Maria Elvira Confronta
(Credit: Carle Juste/Miami Herald)
Maria Elvira Salazar has a talk interview show on television station WDLP Channel 22 in Miami, Florida. Her most famous interview was with General Augusto Pinochet broadcast on November 24, 2003. How did Maria Elvira land the exclusive interview that Pinochet said would be his last ever? In Miami Herald (March 18, 2005), Oscar Corral reported:
To interview Pinochet, Salazar pressed him and his family for years, even sneaking into Pinochet's house in London with his grandson when he was under house arrest there in 1999 on human-rights charges. Back then, she was the top anchorwoman for Telemundo. She took pictures with Pinochet then, but Scotland Yard refused to let her take a video camera into the house. So she settled for just meeting him.
She called members of Pinochet's family frequently until 2003, when they finally agreed to let her interview him in Santiago.
The biggest reason Pinochet granted Salazar the interview, she said, is that she is a Cuban American from Miami and Pinochet believes that the Cuban exile community is one of the few groups across Latin America that understood his role in preventing Chile from becoming another Cuba.
''That's one of the main reasons they had agreed to give me the interview, not because I'm special,'' she said.
What did Pinochet say in that interview? Nancy San Martin reported in the Miami Herald on November 23, 2005:
Former Chilean strongman Gen. Augusto Pinochet -- whose 17-year, iron-fisted regime is accused of killing about 3,200 opponents -- says he was not a ruthless leader but rather an ''angel'' who acted for the love of his country. ''I never aspired to be a dictator,'' the raspy-voiced Pinochet told Spanish-language TV talk-show host María Elvira Salazar in an interview scheduled for broadcast at 8 p.m. Monday on WDLP-22. ''I always acted with democratic principles.''
Clad in a dark suit and tie, the gray-haired Pinochet sat stone-faced in an ornate chair holding a wood cane as Salazar peppered him with an hour's worth of questions: How do you see yourself? What would you have done differently? Do you have any regrets?
Pinochet, who turns 88 on Tuesday, calmly answered each question in short sentences, with a few nods and smiles. ''I am a man who does not carry any hate in his heart,'' Pinochet said in the interview recorded at his home earlier this month.
Pinochet told Salazar that he suffers from headaches controlled with medication but is in overall good health. Even as he acknowledged that ''it's possible that there were excesses'' of abuse during his administration, he said he had no regrets. ''What do I have to be sorry for?'' Pinochet asked rhetorically. Opponents ''are the ones who should ask forgiveness of me.''
Pinochet also said he is working on an autobiography and has drafted a letter to the Chilean people to be released upon his death. ''I don't want future generations to think badly of me,'' he said. ''I want them to know what really happened.''
PBS: "That's a difficult question, how one sees ones self; always as an angel. I have no regrets at all. I have not assassinated anyone. I have not ordered the killing of anyone. I feel that would be an aberration. I am a Christian first, then the rest."
More details are reported in MercoPress on November 25, 2005:
“Whom should I ask forgiveness from, what should I ask forgiveness for? Once they tried to kill me. They had us boxed and attacked us from all sides, five guards who fought for me lost their lives, we were all wounded. They’ve forgotten all the times they planted bombs, they’ve forgotten many things. Forgiveness for what?” insisted the former dictator in direct reference to the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (FPMR) September ’86 attack.
As to his administration Pinochet emphasized that “I wasn’t a dictator hopeful. Dictatorships end badly. I always acted with a democratic spirit and that is why I took the country to hold elections, to decide whether I should continue or someone else”. With his voice giving evidence of a frail health Pinochet said everything done during his administration “was meditated, was jointly studied, analyzed, and if I committed mistakes it was because I studied the issues, nothing of what happened was intentional”. Regarding the deaths, abuses and disappearances under his rule the general insisted that in all political struggles, in every part of the world, “excesses are committed; there’re people under no control, so it’s possible that excesses were committed. There’re people who don’t control, subordinates who act on their own and later keep quiet”.
One of the more tense moments was when the former general said “there’s no resentment, I have no grudge for nothing or anybody, I didn’t murder anybody, I didn’t give orders to murder nobody”.
Mr. Pinochet underlined that Chile is currently enjoying a sound economy and social stability thanks to the social market model he imposed during the eighties. And when asked how he would define himself, he said, “I consider myself an angel. But with a little meditation I can say I’m a good man: no grudges, I’m kind”.
MercoPress makes this important point about the state of health of Augusto Pinochet:
The former Chilean dictator recently spent three days in hospital with a broken left hand, which he suffered upon falling in the bathtub of an apartment he owns in the resort of Reñaca. Pinochet has a number of ailments related to diabetes and a Chilean court has ruled that he also suffers from progressive and irreversible "vascular dementia." This diagnosis, which implies that he cannot think coherently on a regular basis, has immunized him from prosecution on human rights violations.
But the interview was enough to cause a legal reversal, according to Oscar Corral:
After viewing Salazar's interview with Pinochet, 89, Chilean Judge Juan Guzman Tapia on Dec. 13 indicted Pinochet on charges of kidnapping nine political dissidents and killing one of them. Guzman used the interview to establish that Pinochet is mentally competent to face a criminal trial.
''It would have been difficult to jail him without that interview,'' said Chilean Supreme Court spokesman Miguel Gonzalez. ''The judge concluded that a person who could give an interview and respond to questions in a clear form, as he did in that interview, is capable of going on trial.''
''The interview lasted more than 30 minutes and Pinochet appeared very lucid,'' said Eduardo Contreras, a top prosecutor in the case. ''It obviously was an important marker that Pinochet was not mentally disabled.''
As Oscar Corral wrote, Maria Elvira believed that ''It seems like my role is to inform, not persecute people that I am interviewing," and so:
''I feel very bad,'' she said. "I did not want to cause him problems. Someone who had already put legal issues behind him is now entangled in new legal problems because of me.''
Salazar said she was so shocked at her unwitting role in Pinochet's indictment that she wrote a letter to his lawyers telling them that Pinochet committed many mistakes, had mental lapses and was so often incoherent during the interview that it had to be "extensively edited.''
Contreras, the prosecutor, said Salazar set out to help Pinochet with the interview ''but ended up sinking him.'' "She tried to defend him and say, 'Poor little Pinochet was very old and tired during the interview,' '' Contreras said. ''But it was too late. The die was cast. We appreciate the interview.''
Salazar insists that Pinochet was making a ''great physical effort'' to speak during the interview and that she wrote the letter because Pinochet's lawyers called her and asked her to describe what he was like during the interview.
Augusto Pinochet's role in history is not necessarily determined by this television interview alone. This may have caused more legal problems for him, but the looming issue is about the US$15 million laundered through 65 accounts at 7 different U.S. banks for a person with a known annual salary of US$10,000. The previous debate over Pinochet's legacy is whether the military dicatorship was preferrable to the marxist Allende government, and that is an irresolvable and interminable argument of actual history against an unknowable alternative. But the present debate over Pinochet's personal legacy is the US$15 million for which there is no clean explanation. He and his family may escape legal liabiilty, but that legacy is surely sealed.
As for Maria Elvira Salazar, will she ever be able to land another interview with a famous political figure? There will always be politicians vain enough to think that they can do better.