Letter from Santiago
by Desmond O'Grady JOHN Paul ll's visit to Chile brought worldwide attention to the admirable Santiago Diocese human rights watchdog committee: the Vicariate for Solidarity.
In a meeting with some of the Vicariate's 120 full-time employers, John Paul praised their work. The Vicariate is housed in an annex to the Catholic Cathedral.
Despite the Pope's praise, informed Church officials in Santiago say that the Church intends gradually to reduce the Vicariate's human rights work in four of a newly-established non-denominational human rights commission-provided the tendency to restore civil liberties (for example, most exiles have been allowed to return and registration for electoral voting has begun) is strengthened. The argument is that the Church
should not be doing what others can do effectively.
An Ecumenical Committee for Peace • was established in October 1973, immediately after the Pinochet-led military coup had drastically curtailed civil liberties. In 1975 the Jesuit who directed the committee for peace was imprisoned for aiding a leftist, allegedly a terrorist, to escape capture.
The regime brought intense pressure to bear against the committee it was difficult for the diverse components (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Jewish) to coordinate their resistance.
By the end of 1975, the regime achieved its aim, for the committee was dissolved, But in January 1976 the Archbishop of Santiago Cardinal Raul Silva Henriques, established as part of his Archdiocese the Vicariate for Solidarity with many of the same aims and staff as the committee for peace.
Among its achievements is compiling detailed documentary on 700 persons who have disappeared and presumably have been killed during Pinochet's regime.
The regime has developed legal means to foil incrimination of its officials. It has decreed an amnesty for abuses committed during the suppression of terrorism. This has fostered a state-protected terrorism worse than that of leftist extremists.
It is almost impossible for individuals to fight such a system: not only is the law stacked against them, not only does the state put obstacles in the way of the gathering of evidence, not only is it necessary to have persistence, money and skilled lawyers but there is also the danger of reprisals if anyone dare embarrass the regime. This is one reason why some relatives of those who were tortured or "disappeared" at the national stadium after the coup have not denounced the fact.
In contrast to isolated individuals, however, the Vicariate has the lawyers and an institutional tenacity to match the Regime's.
It helps keep alive the memory of Jose Manuel Parada, an Exmarxist sociologist who collaborated with the Vicariate, and two other sociologists who were beheaded by regimeprotected death squads in March 1985.
It has worked for the reopening of the case of Carmen Andrea Hales. A sociologist kidnapped and "psychologically tortured" in 1985. Because a former intelligence officer has recently identified the kidnappers as civilians, soldiers and employees of the ministry of the interior, the case will be reopened.
It has worked for Carmen Gloria Quintana, the 18 year old student-protestor who suffered third degree burns on 60 per cent of her body after soldiers poured petrol over her, then ignited it. Carmen Gloria, with Solidarity's help, is trying to put the Regime on trial in a United States court.
The Government has hit back at the Vicariate by imprisoning one of its doctors, Ramiro Olivares, for allegedly concealing a terrorist's crime. Olivares medicated the terrorist. The director of the Vicariate, Mgr Santiago Tapia Caravajal, has heatedly denied that its staff aids terrorism: "no one in the Vicariate has any relation with terrorism, except for having condemned it repeatedly".
The Vicariate's charter does not allow it to aid those who have killed. But, in practice, it is faced with endless dilemas. The regime tends to consider all its opponents are terrorists, should the Vicariate help those who have allegedly killed or those who may have helped a terrorist? Often there is no time to ascertain the guilt of those in need of help.
Cardinal Silva Henriques was more assured in dealing with politicians and public issues than is his successor as Archbishop Cardinal Jaime Fresno. And the Vicariate's human rights work constantly emboils it in clashes with the regime.
The Vicariate fought the human rights battle when it was a lonely struggle. Now even the United States Government, which aided the downfall of the previous Allende regime, is behind the United Nations Human Right commission's denunciation of Pinochet's government.
In April a United National Human Rights Commission official was in Chile examining charges against the government. If the Vicariate can entrust the defence of human rights to the Santiago Human Rights Commission, it will devote more of its energy to social development work particularly in Santiago's working class suburbs.