Steve J. Stern

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.

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.