Since I was very young, I have been very interested in participating in social movements.
In high school I established and was elected president of the Students’ Center. Later, I went on to study law at the University of Chile in 1969.
There I became involved in politics and in 1971, I joined one of the movements that supported Salvador Allende’s government.
[Salvador Allende (1908-1973) was president of Chile between 1970 and1973.]
In 1972 I was elected President of the Law Center, the law student center of the University of Chile. And that was where I was during the period when the coup d’état occurred in Chile in September of 1973.
Immediately after the coup d’état I was expelled from the university. It was done in such a way that it was impossible to continue my studies at any other university under the military regime.
So, under those circumstances, plus the fact that since the beginning of the coup d’état on September 11, 1973, I learned personally of many people (my friends, people with whom I had worked in politics) that began to suffer the consequences of repression.
It was then that, at the beginning of 1974, I became interested in joining the advocacy activities that the Catholic Church, along with the rest of the churches, had begun.
So I joined [the movement], as a law school alumnus who had knowledge of the law and that could contribute as such. In April 1974 I approached the Catholic Church and signed up to work in the defense of human rights in what was then the called the Cooperative Committee for Peace in Chile.
Álvaro Varela Walker is a Chilean attorney and human rights activist. He was born in 1951.
Varela studied law at the University of Chile. He became student body president and was active in politics. He supported Salvador Allende, a leftist who was elected president of Chile in 1970. In 1973, Allende’s government was overthrown by a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. As the universities in Chile came under control of Pinochet’s military regime, he was expelled.
In 1974, he began working as an attorney for the Committee for Cooperation for Peace, an ecumenical initiative of the Catholic Church to catalog and defend against human rights abuses committed by the dictatorship. In 1976, Pope Paul VI established the Vicariate of Solidarity (La Vicaría de la Solidaridad) under the leadership of the Archdiocese of Santiago, where Varela continued his human rights work. In addition to publicly denouncing the human rights abuses of the regime, the Vicariate provided legal assistance to 250,000 Chileans and became a target of the military government.
After the restoration of democracy in 1989, Varela served as a member of the Valech Commission (the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture Report) chaired by Catholic Bishop Sergio Valech, which investigated the human rights record of the Pinochet regime. The Commission found that there were more than 38,000 people detained by the regime. The Valech Commission built on the work of an earlier Rettig Report, which had determined that more than 2,200 people were executed by the Pinochet regime. The Valech Commission provided an accounting of the abuses of the military regime, as well as determining reparations to its victims.
Chile is a narrow country of over 17 million citizens on the western coast of South America. Economically, Chile is regarded as a developed country, with the highest per capita gross domestic product in Latin America. The country is rich in resources, including excellent conditions for agriculture and has vast mineral deposits, especially copper.
Spanish conquistadors led by Pedro de Valdivia conquered Chile in 1541. The country’s capital, Santiago, was founded in the same year. Throughout the 277 years of Spanish rule, there was resistance by indigenous groups, such as the Mapuche.
In the early 19th century, an independence movement began in Chile with the establishment of a national front. The front maintained power from 1810 until 1814, when Spain reestablished control of the colony. Many leaders of the pro-independence movement reorganized in Argentina. In 1817, the exiled rebel independence leaders regained control of Chile and formally declared independence on February 12, 1818.
While initially under the leadership of authoritarian General Bernardo O’Higgins, Chile later established a tradition of democratic rule that largely continued until the 1970s. In 1970, prominent Marxist leader Salvador Allende won power in democratic elections. While the economy initially boomed under Allende, domestic opposition and international pressure, especially from the United States, led to increasing difficulties for the government.
On September 11, 1973, a military coup overthrew Allende and installed General Augusto Pinochet as president. Allende committed suicide as troops advanced on the presidential palace.
The sixteen years of Pinochet’s military dictatorship were marked by significant human rights violations and the abolishment of civil liberties. The dictatorship jailed dissidents, prohibited strikes, and dissolved the national congress and political parties. Thousands were tortured and killed; many more were forced into political exile.
In 1980, the Pinochet regime promulgated a new constitution. It included a provision calling a referendum in 1988, allowing voters a yes or no vote on whether to prolong Pinochet’s tenure as president. The referendum campaign saw massive opposition efforts to encourage voter turnout, with nearly the entire democratic opposition united against the military government. While the Pinochet regime belatedly began making reforms, 56 percent of the population voted “no” to continuing the dictatorship, setting the stage for a return to civilian rule.
In 1989, Chilean democracy was fully restored by a democratic election to choose a new president, the first free election in nearly twenty years.
Since the return to democracy, Chile has implemented significant economic and political reforms, including a free trade agreement with the United States. Although there have been major strides in promoting equality and human freedoms, the human rights violations of Pinochet’s dictatorship still haunt many people. The Rettig and Valech Reports investigated and documented the human rights violations and torture under Pinochet’s government, but many Chileans continue to demand greater accountability for those responsible.
Freedom House’s 2014 Freedom in the World report categorized Chile as “free” with an overall freedom rating of one, with one being the freest and seven being the least. The country also received ratings of one in political rights and civil liberties. However, in the 2014
Freedom of the Press report, the nation was categorized as “party free” due to a lack of diversity in the media.