(First published in Upside Down World)
In another event which exposes the reality of Chilean society’s split memory, an homage to former Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA) officer Miguel Krassnoff Martchenko was described as an exercise in freedom of expression by mayor of Providencia Christian Labbé, in turn prompting outrage and protests from human rights and activist groups in Chile since its announcement.
On November 21, Labbé organised a book launch for the 4th edition of right wing historian Gisela Silva Encina’s Miguel Krassnoff: Prisoniero Por Servir a Chile (Miguel Krassnoff: A Prisoner for Serving Chile). A letter from Krassnoff was read during the event, in which he described his incarceration as ‘illegal, illegitimate and unconstitutional’. Hundreds of activists and relatives of tortured victims gathered to protest the event, some holding placards stating “I don’t forget, nor forgive”. Others turned up with photographs of tortured, assassinated or missing relatives. Protestors hurled eggs and stones in the direction of Club Providencia, resulting in clashes between opposing groups and the use of force and tear gas against protestors by the Chilean police. Earlier that day another indictment was issued against Krassnoff, charging him and three other DINA officers with the kidnapping of Newton Morales Saavedra in 1974.
A message relayed by one of President Sebastian Piñera’s assistants stated that while the President was unable to attend, he wished the event success, bearing in mind that “Krassnoff is a representative symbol of the 1973 – 1978 era.” Following the protests, Piñera issued a retraction, saying the initial message was not his and there was no way his government would have participated in such an event.
Krassnoff was sentenced to 144 years in prison in 2006 for over 20 counts of crimes against humanity. A graduate of the School of the Americas (SOA) and renowned for anti-Marxist sentiment, Krassnoff took part in the September 11, 1973 military coup d’état which ousted President Salvador Allende. Having been in charge of DINA’s Brigada Halcon, Krassnoff was at the helm of Pinochet’s secret service which kidnapped, tortured and assassinated members of Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria de Chile (MIR) – who had formed a paramilitary resistance against Pinochet’s dictatorship. Those arrested were taken to Villa Grimaldi and Londres 38, torture complexes which operated from 1974 to 1978.
According to Stern (Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Question in Democratic Chile 1989 – 2006) 4,500 prisoners were tortured from 1974 – 1976; including 205 disappearances. Survivors of torture recount extreme atrocities committed against prisoners. Sheila Cassidy, a British doctor living in Chile at the time of the coup, was arrested and tortured with electric shocks on the accusation of medically treating a Pinochet opponent. Paul Hammer, a law student arrested on suspicion of membership in a left-wing paramilitary group states he was beaten, shocked and brought to the verge of suffocation. Another torture survivor of Villa Grimaldi, Pedro Matta was arrested in 1975 and taken to Villa Grimaldi. His extensive research sheds light on the methods and manner of torture.
Prisoners who refused to become collaborators for DINA were kept standing for long hours in tiny cells, torturers submerged the prisoners’ heads in putrid water, others were subjected to the shattering of limbs, performed by a guard who would drive a vehicle over the victim’s legs. Sexual abuse and torture against women was particularly sadistic, which included rape, using animals to sexually abuse women and the burning of genitals. Influential prisoners who refused to succumb to the interrogator’s demands were usually anesthetised, taken on board a helicopter and thrown into the ocean. This elimination of opponents was also affirmed by Cassidy.
Labbé, a personal friend of Krassnoff since their time at the (SOA), so far remains unscathed by the law. A former body guard of Krassnoff, he later formed part of Brigada Halcon, given the duty of instructing guards in torture methods. Reiterating that he allowed the use of Club Providencia each time there was a commemoration pertaining to the Pinochet era, Labbé considers the event as honouring part of Chile’s history. Notwithstanding his role in Villa Grimaldi, Labbé continues to enjoy the authorities’ support and has contested council elections, retaining his place as Mayor since his first campaign.
Despite the testimonies from survivors and reports drawn up by the Valech and Rettig commissions; Chilean society remains split over the dictatorship era. According to Krassnoff’s declaration in the letter read during the book launch, “the military coup didn’t happen. It was a legitimate military intervention.” Once again, memory and blame are displaced. Pinochet’s initial declaration to allegations of human rights abuses, “Sometimes democracy must be bathed in blood” was mellowed through the years into a mission of refuting evidence of torture and murder through the discrepancy oblivion, as he stated in 1995, “The only solution to the issue of human rights is oblivion.”
As evidenced from Gisela Silva Encina’s blog about Krassnoff, Pinochet supporters are in denial of the history of human rights abuses, assassinations and disappearances. Echoing a quote from Krassnoff, “I am a soldier who has been transformed into a persecuted politician.” Encina states that Krassnoff was the victim of lies and that no evidence incriminating Krassnoff was brought forward. Indeed, Dr Patricio Bustos, Head of Servicio Medico Legal, testified that he was tortured by Miguel Krassnoff, and that Krassnoff never used a pseudonym to conceal his identity. The testimonies of victims were dismissed as memory manipulation. Encina’s blog also portrays the protestors as criminals attacking Pinochet supporters, thus necessitating the use of force on behalf of the police. Chile’s laws do not deem the celebration of genocide as a crime; therefore once again, victims and their relatives have been subjected to a travesty of justice.
However, the memory of the oppressed refuses to relinquish its stand. Lorena Pizarro, president of Agrupacion de Familiares de Detenidos Desparecidos (AFDD), condemned the homage, stating it portrayed Chile as a state which sanctions terrorism, as well as opening an avenue for a repetition of state terror. Alicia Lira, president of the Agrupacion de Familiares de Ejecution Politicos (AFEP) denounced the homage as an affront to memory and an example of the impunity which Piñera’s government is unwilling to counter, since many officers from the Pinochet era remain in authoritative positions. On behalf of the AFDD, Pizarro is suing Labbé, demanding to know whether public funds were used to finance the event.
Tt a time when Chile is experiencing a surge in protests, notably the students’ protests demanding quality and free education, the event elicited responses from political figures. Head of Senate Guido Girardi denounced the homage, calling it “a tribute to torture, assassination and rape” and challenged Piñera to take measures against allowing Labbé to run for council elections in 2012.  “It is not possible that public authorities honor torturers and murderers … It is not democratic that your party supports a militant who has incurred faults that go against the constitution and the law … Labbé should be prevented from reapplying for office as he clearly has not responded as democracy demands.”