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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 182-190
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Reflections and Reports
Terrorism and Political Violence during the Pinochet Years:
Verónica Valdivia Ortiz de Zárate
Chile has historically viewed itself as atypical compared to other Latin American countries, especially because of the political stability achieved following independence and the marginality of the military from explicit involvement in politics. Convinced of this particularity, the country was shocked by the violence exhibited by the armed forces on the morning of September 11, 1973, and during the days and months that followed the unseating of the constitutional president, Salvador Allende. Seventeen years of one of the most cruel dictatorships in the memory of Latin America brutally replaced Chile's long history of civilian rule. Terror took control of a large part of the population, incapable of understanding and, least of all, responding to the violence that hovered systematically over it. As Norbert Lechner has put it to so well, Chilean society "was dying with fear." 1
The level of political and social polarization in Chilean society during the months and days leading to the military coup constituted one of the factors that, from the beginning, allowed the Pinochet regime to justify the violence it employed against the population at large. The high degree of concentration of power and social control in military hands also facilitated a hegemonic discourse about the causes of, and those responsible for, the final crisis: the Marxist left that made up the overthrown Unidad Popular (Popular Unity). For seventeen years Chilean society had ample opportunity to internalize the messages emitted by the dictatorship. This rendered the regime's repeated refusal to recognize its systematic use of repression intelligible. During the entire period, General Pinochet and his followers rejected [End Page 182] the votes of the international community condemning Chile for human rights violations and denied their accusations. The relative economic stability achieved by Chile after 1985, and the 43 percent support won by Pinochet in a 1988 plebiscite to determine whether he would remain as head of state, favored the persistence of this version of the facts: the armed forces had committed no sin; on the contrary, they had saved Chile from the grip of communism, turning the country into a bulwark of Western values in a world riven by the cold war.
Consistent with this argument, the Chilean armed forces formally rejected the Rettig Report issued by the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation created in 1990 to investigate human rights violations and the fate of the detenidos desaparecidos, the disappeared. According to the military, the report failed to recognize "the true causes that motivated the action of national restoration undertaken on September 11" and gave a status of credibility to a "one-sided truth." For the military, this "biased view" explained why the report did not acknowledge "the situation of subversive war that existed during the period selected to investigate the "supposed violation of human rights." 2
Ten years later, following the appearance of corpses in clandestine graves, the trials of a number of officers implicated in repressive activities, the persistent activism of the Agrupación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos (Organization of Family Members of the Disappeared) and the Agrupación de Familiares de Ejecutados Políticos (Organization of Family Members of the Executed), but above all, the arrest of Pinochet in London in 1998, the response had to be different. The military agreed to participate in a new commission constituted by representatives of the armed forces, human rights lawyers, leaders of different religious institutions, and members of civil society, to look for a definitive solution to an open and painful wound. The so-called Agreement of the Roundtable established that "there are other facts about which there is no legitimate response other than rejection and condemnation and the firm conviction to never allow them to be repeated. We refer to the serious violations of human rights committed by agents of state organizations during the military government." The generals and admirals who signed this document committed themselves to collect, over...