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POLITICS-CHILE: The Berlin Wall, the Honecker Case and Pinochet

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Nov 9 1999 (IPS) - The fall of the Berlin Wall 10 years ago had strong repercussions in Chile – the last home of Erich Honecker, leader of the now-defunct German Democratic Republic (GDR) – and the impacts may continue to be felt through the extradition trial of the nation’s former dictator, Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

The “Honecker case” was one of the most complicated diplomatic situations faced by the Patricio Aylwin government (1990-1994) during the nation’s democratic transition. It ignited hard debates among the nation’s political parties and among human rights groups.

But no one would have guessed in 1993 that the odyssey of the former GDR leader would set an international legal precedent applicable today in the case of one of his greatest enemies, former dictator Pinochet.

Honecker arrived in Santiago January 14, 1993 to join his wife Margot and daughter Sonia. He arrived suffering from terminal cancer, which ultimately killed him 16 months later.

The GDR, or East Germany, welcomed an estimated 50,000 Chilean exiles with open arms after Pinochet’s military coup on September 11, 1973, making Chile a sounding board for the events unleashed by the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

High-level leaders of Chile’s Communist (PC) and Socialist (PS) parties hold a debt of gratitude with the GDR and Honecker. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of the Cold War, they criticised president Aylwin for not offering greater solidarity to the deposed leader.

But during their stay in the former Socialist Bloc country, another major group of Chilean exiles, made up primarily of intellectuals, cultivated a critical view of “real socialism,” leading to divisions in the PC and ideological disputes within the PS when they returned home.

Chilean writer Carlos Cerda, former youth leader of the PC and an activist until 1980, used one of his most celebrated novels, “Morir en Berlín” (1993 – To Die in Berlin), to tell the traumatic story of exile in East Germany.

The suffocating socialist bureaucracy, the state systems of control and espionage, and the strict hierarchical structures “provoked our gradual alienation from what we had considered the socialist dream,” Cerda recently told ‘La Tercera,’ a Santiago daily.

The Chilean writer agrees with German novelist Gunter Grass, the 1999 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, that the fall of the Berlin Wall did not mean the reunification of Germany, it was the annexation of the GDR by West Germany.

Honecker was the secretary of East Germany’s Socialist Unified Party (Communist) for 18 years, until he was removed from office October 17, 1989 – 23 days before the opening of the German borders that brought down the Wall built in 1961.

On April 3, 1990, after a short stint in prison, the former GDR leader sought refuge at the hospital on the Beelitz Soviet military base, located between Berlin and Leipzig. He was then transferred to Moscow March 13, 1991.

The German government, reunited October 3, 1990, issued a warrant for Honecker’s arrest in the Soviet Union, but the nation was in complete chaos and would crumble just months later, on December 8.

Erich and Margot Honecker entered the Chilean embassy in Moscow on December 11, where they were offered protection by the head of the mission, Clodomiro Almeyda, historic leader of the PS who had been exiled in East Germany.

The deposed communist leader remained in the embassy until July 29, when he was removed by Russian police. They turned him over to the German authorities who put imprisoned him at Moabit.

Sectors of the Chilean left accused the Aylwin government of facilitating Honecker’s arrest by refusing him asylum and limiting its involvement to keeping him as an embassy “guest.”

Honecker faced trial in Moabit, charged with the assassination of Germans who tried to cross over the Berlin Wall to West Germany, killed by the GDR’s border police.

The Court of Berlin declared Honecker guilty on January 12, 1993, and immediately released him for humanitarian reasons due to his terminal case of liver cancer.

Two days later, the leader of the former GDR arrived in Santiago where he was received by the long-time leaders of the PS and the PC, led by Almeyda and Gladys Marín (the communist presidential candidate for Chile’s December 1999 elections).

He arrived as a common citizen, with a German passport, and spent his last 16 months in the town of La Reina, with his wife and daughter at his side. Honecker died May 29, 1994 at the age of 82.

Honecker’s release for humanitarian reasons is one of the precedents now wielded by those looking for similar treatment for Chile’s former dictator Pinochet, who was arrested in London October 16, 1998 and faced legal proceedings last month for extradition to Spain.

Human rights organisations point out that if the Honecker case is invoked, clemency for Pinochet could only be applied after a sentence is declared, in Spain or elsewhere, regarding the human rights charges against him.

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