From Chile to Guantanamo: A Survivor of Torture Speaks Out
Interview by Sofia Jarrin for the "Boston Underground" - Winter 2007-2008
This January (2008) marks the sixth anniversary of the first arrival of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, yet Guantanamo is not the first island known for the unlawful abuse and torture of detainees. Island Dawson on the southern tip of Chile is known for its inhospitable, freezing weather, and for many Chileans is also the location of a concentration camp where Pinochet ordered the detention and torture of hundreds of political prisoners.
Sergio Reyes, a Boston resident and activist, was 19 years old when he was abducted from his home in Punta Arenas, faced a mock execution in front of his mother, was regularly beaten, electrocuted, and suffered from simulated drowning. Between 1973 and 1976, he was a political prisoner in a forced labor camp at the now infamous Dawson Island.
On January 10 (2008) about 30 ex-prisoners of Island Dawson sued the Chilean government demanding indemnization for all pains suffered during their detention. Their claim for justice reverberates north today, the International Day to Close Guantanamo Bay, as over 26 cities around the world demand the closure of the US detention center.
More than thirty years later after having survived Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship, Sergio reflects on Pinochet’s death, the economy, torture as a legacy in both Chile and the U.S., and the dismantling of all armies.
CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE DURING THOSE THREE YEARS YOU SPENT IN JAIL?
I was three years in the process of prison and torture, which is not that long if you think about what many people have to go through in U.S. prisons. It was three years of extreme repression and you had no choice but to survive and adjust to confinement. However, what made the experience of prison bearable was that it was a collective experience. Pinochet did not succeed in breaking us like they do in the prisons here, where even at the prison level individualism is what counts, survival of the strongest. For us it was a collective experience, and I would dare to say that it was not a bad experience because we learned to really share under the most adverse circumstances.
Our jails were basically transformed into schools. In some places we learned from the best because we had people around us from all backgrounds. I remember I was in the same barrack with a professor of mathematics, a professor of literature, and even if we didn’t have books it was just amazing. I learned about the Spanish writers during the Civil War (Machado, Garcia Lorca, and the like), which I had never read. Try to imagine this older guy speaking in complete silence: he was a great lecturer and we were the best students ever. We also had the actual workers (the carpenters, the painters, the plumbers) who would talk about their trade. And even if we didn’t have the materials, they would draw and explain and we all learned, because that’s all we had.
We definitely suffered but the camaraderie was amazing. We would come from a torture session totally destroyed, physically in pain, psychologically damaged, but as soon as we hit the barracks, where there would be sixty of our companions, that would be the end of it… It was like having this extended family where people would take care of you. I mean, you came back in very bad shape and people would cure your wounds and cheer you up. We learned to make jokes and laugh about our own problems.
WERE YOU TORTURED ROUTINELY?
The torture sessions varied in intensity, depending on what they were up to. Sometimes it would be very intense; sometimes they would let us be and then come back again. In the beginning it was really continuous for months, at least once or twice a week you were taken for interrogation. But there was a point where… I mean, how much can you extract from somebody if you make them suffer, if you really “squeeze” them as we would say, and nothing is really coming out of it? The other option, you see, is just to kill that person.
DID THE PICTURES FROM ABU GHRAIB AND GUANTANAMO REMIND YOU OF YOUR TIME SPENT IN PRISON?
I know exactly what they’re going through. Even those photos that show some of the ways they’re transported from one place to the other; you see them blindfolded, held by the arm, tied up. I know exactly how that is. The U.S. model of control through torture is not a new one, you see, it’s old. That’s exactly what Chileans used, so I know what’s going on there.
I do remember once when… I did see in a session somebody observing how they were torturing me, wearing the U.S. marines uniform. That’s as far as I would go on testimony about direct participation there. Obviously many in the Chilean military were trained in the School of the Americas…
SO WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ABOUT THE LEGACY OF CREATING A GENERATION OF TORTURERS IN CHILE?
A generation of torturers… I don’t think so. I think most people feel horrible when doing this “job,” thank goodness. I don’t think that is something that people do so naturally; you’re under orders, you’re getting paid… Although there’s always some psychologically disturbed people who do that kind of stuff.
We human beings are capable of unthinkable atrocities, which I think is very scary, but I think also there’s a basic element of goodness in people. At least that’s what we saw in our prison conditions. Remember that in order to do this, you also have to terrorize the terrorizer. There was a chain of command and the orders came systematically from the top. If I had been someone who was in the army at the time and was ordered to kill but didn’t, I would have been killed or made to suffer incredibly. So there’s definitely a chain of terror.
IT’S THE MILITARY, THEN, THAT CREATES THE CONDITIONS FOR THINGS LIKE THIS TO HAPPEN…
Dismantling the military killing machine should become the objective of every progressive-minded individual in the world. It doesn’t make sense in any grounds to maintain a killing machine, victimize people to the point of being transformed into assassins. That’s what we’re doing. We’re training people to kill, to destroy other human beings. In doing that, we transform the individual into subhuman, never mind what that subhuman becomes capable of doing to others. But the military mind itself is a dangerous mind, is inhuman to subject anybody to play that role.
We, the smaller countries, should take the higher ground and disarm unilaterally. You see, for the United States is hard to actually destroy its armies because it’s an industry, an incredible source of revenue for a class that profits from it. However, for all Latin American countries are actually an expense; we are buyers not sellers of weapons. Latin American countries should say we are not going to buy your weapons anymore, we are going to transform those resources and those men will be incorporated into productive activities, and we’re not going to invest those taxes into killing anyone.
CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS ON PINOCHET’S DEATH AND WHAT YOU THINK HIS LEGACY IS?
When I was arrested at age 19, Pinochet to me was an old man and was always referred to as “el Viejo”, or “el Viejo de Mierda” to be honest, and he made it to 91… I am now in my 50s, and sometimes I wonder if I’ll make it to 58. My mother died at 62 and my younger brother was only 45 when he died. There is no happiness in this process. I don’t understand those people who drank champagne and had parties in the streets [after Pinochet died]. We should be sad about our inability to exercise justice, to correct and change things, our inability to understand what happened to us.
Pinochet has died and in an article in the New York Times, Ariel Dorfman questioned whether his legacy is dead (and he actually says that is probably not), but he is talking about the most esoteric legacy, about how he impacted the social psyche of the Chilean people. But he neglected to say that the politicians who are today in power like Michelle Bachelet are carrying on the economic legacy of Pinochet. The neoliberal structure he imposed is still in place and all the administrations of the “concentración democrática” [center-left Coalition of Parties for Democracy] have simply been very good administrators of this system, including the first socialists.
Ricardo Lagos, for example, had the dubious honor of signing the first bilateral agreement with the United States, a step that most people on the left in Chile would have opposed. Michelle Bachelet will not change a thing [having signed and defended the Free Trade of the Americas].
HOW DOES PINOCHET’S ECONOMIC LEGACY DIFFER FROM WAS IN PLACE PREVIOUS TO 1973?
In 1976 the military dictatorship led by Pinochet, Gustavo Leigh, and all those guys didn’t know what to do with the country. There were three years in Chilean history in which power was seized by force and maintained by force, the most brutal one, but there were no governmental policies, no coherent economic policy. Meanwhile the upper class was in a big inner struggle in regards to what capitalist system to follow. There were the landowners, the large factory owners, the traditional oligarchy who prided themselves in having the largest house in the countryside, very conservative, very traditional but in a way not completely useful to U.S. imperialism.
Eventually what happened was that there was this new generation of capitalists (financial capitalists and corporate capitalists) who won the fight, Pinochet sided with them and that’s the model we have now. The parties that are currently ruling the country (the socialists and Christian democrats) basically negotiated the transition to non-military rule in 1989, but it was all done behind doors; it did not include the Chilean people in the process.
There’s a saying “muerto el perro, se acabo la rabia” [the dog has died, rabies is over]. Not so in this case. Because it wasn’t just one dog—with all due respect to dogs—Pinochet was an attack dog for an economic class.
DO YOU THINK THAT THE 2006 STUDENT PROTESTS, THE PENGUINS’ REVOLUTION, WAS A NEW KIND OF MOBILIZATION THAT IS SURFACING IN CHILE?
I had to the pleasure to see the struggles of the students in a big fight to try to change the law under Pinochet that privatized education. What the students were asking was to change the constitutional law and to be part of a committee to change it. Once people have tasted power through mobilization, they won’t let go.
What you have to understand is that a second aspect of Pinochet’s legacy is the political structure of Chile. The constitution written for Pinochet and approved in 1981 still rules the political life of the country. The organic law of political parties took the U.S. model of political party structure. It rules that political parties have to have a certain structure: a president, a secretary, a treasurer. In the past no one could tell the Communist Party that they could have a central committee. I mean, they still can but it is not legal…
HOW WERE YOU INVOLVED WITH THE MOVIMIENTO DE IZQUIERDA REVOLUCIONARIA (MIR)?
The Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria was a movement of young people. The Cuban influence was clear. The social extraction was not from the proletariat. Many of them were intellectuals from middle and upper class with revolutionary ideas who decided to take up arms and create a modern guerrilla like the Tupac Amarus in Uruguay.
When I say that I worked with MIR, I worked with people of the front but it was never my objective to be recruited. I worked equally with the members of the socialist and communist parties. My goal was to completely change Chile, radically. I truly thought we could function better with more justice in a collective manner in a socialist manner.
WHAT WOULD JUSTICE FOR CHILEANS LOOK AFTER PINOCHET?
I would like that the record be set straight. That those who committed these atrocities actually explain exactly why and who ordered them to do it, and that there is a sense of regret for it. And regret is not something that you can force someone to have… Pinochet died with no regrets whatsoever. He thought that what he did was right, so that alone denied us justice.
Let’s turn this over… Castro like Pinochet is going to die of old age, and is going to die without having ever faced any kind of trial for his actions that in the revolutionary process ended up with the elimination of many people in the firing squad, execution style.
If he were to tell these people whose fathers, sons, daughters, or mothers were killed, that he regrets that they got killed, that might actually begin to heal some of the pain that those people feel.
I was thinking that many people would feel the exact same thing when Castro dies. People who have felt victimized by the policies of Fidel Castro and the revolution. Castro like Pinochet is going to die of old age, and is going to die without having ever faced any kind of trial for his actions that in the revolutionary process ended up with the elimination of many people in the firing squad, execution style.
If you think about it, in Cuba summary executions were led by a guy that I admire greatly: Ché Guevara. It was called “swift justice” and it was exercised in a couple of weeks. Some of those people should have faced justice so that their crimes could’ve been clearly recognized. Actually some of them were probably agents of the Batista’s secret service and tortured and killed people themselves. But, do we really know that? Do we know what that individual was guilty of? Did it teach anybody anything besides another lesson in killing?
[Pictured: Chilean "arpillera" (quilt) depicting different types of torture used by the Chilean military and police under Pinochet.]