Neruda and the Chilean Open Graves

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Neruda and the Chilean Open Graves

Article excerpt

Chilean graves have been opening during the last years. Remains of poet Pablo Neruda were removed last May from his tomb facing the Pacific in the small Chilean coastal town of Isla Negra. Before Neruda, in May 2011, remains of former President Salvador Allende were also unburied, to fully determine if he in fact committed suicide while military forces bombarded the presidential palace.

Víctor Jara, one of Chile's best musicians, founding father of local New Song movement, was also exhumed in June 2009, after judicial authorities reopened the investigation into his death. Exams revealed that Jara received 44 bullet wounds, and that he had been tortured and his wrists were broken while detained in the stadium now bearing his name. The Chilean justice system ordered the arrest of eight former army officers-including a demand for the extradition of Pedro Pablo Barrientos Núñez from the United States. "There has been a slight window of hope since the exhumation" said the widow of the artist, Joan Jara.

Former Chilean President Eduardo Frei Montalva, who preceded Allende and died in the same clinic where Neruda passed away, was also exhumed in 2006. Septicemia was the official cause of his death, but his family suspected murder. After forensic exams, a Chilean judge determined that the death of the former president was homicide perpetrated by Pinochet agents. Six persons were arrested in a still ongoing judicial process.

Allende, Jara and Neruda died in 1973, Frei Montalva in 1982. They have been dead for 30, 40 years. Why are their remains unburied now? Are they the dead markers of a failed transition? Or do they represent living proofs of a stronger democracy and how universal demands for truth and justice may resist any artificial limit as they go on for generations?

It is significant that most of these exhumations took place under the administration of President Sebastián Piñera without any real public concern for democratic stability. In 2009, Piñera's election was widely seen as marking the end of Chilean political transition and the healing of wounds that some described as "from the past."

The adva ntages of waiting

Human rights cases are kept alive thanks to the tireless persistence and the permanent sense of urgency on the part of relatives of the victims. They know that mothers, families and friends of victims may get old and die not knowing the truth or receiving justice. There is no excuse for the slow pace of justice; but there must be at least hope in certain cases.

"It may be that at least some aspects of justice prove easier to attain after time has distanced the actors and the society from the events in question" writes Naomi Roth-Arriaza in The Pinochet Effect, a book that details the circumstances of the Pinochet detention in London and its unexpected effect in Chile (the conversations it opened, the truth that it revealed, the justice limits it tested). The assertion seems particularly appropriate in the case of recent Chilean exhumations.

Roht-Arriaza has described "the advantages of waiting" in the cases of human rights crime trials, and at the beginning of the 21st century those advantages are seen in Chile. She describes how, as time passed and democracy grew stronger, witnesses lost their fear while those most implicated in human rights crimes retired and lost their influence.

Víctor Jara's widow Joan watched with despair when the inquiry into the death of the musician was closed in 2008 with no conclusive results. But she managed to keep hope and courage, and renewed her public call for information to any of the 6,000 persons, soldiers and detainees alike, who were part of the detention center where Jara was killed. And finally, former conscripts began to talk: "They had been seriously threatened over the years and they had been living in fear," said Joan Jara, who collected enough information to reopen the case that led to Víctor's exhumation.

Time passes for judges too and, in another effect described by Roht-Arriaza, new magistrates may "have less of a personal stake in trying the crimes of the past" decades after repression. …

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