When an Establishment Lawyer Stood Up for Chile's Extreme Left

When an Establishment Lawyer Stood Up for Chile's Extreme Left

Why you should care

Eugenio Velasco defended Marxists at a time when it was extremely dangerous to do so. 

Eugenio Velasco was appalled. It was an ordinary day at the office in 1974, and the tweed-wearing Chilean lawyer was suddenly staring at a young woman’s breasts.

It wasn’t the breasts that horrified him. It was the hammer and sickle seared into the flesh. When the woman tugged her blouse to the side and showed him the crude stamp of a Communist symbol, Velasco immediately took the case.

“I had to do it,” he tells Pamela Constable and Arturo Valenzuela in their book, A Nation of Enemies. Even though he did not agree with the political views of many on the left, he would go on to defend hundreds of victims who were accused of conspiring to overthrow the Chilean government and had suffered state abuses like she had.

People kept coming to me, saying no one else would defend them, because they were leftists.

Eugenio Velasco

The abused woman had come to Velasco’s office because she was a victim in Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s purge.

Earlier, a group of men had broken into her house, dragged off her husband and raped her in front of her children. Later, the National Intelligence Directorate, or DINA — Pinochet’s official national security agency — branded her a Marxist with the tip of a red-hot screwdriver.

Velasco was not a Marxist. And he had opposed the Chilean government of socialist Salvador Allende, who had been ousted by Pinochet in a 1973 coup on the grounds that the bohemian leader would turn Chile into a new Cuba. But neither was he in favor of what came after the coup: Chile very quickly became a cruel police state. Backed by the United States, the head of a military junta was carrying out detentions against friends of Allende as part of a broader Cold War effort to sweep democracies of Marxist influence in the name of national security.

“Everything revolved around saving the nation from terrorism. That got exaggerated to justify the consolidation of power,” explains Jo-Marie Burt, a Latin America scholar and professor at George Mason University.

On a gray street in downtown Santiago is the address: London No. 38. Blood-red graffiti sprayed across the ominous stone house reads “Death was here.” These are places where Pinochet’s DINA detained and tortured at least 2,279 Chileans for their politics. Some — like Velasco’s client — were tortured and set free. Others simply disappeared.

The Marxist insurgency they feared was very real, Constable and Valenzuela write. As early as 1970, a Marxist revolutionary group called MIR was training 2,000 lumberjacks south of Santiago for revolution. Marxist insurgencies grew in the 1980s. In 1986, a group of commandos rained machine-gun fire on Pinochet’s caravan of jet-black Mercedes cars. Several bodyguards were killed, while Pinochet escaped unscathed.

But many sympathizers with Allende did not present any such threat. Branding someone a communist was classic Pinochet, write Constable and Valenzuela: It was one of the dictator’s methods of institutional intimidation and control.

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General Augusto Pinochet, head of Chile’s ruling military junta, in 1973.

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A moderate who opposed Allende’s economic policies, the former law school dean and politician found himself, just three years later, defending Allende’s sympathizers in opposition to Pinochet’s regime. “People kept coming to me saying no one else would defend them, because they were leftists,” Velasco explains in A Nation of Enemies.

“I didn’t share the political views of many of the people I defended,” he says in the book. “I did it to balance an injustice.”

And he wasn’t alone. By 1976, Velasco was joined by a group of lawyers and a Roman Catholic cardinal named Alejandro Silva. They formed a legal aid group called the Vicariate of Solidarity and began filing hundreds of habeas corpus pleas, effectively asking the judiciary to allow for the right to a fair trial for dissidents accused of treason.

Velasco endured harassment from the DINA for his human rights cases. Eventually, he was forced into a decade-long exile. But by some metrics, the Vicariate was a success. It built a database of 19,000 records documenting state abuses, which helped a 1990s truth commission establish how the Chilean state operated systematically to commit human rights abuses under Pinochet’s command. But Burt points out that nation-states in Latin America have varied widely in their effectiveness at uncovering the truth about dictatorship. In Brazil, an amnesty law covered up the truth about the state’s involvement in detentions and torture, she explains. “But others — like Peru — created truth commissions, and even if they couldn’t prosecute specific figures, the people were able to reach conclusions about the abuses of power,” she says. “In Brazil, they just brushed it under the rug.”

Western democracies today — from Brazil to Italy to the U.S. — are infected by increasing polarization. As the far right and radical left clash more forcefully across the United States and Europe, it is important to remember Velasco’s lesson: Despite ideological differences, human rights must be protected on all sides. It is also a reminder that the privileged establishment has a moral duty to press for institutions to respect basic rights when they are co-opted by a dictatorship.

“Some said I was crazy,” remembers Velasco in the book, nodding to the irony of how moderates appear distorted when they defend the rights of a character whose views clash with their own. “But they had no idea of the magnitude of the atrocities being committed.”

The woman whose husband was dragged off by the DINA did get a trial. When she finally appeared before the bench, she fainted as she recounted the traumatic experience of being raped by the Chilean security officials. Judges paled upon looking at photographs of her wounds.

Her case was dissolved and forgotten — until the truth commission opened up Velasco’s books nearly two decades later.

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