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.
José Antonio Kast, a right-wing contender for the forthcoming Chilean presidential elections, has been generating outrage in Chile as a result of statements lauding the dictatorship and which signal additional impunity for perpetrators in the event of electoral victory.
In August 2017, Kast addressed an audience at Teatro Caupolicán, during which he pledged, if elected, to “defend, with honour, the military government.” He also vowed that, if elected president, he would terminate”judicial persecution of former military officers,” with reference to the ongoing efforts to bring former torturers and murderers to justice.
Kast also challenged former president Sebastian Piñera over the 2013 closing of the luxury prison Penal Cordillera and subsequent transfer of prisoners to the military prison of Punta Peuco. The closing of the prison led to the suicide of former DINA agent and CNI director Odlainer Mena. Mena was convicted for three murders in the Caravana de la Muerte operation.
Another item on Kast’s manifesto is the removal of Salvador Allende’s statue from La Cuidadania square, as well as all other forms of tribute, including those inside the presidential palace of La Moneda.
In his latest attack on Chilean memory, Kast declared that the years of the Unidad Popular government were a dictatorship and that “the people brought down Allende, not the military.”
Kast’s presidential campaign is financed, among others, by former DINA and military officers.
(First published in Upside Down World)
In another event which exposes the reality of Chilean society’s split memory, an homage to former Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA) officer Miguel Krassnoff Martchenko was described as an exercise in freedom of expression by mayor of Providencia Christian Labbé, in turn prompting outrage and protests from human rights and activist groups in Chile since its announcement.
On November 21, Labbé organised a book launch for the 4th edition of right wing historian Gisela Silva Encina’s Miguel Krassnoff: Prisoniero Por Servir a Chile (Miguel Krassnoff: A Prisoner for Serving Chile). A letter from Krassnoff was read during the event, in which he described his incarceration as ‘illegal, illegitimate and unconstitutional’. Hundreds of activists and relatives of tortured victims gathered to protest the event, some holding placards stating “I don’t forget, nor forgive”. Others turned up with photographs of tortured, assassinated or missing relatives. Protestors hurled eggs and stones in the direction of Club Providencia, resulting in clashes between opposing groups and the use of force and tear gas against protestors by the Chilean police. Earlier that day another indictment was issued against Krassnoff, charging him and three other DINA officers with the kidnapping of Newton Morales Saavedra in 1974.
A message relayed by one of President Sebastian Piñera’s assistants stated that while the President was unable to attend, he wished the event success, bearing in mind that “Krassnoff is a representative symbol of the 1973 – 1978 era.” Following the protests, Piñera issued a retraction, saying the initial message was not his and there was no way his government would have participated in such an event.
Krassnoff was sentenced to 144 years in prison in 2006 for over 20 counts of crimes against humanity. A graduate of the School of the Americas (SOA) and renowned for anti-Marxist sentiment, Krassnoff took part in the September 11, 1973 military coup d’état which ousted President Salvador Allende. Having been in charge of DINA’s Brigada Halcon, Krassnoff was at the helm of Pinochet’s secret service which kidnapped, tortured and assassinated members of Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria de Chile (MIR) – who had formed a paramilitary resistance against Pinochet’s dictatorship. Those arrested were taken to Villa Grimaldi and Londres 38, torture complexes which operated from 1974 to 1978.
According to Stern (Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Question in Democratic Chile 1989 – 2006) 4,500 prisoners were tortured from 1974 – 1976; including 205 disappearances. Survivors of torture recount extreme atrocities committed against prisoners. Sheila Cassidy, a British doctor living in Chile at the time of the coup, was arrested and tortured with electric shocks on the accusation of medically treating a Pinochet opponent. Paul Hammer, a law student arrested on suspicion of membership in a left-wing paramilitary group states he was beaten, shocked and brought to the verge of suffocation. Another torture survivor of Villa Grimaldi, Pedro Matta was arrested in 1975 and taken to Villa Grimaldi. His extensive research sheds light on the methods and manner of torture.
Prisoners who refused to become collaborators for DINA were kept standing for long hours in tiny cells, torturers submerged the prisoners’ heads in putrid water, others were subjected to the shattering of limbs, performed by a guard who would drive a vehicle over the victim’s legs. Sexual abuse and torture against women was particularly sadistic, which included rape, using animals to sexually abuse women and the burning of genitals. Influential prisoners who refused to succumb to the interrogator’s demands were usually anesthetised, taken on board a helicopter and thrown into the ocean. This elimination of opponents was also affirmed by Cassidy.
Labbé, a personal friend of Krassnoff since their time at the (SOA), so far remains unscathed by the law. A former body guard of Krassnoff, he later formed part of Brigada Halcon, given the duty of instructing guards in torture methods. Reiterating that he allowed the use of Club Providencia each time there was a commemoration pertaining to the Pinochet era, Labbé considers the event as honouring part of Chile’s history. Notwithstanding his role in Villa Grimaldi, Labbé continues to enjoy the authorities’ support and has contested council elections, retaining his place as Mayor since his first campaign.
Despite the testimonies from survivors and reports drawn up by the Valech and Rettig commissions; Chilean society remains split over the dictatorship era. According to Krassnoff’s declaration in the letter read during the book launch, “the military coup didn’t happen. It was a legitimate military intervention.” Once again, memory and blame are displaced. Pinochet’s initial declaration to allegations of human rights abuses, “Sometimes democracy must be bathed in blood” was mellowed through the years into a mission of refuting evidence of torture and murder through the discrepancy oblivion, as he stated in 1995, “The only solution to the issue of human rights is oblivion.”
As evidenced from Gisela Silva Encina’s blog about Krassnoff, Pinochet supporters are in denial of the history of human rights abuses, assassinations and disappearances. Echoing a quote from Krassnoff, “I am a soldier who has been transformed into a persecuted politician.” Encina states that Krassnoff was the victim of lies and that no evidence incriminating Krassnoff was brought forward. Indeed, Dr Patricio Bustos, Head of Servicio Medico Legal, testified that he was tortured by Miguel Krassnoff, and that Krassnoff never used a pseudonym to conceal his identity. The testimonies of victims were dismissed as memory manipulation. Encina’s blog also portrays the protestors as criminals attacking Pinochet supporters, thus necessitating the use of force on behalf of the police. Chile’s laws do not deem the celebration of genocide as a crime; therefore once again, victims and their relatives have been subjected to a travesty of justice.
However, the memory of the oppressed refuses to relinquish its stand. Lorena Pizarro, president of Agrupacion de Familiares de Detenidos Desparecidos (AFDD), condemned the homage, stating it portrayed Chile as a state which sanctions terrorism, as well as opening an avenue for a repetition of state terror. Alicia Lira, president of the Agrupacion de Familiares de Ejecution Politicos (AFEP) denounced the homage as an affront to memory and an example of the impunity which Piñera’s government is unwilling to counter, since many officers from the Pinochet era remain in authoritative positions. On behalf of the AFDD, Pizarro is suing Labbé, demanding to know whether public funds were used to finance the event.
Tt a time when Chile is experiencing a surge in protests, notably the students’ protests demanding quality and free education, the event elicited responses from political figures. Head of Senate Guido Girardi denounced the homage, calling it “a tribute to torture, assassination and rape” and challenged Piñera to take measures against allowing Labbé to run for council elections in 2012.  “It is not possible that public authorities honor torturers and murderers … It is not democratic that your party supports a militant who has incurred faults that go against the constitution and the law … Labbé should be prevented from reapplying for office as he clearly has not responded as democracy demands.”
(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.