oblivion

Crimes Of US-Backed Dictatorship Era Still Being Prosecuted In Chile

(First published in Mint Press News)

Two recent developments in Chile have reignited the struggle for memory against Augusto Pinochet’s lasting culture of oblivion. On Aug. 7, Chileans on both sides of the political spectrum either lamented or celebrated the death of Manuel Contreras, former head of Pinochet’s National Intelligence Services (DINA).

Contreras’ death ignited a fresh surge of rage and indignation, as the families of the over 3,000 disappeared still face an uphill struggle against the state and the military to uncover details regarding the murder and disappearance of their relatives.

Prior to Contreras’ death, Chilean media had announced investigations into another case from the dictatorship era — the burning of photographer Rodrigo Rojas and student Carmen Gloria Quintana, during a street demonstration on July 2, 1986. On July 21, Judge Mario Carroza ordered the arrest of two former army officers and five former non-commissioned officers, charging them with premeditated murder in the burning death of Rojas and attempted homicide against Quintana. The case in Chile is known as Caso Quemados (“the case of the burned”).

The arrests came on the heels of former conscript Fernando Guzmán revealing the identity of the commander responsible for Rojas’ death. During an interview on Chilean television, Guzmán named Julio Castañer, the head of Intelligence Section II, who, according to Guzmán, was also involved in cases related to the Chilean disappeared.

Rojas, the son of political exile and torture survivor Veronica de Negri, grew up in Washington, D.C. He visited Chile in May 1986, when he was 19, as part of a group who, on the morning of July 2, 1986, attempted to photograph a two-day national strike against the dictatorship in a Santiago neighborhood. The military descended upon the group, capturing Rojas and Quintana.

According to witnesses, including Quintana herself, both were severely beaten by the military, doused with gasoline and set on fire. The military patrol dumped Rojas and Quintana in a ditch on the outskirts of Santiago, where they were later discovered by locals and taken to the hospital. However, officials refused to have them transferred to a hospital that could treat the severity of their burns. Rojas died four days later. Quintana suffered severe disfigurement and received her treatment in Canada, including around 40 operations.

In an interview with CNN Chile last month, Rojas’ mother Verónica de Negri spoke about government complicity in concealing crimes pertaining to the dictatorship, describing former presidents Patricio Aylwin, Eduardo Frei and Ricardo Lagos as “criminals who protected Pinochet.”

The Concertación governments — a coalition of center-left political parties that won every election from the time military rule ended in 1990 until right-wing Sebastián Piñera’s electoral victory in 2010 — maintained the pact of silence enforced upon society by Pinochet. Hence, the state and the military were allowed to maintain a veil secrecy over details of execution, torture, disappearances and other horrors perpetrated against Chileans under the dictatorship.

“Lagos,” de Negri told CNN, “attended my son’s funeral to garner support for his presidential candidacy.”

The Rojas’ case: A turning point for the US

A trove of declassified documents reveals the CIA’s role in supporting and even arming violent right-wing factions in Chile to bring about the downfall of democratically-elected socialist President Salvador Allende’s presidency. With Allende at the helm, Chile was perceived by the U.S. as a country capable of instigating a wave of socialist revolutions in South America and thus extending the Cuban Revolution’s triumph further within the continent.

Acts of economic sabotage, instances of funding violence, and motions of impunity for torturers have all been well-documented, but Rojas’ case presents both a turning point and a contrast in U.S. involvement in Chile.

The declining support for Pinochet during the Reagan administration showed the U.S. as taking a more active interest in the Rojas case, given the U.S. government’s priority of ensuring that left-wing opposition would not create another revolution. The aim was to preserve the foundations enshrined by Pinochet while creating conditions necessary for a possible transition.

Declassified documents from the National Security Archives reveal the extents to which the U.S.-backed dictatorship, on orders from Pinochet himself, would go to ensure evidence and testimony would be silenced. Five days after Rojas died, Chilean chief of police Gen. Rodolfo Stange presented Pinochet with a report that identified the army units responsible for the immolations of Rojas and Quintana, which Pinochet flatly rejected.

On July 14, 1986, Rojas’ murder was the subject of the Presidential Evening Reading, according to a declassified document, and the only time an atrocity committed by the U.S.-backed dictatorship ended up on the agenda — the reason being Rojas’ status as the son of a political refugee residing in the U.S. The document acknowledges the dictatorship’s transmission of false information, such as attempting to persuade the public that Rojas and Quintana were “victims of their own Molotov cocktails.”

Another document reveals that Chilean police were reluctant to continue their investigations into the crime, deciding instead to hand over responsibility for investigation to the army. According to a declassified U.S. Embassy cable, Gen. Stange delivered a single-page report identifying the army patrol unit responsible for the violence inflicted upon Rojas and Quintana to Pinochet on July 11. According to the document, which cites a “reliable source within the Carabineros,” the uniformed Chilean national police force: “President Pinochet told General Stange that he did not believe the report, and he refused to receive the report from General Stange.” Further, an unidentified army official declared that “the case would be resolved within 48 hours,” followed by a notification by the army that “according to the source of the above information, as of yet there is no witness who saw anyone set the youths on fire.”

Pinochet wasn’t the only one to dismiss the case. Chilean journalist Alejandra Matus posted a callous comment that had been uttered by Pinochet’s wife, Lucía Hiriart, regarding Quintana: “Why is this child complaining when she suffered little burns?” Quintana remains scarred for life.

Government intimidation was the source of another declassified document, which showed that Chilean security forces threatened and detained witnesses to change their testimony on what happened to Rojas and Quintana, in order to avoid implicating the military.

While the Rojas case is cited as a reason why U.S. support for Pinochet’s dictatorship declined during the Reagan administration, the mounting protests against the repressive policies of the dictatorship created an alternative hypothetical scenario for the U.S. — that of growing left-wing mobilization against neoliberalism which would ultimately affect U.S interests in the region.

According to Peter Kornbluh, author of “The Pinochet File,” “Reagan admired Pinochet and wanted to go to Chile to personally thank him for ‘saving Chile’ and tell him [Pinochet] that ‘it was time to go.’”

US intelligence played ‘a fundamental role’ in the murders of two American citizens

However, U.S. complicity in torture and violence, the Rojas case and subsequent interest contrasts the official reaction to the deaths of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi. The American citizens working and studying in Santiago, respectively, were arrested, tortured and murdered in Chile in 1973, following their investigations into U.S. complicity in overthrowing Salvador Allende.

American interest in the Rojas case did not stem from the fact that the victim was a U.S. resident being immolated. Rather, the State Department was safe to pursue details of the case due to the government’s growing need to detach itself from Pinochet’s systematic abuse of power.

Conversely, the deaths of Horman and Teruggi in the early days of the dictatorship would have been a liability for the U.S., given the involvement in the crime of U.S. military officers stationed in Valparaiso, one of the bases for both Chilean and U.S. coup plotters. In fact, a State Department document clearly mentions the complicity of U.S. intelligence forces in the murders of Horman and Teruggi.

In 2011, Chile’s Supreme Court indicted two former Chilean intelligence officers and U.S. Navy Capt. Ray E. Davis, who headed U.S. military operations in Chile at the time of the coup, in connection with the deaths of Horman and Teruggi.

“The military intelligence services of the United States had a fundamental role in the creation of the murders of the two American citizens in 1973, providing Chilean military officers with the information that led to their deaths,” the ruling by Judge Jorge Zepeda said.

However, the U.S. is said to have not been served with a 2012 extradition request for Davis, who Chilean authorities had long believed was living in Florida. It later emerged that he had been secretly living in Chile, where he died in 2013 without ever facing trial.

Reckoning with Pinochet: The memory question in democratic Chile 1989 – 2006.

Steve J. Stern (Duke University Press, 2010)978-0-8223-4729-3_pr

(First published in Upside Down World)

My father had breakfast every day with General Pinochet during four years … I cannot understand that General Pinochet could say today ‘I have no idea’,” stated Manuel Contreras Valdebenito in 1999, whose father was head of DINA, Chile’s intelligence services during Pinochet’s dictatorship. By then, a division in loyalty had started to occur between Pinochet and his secret police DINA (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional).

During Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship, violence was implemented as a means of annihilating all socialist and Marxist support in the country. Death and disappearances, torture and exile were common occurrences. A vital factor aiding the regime’s tenacity was the population’s subsequent silence. Fear and terror had created a long, temporary absence of vociferous socialist support, and the definition of justice had been mangled and manipulated by the absence of a memory made public.

Two particular memory frameworks prevail through the book Reckoning with Pinochet – The Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989 – 2006 (Duke University Press, 2010), described by author Steve J. Stern as emblematic memory and loose memory – the social memory and the personal memory. Although they stand in contrast, it is by blending both concepts that the memory becomes national; the memory of Chile. Personal accounts of torture, disappearances, murder and exile sustain the social experience, which in turn creates a framework that is capable of combating the memory oblivion of the right.

Reckoning with Pinochet delves into the memory question and the process through which memory became an essential part of Chilean culture. Drawing on the obvious split of loyalties within Chilean society, Stern vividly portrays the memory of both sides, bringing to light a conclusion which, despite the obvious, has the tendency to remain cloistered in a realm of its own. Despite the propaganda of democracy, Pinochet’s rule was a brutal dictatorship which resorted to extremes to annihilate any evidence of socialist or communist support. Yet, due to the flaws inherent in the subsequent transition to democracy, there still remains a segment of the population which perceives Pinochet as a saviour, and therefore defines atrocities as a method of preserving Chile from ruin. While the socialists perceived the pre-1973 years as the prologue to adversity, supporters of Pinochet drew upon Allende’s presidential term as the disaster prior to deliverance. What the right eliminates from memory is obviously the reality of Pinochet’s brutal massacre of Chileans and other atrocities that render an individual split from his humanity.

In its essence, memory can be elusive – a series of certainties that differs according to the recollections of people. At a distance, the repression of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile may be perceived solely as a fragment of the country’s history, not having been burdened with a legacy of death, torture, disappearances and exile. As the book draws on the memory of people, grassroots organisations, elites, truth commissions and judges, it becomes evident that the memory of Chile is strong enough to be sustained beyond its borders. With the rupture of silence, the atrocities committed during the dictatorship became translated into an experience of that particular era in Chilean history, documented both for Chile and for the rest of the world.

Throughout the years of transition, Pinochet argued in favour of memory oblivion, describing the concept as “mindful silence as a positive good.” Memory had created a conflict on both sides out of the quest for truth and justice. Patricio Aylwin’s Convivencia law was aimed at shattering the silence that shrouded the era of torture and oppression, thus giving an outlet to narrations of brutality. In the wake of evidence starting to seep out, the military and the Right had “adjusted to the documented factual truth of memory as rupture.” By displacing responsibility for the committed atrocities, Pinochet and the right wing had justified their detachment from the process, and even from culpability.

The memory transition at best seemed fragmented. Pinochet sought honour and amnesty. Aylwin was pressing for political stability and ethics, while victim survivors were clamouring for justice. The transition satisfied nobody, yet it was through this period that grassroots activists ascertained the legacy of terror would not be ignored. As testimonies started to emerge from the truth commission’s investigations, the memory oblivion encouraged by Pinochet was relegated to its own irrelevance within the context of the oppressed people’s quest for memory truth.

Stern also presents memory as an experience. Whilst the culture of oblivion shelters the middle class from the moral obligation of affirming state violence, thus clashing with the concept of human rights, the memory framework of the socialists is dependent upon exposing atrocities in order to reach a semblance of salvation. The rupture of silence was essential in order to create a framework that portrays the injustice inflicted on Chilean supporters of Salvador Allende, activists within the Unidad Popular and other people who had a socialist background to bring about a relative consciousness that sustains itself from within the confines of history. In due course, other media and creativity sources sprang up, conveying the social memory of the oppressed to the Chileans as a nation.

The memory quest for justice remained replete with obstacles from the past, as Pinochet’s legacy loomed over any shattered frontier. In a letter addressed to Chileans in 1998, Pinochet stresses that he never sought power and was trapped by a communist conspiracy. The actions of embedding past realities in the present was unacceptable to the right wing which, in its futile efforts to preserve the culture of oblivion, persevered in a wave of disassociation negation, fabricating a reality that diminished the essence of justice.

As the truth emerged, Allende was once again reaffirmed as the leader of marginalised people. A sentiment which had to be sheltered during Pinochet’s reign had once again manifested itself in the loyalty of the people. This was a memory totally independent of justice and its manipulations.

Pinochet was finally deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia, a relic of another fallacy of justice. Responsibility was never legally acknowledged or declared through a trial. Findings state that the scale of torture during Pinochet’s dictatorship was massive and it was also a ‘policy of the state’. Thus, Chile’s memory remained an inconclusive metaphor, blemished by tragedy and the ambiguous process that was supposed to pave the way through democracy.

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.

Remembering Pinochet’s Chile. On the eve of London, 1998

Steve J Stern (Duke University Press, 2006)41d7LWm-nPL

As Pinochet’s tangible presence receded from the Chilean political structure, a vibrant memory legacy erupted, challenging dictatorial impositions and awakening the struggle for historical memory. The volatile political environment following the disintegration of the dictatorship created a complex memory framework fighting not only the imposed oblivion, but also an ingrained process through which memory became an essential part of the collective experience on both sides of the political spectrum. In “Remembering Pinochet’s Chile. On the eve of London, 1988”, Steve J Stern explores the national experience of the dictatorship, fragmented into several memory camps beyond the usual distinction of memory versus oblivion, depicting the diverse ramifications of collective memory and the induced oblivion in return for complacency and indifference, thus extracting the fight for remembrance promulgated by the marginalised opposition to the dictatorship. 

Right wing rhetoric frames political violence as a necessity, with remembrance based on recollection which do not necessarily represent personal experience. Memory as salvation – the expression of a collective national sentiment as purported by Pinochet’s adherents is detached from historical reality and fails to question the dynamics of Chile’s left, such as whether violent revolution was favoured by Salvador Allende. The remembrance associated with the experiences of other harbouring similar sentiment indulges in a convenient dismissal of torture and disappearances. The fear of violence becomes displaced, projected onto the resistance incorporated by the militant left, in order to justify the violations committed by DINA.

Dissident memory, incorporating memory as rupture, persecution and awakening, involves a transformation of various struggles of the collective. An embodiment of contradictions between life and memory, existence is organised around memory, with different forms of expression contributing to the collective. While memory as rupture manifests itself as an expression of anguish, particularly in honouring the disappeared and executed, memory as persecution is characterised by an inevitable division of society owing to contrasting memory camps, in turn validating social commitment and values to promote solidarity through activism.

Stern also acknowledges a process through which a form of passive oblivion is inadvertently practiced. Using the metaphor of memory as a closed box, Stern describes a process of silence through which atrocities remain unchallenged. A lack of validation of a collective expression in the public sphere becomes prone to a form of idolisation of victims which shifts the focus from the actual issue of dictatorship atrocities and the quest for justice.

Despite the encompassing collective experience, other forms of memory remain obscured due to guilt and unintended complicity. Various leftist supports willingly presented themselves for questioning, others urged to comply by family members. The ensuing permanent disappearance rendered a guarded expression of memory, with remorse being less explicit due to the burden of guilt. Enlisted conscripts, among them former leftists, were also coerced to participate in arrests and torture – an experience which failed to safeguard against DINA retribution, such as in the case of Carlos Alberto Carrasco Matus who, upon confiding in his friend about the horrors perpetrated by the dictatorship, was forced to take part in arresting his friend. Both ended up prisoners in Villa Grimaldi – Carrasco was beaten with chains and murdered by DINA in Villa Grimaldi, while his friend was exiled and in 1990 testified before the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Besides Pinochet’s insistence upon oblivion, Stern discerns another memory framework which negates atrocities through an intentional misinterpretation of history. Memory as indifference is established by recalling the alleged reasons as to why the coup was a necessity, while undeservedly attributing altruistic adjectives to a military which constantly proved its macabre character. According to an interviewee in the book identified as Colonel Juan F, the Chilean military possessed a ‘socialist character’ and was the salvation to Chile’s future through its solutions of problems posed by a welfare system. Any failure was blamed upon the Allende era having produced ‘mentally sick people’, depicting a complete irrelevance to the deterioration of progress which rendered society irrelevant in order to justify political violence.

Measures were also taken to enable the military to distance themselves from the atrocities committed. A particular instance refers to the Calama massacres, where Colonel Eugenio Rivera sought to protect himself and his soldiers by placing the blame solely upon General Sergio Arellano Stark, in charge  of the ‘Caravan of Death’.

The various memory frameworks have created a volatile coexistence shaped by elements in a constant struggle. Different experiences of life under Pinochet’s dictatorship have provided the framework for the ensuing cultural silence battled by a quest for justice, memory and recognition of committed atrocities. Considering the split within Chilean society, the major obstacle to emblematic memory is its displacement due to persistent right-wing hegemonic narratives. Hence the projection of emblematic memory into the public sphere in order for the collective experience to escape fragmentation and isolation, which in turn strengthens the case for historical legitimacy. Chilean society is imbued with ambiguities – certainties mingle with doubt, the struggle for memory resisting certain narrations which, despite the relevance to the struggle, are perhaps perceived as blurring the divide between various forms of rupture, as in the case of conscripts who resisted implementing torture and suffered the same fate as left wing supporters. Stern’s book serves as a compelling reminder of an incomplete sequence in the Chilean struggle, one that is partially dependent upon a dissolution of impunity in order to eliminate the process of selectivity and the peril of descending into various forms of oblivion.