- Remembering Pinochet’s Chile: On the Even of London 1998
A decade-and-a-half has passed since Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet rescinded his presidency for a place as commander-in-chief of the army, followed by his move in March 1998 into a seemingly comfortable seat as a senator-for-life. Yet in October 1998, Pinochet's trajectory veered off his self-prescribed course, and the man who had fancied himself an elder statesman, a savior of his country, suffered a blow that shocked both himself and his countrymen. Scotland Yard placed Pinochet under house arrest, marking what would be a fitful but downward spiral ever since. Pinochet's recent and less recent past finally caught up with him, and he is now widely recognized as a crook as well as an egregious human rights violator. Yet despite the former dictator's notorious record, Chilean memories of Pinochet and what he represented for the country remain divided. Historian Steve Stern's thoughtful, respectful work captures how ordinary, decent citizens might hold [End Page 684] Pinochet as a savior, while his regime destroyed the lives and families of so many. Stern shows remarkable interpretive insight and sensitivity regarding the historical-political contexts and the range of political perspectives and feelings Chileans harbor toward the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s as well as the years of the dictatorship (1973-1990).
Stern develops a typology of the ways Chileans remember Pinochet's military coup d'etat of September 11, 1973, and its aftermath. To represent one type, Stern deliberately begins with Doña Elena, a woman who had come to feel terribly threatened by the social reforms that began with the Christian Democratic administration of Eduardo Frei, Sr. (1964-70), and accelerated under socialist president Salvador Allende (1970-73). Doña Elena celebrated the military coup as a redemptive moment. Stern's account of Doña Elena is that of a good Christian woman who dedicates much of her time to charity work, who loves her country, and who cherishes the right to private property. In contrast to many North American studies of the Pinochet years, Stern wants his readership both to relate to Doña Elena and to understand why someone like Doña Elena would consider Pinochet a hero at the same time that other Chileans fear and loathe him.
Stern's concept of "emblematic memory" is a useful analytical lens on the complexity of traumatic political memories, on the ways in which polarizing, politically traumatic memories can represent an "impasse" that masks tremendous pain and conflict just below the surface of politics. Because this is the first book of a trilogy, Stern ends his analytical work on collective memories in 1998, on the eve of Pinochet's arrest. This certainly leaves the reader to ask what has allowed Chileans to transcend the impasse in perceptible ways, as debates and policies regarding the past have changed fairly dramatically in Chile in the years since the arrest. More than three hundred former officers have now faced prosecution for human rights violations. The government has issued a major report on systematic torture under the dictatorship that no longer allows anyone to argue that the violators were just a few bad apples. For the first time, civilians as well as military officers are under investigation for their contributions to systematic rights violations. For what these recent development have meant for collective memories, we must assume we will have to wait for the second and third books. How malleable are collective memories, how fixed?
Stern also provides in the form of an essay a detailed explanation of his sources which, together with the rich and varied oral histories and his interpretations, make Remembering Pinochet's Chile a quite valuable as well as accessible reader. The myriad undergraduates who travel to Chile on exchange programs, for example, will now no longer have an excuse to be surprised when they encounter Chileans whom they like, families who shelter them, yet who will...