The Chilean Coup, the Church and the Human Rights Movement

One of the more bloody coup d’etats of modern times took place in Chile on Sept. 11, 1973. Twenty-eighth anniversaries are not usually much commemorated, but any time is a good time to reflect on one of the positive developments that resulted from that chaotic era: the growth of the modern human rights movement and the pivotal role played by the church in its development.

Twenty-fifth anniversaries, on the other hand, are traditionally observed, and the Pinochet coup occurred just three months before the 25th year of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was Pinochet who, more than any other, helped put the issue of human rights on the world agenda.

But first, an even earlier date related to the human rights declaration is worth noting, the annus mirabilis of 1968, the 20th anniversary, not so much because it was a year in which human rights were advanced, but rather as the year when many things exploded or fell apart-the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and of Bobby Kennedy, the Chicago Democratic National Convention, the urban riots, the Tet offensive, the intensification of the Vietnam war and much else.

But one extraordinarily influential event that helped more than anything else at that time to advance the cause and influence of the human rights agenda also occurred in 1968-the Second General Assembly of the Episcopates of Latin America, known as the Medellín Conference. For it was the spirit let loose at Medellín, Colombia-itself a product of the other earth-changing ecclesial event of the era, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65)-that influenced, and indeed changed, the lives of multitudes of Christians in Latin America and helped give shape to the nascent human rights movement. The epochal Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World is one of the foundational documents of the human rights movement.

That 25th anniversary year, the year of the coup in Chile, also shared some of the same lights and shadows that characterized 1968. It was in 1973 that the local church that led all others in Latin America in defense of people suffering the brutalities of a ruthless militarized state became itself the object of serious persecution by that state, namely the church of Brazil. It issued what were then the strongest manifestoes-in the form of pastoral lettersyet heard from the church anywhere. I Have Heard the Cries of the People, The Marginalization of a People and a third pastoral that was smothered in its cradle-all issued by regional conferences of bishops in Brazil in conscious observance of the Universal Declaration’s silver anniversary-were cries of defiance from the suffering church of Brazil.

It was also in that same year that an ecumenical group, under the tenuous protection of the archbishop of São Paulo, Paulo Evaristo Arns, published the declaration in broadside format that could be posted on parish bulletin boards. Each of the 28 articles was followed by relevant citations from Scripture and brief quotations from Catholic and Protestant documents-a clearly subversive act, but one that the military government found difficult to suppress. It was that same team, headed by the late Presbyterian pastor Jaime Wright and Dom Paulo, that years later would publish the scandalous record of the military’s human rights violations, Nunca Mais, a truth report without benefit of a truth commission. The documentation had been spirited out of government files, photocopied and returned before a stunned military could react. It is hard today for us to imagine how courageous those people were in the face of an omnipresent and utterly ruthless national security state that, until September of that same year, had been the very definition of a rights-violating regime.

And so to Sept. 11, 1973. Let me sharpen a bit further the unique role of the religious community, both in Chile and in the United States. The church’s role was absolutely key in that process, principally because of the actions of the Chilean church itself, but also because of the built-in relationships that the church in Chile had (and still has) with sister churches and church agencies throughout the world. The transnational nature of these religious bodies, and the readiness of one part to express solidarity and support for another persecuted or oppressed part, are factors not always taken into sufficient consideration in the political science literature.

The 1990 Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, in its Rettig Report, notes that from the beginning, the only significant reaction to this pattern of human rights violations came from the churches, since they had the means and the willingness to act. The Committee of Cooperation for Peace in Chile (COPACHI), created by archdiocesan decree No. 158-73 on Oct. 6, 1973, by the archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Raúl Silva Henriquez, was composed of members of Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal and Orthodox churches, as well as of the Jewish community. For two years, and with the strong support from church groups abroad, COPACHI was, in the words of the Rettig Report, the only institution carrying out the important function of aiding the victims, with the risks and limitations deriving from the situation at that time.

By the end of 1975, several priests-including some Americans and some highly respected Chilean Jesuits and Holy Cross priests-had been arrested and some expelled, and the British physician Sheila Cassidy was held incommunicado and brutally tortured, leading the British government to sever relations. This was too much for the general, so Pinochet demanded that Cardinal Silva shut down this noisome church agency, many of whose earlier supporters had already slipped away in the night.

But what Silva did then was also more extraordinary than is commonly acknowledged. He dissolved the Committee for Peace on Dec. 31, 1975, and on Jan. 1, 1976, created not just a newly named COPACHI-a human rights organization firmly under the auspices of the archdiocese-but he also vested the new agency, named the Vicariate of Solidarity, with ecclesiastical status. It was a Roman Catholic vicariate, under an episcopal vicar, the Rev. Cristián Precht. This was unique in the Catholic world at that time, and although successor archbishops would deem the need to have passed and would phase out the office, the Vicariate of Solidarity still stands as a powerful witness to the defense of human rights as an integral part of the preaching of the Christian Gospel. Defense of human rights, in other words, is not just an add-on, a nice work of supererogation, but part and parcel of the church’s mission in the world.

What was the effect of all this in the United States at that time? It was dramatic and immediate, more because of the church connections than any broader human rights constituency. A recent study notes that the U.S. section of Amnesty International counted a mere 3,000 members in 1974. I was one of them, and I was surprised to learn there were even that many. I remember well that in 1973, the fellow trying to organize this British-based group in the United States, who then lived near Washington, D.C., was having a hard time filling a small church hall. At that time there was no Human Rights Watch, no Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, no Human Rights Law Group, nor any of the other specialized rights groups that have since sprung up.

There were two communities that talked about human rights: a disparate group with ties to various left political groups, mostly Trotskyist, it seemed at times, and...the churches. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), today’s pre-eminent U.S. policy advocacy group on Latin America, was the creation of an ecumenical coalition of North American church agencies concerned with that region-LASC, the Latin America Strategy Committee. It was in the wake of the coup in Chile that LASC resolved to set up an office in Washington to connect the information being received from church groups in the south with the staff of the U.S. Congress. LASC gathered in Washington for a prescheduled meeting on Sept. 13, 1973, initially to discuss the production of a publication on the military takeover in Uruguay that spring, but the Chilean golpe of the once de septiembre changed everything. WOLA was born of the Pinochet coup.

Earlier that same year, I oversaw a thoroughly unscientific survey of U.S. missionaries in Latin America, asking them to respond to questions concerning the seriousness of human rights violations in their areas, the response or lack of it by the local church and the specific role-whether an advantage or a disadvantage-of the foreigner in responding to such violations. The responses were enlightening on several fronts. Most indicated that there were indeed serious violations but that, with few exceptions (mostly from respondents in Brazil and Bolivia), little attention was paid to these issues on the part of the local church and society. All that changed after Sept. 11, 1973.

A word about the two intergovernmental human rights agencies relevant to the crises in Latin America at that time, the U.N. and the O.A.S. human rights commissions. In 1970, to digress a bit, a delegation from the U.S. Catholic Conference Division for Latin America and the National Council of Churches, Latin America Department, trooped over to the offices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (I.A.C.H.R.). They delivered to this virtually unknown inter-American entity a three-inch thick dossier on the practice of torture and other gross violations of human rights in Brazil. The then-secretary of the commission was nonplussed by our unannounced visit, and especially disconcerted by the presence of a photographer from The Washington Post, and he urged us to reformulate our complaints according to the norms set by the commission and come back later. Privately, the assistant secretary expressed his delight to us that somebody had finally discovered the I.A.C.H.R.

That was 1970, and indeed a series of cases was filed, following the accepted norms, on behalf of church groups in Brazil, several of which became formal charges presented before the offending government. After the 1973 Chilean coup, U.S. church agencies undertook another role in support of their Chilean co-religionists. During the darkest days, neither the Committee for Peace nor the Vicaría felt free enough to present the unassailable evidence they had collected on the violations of fundamental human rights, especially on the well-documented cases of disappearances, without the cover of some agency beyond the sinister grasp of the Chilean secret service.

Consequently, the exquisitely detailed reports of extra-judicial executions, of illegal detentions and torture, above all of the many disappearances prepared by the vicariate were sent to the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington. There the extensive documentation, photographs and handwritten letters were photocopied. One set was transmitted by the National Council of Churches to the U.N. human rights commission in New York and the other, sent in the name of the U.S.C.C., went to the O.A.S. commission in Washington. Today, no one questions the great importance and value of the U.N. and Inter-American commissions on human rights. It is salutary to reflect that little over a quarter-century ago they were much less attended to, and that it was the Chilean crisis that largely drew the I.A.C.H.R. out of obscurity.

And it was the case of Chile, and to a lesser extent the other Latin American human rights crises, that brought the U.S. human rights movement to the position it has achieved. The Carter administration without question provided an important jump-start and sought for the first time to take human rights into serious consideration in the formulation of foreign policy. But that administration rode the already rising tide of demands from many sectors of U.S. society, most notably academia and the churches, that government pay attention to human rights.

It had taken a long time to move from belittling Chile (one secretary of state described the country as "a dagger pointed at the heart of...Antarctica") to acknowledging that human rights considerations must form an integral part in the formulation of American foreign policy. The great power influence of the United States today is far different from, and in general far more beneficent than could have been imagined just 28 years ago. For this we owe several countries of Latin America, and their churches, a great debt of gratitude.

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