How José Piñera stood up for human rights and democracy during Chile’s military government

(En Español)


By Soames Flowerree (B.A. Bowdoin College, History Major; MBA Harvard University; @soamesf)

From September 1973 to March 1990, Chile was governed by a military government that came to power as a result of the breakdown of Chilean democracy produced by President Allende's repeated violations of the Constitution. From the very beginning, that government declared itself as an exceptional regime, whose aim was to create the economic and political conditions for a return to democratic rule. But the quasi civil war situation led to acts of terrorism and illegal repression in which human rights were not fully respected.

Other writers have documented the defense of human rights made by Dr. José Piñera during his three years (Dec. 78 to Dec. 81) as Secretary of Labor and Social Security, and as Secretary of Mining. For example, in the book "The Secret History of the Military Regime", its authors Ascanio Cavallo, Manuel Salazar, and Oscar Sepulveda (all known opponents of the military government), reveal how, in April 1981, Piñera confronted President Pinochet in a Cabinet meeting and risked his position as Secretary of Mining in order to defend leftist trade union leader Manuel Bustos from an imminent exile, an action which resulted in the annulment of the exile decree and the consolidation of the path to democracy, began only weeks before with the enactment of the 1980 Constitution on March 11, 1981.

Also well documented is Piñera’s key role in the economic and social modernization of Chile. Piñera himself has published books on each of his three great reforms: "La Revolucion Laboral en Chile" (The Labor Revolution in Chile, 1990); "El Cascabel al Gato" (The Bell to the Cat: The Battle for Social Security Privatization in Chile, 1991); and, "Fundamentos de la Ley Constitucional Minera" (Pillars of the Mining Reform, 1981 and 2002).

It is also well known that José Piñera was a leading force behind the Constitution of 1980, which established a liberal democracy and designed a transition path that led in 1990 to the peaceful and legal transfer of power from President Pinochet to President Aylwin. As member of the Cabinet, Piñera signed the founding document that has presided over the succesfull political and economic development of Chile until today.

The following sections provide an index of the statements and publications about human rights and democracy made by Dr. Piñera during the military government, both in the magazine "Economia y Sociedad" and in the national newspaper "La Tercera". At the end I reproduce an extraordinary exchange of letters between Dr. Piñera and the military government newspaper "La Nación", after José Piñera made a principled criticism of an emblematic case of human rights violations.


> Oppose book censorship, September 1982.

> Publishes declaration of opposition leader Rene Abeliuk: "No more exile", August 1983.

> Calls for depoliticizing and privatizing the state-run television station, September 1983, November 1984, August 1985, April 1986, and January/February 1987.

> Publishes article by Armando Valladares about human rights in Cuba, November 1983.

> Publishes declaration of the National Press Association against censorship: "For Freedom of Expression", April 1984.

> Defends habeas corpus against the abuses of preventive detention, June, 1984.

> Calls for modernizing the judicial system, July 1984, November 1984, and August 1987.

> Asks for democratization of municipal governments and direct election of mayors, November 1984, April 1985, and October 1985.

> Publishes declaration of Carlos Paul, President of the National Press Association, in favor of freedom of the press and of expression, January 1985.

> Opposes censorship and state manipulation of the press, February 1985, May 1985, August 1985, and October 1985.

> Publishes declaration of Pope John Paul II: "About Exile", February 1985.

> Writes against martial law, April 1985 and April 1987.

> Defends liberty of conscience, association, and expression, and argues for the right to life, April 1985, September/October 1988.

> Proposes a law authorizing political parties, April 1985.

> Proposes the restoration of universities’ autonomy in electing their authorities, April 1985.

> Publishes the declaration of Monsignor Juan Francisco Fresno concerning the assasination of three communist activists, April 1985.

> Opposes the renewal of martial law, May 1985.

> Writes article titled "No More Censorship", May 1985.

> Publishes declaration of Emilio Filippi, chief editor of the opposition magazine "Hoy", against censorship, May 1985.

> Writes an editorial against those giving unconditional support to the military government and in favor of independence of thought, June 1985.

> Publishes declaration of renowned opposition lawyer Máximo Pacheco Gómez about human rights, July 1985.

> Publishes statement by socialist political leader Ricardo Lagos concerning the role of the opposition to the military government, July 1985.

> Publishes declaration of former Secretary of Labor William Thayer, saying why Pinochet should not continue as President after 1989, August 1985.

> Publishes statement by opposition intellectual Edgardo Boeninger concerning municipal reform and against the system of government-appointed mayors, August 1985.

> Publishes "Moral Cancer," the statement of renowned historian Gonzalo Vial against the crimes of murder and torture.

> Publishes article titled "What are human rights?", by Maurice Cranston, September 1985.

> Proposes a plebiscite in 1986 to approve several constitutional reforms in order to: 1) eliminate transitional Article 24 of the Constitution, that gave the President power to exile and censor new publications; 2) make more flexible the mechanism of constitutional reform; and, 3) initiate direct election of mayors, October 1985.

> Publishes declaration of opposition intellectual Prof. Angel Flisfisch about attitudes toward authoritarianism, November 1985.

> Publishes an article titled "Reflections on Human Rights", by Máximo Pacheco Gómez. April 1986.

> Writes editorial advocating a consensus agreement for the transition to democracy, May 1986.

> Writes editorial: "Hasta Cuándo", denouncing the wounds of two protesting youths that acught fire in an incident involving a military patrol, the exile of 3.000 Chileans, and some indiscriminate raids on private homes by police, July 1986. This editorial and his author were attacked by the military government daily "La Nación" and José Piñera responded (see the editorial and the answer at the end of this dossier).

> Writes editorial against exile, and again proposes to eliminate transitional Article 24 of the Constitution, July 1986; April 1987; January/February 1989.

> Writes editorial against the failure to fully investigate and eventually punish those responsible for the injuries of Rodrigo Rojas and Carmen Gloria Quintana, the two youths involved in the burning incident, August 1986.

> Denounces the failure to punish those guilty (presumably of both sides) of the murders of Tucapel Jiménez, José Manuel Parada, Simón Yévenes, Santiago Nattino, Eduardo Jara, and Manuel Guerrero, August 1986.

> Publishes statement of Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno about the two youths who were injured in the burning incident and the demands by the Church that the Supreme Court investigate the case, August 1986.

> Writes editorial "After the Attempt", dealing with the attempt on President Pinochet’s life, stating that "Now, more than ever, it is urgent that we combat terrorism through the legal system [instead of through secret-police actions]". Also argues that, "the people will only be willing to help the intelligence services if it is believed that those services will respect the guarantees of individual rights." September 1986.

> Proposes a law allowing the creation of private television channels, January/February 1987.

> Proposes measures such as "the lifting of the state of martial law; the immediate and complete end to exile; the ending of the system of censorship; effective reestablishment of habeas corpus; permitting the free functioning of newspapers and magazines", April 1987.

> Opposes the excessive use of force by security forces in the fight against terrorism: "When the intelligence services act brutally, they become, paradoxically, involuntary agents of subversion, destroying the confidence of citizens in their institutions", July 1987.

> Calls for the modernization of the judicial system, August 1987.

> Publishes declaration by Osvaldo Hurtado, ex-President of Ecuador: "Democracy is also in the better interests of the military", August 1987.

> Publishes statement of opposition intellectual Eugenio Tironi about modernization and democracy, November/December 1987.

> Publishes the declaration of opposition lawyer Arturo Montes Larraín about the relationship between democracy and economic modernization, January/February 1988.

> Defends the "right to life, freedom of conscience, educational liberty, freedom of association, freedom of expression, the right to due process... which should be respected under any and all circumstances", September/October 1988.


> "God was born in exile." November 15, 1982. Describing the pain of exile, Piñera wrote: "As the poet Ovid lamented during his exile in Tomes: ‘It is possible to die before one is really dead.’" "Exile should be rescinded for [center-left political figures] Jaime Castillo, Eugenio Velasco, Andrés Zaldívar, and so many other peaceful men who suffer today the dramatic experience of exile."

> "Exile and Book Censorship." June 20, 1983. "Censorship of books and exile are incompatible with the existence of a free society." "An integral solution to the problem of exile also requires ending the executive power created by Transitional Article 24 of the Constitution."

> "With Clouded Vision." July 4, 1983. Against restrictions of freedom of expression in all communications media.

> "Civic Peace." May 13, 1985. Piñera defends "the right to life, freedom of conscience, freedom of education, freedom of association, freedom of expression, the right to due process--all of which should be respected under any circumstance."

> "The Task of Authority." May 20, 1985. A call to reestablish freedom of expression, end the instrument of martial law, establish a law authorizing political parties, reestablish academic liberty in the universities, and establish direct election of mayors.

> "Constitutional Reform." November 8, 1985. Piñera proposes a plebiscite in 1986 to initiate several constitutional reforms: 1) derogate Transitional Article 24 of the Constitution (giving the President power to exile and censor new publications); 2) make more flexible the mechanism of constitutional reform; and, 3) initiate direct election of mayors.

> "Political Censorship of Movies?" April 21, 1986. Piñera opposes the censoring of the film "The Official History", about the disappeared in Argentina’s "dirty war".

> "Freedom of Television." May 5, 1986. A call to permit private television in Chile, in order to keep any government from dominating the country’s media.

> "Terrorism and Martial Law." May 19, 1986. Piñera writes against martial law: "The upheaval of the daily lives of individuals is not an effective resource against terrorism, and it has, furthermore, some grave drawbacks."

> "Above All Else, the Truth." August 4, 1986. With respect to the case of the youths injured in the burning incident, Piñera calls for the truth to be known: "As Cardinal Fresno affirmed, ‘the prestige of the Chilean Army, the Judicial Branch, and other fundamental institutions of the Republic, are at stake in this process, which accentuates the obligation to bring about a timely and thorough investigation'".

> "An End to Exile." August 18, 1986. Piñera advocates the "immediate" end to exile: "The punishment of exile, even if it is decreed through the courts, does not belong in a free society, due to its intrinsic cruelty."


Editorial: Hasta Cuándo (Until when?)

By José Piñera
(Economía y Sociedad, July 1986)

The inexplicable incapacity shown by the Government to guarantee civil liberties is not only putting it at odds with some of the most powerful countries in the world, but also decreasing its moral authority and alienating its supporters.

How can it be possible that two youngsters be burned alive on a public street by a band of murderers who, apparently, operate with impunity despite the state of siege that is in place?

Why are three thousand Chileans still kept in exile?

Why is terrorism pursued in shantytowns via mass searches that hurt the dignity of hundreds of thousands of Chileans that live there?

Who is it that conceived sending two young conscripts with painted faces and in warrior attire to monitor their fellow citizens?

It is evident that Chile is not the only country where human rights are violated, as has been shown by the recent murder of Shining Path members in Peruvian jails.

It is also true that the degree of cynicism and the double standards among the international community with regards to these issues are scandalous, as is proven by the pious silence regarding the daily horrors that occur in communist countries.

But that is an insignificant consolation. Chile must be held to a higher standard because its heritage requires it.

Additionally, it is incomprehensible that a regime that has the lucidity to put in place the best economic and social policies in the continent be incapable of recognizing that the world is too inter-connected to accept that a in a country like Chile such grave situations regarding individual rights be persistently committed.

It is not enough to create a human rights commission, regardless of how worthy that initiative may be. Actions are needed that convince Chileans and the rest of the world that what has happened has changed for good with regards to this matter.

José Piñera answers to the government daily La Nación

(Response by José Piñera to an editorial in the military government newspaper, La Nacion, that strongly criticized his “Hasta Cuándo”. This letter was published in La Nación on August 5, 1986.)

Diario La Nación

Dear Sir:

In an editorial, La Nación accuses Economia y Sociedad of introducing, in its article “Until when” published in our July edition, “elements of confusion” with regards to the two burned youngsters case.

Without even making reference to the main theme of our article – the inexplicable inability that the government has shown to guarantee the respect for human rights in Chile- the editorial focuses its arguments in the fact that the magazine asked “How can it be possible that two youngsters be burned alive on a public street by a band of murderers who, apparently, operate with impunity despite the state of siege that is in place?”

Despite the fact that our article was written several days before the Army sent to the tribunals 25 soldiers, the editorial of your newspaper pre-supposes the contrary as it asks, “Does it pretend to qualify the military patrol that intervened at the events as a band of assassins?”

Let’s be clear. On the 2nd of July, the same day that Rodrigo Rojas and Carmen Gloria Quintana were burned, the Army’s Department of Public Relations issued a statement that said “in relation to journalist claims that accuse military personnel from the Metropolitan Region to have caused serious burns to two youngsters, we declare that the Army categorically disavows the participation of its members in such events.” Likewise, subsequently, several high authorities emphatically denied that there were soldiers involved in this case, a position that was fiercely maintained until the afternoon of the 18th of the same month. Economia y Sociedad goes into print on the 15th of each month, is distributed to subscribers starting the 18th and is in the hands of its readers starting on the 19th. Thus, the only alternative there was at the time the magazine articles were being written was that a band or bands of assassins that operate, until now with impunity in the country – and that has taken the lives of, amongst others, Tucapel Jimenez, Simon Yevenes, Eduardo Jara (COVEMA case), multiple soldiers and policemen, Jose Manuel Parada, Santiago Nattino, Manuel Guerrero- had acted again. Thus, the confusion regarding these facts was not created by Economia y Sociedad.

At last, regarding the accusation that Economia y Sociedad made statements that “distrust the honorability of our armed forces and their men,” it is necessary to clear up some facts.

First, Economia y Sociedad’s editorial did not refer in any manner to the honorability of the Chilean Army. Secondly, the position taken by the governmental newspaper at pretending that any judgment toward the behavior of a specific group, whether it is civilian or military, implies a judgment on all civilians or military, seems to me to be grave and dangerous.

It is grave because it contains a seed of totalitarian though.

It is dangerous because the day of tomorrow it could be used against the Armed Forces, if it were proved that some of its members actually did perform criminal acts.

Whichever the final outcome in the courts of justice regarding this case, it must be clear that 99.9% of those who belong to the Chilean Army have had absolutely nothing to do with neither events nor subsequent developments.

Because I personally know and respect several members of the armed forces with whom I worked for a long time to implement important modernizations for Chile’s future, I am sure that the overwhelming majority of them are concerned with what has happened in the case of the burned youngsters.

We all want to know the truth. The entire truth.


José Piñera
Editor, Economia y Sociedad

2010 ©