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  • Marc Miquel Helsen

Legacy of pain

Published in the Vancouver Courier, March 9, 2005

Sitting in the winter light coming in through the window of Joe’s Cafe on Commercial Drive, Eduardo Cruz searches for words. He has been talking about friends he lost to torture and execution in Chile in the 1970s. He tells their stories, he says, “to keep the dead alive.” He pauses and looks out into the street. He opens his mouth and his voice waivers.

“It’s pure luck, and nothing more, that I didn’t fall or disappear the way they did. That’s what motivates me to go on living and writing about the lives of my friends,” he says. He pauses again.

Cruz, a 53-year-old Coquitlam resident, came to Canada as a political refugee in 1976. A supporter of Latin America’s first democratically elected socialist government, he was like many other Chileans persecuted when General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup ousted the freely elected Salvador Allende in September 1973.

Pinochet and his party would rule the South American country for 15 years, during which time arrests, beatings, rape, executions and the disappearance of political opponents and innocents alike at government hands became commonplace. Cruz, a sociology student at the Universidad de Concepcion and armed with nothing more than his voice and his fists, took to the streets to defend his country’s fragile democracy.

He opposed everything Pinochet stood for, including the general’s political leanings and his use of violence to obtain power.

His protest made him a target for the government crackdown.

As Pinochet assumed control of the country, Cruz fled across the border to Mendoza, Argentina, but in 1976 he was caught and handed over to Chilean forces. In a remote area about an hour’s drive from the city, Cruz was beaten and tortured. Unlike many of those taken by the government, he survived.

Thirty years later, Cruz is a volunteer worker for El Comite de Expresos de Vancouver, a group of victims and former prisoners of the Pinochet regime. He is also one of thousands of expatriate Chileans around the world, many of whom live in Greater Vancouver, eligible for recently offered Chilean government compensation for the suffering they endured in the Pinochet era. Some are glad to be offered the money, small though it is, as a sign of the growing acknowledgment of the dark times the country went through in the 1970s. But Cruz says the compensation is not only too late but too little, and with his colleagues in El Comite de Expresos de Vancouver he is pushing the Chilean government to go farther.

As part of their campaign, he’s writing down his stories about his lost friends, and has plans to publish a book in their memory.

“I keep on writing to keep them alive so that they exist as something more than a name or a photograph,” Cruz says about his friends. “They were a part of history and nobody knows who they were, what their dreams were, what kind of a society they wanted, or what they were fighting for.”

During his captivity in 1976, Cruz was taken to a secret military base where he was tortured repeatedly for a week. Marines, soldiers and secret police agents stripped him naked and administered electric shocks. They dunked his head in filthy urine-filled water, in the common style his guards jokingly called “el submarino.” The soldiers threatened to kill his family and laughed at him as they forced him to watch others being tortured and executed. They deprived him of sleep or rest. Cruz was sure it was a matter of time before he became one of the bodies washing up on the banks of the Biobio river, the waters of which were used by the military as dumping grounds for victims of the regime.

But Cruz was one of the lucky ones. Interrogators soon realized he wasn’t a man of political weight or consequence and threw him into a cell. Six months later, through the intervention of a United Nations human rights worker, he was released and allowed to travel to Canada.

Cruz still suffers from the beatings he received in Mendoza. He has post-traumatic stress, is hard of hearing in one ear, and has a bad back that worsened when he took his first job in Canada as a shipper-receiver. His current job in construction doesn’t help.

Cruz is keeping a watch on the latest developments in Chile. Thirty-two years after Pinochet seized power, the Chilean government of President Ricardo Lagos has taken another step in grappling with the country’s past, a journey which began with the Rettig commission of 1990, named after the lawyer who headed it. The Rettig commission, set up under the government of President Patricio Aylwin, was the first attempt by a Chilean government to confront Chile’s violent past. The commission encouraged Chile’s victims of violence to come forward with personal accounts of torture. Over a period of nine months commission officials listened and recorded individual testimonies. A final report was written.

Coming soon after the Pinochet dictatorship, however, the commission was only relatively successful. Though no longer the country’s leader, Pinochet continued his role in the army, and upon his military retirement appointed himself senator for life with full immunity from prosecution. Many Chileans were wary of the government behind the Rettig commission. The offices and state buildings in which the testimonies took place were the same sites from which the state’s campaign of violence had been coordinated scant years before.

In 1998, Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon requested the extradition of Pinochet from England, where the former dictator was undergoing medical treatment, to stand trial in Spain for human rights abuses. Though the request was denied, Chile’s move toward truth and reparations for the 1970s got a highly publicized boost.

In 2004, Monseñor Sergio Valech, Bishop of Santiago and an outspoken critic of the violence during the Pinochet regime, held another commission and public hearings, concluding them in November with a lengthy report listing 28,000 known torture and abuse victims from the Pinochet era. The Chilean government then approved a proposal compensating the victims at $200 a month for the rest of their lives.

Cruz’s reaction to the compensation proposal is a mixture of bitterness and anger.

“They don’t talk about the millionaire pensions they’ve handed out to retired military officials, they don’t talk about the doubled pensions they receive because of war-related stress,” says Cruz. “So what happens is that the military officials who tortured us, tortured our wives, tortured our children, are rewarded, and for us the question of compensation is too expensive. What can we do with $200 a month?”

While he wants victims to receive better compensation, Cruz notes no amount of money can take away the scars of physical and psychological torture.

It’s a sentiment supported by Frances MacQueen, director of the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture, a non-profit providing torture survivors and their families with clinical and support services.

“First of all, we have to say that of course you are never going to receive compensation. There is no compensation for torture, for loss of lives, loss of hopes, loss of dreams. That’s not possible,” says MacQueen. “Getting some sort of acknowledgment of wrong-doing is more important for the soul than the actual money.”

Cruz is also unhappy that the number of people eligible for compensation is capped at 28,000. He says many more Chileans suffered than are officially recognized. But he says because the Valech hearings were badly publicized, many people, especially from rural towns and villages, didn’t testify.

Carlos Cuadrado, media relations officer at the Chilean embassy in Ottawa, acknowledges the problems with the Valech commission hearings and that potential witnesses might have been reticent to speak in public.

“There are many things that you might not want to talk about because they cause you a lot of pain, or because of the humiliation of talking about terrible things like rape and violence,” he says. “There are a lot of people who don’t want to remember certain things or make them public knowledge.”


Pablo Madrid’s wife leaves the room when he starts telling the story of how he was tortured by Chilean army and naval officers.

“I don’t want my wife to hear this,” says Madrid, after she leaves.

He is sitting in the conference room at the Refugees and Newcomers Office of the Mennonite Central Committee in East Vancouver. Outside the weather is cold and wet. His interview, on a topic about which he does not like to talk, was arranged through the Mennonite organization, which acted as an intermediary.

Speaking calmly and slowly, Madrid, 58, remembers the day the soldiers took him away. He was blindfolded and driven in endless circles to disorient him. When they removed the blindfold, Madrid found himself in a remote and undisclosed field. There the beatings began. Seven or eight guards kicked him around like a rag doll. He was then taken to a naval base, where for four months in the base prison he suffered torture, including suffocation, electrocution, psychological abuse and humiliation.

He says the soldiers who imprisoned and tortured him and others showed no mercy to anyone.

“We thought that they would have some sort of respect for the children, for the women and the elders, but there was none,” says Madrid. “Today Pinochet’s family is pleading respect for the old man when they in their time had no respect for anyone. I was held captive with children and with elders and they treated them like they treated me-and worse.”

During his captivity and torture, Madrid thought of death as a welcome escape from the endless pain.

“There were times when you didn’t even care anymore and so you’d yell out [to the guards] ‘Do what you want with me.’ But that’s what they wanted, so that they could beat you even more,” says Madrid. “I knew I had to live, to look after two more lives: for my wife and my child. That’s what made me survive.”

In the middle of his story, when he begins to describe what the soldiers did to other men and women he befriended in the naval prison, Madrid’s words become broken and heavy. He stops speaking and raises some papers to cover his face.

Despite the weight of those four months three decades later, Madrid is grateful for the Valech commission and what successive governments after Pinochet have done for Chile.

“I could die now, peacefully, knowing that at least some justice has been achieved,” says Madrid. “I don’t think it is always possible to get exactly what you want, but at least something was achieved and that something will remain.”

Waldo Briño, director of the Vancouver Latino newspaper Milenio and son of a Chilean torture survivor, also praises the progress made by the current Chilean government to compensate victims of Pinochet. Briño says that though justice has been slow, the steps taken forward for compensation and reconciliation can’t be reversed. Not only have they paved the way for the trials of other accused military generals, they have changed the minds of the Chilean people, who once looked at the victims of the 1970s as necessary casualties.

“I guarantee you that many people in Chile to this day thought that if so and so was tortured, and so and so was murdered, or the father of so and so was disappeared, it was because they deserved it, because these were the consequences of a war on communism,” says Briño.

A new generation of Chileans has had the opportunity of viewing documents and hearing testimonies from the 1970s, and thanks to a fair judicial process and popular films about the era, the collective image of Pinochet in the minds of Chileans has changed.

“He is no longer seen as the great defender of the people, as having liberated Chile from communism,” says Briño. “Now he is seen as the thief who robbed the country of its riches, who kept his wealth in Swiss and North American banks, and who went from being a great hero to a thief and a murderer who disappeared many innocent people.”

The international community also played its part in pressuring the Chilean government to come out with the truth about the nation’s past. But the most important catalyst of all was the bravery of the people of Chile: the innocent victims, the widows and the mothers of those who were disappeared who began mounting daily protests in the 1980s demanding to know what happened to their husbands and sons, says Briño.

Madrid agrees.

“What we have today isn’t perfect,” he says. “But what we have we have thanks to all those people, starting with the women [the Mothers of the Disappeared] who took to the streets in 1986. They were the first ones to lose their fear and to help the whole movement in itself become fearless.”

If the past in Chile is finally being remembered and the surviving victims receiving recognition, can the crimes of the era be forgiven? Eduardo Cruz is grappling with the question.

“There can be no social peace without social justice first,” he says. “Most of us in Chile are Christian and so believe in forgiveness. But no one has ever asked us for forgiveness.”

Dr. Joanna Quinn, a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario, says both acknowledgment and forgiveness are crucial to the health of a rebuilding society. She has travelled to several war torn nations around the world and studied societies wrestling with the legacy of their human rights atrocities. Acknowledgment of what happened must come first, she says.

“You can’t have forgiveness unless acknowledgment takes place before that,” says Quinn. “Acknowledgment happens at the personal and interpersonal level but if a substantial portion of people in the country are acknowledging or trying to acknowledge what happened then you see at a societal or a collective level that the same things are starting to [change].”

Quinn believes Chile has come a long way in publicly documenting what happened during the Pinochet regime and is undergoing a massive change for the better. But there is still much more to be done, she says. As the truth continues to come out Chileans and human rights advocates around the world are waiting to see if Pinochet will be tried and convicted for the atrocities committed during this regime. A conviction, says Quinn, would be a deterrent to leaders of other countries from committing similar crimes.

The immunity from prosecution that Pinochet granted himself in 1990 has complicated the issue. While Chile’s supreme court ruled Pinochet fit, physically and legally, to stand trial, Chilean officials accused of human rights abuses but protected by a blanket amnesty invoked by Pinochet will be harder to try and convict, says Quinn.

“Only time will tell.”

No one knows if Pinochet, 89, will live long enough to be tried. But many Chileans take comfort that Chile’s bloody history is finally officially recognized in the country.

Even Cruz can find something positive to say about efforts like the Valech commission and their effect on the Chilean national psyche.

“One shouldn’t be all negative,” he says. “The Valech commission is entirely positive because it vindicates the names of all those who fell, those who were tortured or imprisoned, and those who fought for justice and who will be written into Chilean history as freedom fighters. Not as terrorists, as Pinochet portrayed them.”

But Cruz argues a better compensation package, in accordance with international human rights laws, is necessary for true justice to be achieved.

“Some of us have already received our miserable compensation, assessed and approved by [the Chilean] congress. But the Valech commission wanted something with more integrity,” says Cruz.

Cruz and his colleagues in El Comite de Expresos de Vancouver want more money for people with disabilities stemming from injuries they received during torture and imprisonment.

They also believe too many members of the Pinochet regime accused of human rights abuses are escaping justice. They want them tried and convicted.

Until those demands are met, Cruz and the other committee members will continue to meet at Joe’s Cafe on Commercial to plan their battle for truth and compensation. Cruz has waited for three decades for the justice he seeks. And as he writes down his stories about the friends he lost, he can wait even longer.

Published in the Vancouver Courier March 9, 2005


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