home > contents > Chile: The Roads of History and Memory. Overview
Chile: The Roads of History and Memory
The subtitle of this section, taken from one of the authors, captures its focus on the relationship between history and memory. All the authors are concerned with the presence of the past in contemporary collective representations, how they evolved over time, and the objective reconstitution of this past based on evidence.

At the beginning of “The Past is Present: History and Memory in Contemporary Chile” (Spanish version), Peter Winn states: “The commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the military coup of 11 September 1973, compelled even Chileans who would prefer to avert their gaze to confront a history that many had preferred to ‘forget’ or ‘ignore’. This is the right time to ask: what do we know about those events? How are they remembered? How do historians interpret them?”

Winn weighs what we know about the 1973 coup and the repression following it, the executions, the disappearances, the torture. A good part of our evidence, he points out, dates from the period of the dictatorship itself, thanks to the testimony of victims and their families to human rights organizations. This has been supplemented since the transition to democracy by additional testimony to the Truth Commission (1990 - 1991) and the Commission on Torture (2003 - 2004). Further information has come from research over the years by investigative journalists and by the judiciary.

Even today, however, there are many blind spots. One is the diverse numbers we have on the detained, disappeared, and tortured. We should be grateful to Winn for insisting that historians examine the imprecisions surrounding such issues and produce methodologically-sound findings. He is also right to call for critical analysis of a host of sources – such as the falsified “documents” which the dictatorship brandished as proof of “Plan Z” – as part of the broader challenge to historical scholarship:

[After the coup], the military regime itself engaged in a massive campaign of disinformation..., inventing leftist plots and actions that would justify their brutal repression and fabricating documents to “prove” their case, while suppressing evidence of their own violence and human rights violations. Inside Chile, the censored press and cowed judiciary were unable or unwilling to dispute this official story; outside Chile, there was a general sense of what was happening inside, but this was shaped into the exiles’ counter-story, in which complexity and strict veracity were also often sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.
The 30th anniversary of the coup also made it possible to perceive the road taken by social memory. Winn outlines a history of memory (drawing on works such as those of Illanes, Garcés, Wilde and Stern) that finds 1980 a crucial point of inflection, when a dissonant question about the disappeared – “Where are they?” – began to penetrate the public arena.

Finally Winn reminds us of something that has been demonstrated over and over: “These advances are likely to come from in-depth case studies based on monographic historical research in primary sources.” His essay also helps us identify a fundamental challenge for today’s generation: to do research on a past historians remember, to objectify what belongs in their memories – the challenge of writing the history of their times.

“September 11, 1973 in La Legua Shantytown of Santiago, Chile” (Spanish version) is the first in situ reconstruction of a dramatic day in a particular low-income neighborhood of Santiago. Mario Garcés, a professional historian, transports us far from the iconic theater of the military coup – the presidential palace of La Moneda – to the periphery of the city and one of working class neighborhoods that grew up between 1930 - 1970 near the industrial plants. The squatters and workers of La Legua remind us of all the protagonists of change that crystallized in Chile throughout the decades of the sixties and seventies – and suffered most from repression during the dictatorship. This sector has largely been absent from accounts of the recent past; Garcés makes them part of our historical knowledge.

La Legua is not, however, a neighborhood like all others. People who remember tell us that something happened that fateful day.

More than one thing has been heard: that there were confrontations, that a bus full of carabineros (police) was attacked, that a helicopter was shot down, and that people were attacked from land and air. Depending on who’s telling the story, the real or imagined details can be minimized or magnified; for example, that “all of the carabineros died or that “they were hanged from lamp posts.” […] In this same neighborhood the stories have been recreated down through the generations […] some of them proudly state “there was combat in La Legua,” and others, in pain and desperation, say [that] “many people died or disappeared.” These stories and memories make it quite clear that on the day of the coup something different happened here from what happened in the [center of the] city. [Here] people resisted and this is the significant nucleus that popular memory preserves.
On crosschecking the stories and the written sources, Garcés has reconstructed these incidents and their origins. In this tragedy long ago, there were three types of actors in La Legua: confused squatters; workers and union leaders from the Sumar textile factory (who had tried in vain to organize armed resistance); and socialist, communist and mirista leaders [from the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria – MIR]. The latter were fleeing the Indumet plant, where they had met to try to coordinate actions to resist the coup – a meeting cut short by the intrusion of the police.

“Breaking silence has been one of the greatest challenges of this research,” the author writes. He goes on to describe typical challenges to writing the history of today.

Documents are scarce and hard to come by; the press, controlled by the military, has omitted information on these facts and dictatorships generally deny the existence of any archives regarding repression. Therefore, it was of fundamental importance to have recourse to the testimony of the survivors or to those who witnessed some of the events we managed to reconstruct. […] The reasons for the silence of those who allowed us to interview them were closely related to […] fear, which, plastered to their skin, is perhaps one of the main legacies of the authoritarian experience.
This work, expanded into a book (El golpe en La Legua: los caminos de la historia y la memoria [The Coup in La Legua: the Roads of History and Memory] Santiago, Chile: LOM, 2005), examines this episode and its survival in memory – the sadness of remembering those who lost their lives and the fear which blanketed the community that day and for a long time after. It is worth noting that among the thousands detained in the National Stadium after the coup, there were more from La Legua than any other neighborhood of the city.

Manuel Gárate-Chateau begins “La Michita (1964-1983): From University Reform to Community Life” (Spanish version) with childhood recollections that he uses as research material. In this case, the historian, the facts, and the witnesses are contemporary. At the end of the work, the recollection expands:

In la Quinta Michita lived people who shared a common past […], who shared dreams and experiences in the decade of 1960 – the same dreams that were buried in September 1973. They were opposed to the military regime and had re-created a special and protected world for their children that included housing, neighborhood and a school. The Quinta world was a refuge for their mutilated dreams, a way they found to maintain a common identity in the face of the new conservative ideals the country was imposing. Knowing this singular intellectual generation, molded mainly by the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (PUC, in the Spanish acronym), and knowing the reasons for the way of life in the Michita became an historical question […]. There is a “great history” in this microhistory; we find a generation that attempted to change its university and its country but that finally could only make its dreams real […] in its community dwellings within the domestic sphere.
Gárate first traces the history of a generation with Christian Democratic roots that had rethought its role in Chilean society – and its own revolutionary road to social change – in light of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council on Christian commitment to social problems. He then describes how the Michita was built and its daily life under the dictatorship as a residential community of the families of progressive intellectuals. Particularly interesting is Gárate’s treatment of children who grew up under the dictatorship in the protected microcosm of this community. Each of these two parts of his article sheds light on the other.

Fernando Castillo Velasco, the charismatic head of the Catholic University who led “the Reform,” was an architect in a time that architects saw urban development as a way to improve society and the housing they built as the means to establish freer and more open relationships among its members. The origins of the Michita, as Gárate shows, are to be found in an invitation from Castillo (then at the head of the Catholic University) to young colleagues to develop a community housing project. While it would help them acquire a house, the project was conceived as a contribution to the larger social change taking place in all Chile. Before their plans could be realized, the coup occurred and with it the defeat of all progressive actors, including those at the Catholic University. The Michita actually got started, then, in circumstances quite different from those originally envisioned.

Elizabeth Lira’s “Testimony of Traumatic Political Experiences: Therapy and Denuncia (1973-1980)” (Spanish version) describes an important page of the dictatorship’s history: the formation and work of organizations established by the churches after the coup to aid victims and their families. Lira was part of this effort through the Fundación de Ayuda Social de las Iglesias Cristianas (FASIC, in its Spanish acronym). She does not spare the reader the brutalities experienced by her witnesses but in recording a humanitarian response in perilous conditions her work also conveys light in the midst of dark shadows. Further, it contributes to 20th century Chilean medical history in showing how clinical practices developed during the military dictatorship led to new knowledge about trauma, particularly its effect on memory. (It is worth mentioning that for many years Chileans, like their Argentine colleagues, have frequently been called to other places in the world where their knowledge of this kind of experience and of methods of repression can, unhappily, be useful.)

The first cases Lira analyzes are those of ex detainees whose life sentences were commuted to exile after several years in jail. Between their leaving prison and starting out on the road to exile, FASIC personnel had little time to help them. Moreover, “psychotherapy for victims of political repression was an unknown professional area. […] This made it necessary to track down articles of clinical and therapeutic investigation on trauma in mid 19th century.”

The research (from Charcot to Freud) recovered by Lira and her fellow psychologists was on women and trauma linked to sexual causes. In Chile of the 1970s things were different. “Torture, the disappearance of a family member, as well as the ability of surviving family members to overcome their loved ones’ fate, were simultaneously political and personal,” Lira states. “Psychotherapy of the victims of political repression […] allowed us to identify a central fact: for many of them, political commitment was the most significant axis of their lives.”

Alleviating the ex-detainees’ suffering necessarily meant addressing the political dimension. “They needed to be recognized as protagonists and activists in a legitimate project of social change, not as participants in some sort of criminal activity.” Their experience of repression had to be objectively confirmed, established as the truth for many of them.

Lira and her colleagues came up with the idea to have patients write down their testimony as a central element of their therapy. Patients embraced this. The shame and rage that were eating away at them could be channelled toward denouncing what had happened and demanding justice. “Testimony was the hinge between their individual experience of suffering and the historical process they had been part of.” Eventually a number of these testimonies were sent by patients to international human rights organizations taking denuncias from Chile.

At the end of the decade of the 1970s to give personal testimony on the experience of repression meant to denounce something that the military government emphatically denied. According to the authorities, those presenting such testimony had never even been detained. Things changed in the 1980s: the public began to know about what was going on and the detainees’ stories found their way into the press. This “modified the place of denuncia and made the therapeutic process of giving testimony less necessary.” In the last part of her work, Lira proceeds to show the new social purpose written testimonies took on in the changing political climate of the 1980’s.

Political scientists and political historians are interested in how the mental representations of the past that affect the political class can illuminate the positions and policies they defend. En “Overcoming Official Silence in Post-Authoritarian Chile” (Spanish version), political scientist Katherine Hite pursues issues of trauma and silence through an analysis of the Chilean political class (particularly in its parties of the Left) in the first decade after the return to elected government of the Concertación coalition in 1990. Why did they remain so silent about a past which was part of their own memories – when this same past had been addressed in many published works and was present in popular memory? “I argue,” she writes, “that the effects of trauma have been underplayed as explanations for 1990s public elite-level silences regarding the past three-and-a-half decades.”

In 2002, Hite interviewed political figures (the small number of women among them reflecting the overwhelmingly male character of the group) and then related what they said to the congressional debates of the times, beginning with the first session of the newly-reconvened legislature, which focused on questioning the past.

The chapter detects important discursive shifts within the leadership over the 1990s regarding ways Chile should come to terms with the past. Generally speaking, at the outset of the transition in 1990, official discourse of the Concertación leadership conveyed euphoria about returning to power and confidence about what was politically possible regarding explorations of the past. Shortly thereafter, and for many years to come, euphoria gave way to defensiveness regarding leaders’ capacity to establish condemnation for the abuses of the past.
Hite directly asked the politicians interviewed to reflect on the reasons for this “official silence.” “Today, many governing left leaders express a strong sense of regret, even anger, regarding what they now openly claim to be a primarily self-imposed silence regarding Chile’s traumatic past.” Her work considers two levels of the past: the weight of the 1970s in the politics of the 90s and the subsequent re-reading of the latter decade ten years on. In the words of the socialist senator:

We felt that if we had revisited the contradictions of 1973, there would have been no transition [to democracy]. […] Because those of us who pushed for the transition had been a part of 1973, the people who went to jail, into exile, who were tortured. I would say that in the subjective world of politics, we felt that in order to have this transition, we couldn’t go back to 1973.
Although Chile made a relatively smooth return to democracy in 1990, after 17 years of Pinochet’s dictatorship, public life continued to be marked by the “irruptions” of personalities, events, and symbols associated with a past still much alive in memory but not yet recognized or understood as “history.” In “Irruptions of Memory: Expressive Politics in Chile’s Transition to Democracy” (Spanish version), published in 1999, Alexander Wilde puts a new focus on understanding why this recent past was a problem for the politicians and the people. The author incorporates prior explanations about the institutional limitations of the Chilean “transition” but exhorts his colleagues in political science to consider how social memories affect the quality of democracy. In the case of Chile, he is original in analyzing the multiplicity of factors beyond governmental control, such as judicial processes and uncensored mass media, which can unleash unacknowledged memories and undermine democratic legitimacy. Wilde argues strongly that the politicians of the 1990s shied from distinguishing democracy morally from the previous dictatorship or using “expressive politics” to forge a social consensus on human rights.

Irruption: a sudden and unexpected intrusion, according to the dictionary. By centering his analysis of the Chilean transition on these irruptions, this political scientist reminds the historian that unforeseen events are inevitably part of all political processes, even the most skillfully managed. “‘Irruptions of Memory’, as the term is used in this article,” Wilde writes,

are public events that break in upon Chile’s national consciousness, unbidden and often suddenly, to evoke associations with symbols, figures, causes, ways of life which are to an unusual degree related to a political past that is still present in the lived experience of an important part of the population. The events considered here are “public” in the sense both that they received extensive coverage in the media and involve the authority of public institutions and of the elites responsible for them. They involve a period of recent national history notably framed by conflicting political memories – of the acts of leading figures of the dictatorship; of the blame borne by politicians for the conditions that led to the coup; above all, of the massive violation of fundamental human rights under the dictatorship. During “irruptions of memory,” such as that triggered by Pinochet’s arrest, Chile becomes an arena of a deeply divided public discourse, shot through with contending and mutually exclusive collective representations of the past. These charged events are woven into the very fabric of politics today – symbolic issues, beyond the institutional arrangements well analyzed by political scientists, which continue to constrain it in an arrested state.
This article was one of a handful that Chilean academic journals and publishing houses deemed “inconvenient,” and was not published in Spanish translation. Nevertheless, the article circulated discreetly and the expression “irruptions of memory” has been incorporated into memory studies.

The last section of his work analyzes the role of scholars who demonstrated the importance of the qualitative dimensions in the post-war politics of France and Germany and invites the specialists on Chile to do the same:

Sources are available […] so that this society will have the means, in time, to come to terms with what it has lived through. The period of 1967 - 1990 already offers abundant published primary material in first-person accounts and memoirs as well as secondary sources […]. There are important archives of primary materials related to human rights violations […] and abundant documentary materials now scattered among institutions and individuals which are in danger of being lost […]. Finally, there are the living memories of individuals that go unrecorded but could form a vital part of a fuller understanding of how this period was experienced.

Translation by Lea Fletcher
Universidad Alberto Hurtado | Centro de Ética | © 2007 Anne Pérotin-Dumon > Todos los derechos reservados | All rights reserved Créditos