Prosecuting Latin America's Former Dictators

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: Other Latin American nations are reaching further back into their past to deal with issues of impunity and human rights abuses. Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil all endured military dictatorships in the 1970s and '80s. Last week, all three countries took concrete steps to review the abuses committed during that period. Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the George Washington University�s National Security Archive and he has been following all these developments. Start with Brazil, Peter Kornbluh, if you will; the decision to create a truth and reconciliation commission - it was unanimously approved by its congress. How dramatic a move is this?

Peter Kornbluh: It's an amazing move for Brazil because Brazil, in great contrast to the other countries of Latin America, has refused to look into the dark past of its dictatorship which lasted from 1964 to 1985. Brazil has not had a truth commission. It has not prosecuted a single military officer for atrocities of the past. And the military, even today, has been so recalcitrant in even opening its own archives for evidence into these cases so that the Truth Commission Law has been really a political compromise of sorts. The Truth Commission Law actually says that it does not challenge the amnesty that the military holds.

Mullins: So what good is it then?

Kornbluh: Well...

Mullins: I mean, no one is going to be prosecuted in the current military?

Kornbluh: The process of truth can be very powerful even if it explicitly is not linked to justice. Once Brazil, if it can uncover the information, the evidence of a series of atrocities that took place during the military regime, then there will be a new discussion in Brazil over what to do about holding those accountable.

Mullins: What about in Chile? This is a country that you know very well from all of your works. The process also started with a very weak truth commission there, but two decades later Chileans now have made an enormous amount of progress on prosecuting members of the military. How did they overcome the kind of resistance that you just talked about in Brazil?

Kornbluh: Chile had a truth commission right after General Augusto Pinochet was forced to step down. It explicitly did not name names because Pinochet was still head of the military at that point and said that he would not let a hair on the head of any of his soldiers be touched. But the Truth Commission report itself gathered evidence, was there, galvanized the debate that continued until Augusto Pinochet himself was arrested in London in 1998. That arrest and the dynamic of attempting to prosecuting him in Spain and the effort to prosecute him when he went back to Chile, I think has had a major effect on all of Latin America and particularly the southern cone. What we are seeing today in countries like Chile and Uruguay and Argentina and Peru and even a country like Guatemala where over 300,000 people were killed is this slow march of justice. It's clear that justice delayed is not necessarily justice denied.

Mullins: Moving on to Uruguay, this is just south of Brazil. Congress there last week revoked a military amnesty. It's now going to categorize kidnappings, torture and killings that happened under the dictatorships as crimes against humanity. What's the significance of that?

Kornbluh: Uruguay has been struggling to revoke an amnesty that protected the military from any type of prosecution. They already, a couple of years ago, took the dramatic step of convicting their former President, Alfredo Bordaberry, of human rights crimes, but they were framed outside of the actual amnesty law. What Uruguay has ingeniously done now is basically declare that these human rights crimes were crimes against humanity and therefore were outside the language of the amnesty law.

Mullins: Many of these Latin American military dictatorships of the '70s and '80s were supported by Washington. They received strong support from the United States. Why and what is Washington doing right now to help this process of justice?

Kornbluh: There is a bit of poetic irony here, which is that the more the United States was involved in the repressive apparatuses of a country like Chile or Brazil or Argentina, the more intelligence reporting there was on what those repressive apparatuses were doing. And therefore, in the coffers and the vaults - the secret vaults of the CIA and the FBI and National Security Council and the State Department - are these documents that are rich in detail about repression in these countries. In a country like Brazil, for example, where the militaries themselves have refused to really release their archives, have stood as guardians of the gates on these secrets to protect themselves from being prosecuted, the United States can step in by doing something that I call "archival diplomacy" - opening up our own archives, providing documents to bring these cases forward.

Mullins: Okay. Peter Kornbluh directs the Chile documentation project at the National Security Archive. Nice to have you in the studio, thank you.

Kornbluh: Thank you so much.

Mullins: We'll have more of our conversation with Peter Kornbluh online including his view on why there is such momentum now in Latin America to prosecute past abusers. That's at theworld.org.