Jonathan P. Baird: Justice for Victor Jara

  • Singer and songwriter Victor Jara poses in Chile in this undated photo. AP file

  • A woman holding a portrait of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara attends his funeral procession in Santiago in December 2009. AP file

  • Chile's President Michelle Bachelet (right) and Joan Jara, the widow of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, stand by the coffin containing Victor Jara's remains in Santiago, Chile, on Dec. 4, 2009. AP file

  • Joan Jara (right), widow of slain Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, talks to Chile's President Michelle Bachelet during a ceremony in Santiago on June 3, 2009. AP file

For the Monitor
Published: 7/20/2016 12:15:10 AM

Throughout history, accountability for political torture and murder has been exceedingly rare. The world is full of unpunished crimes. Horrible things happen and, more often than not, perpetrators act with impunity.

It is typically impossible to get foreign war criminals into an American courtroom. And we generally do not look too hard at our own war crimes.

So it was a total shock when I saw that on June 27 a Florida jury returned a guilty verdict in a civil trial against the murderer of Victor Jara. No one symbolizes the struggle for human rights in Latin America better than Victor Jara.

Jara was a leading Chilean folk singer, songwriter, theater director, activist and supporter of the socialist government of Salvador Allende. I have heard him described as a Chilean version of a cross between Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. Jara was executed at age 40 in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 1973, military coup that overthrew the Allende government.

The coup, led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, initiated a very dark chapter in Chilean history. It is estimated that 3,100 people were either killed or disappeared by Pinochet’s dictatorship. An estimated 29,000 people were tortured by Pinochet’s forces in the years following the coup.

The day of the coup, Jara went to work at the Santiago Technical University, where he was a professor and researcher. He had a date to sing at an event with Allende later that day. Jara did not come home.

His wife, Joan, waited for a week not knowing what had happened to him. A young man came to the Jara home on Sept. 18 and told Joan that Victor’s body had been recognized in the city morgue. Victor had been very well known.

Joan Jara accompanied the young man to the morgue, where she saw hundreds of bodies piled up in a parking area. She was able to identify Victor’s body and save him from a mass grave.

It took years for Joan Jara to find out what happened to her husband. On the day of the coup, the military arrested him and then detained him, along with thousands of others, in Chile Stadium. He was beaten badly at the university and then later tortured for three days at the stadium.

While there are many stories about his torture, the amputation of his fingers by the military and his singing to the other prisoners before his death, a forensic pathologist found he sustained a single bullet wound through the back of his head. When Joan Jara and other family members claimed his corpse, they found he had been shot 44 times, his wrists were broken and his face was disfigured from beatings.

On the 40th anniversary of Jara’s death, Joan Jara filed a civil lawsuit in Florida against a former military officer Pedro Barrientos, a lieutenant under Pinochet who had command responsibility at Chile Stadium. Joan Jara filed her lawsuit under the Torture Victims Protection Act, a federal civil statute that allows American courts to hear about human rights abuses committed outside the United States.

The trial presented a wealth of information about what happened at Chile Stadium. Several witnesses who had been Chilean military conscripts identified Barrientos as Jara’s murderer. Other witnesses testified that Barrientos had repeatedly bragged that he was the one who shot and killed Victor Jara.

The jury found Barrientos liable for Jara’s torture and murder and awarded his wife and daughters $28 million in punitive and compensatory damages.

Barrientos had fled Chile in 1989 and became a U.S.citizen through marriage. According to Peter Kornbluh, a reporter for the Nation, Barrientos misrepresented his involvement in the 1973 coup when he filed his naturalization application. Barrientos lives in Deltona, Fla.

In 2012, he was one of eight retired officers indicted for Jara’s murder in Chile. In 2013, the Chilean government formally requested Barrientos’s extradition back to Chile. For whatever reason, the U.S. Department of Justice has not yet responded to Chile’s request.

Complicating the pursuit of justice is a blanket amnesty passed in Chile in 1980, when Pinochet was still in power, which absolves all government officials of any wrongdoing. Pinochet died in 2006 but the remnants of his old regime have tried and are still trying to throw a veil over their human rights atrocities.

Why should Americans care about Victor Jara and these sad events that happened more than 40 years ago?

America’s role

Jara’s murder is fundamentally a matter of justice that transcends national boundaries. As a symbol of the struggle for human rights in Latin America, his example and accountability for his torture and murder matter. If torturers and murderers can act with impunity, the likelihood of future torture atrocities increases everywhere in the world. Making torturers pay for their crimes has some disincentive value.

We also need to recognize the American role in these events.

While it is disputed, there is substantial evidence that our government bears a degree of responsibility both for the 1973 Chilean military coup and for the gross violations of human rights that occurred in Chile and more generally in Latin America in the 1970s. We trained the Latin American military dictatorships in how to torture.

There are many layers to this story. The writer Isabel Allende, a relative of Salvador Allende, explained it this way: “On September 11, 1973, a military coup ended a century of democratic tradition in Chile and started the long reign of General Augusto Pinochet. Similar coups followed in other countries, and soon half the continent’s population was living in terror. This was a strategy designed in Washington and imposed upon the Latin American people by the economic and political forces of the right. In every instance the military acted as mercenaries to the privileged groups in power. Repression was organized on a large scale; torture, concentration camps, censorship, imprisonment without trial, and summary execution became common practices. Thousands of people ‘disappeared,’ masses of exiles and refugees left their countries running for their lives.”

I personally cared about these events because the Chilean revolution was a thunderbolt that rocked my political world. Conventional wisdom had previously dictated that no socialist government could ever be democratically elected. The 1970 election of the Popular Unity government led by Allende and his 1973 re-election showed that was not true.

Chile symbolized the electoral viability of democratic socialism. The coup, on the other hand, was a devastating rejoinder.

I recall Henry Kissinger’s oft-quoted, reprehensible quote from the time: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

The Jara trial showed there is still a tremendous need to fill in gaps in the public record about what happened in Chile and more generally in Latin America in the years from 1973-1980. Much effort has gone into concealing the history.

The best American political tradition is committed to transparency and intellectual honesty. The public deserves to know the truth. There is a seamy underside to the American role in supporting Pinochet and the other torturing Latin American regimes that included Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. The full extent of the American role in the Chilean coup has not been revealed. Nor do we know the American role in Operation Condor, Pinochet’s plan, in conjunction with other Latin American militaries, to eliminate his perceived enemies all over the world.

The verdict in Jara’s trial is a long-overdue victory for his family and brings a measure of accountability for the egregious human rights violations of the Pinochet regime. Life can be so surprising. I never expected to see justice for Victor Jara and, finally, it has come.

(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot works at the Social Security Administration. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer.)




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