Alberto Harambour

Will the errors of Chile’s left facilitate a right-wing victory?

My feature article on Chile’s 2017 presidential elections is published at TRT World. Featuring exclusive comments by historian Alberto Harambour, investigative journalist and author Nancy Guzman, torture survivor Pedro Alejandro Matta and activist Jorge Hostt.

Destroying the Ability to Think Historically in Chile. An interview with historian Alberto Harambour.

(First published in Upside Down World)

The decision to remove the term ‘military dictatorship’ from Chilean primary school textbooks has been revoked. However, this remains a superficial change. Historian Alberto Harambour from Diego Portales University explains the dynamics of Chilean politics and relics of Pinochet’s dictatorship which threaten to separate a new generation of Chileans from historical memory.

The decision to remove the term ‘military dictatorship’ from Chilean primary  school textbooks has been revoked, following the resignation of Alejandro Goic, a member of the National Council of Education (CNED). In his resignation letter to Minister of Education Harald Beyer, Goic cites discomfort at having to work with former Central Nacional de Informaciones (CNI) member Alfredo Ewing Pinochet, stating “there were people who have a vision of historical events that I do not share… I am surprised that there are people who, after 40 years, still believe that there was no military dictatorship in Chile.” 

However, reinstalling the term “military dictatorship” remains a superficial change without reference to the military coup or human rights violations. Historian Alberto Harambour from Diego Portales University explains the dynamics of Chilean politics and relics of Pinochet’s dictatorship which threaten to separate a new generation of Chileans from historical memory.

Ramona Wadi: Can you explain how Pinochet’s laws regarding education continue to enforce discrimination on Chilean society?

Alberto Harambour: The combination of State terrorism and neoliberal reform radically transformed Chilean social life. From property regimes to sociability, from schools to pensions, municipalizing primary and secondary education, as well as the shift in tertiary education funding meant the increase of segregation. It was accompanied by housing policies that displaced poor communities to the periphery, dislocating networks of solidarity. As those policies have not been transformed by the transitional democracy, they have resulted in a direct relation between social class and quality of the education. As counties (municipios) fund their own schools, wealthy counties have relatively better schools. Besides, wealthy people pay extremely high prices for relatively good primary and secondary education in private schools, while the rest of society gets, generally, a public education that does not allow them to get into good, selective universities.

RW: The decision to change terminology from “military dictatorship” to “military regime” is reported to have originated during Michelle Bachelet’s presidency. Can you elaborate further about the 2009 General Education Laws and how this change in Chilean memory was approved during a left-wing presidency?

AH: It does not seem to me that the change was officially defined by then. However, there were severe contradictions in the Ministry of Education throughout the Concertación governments. I did experience an attempt of censorship while working on a textbook by year 2000. There was an oral instruction about avoiding the use of the word dictatorship for any period of Chilean history. Same about State terrorism. We had a tough time discussing it. Same happened to other historians, working for other publishing houses. At the same time, though, there was a wide transformation in programs and contents starting in the mid 1990s. Its results, though, are relatively small in terms of producing a culture of human rights respect, or true democratic generations.

RW: Is having people implicated in Pinochet’s dictatorship serving in prominent positions in Chilean politics creating a culture of impunity to enhance oblivion? What, in your opinion, is strengthening oblivion in Chile?

AH: Oblivion has been resisted by decades, from below and from the margins. Official politics of memory did have a strong impact, since the early 1990s with the publication of the Truth Commissions Informs. It was the capture of Pinochet in London (by then, a designed senator) which prompted a radical shift in terms of public opinion and human rights violation. The Concertación government did everything to temperate right-wing discontent, and bring back the former dictator. A banner in Universidad Católica by that time read “The shame of the Government is the happiness of people”. There was a clear sense that Concertación was operating so as to keep the pace of the pacted transition. And it did divorce many people who had been up to then acquiescent with the limitations of Concertación. Later on, Lagos and Bachelet played conflicting roles. On the one hand, they had been victims of the dictatorship. On the other, they kept criminals as high ranking officers in the Armed Forces, and strengthened the neoliberal policies, despite their own promises about moving leftward from the post-dictatorship political scene. They did not though. Again, on the one hand, that reinforced popular allegiances to Concertación. On the other, though, they became similar to right-wing politicians. In fact, it was a right-wing entrepreneur who, for the first time, won a presidential election since 1958. Under Pinera an unexpected result, it seems to me, there has been a growth in the opening of themes that were silenced for 20 years.

RW: Following Alejandro Goic’s resignation, it seems there has been a decision to review and possibly re-introduce the mention of military dictatorship in textbooks without referring to the coup or human rights abuses. What implications does this decision entail?

AH: The decision is a minor one. The transformation of the plans and programs for primary and secondary schools continues, and its reach is really troublesome. It is destroying the recognition of complex processes and the ability to think historically which was expanded in the last 20 years, in favor of an old-style concept of history. In 2012 we will see a permanent discussion on this, basically because the several objections raised by specialists have not been considered by the Ministry and the National Council of Education. In what can be defined as heritage of the Dictatorship, even an officer who has been accused of crimes against humanity participated in this controversial decision.

RW: How do you think a mention of dictatorship without discussion of torture and violations will affect children whose only narrative of such abuses would be through verbal recollection of those who suffered?

AH: It has demonstrated to be ineffective to produce a people conscious of its rights, respectful of the memory of the victims and the dignity of the survivors. It seems that the term “human rights” in the early 1990s opened a certain path that is, by now, exhausted. It does not express, under the rubric “human rights violations”, anything but an abstraction, necessary as it is. But in a country where dozens of thousands of citizens were subjected to the experience of terror it is necessary to replace abstractions with concrete narratives – something those who grew up under the dictatorship were saturated with. As a history professor, I am critical of my own way of referring to those processes. Politically it may be constructing to identify the dictatorship as a terrorist regime – at a certain level. But in terms of political consciousness, as incarnating a non-negotiable commitment with human dignity, it seems that we must be more explicit in letting the students know what they have not been taught.

RW: In which manner will memory narrative and language be altered through this practice of oblivion in a new generation?

AH: Besides what I just said, it is social mobilization which provides the main vehicle for social, language, political and intellectual transformation. Many of the assumptions which today appear as obvious were unthinkable a year ago, such as the demand for free public education. That was part of the leftist practice for decades, but it is only now that it appears as possible, a manifestation of a wish. Even in terms of academic formation, it seems that the students learned in a year of permanent strikes what they could not grasp during lectures. Considering this achievement, in contrast with the conformity of the Concertación decades, it does explains to a certain extent why some leaders of the students movement consider that the movement was born with them. There has been, out of reduced circles, a small transference of political experiences and memories.