The date September 11 has a lot of meanings. For Chile, today marks 40 years since the coup that ushered in 17 years of military dictatorship. This powerful excerpt from Exorcising Terror: the Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet is taken from the winter 2005 edition of Index on Censorship magazine archives.
By Ariel Dorfman
It must have been some time in 1974 when I think I first laid eyes on Maria Josefa Ruiz Tagle. She was a baby girl, and if I’m not mistaken she played on the floor of our kitchen in Paris with our son Rodrigo, who was then seven years old, while we chatted with her mother, Monica Espinoza. Angelica says that I am mistaken, that I could not have seen Maria Josefa then because Monica had not come to Europe at that point without her child – and yet that memory burns within me still. I had known Monica’s husband, Eugenio Ruiz Tagle Orrego, only vaguely, just a hello and good-bye a couple of times in the halls of our party’s headquarters (we both belonged to the same revolutionary organisation). Mutual friends keep on telling me that we must have met and talked any number of times, but I can’t for the life of me recall much else, other than trying to squeeze from the memory bag in my head one or two occasions in which we exchanged a joke or two; that’s all I remember of his life. His death, however, was another matter. A civil engineer who came from one of Chile’s most aristocratic families and a dedicated revolutionary since his student days at the Catholic University, the coup had found him in Antofogasta, in the north of the country, acting as general manager of the National Cement Works. He had voluntarily given himself up on 12 September, like so many who had trusted that the military would not defile or denigrate them – and had been killed a month or so later, reportedly in the most savage fashion.
A disturbing rumour had sprung up after his death: that his right-wing father in Santiago had taken his time in pressuring the military to release the wayward offspring, apparently because he thought that nothing much could happen to the young man, given the traditional civility of Chile’s armed forces, or maybe trusting that his son’s blue-blooded heritage would protect him. Which made it even more heartbreaking when his mother demanded that Eugenio’s tightly sealed coffin be opened and discovered his body and face mutilated almost beyond recognition. But I always wondered if these reports of his father’s guilty detachment and subsequent intolerable loss did not constitute a fabrication of the sort that often circulate in uncertain and violent times, an attempt by a repressed community to forge a story of how the murder of a rebellious son awakens a conservative progenitor to the true evil of a regime he helped to bring into being.
What was no fabrication, however, was how that death had devastated the family, and you could see it in the deep well of sorrow that Monica seemed to be floating in when we met her in Paris almost a year after the execution of her husband. And yet, at the same time, there was an unexpected purity in her gaze as I recall it, as if she had decided not to give fate the satisfaction of seeing her cry, as if all the tears had dried up inside her instead of coming out. Or was it a quiet resilience? – a decision she seemed to have made that she was going to get on with life, no matter how hard that might be, for the sake of the baby, but also in the name of her dead love, who would not have wanted the murder of his body to have murdered her future. So I was not entirely surprised when I heard, some months later, that she had settled into a stable relationship with Jose Joaquin Brunner, a friend of hers and Eugenio’s from way back. Brunner, whom I was also close to, was at the time working on his doctorate at Oxford and would become, upon his return to Chile a few years later with Monica and Maria Josefa, one of the country’s most prominent intellectuals. But perhaps more essential to Monica, Jose Joaquin grew into the role of Maria Josefa’s daddy, bringing her up as if she were his own child.
The little girl was told from her early age that her biological father, Eugenio, had died in front of a firing squad, but no other details were forthcoming. She conjured up, Maria Josefa wrote many years later, a sort of romantic scene – a death occasioned by a diffuse group of men, none of whom was identifiably responsible, perhaps a way of keeping that violence done to her father from overwhelming and poisoning her life, by not making her wonder about who was personally responsible for that homicide. She always sensed, nevertheless, that underneath the silence surrounding and covering that remote death, there lurked something more dreadful, some secret terror that was all the more fearful because nobody dared to name it. And then, one day, when she was twelve, a strange hunch led her to probe and explore what might lie behind a photograph in her grandmother’s house, a picture which showed Maria Josefa herself at around two years of age taking a bath in a small tub. Was it the clean water in which she was bathing in the picture that provoked her to undo the frame that held it and go beyond the false innocence of that child she had once been? Perhaps, because what she found were three pages hidden by her grandmother and written by two of her father’s friends who had witnessed the way he had been treated before he died, witnesses who had been tortured themselves but who had, by a miracle, survived instead of being killed by the Caravan of Death. Reading those words from the past, Maria Josefa found out that Eugenio had not been shot by a firing squad, but – to use her own words – ‘he was missing an eye. They had carved out his nose. His face was deeply burnt in many places. His neck had been broken. Stabs and bullet wounds. The bones broken in a thousand parts. They had torn the nails from his hands and from his feet. And they had told him that they were going to kill me and my mother’.
But she said nothing. She kept those words, those images, inside. Like the country inside. Like the country itself.
Many years later, in 1999, when she had Lucas, her first baby – at the age of 26, the age her father had reached upon his death – when she held the baby in her arms and realised that her father had also been able to hold her and get to know her, she burst into tears one morning and felt the irresistible need to write to her father, to tell her story, what it meant to be the child not only of a murdered man but of a country that did not want to confront and name that death. She denounced how everything around her had been built so she and everyone else would not have to look the past in the face. Built, she said, so that people would never have to go to sleep every night feeling afraid.
Still, however, she kept those intimate words to herself. Until, a year and a half later, in November 2000, when Eugenio’s body was exhumed from the Antofagasta cemetery and taken to the Wall of Memory in Santiago for a second burial. Then she allowed an actor publicly to read out, on that occasion, the words she had written to her father. For the tears that have been kept hidden all these years to come out, the tears that I had not been able to see when we sat with her mother Monica in that kitchen in Paris and I watched the fatherless child playing, for that to happen, first Pinochet had to be stripped of his immunity and Eugenio’s name had to be cleared – he was not a terrorist but a victim, he was not a criminal but a hero, and his death was terrible but had not been entirely in vain as it had come back to haunt the man who had ordered it. First Eugenio had to come back from the dead. Then his daughter could come out into the light of day.
But that is not the end of the story. When you drag something out from its hiding place, other things emerge, one thing leading to another. Eugenio Ruiz Tagle still had one more service to perform for his family and his friends and his country.
When Judge Guzman placed General Pinochet under house arrest at the end of January 2001, his lawyers immediately appealed – insisting that their client was innocent, that there was no proof that he had known about any of the deaths of the Caravan of Death. One week later, on February 7, the online newspaper El Mostrador (these sorts of journals are the only really free sites in Chilean print media) published the most damning document yet in the whole case. Back in 1973, Pinochet’s justice minister – probably because of Ruiz Tagle’s family connections – had informed the Commander in Chief of the Army of the young man’s torture and extrajudicial execution by the officers from the Caravan of Death. In his own handwriting, Pinochet answered the minister that he was to deny the facts and conceal them, instructing him to say: ‘Mr. Ruiz Tagle was executed due to the grave charges that existed against him. [Say that] there was no torture according to our information.’ Needless to say, any possible investigation into that death had been quashed.
This piece of news occasioned yet another revelation the next day in the same online newspaper. Carlos Bau, an accountant at the Cement Works where Eugenio had been general manager and who had given himself up to the authorities that same 12 September, told the story of Ruiz Tagle’s daily torture at the Air Force Base of Cerro Moreno in Antofagasta during the month that preceded his execution: the soldiers had wanted the prisoners to confess that they had weapons and explosives (Pinochet’s subordinates were trying to assemble a justification for the repression their commander in chief had unleashed, proof that there was a war and that the enemy was armed and dangerous). It turned out that, far from protecting him, Ruiz Tagle’s surnames had made his tormentors pick him out for special treatment – maybe to teach him a lesson, maybe because they had class resentments of their own, maybe because a Ruiz Tagle should have known better than to associate with the Allendista riffraff. Whatever the reasons, he was always the first to be beaten every time there was a session, constantly mocked and kicked and cut – and, like his wife a year later in Paris, like his daughter throughout most of her life, Eugenio had not let a cry out, had kept what was he was feeling inside. But Bau added one more detail that had not up until that moment been public knowledge in Chile: the identity of the officer who had started the beating, who had begun it all by landing Eugenio a kick in the genitals as an introduction to what was to await him in the days ahead. It was Lieutenant Herna´n Gabrielli Rojas. Who happened to be the present acting commander in chief of the Chilean air force. The same man.
‘Are you sure?’ the journalist asked Bau.
And in the next days, Bau’s identification was confirmed by several other witnesses. Herna´n Vera and Juan Ruiz and another victim, an officer called Navarro, who added that he had also seen Gabrielli torturing a 14-year-old boy.
General Gabriielli’s response on 12 February was not only to proclaim his innocence but also to announce that he was suing Bau and the others for libel – invoking a clause in the Law of National Security that shields a commander in chief from slander. The charges were subsequently dismissed (‘We weren’t slandering him,’ Bau said, ‘we were just telling the truth about him’) and, later in the year, in spite of ferocious resistance from the air force, Gabrielli was forced to step down from his post.
Another side effect of the trial of General Pinochet. And another lesson to be learned.
Because terror is not conquered in one revelatory flash. It is a slow, zigzag process, just like memory itself. Let me make myself clearer: I had read the name Gabrielli as the tormentor of Ruiz Tagle back in 1976 or 1977, when Carlos Bau arrived in Holland (where our family had just moved from Paris). He had already served three years of a 40-year prison sentence which had been commuted into 20 years of banishment. Carlos had no qualms in recounting his terrifying story – though what I recalled above all of that conversation afterward was an image that surged into my head and stayed with me through the years, my realisation that when somebody has been tortured it is as if for the rest of their life they will be wearing sunglasses behind their eyes.