- Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989-2006
Dozens of books have been written about the quest for truth and accountability in post-Pinochet Chile, but none of them matches Steve Stern's Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989-2006. The third book in the historian's impressive trilogy, Reckoning with Pinochet is a far-reaching and highly readable account of the period from Pinochet's departure as head of state to his death almost two decades later in 2006. Locating the idea of memory at the intersection of culture and politics, Stern historicizes the social struggles that can ensue in the aftermath of human rights atrocities. While Reckoning with Pinochet advances notably our understanding of Chile's recent history, it is much more than that: it is ultimately a path-breaking study of the contentious role of memory and human rights in democratizing societies. [End Page 285]
Unlike other texts on the Pinochet era, this one's theoretical hook is the question of memory, treated not as a discrete or objective fact, but as a series of contestable claims and counterclaims about the past. First, for Stern, memory is more than simple recall; it is the meaning that social actors attach to experience. Second, memory is not just an analytical category, imposed by an external observer; in this particular historical context, it acquires the status of a recognizable "cultural code,"1 so that social actors self-consciously deploy and resist contending notions of memory. If memory is an explicit motif, however, Stern insists that actors themselves assemble their narratives of memory only by trial and error. Third, the author treats memory as open-ended more than definitive: "[t]he making of memory . . . is neither a linear process of triumph nor an ever-growing recovery of the totality of the past. It is a social process pushed and pulled by social conflicts. It is a selective process of finding meaning. It is a process that makes silences even as it makes memories."2 On one level, Reckoning with Pinochet thus challenges the common view that memory is simply the opposite of forgetting, or that forgetting can be collapsed into either moral complacency or pragmatic prudence.
The book chronicles the ebb and flow of memory struggles over time in Chile, from a period of heightened awareness to conflict and its complex aftermath. For the 1980s, Stern recounts how the notion of memory crystallized into a key cultural idea. Memory clashes over past terror, as Stern describes them, were loud and obvious, containing perspectives from: the military's account of terror as national necessity; those who depicted atrocities as an anomalous rupture in the country's democratic history; activists who emphasized the evil of persecution and violence; and onlookers, driven by either apathy or fear, who called for leaving the past alone. These sometimes overlapping frameworks were played out vigorously in the media, courtrooms, the country's truth commission, and the streets of Chile. Indeed, the sharp images evoked by this early period are what people most commonly associate with human rights struggles over memory.
By the mid- to late-1990s, the country had entered a more ambiguous if formally democratic period. With Pinochet stepping down from power, and the world moving beyond the Cold War, memory questions took a more complicated turn. The question of memory receded partly into the background, as economic and political imperatives took the stage; but even then, Stern says, memory struggles were subtly influential. The dynamics Stern details in this regard are fascinating, as state and civil society actors partnered uneasily in a truth-telling project motivated by competing incentives. Chile's democratizing turn was itself uncertain, a transition complete with dilemmas and volatility. For instance, just when the memory question was at an impasse, Pinochet's...