Chilean viewers are staying up late to watch a top-rated TV drama about tortures and disappearances during the country's dictatorship _ highly unusual material for a country still wrestling with the legacy of those crimes against humanity.
Some right-wing politicians are livid, claiming the 12-part series has no place on Chile's quasi-independent, state-funded public television.
In "The Archives of the Cardinal," a team of lawyers and investigators working with Catholic Church officials discovers the first proof that the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet had committed summary executions of political prisoners and other crimes. The characters are fictitious, but the story is based on true events.
At the time, these crimes were steadfastly denied by Pinochet's political supporters _ some of whom remain prominent in the center-right coalition that governs Chile today.
The first episode aired last Thursday and was repeated Sunday, leading the ratings and reviving old divisions in the country Pinochet ruled as a dictator from 1973-1990.
The leader of President Sebastian Pinera's National Renovation party, Sen. Carlos Larrain, led the attacks, saying Chile's public television should broadcast programs that affirm the country's collective life. In a letter to the leading El Mercurio newspaper last week, he accused TVN of instead turning against society by spreading a leftist message that "you have to keep hate alive."
Still, in a remarkable admission that suggests just how powerful an effect the series may have on a society that has struggled to come to grips with its recent past, the former private attorney and insurance industry executive acknowledged that he himself had been too complacent about human rights abuses under Pinochet.
"In my condition as a lawyer, I should have been much more alert when it came to protecting people from the de facto government," Larrain wrote in the same letter. "This was my error, and that of many others."
After seeing the first episode, Larrain shifted his criticism from a political attack to an artistic one, writing again to El Mercurio that he found it "extremely pedagogical and with some very predictable characters."
"It's worse than sucking a rusty nail," Larrain wrote. "I'm more relaxed now because I think the series will die of its own accord."
The ratings suggest otherwise _ the first episode led all the competition. The series airs Thursday nights from 10:50 p.m. to 11:50 p.m., with a late-Sunday rebroadcast, because it is considered inappropriate for children.
TVN's executive director, Mauro Valdes, responded to Larrain with a letter of his own, saying the series shows "the courage of the people who defended the lives of others, (and) contributes essentially to an idea of a 'collective life' made from the most precious values."
Larrain was particularly incensed that Chile's National Television Council had voted to provide about $650,000 to develop the screenplay, which won a government contest. The council is autonomous, but led by a board of political appointees named by Chile's president and Senate.
Council president Herman Chadwick, whose brother Andres was named by Pinera to be the government's spokesman last week, urged critics to relax.
"It is a fictional program, it's not historical," Herman Chadwick said.
The actual "archives" are a fact of Chilean history, however. They are kept on microfilm as evidence of some of the killings that eventually totaled 3,065 dictatorship opponents, including about 1,000 who were made to disappear by agents of the Chilean state.
The TV show's first episode centers on the infamous ovens of Lonquen, where police and soldiers beat 15 prisoners to death, threw their bodies down deep pits, and covered them with lime. Word of the crime reached Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez in 1978. His team's investigation then provided the first tangible proof of crimes against humanity under Pinochet. Silva once described his team as "the voice for those without a voice."
The dictator responded by ordering troops nationwide to dig up bodies of political prisoners from clandestine graves and dump them in the ocean.
The campaign, cynically named "Operacion Retiro de Televisores" (Operation Television Removal), eliminated troves of evidence that might have helped solve hundreds of cases still being investigated today. To date, the bodies of only 200 of the people who disappeared have been found in 21 years of democracy.
Chile's right-wing National Renovation and Independent Democratic Union parties didn't fully acknowledge the tortures and disappearances until the year 2000, when the military turned over a list identifying the locations of the 200 missing victims. The release came a decade after the country recovered its democracy and was the result of months of negotiations between the armed forces, church representatives, human rights lawyers and the center-left government in charge at the time.
Many of the tombs on the list were later found to be empty _ with only scraps of clothing and fragments of bones.
Carlos Pena, the dean of Santiago's University of Diego Portales and a columnist for El Mercurio, wrote that Chile's right-wing politicians are simply afraid to face their own past.
"What the senator, without saying it, fears, is the obvious: what a bad position a good part of today's right-wing will be left in when they are forced by this fictional television series to confront their own memories," Pena wrote, referring to Senator Larrain. "How complacent they were with the crimes and the human rights violations that happened in Chile for such a long time."
Congressional deputy Alberto Cardemil, representing Pinera's National Renovation party, was a deputy interior minister under Pinochet in the 1980s. He wrote a blistering criticism of the series, calling its characters hackneyed and the music overly dramatic.
"It's an abuse of public money, and it threatens from one end to the other the programming of national television, which is obligated to present a balance of facts and opinions, acknowledging the diversity of perspectives and the sensibilities that exist in the country," Cardemil complained.
But opposition deputy Tucapel Jimenez is looking forward to the episode dealing with the death of his father, who was killed by Pinochet's police while trying to organize a national strike in 1982.
"They talk and worry today about taxpayer money used by the series, but when they governed they never worried about the money stolen by the dictator or the money spent on repressive organizations like (Pinochet's intelligence services)," Jimenez wrote in El Mostrador. "A country without memory has no future."