Remembering the Past and Struggling for Justice: The Contested Legacy of Authoritarian Rule in Chile

By Evans, Rebecca | Human Rights & Human Welfare, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Remembering the Past and Struggling for Justice: The Contested Legacy of Authoritarian Rule in Chile


Evans, Rebecca, Human Rights & Human Welfare


Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet's Chile, 1973-1988. Vol. 2 of The Memory Box of Pinochet's Chile. By Steven J. Stern. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. 247pp.

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Remembering Pinochet's Chile: On the Eve of London 1998. Vol. 1 of The Memory Box of Pinochet's Chile. By Steven J. Stern. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004. 538pp.

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The Pinochet Effect: Transnational Justice in the Age of Human Rights. By Naomi Roht-Arriaza. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 256pp.

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Chile holds special significance for scholars. Not only was it the first country to democratically elect a Marxist president who sought to lead a peaceful transition to socialism, it was also a prominent example of democratic breakdown and brutal military rule. The Chilean dictatorship not only practiced the terrible techniques that became part of Latin American "dirty war" campaigns, it also took a lead role in planning assassinations and coordinating intelligence operations with security agencies from other military dictatorships in the Southern Cone. In the early 1990s, Chile exemplified a more general trend to accept immunity as the price of social peace. By the end of the decade, however, Chile signaled another trend: a new willingness to push for legal accountability by holding regime officials criminally liable for human rights abuses committed under their rule. With Pinochet's arrest in London in October 1998, Chile offered another first: the first legal ruling against a former head of state for violating international human rights law. Chile therefore serves as an important case of democratic breakdown, redemocratization, and transitional justice.

Steven J. Stern, a Latin American historian, focuses on conflicting interpretations of Allende's government and the military regime that followed. For some, the military coup on September 11, 1973 saved the country from chaos and radicalism. Although they came to admit that some human rights abuses occurred, these Chileans justified the deaths and disappearances as a modest social cost that "had to be paid to repair the ruin and turn back the catastrophe of imminent civil war caused by the Left and politicians" (Stern 2004: 31). For others, Allende's leftist government had brought tangible social advances and raised hope in a better future; the military coup was a brutal rupture with Chile's tradition of democracy. Other Chileans initially supported the coup but became horrified by the detentions, torture, exile, execution, and secret disappearances that followed. Their dismay over the regime's human rights violations led to a moral awakening and a heightened appreciation for democracy. Differences continued following Chile's transition to democracy in 1990. Some believed that the consolidation of democracy required a deliberate policy of ignoring past human rights violations, and that "the past and its unredressed grievances are best buried by deliberately forgetting them, by sweeping them under the carpet, by drawing a thick line between past and present, turning around, and walking resolutely off into the future" (Biggar 2003: 4). Proponents of a policy of forgetting argued that Pinochet, the military, and their social base of supporters and sympathizers remained too strong to risk antagonizing. In contrast, other Chileans insisted that the horrors committed under the military regime created an urgent moral need for justice.

Stern uses these individual stories to illustrate the broader, collective memory frameworks that competed with one another to define the "true" reality of the dictatorship and analyzes how certain historical memories became emblematic. In doing so, he examines the processes by which people came to agree upon certain memories as true representations of the past--not just for themselves, but for broader sectors of society. …

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