• U.S.

CHILE: Mercy Flight

3 minute read

Treasury Secretary William Simon announced his unusual mission casually enough. During an early-morning appearance on NBC’s Today show, he noted that he was about to take off for a visit to South America and hoped, by the way. to secure the release of “quite a few” of the political prisoners still languishing in the jails of Chile’s right-wing military regime. He succeeded. By the time Simon’s Air Force jet landed in Santiago for his ten-hour visit there, the Chileans had quietly agreed to free some 300 detainees, among them two former ministers in the ill-fated Marxist government of Salvador Allende Gossens. In a brief airport talk, Simon pointedly noted that U.S. aid to the regime “will be handicapped if there is not a clearer understanding of how the Chileans are ensuring that human rights are respected.”

Samaritanism is not in the regular line of duty at Treasury, but the U.S. is willing to try unorthodox tactics these days to pressure General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte into loosening up his regime. Chile needs cash: this year payments of principal and interest on its foreign debt will total $800 million, or 43% of the country’s expected export earnings, and the economy is barely limping along (see ECONOMY & BUSINESS). Yet few outside lenders have been willing to help out in the face of international condemnation—most recently, by the United Nations Human Rights Commission—of detention and torture of Chilean political prisoners. So last month when Chilean Finance Minister Jorge Cauas was in Washington seeking a $100 million loan, the Administration saw a way of combining humanitarian and diplomatic ends. Thus the Simon trip was arranged.

Full Prisons. While the Secretary’s mission was extraordinary, there have been some precedents for this kind of trading with Chile. In 1974 the regime freed 117 prisoners in return for a release of phosphate shipments blocked by Mexico, and another 150 were let go in response to a $50 million investment promised by Rumania. Many such deals would be required to clear Chile’s jails of the estimated 5,000 to 6,000 political detainees remaining in them. The regime, which has defended its full prisons on the grounds of continuing danger from Marxist conspirators, has begun to slow down the pace of arrests; they have declined from 100 to 150 a month last year to about 50 a month recently. More than half of those arrested in the past several months have been released. The government has also promised to discuss civil liberties soon with a working group from the Human Rights Commission, whose report cited Chile’s secret police for “inhuman, cruel and degrading treatment” of political dissidents.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com