In a remarkable, if belated, show of superpower penitence, Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, expressed regret for US policy and CIA operations in the region during a speech at Emory University in Atlanta late on Thursday. Washington, she conceded, had made "terrible mistakes".
Her extraordinary comments come as the Clinton administration continues to agonise over the position it should take on the fate of General Pinochet and the request by the Spanish government for his extradition to Spain to face charges of torture and genocide.
Washington has so far declined to offer direct support for the Spanish request. It has meanwhile come under intense pressure to release thousands of documents, which have remained under seal for 25 years, about its role in Chile in the early 1970s and in the 1973 coup that installed General Pinochet.
The dilemma is acute. While the documents could be important in bolstering the Spanish case against the former dictator, who is accused of having been responsible for the disappearance and murder of some 3,000 people in Chile, they may also seriously embarrass the US.
Above all, they may show that the US continued to back General Pinochet after he came to power and turned a blind eye to abuses or, worse, that the CIA worked directly with his secret police.
"When you speak of that era, I think many of us, as we look back on it, feel that there were serious mistakes made," Mrs Albright told the Emory students. And in a direct reference to the case of Chile, she went on: "We are reviewing and releasing more documents related to the Pinochet era. It is part of trying to deal with the terrible mistakes and problems at that time."
Just how many of the documents will be released and how quickly remains unclear.
Earlier this week, the State Department spokesman, James Rubin, said the US would "declassify and make public as much information as possible". The next day, however, he said he needed to "clarify" his words and that the US commitment was only to "review" those papers that may shed light on the Pinochet era.
The ambiguity is thought to reflect deep divisions within the administration on what should be done. "There is a struggle going on here," one White House official told The Nation magazine this week. "This has been an incredibly divisive issue."
Even the position of Mrs Albright is opaque. Earlier this week, she appeared to side with Chile's demand that General Pinochet be returned home when she said "significant respect" should be given to Santiago's position.Reuse content