Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989-2006

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Reckoning with Pinochet is the first comprehensive account of how Chile came to terms with General Augusto Pinochet's legacy, of human rights atrocities. An icon among Latin America's "dirty war" dictators, Pinochet had ruled with extreme violence while building a loyal social base. Hero to some and criminal to others, the general cast a long shadow over Chile's future. Steve J. Stern recounts the full history of Chile's democratic reckoning, from the negotiations in 1989 to chart a post-dictatorship transition through Pinochet's death in 2006. He shows how transnational events and networks shaped Chile's battles over memory, and how the Chilean case contributed to shifts in the world culture of human rights. Stern's analysis integrates policymaking by elites, grassroots efforts by human rights activists, and inside accounts of the truth commissions and courts where top-down and bottom-up initiatives met. Interpreting solemn presidential speeches, raucous street protests, interviews, journalism, humor, cinema, and other sources, he describes the slow, imperfect, but surprisingly forceful advance of efforts to revive democratic values through public memory struggles, despite the power still wielded by the military and a conservative social base including the investor class. Over time, resourceful civil-society activists, and select state actors won hard-fought, if limited, gains. As a result, Chileans were able to face the unwelcome past more honestly, launch the world's, first truth commission to examine torture, ensnare high-level perpetrators in the web of criminal justice, and build, a public culture of human rights.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“In this well-researched book, Stern covers the broad swath of history from the end of the Pinochet regime to Pinochet’s condemnation by the international community to Chile’s leadership under Bachelet. . . . [T]he book’s greatest strength is its elucidation of symbolic acknowledgment as a form of memory politics by both the state and local community. . . . Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above.” - R. L. Bowman, Choice

“With this book, Stern has completed a monumental trilogy, begun with Remembering Pinochet’s Chile (2004) and continued in Battling for Hearts and Minds (2006). . . . Perhaps Stern’s greatest achievement lies in maintaining a human perspective: there are many personal testimonies throughout these pages that complement, represent, and at times contradict or qualify his judgments. . . . In the end, this is a story about the deepest questions, and Stern never resorts to facile shock-tactics, never plays tricks on the reader, and always insists that something very big and deeply human is at stake.” - Paul Grant, Books and Culture

Reckoning with Pinochet is an elegantly written, comprehensive account of Chile’s memory struggle during its transition to democracy. The book, and the trilogy of which it is a part, should be required reading for all students of Latin America who are interested in contemporary political and historical issues, particularly in processes of authoritarian backlash, democratization, and memory construction. Steve Stern is a master storyteller who manages to combine rigorous historical analysis with firsthand knowledge of Chile that is so detailed the context is palpable.” - Michael J. Lazzara, A Contracorriente

“Stern’s now-completed trilogy is a remarkably varied, multi-disciplinary, and well-researched study of the Chilean memory question and recent history in general. It provides a number of insightful frameworks to describe the relationships between history, memory, and politics in the process of democratic reconstruction. By virtue of its clear explanations and graceful prose, it is well-suited for any readers interested in Chile or general issues of human rights and memory studies. It lays the foundation for more work in cultural and literary studies, and will surely remain one of the most important works in the field for years to come.” - Patrick Blaine, e-misférica

Reckoning with Pinochet is the best account of the trajectory of historical memory under Chile’s restored democracy from 1989 until 2006, and a revealing window on that era and its democratic transition. It reflects Steve J. Stern’s comprehensive knowledge of this period in Chile’s history and his empathetic sensibility, which enables him to see the issues he discusses through the eyes even of people with whom he profoundly disagrees.”—Peter Winn, editor of Victims of the Chilean Miracle: Workers and Neoliberalism in the Pinochet Era, 1973–2002

“This is a master work on what has proved to be one of the late twentieth century’s key events: Chile’s transition from General Pinochet’s brutal rule to a growing promise of democracy. But it is much more. Steve J. Stern not only convincingly argues that the transition was made possible by a fierce battle over the ‘memory’ of Pinochet’s rule and a ‘healthier, accountable democracy,’ but concludes by placing this struggle in a profound global context: in the early 1970s many nations began a historic shift toward human rights concerns and democracy, a shift on which Chile’s experience has had a major, and reciprocal, influence.”—Walter LaFeber, Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, Cornell University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822347293
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2010
  • Series: Latin America Otherwise Series
  • Pages: 548
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Steve J. Stern is the Alberto Flores Galindo Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of books including Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, 1973–1988, winner of the Bolton-Johnson Prize (the Conference on Latin American History), and Remembering Pinochet’s Chile: On the Eve of London 1998. Both books received Honorable Mention, Bryce Wood Book Award (Latin American Studies Association). Both are also published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Reckoning with Pinochet

The Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989-2006

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4729-3

Chapter One

The Perils of Truth: Opening the Memory Box, 1989-1990

Street sellers are a normal feature of life in Latin America's large cities. In downtown Santiago, book vendors spread their titles on the ground, wait politely for a pedestrian to pause and look, then speak and hope to make a sale. Late in 1989, the street culture of books turned loud. On the pedestrian mall streets Paseo Ahumada and Paseo Huérfanos, vendors kept shouting "Los zarpazos, Los zarpazos" to a public eager to find a new book. When the author of the book being sold, journalist Patricia Verdugo, walked downtown and heard the sellers, "I did not know if I had written a book or manufactured a cookie ... every ten meters there was a seller." Vendors would bring piles of the book but sell out anyway.

Published in September, Los zarpazos del puma (The Swipes of the Puma) caused a sensation. It reconstructed, through testimony by former military officers, the history of the "Caravan of Death" of October 1973. A team led by the army general Sergio Arellano Stark hopped by Puma helicopter from province to province, backed by an authorization document from General Pinochet as commander in chief and president of the Junta. The declared mission: to regularize military justice proceedings. The Arellano group set aside the army's normal chain of command and military justice procedures to achieve a rapid execution of political prisoners. In the cases studied by Verdugo-Cauquenes, La Serena, Copiapó, Antofagasta, Calama-the massacres claimed seventy-two victims, their bodies often mutilated by multiple gunshots and brutal hacking. Their imprisonment had been public knowledge. Most victims were local functionaries of Allende's Unidad Popular government or state enterprises, or they were elected officials. Many prisoners had actually turned themselves in. Lack of resistance had created an atmosphere of gentlemanly repression. Local army generals and colonels saw the rather orderly, tranquil transition in their provinces as an achievement, worthy of professional pride.

The Arellano visits shocked officers and soldiers by inventing a war. Appearances of social peace were deceptive. Commanders who organized a soft, rule-bound repression were incompetent or even dangerous. Chile had barely escaped a bloodbath conspiracy by the Left ("Plan Z") and now faced a war emergency. To prosecute the war, special officer teams from Santiago could override normal army jurisdiction and law. The cover stories that explained the sudden deaths or disappearances of prisoners mainly resorted to alleged escape attempts, a narrative consistent with the idea of an ongoing threat of war. Late in 1973 and early in 1974, such massacres served multiple purposes. They imposed a hardened war atmosphere on military officers and troops as well as civilians; they served notice of the superior power of secret police and intelligence groups; they spread fear and complicity and normlessness within the armed forces. They also consolidated Pinochet's personal power and his ability to marginalize potential army rivals-including Arellano, his hands dirtied by the mission. His Caravan of Death colleagues were part of the nascent DINA group loyal to Pinochet and Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Contreras, head of the DINA.

(The DINA, Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional, or National Intelligence Directorate, was the original secret police organized under military rule in 1973-74. It was replaced by a new secret police organization known as the CNI, Centro Nacional de Informaciones, or National Center of Information, in 1977.)

The stunning victory of the "No" vote in the October 1988 plebiscite on continuation of rule by Pinochet, and the expected victory in December 1989 by Patricio Aylwin, the presidential candidate of the Center-Left Concertación coalition that had urged a No vote, created a new cultural environment. The time was arriving when the memory box of political violence by the state could no longer be kept closed, not even for constituencies of the Right or Center-Right. The new government would have to respond, somehow, to the history of human rights violations. As elections and the March 1990 transition to democratic government approached, hunger for truth about the hidden past-and anxiety about adjusting to the human rights revelations of a new political era-intensified.

Verdugo's book, compellingly written and superbly researched, connected to the hunger and anxiety of the cultural moment. Its revelation of an invented war waged with cold-blooded brutality against unarmed prisoners, and its testimony by retired military officers that Arellano's team violated professional and civilized norms of command and punishment, provided a "wake-up" to the memory-truth that Chileans now had to face. For persons inclined toward opposition to military rule or who saw themselves as democratic, to read Los zarpazos was to confront the depths of barbarism to which Chile had sunk-and to continue building bridges between personal experience and "emblematic" memory frameworks of rupture, persecution, and awakening built up during the struggles of the dictatorship years. Luz M., a middle-class youngster who slowly awakened to Chile's human rights drama as a university student in the 1980s, had witnessed the wounding and beating of various student protesters. In 1989, she began reading Los zarpazos and similar books with her mother. The books helped her connect personal witness and experience to a wider frame, the systematic and war-inventing project of state terror that ruptured life and spread fear of persecution.

For persons whose trajectory had been more officialist, or whose fear or passive conformity had encouraged them to close the memory box ("look the other way") on matters of state violence, the book could prove compelling in a different way. A reader who had not before "known"-or could not believe-the ugly truth could begin to navigate a complex path of discovery and adjustment. A review in El Mercurio, Chile's conservative and influential newspaper of record, illustrated the adjustment process that led to a more regime-friendly sort of "awakening." It praised the book as "moving" and lauded the author's unimpeachable knowledge of the facts. The qualm was not about the facts but their explanation. To understand the "why" of the atrocities and the army's internal crisis, the author would have had to analyze the "political climate that made possible such madness."

Book sales constituted one barometer of the new memory environment. In its first year Verdugo's book sold over 100,000 copies (excluding at least 25,000 pirate copies), an extraordinarily high figure in the Chilean market. On a per capita basis, the equivalent figure in the United States would have exceeded 2 million. The bestseller lists during the 1989-90 transition were dominated by books on hidden aspects of collective memory. Consider early April of 1990, as the Aylwin administration completed its first month in office. The themes of the top six books: the Caravan of Death slaughter; the reality of torture, as told by a former judge; a history of human rights violations and the struggle by the Vicariate of Solidarity and others to expose and stop them; an interview-book with the controversial Socialist Carlos Altamirano, considered by many the key "ultra" on the Left who undermined a political exit from the 1973 crisis; a warm and humanizing memoir and defense of Allende by a close associate; the "inside story" of military rule by investigative journalists. Such books had staying power. Four titles were mainstays (14 to 23 weeks on the bestseller list), while the other two were recently published.

The key memory question that faced Chileans was how the Aylwin government and society more generally would reckon with the hunger for truth, and related demands for justice and social repair, bequeathed by an era of state terror and violence. The answer would not be simple, because the stability of the new government and the rules shaping the transition were not simple.


The fundamental objective of Patricio Aylwin's administration was to build a new convivencia-a living together in peace-after a period of immense violence, fear, and polarization, and thereby achieve an irreversible recovery of democracy. In this view, military rule had been a time when a war mentality prevailed and converted critics into "enemies." To recuperate Chile's best traditions and build a democracy required a society premised on reencounter with the whole of Chile, a unity founded in the ability to accept differences of viewpoint and experience as a normal part of life. Convivencia meant seeing the political adversary as interlocutor, not as enemy to be liquidated. It would yield a certain reconciliation, that is, peaceful coexistence and mutual acceptance within the once divided and wounded "national family."

Convivencia was not simply a value in its own right. The key objectives of the new government depended on it. Politically, the government needed to demonstrate the viability and stability of democracy by returning the military to a professional role subordinate to civilian control. It also needed to chart an ethical basis for legitimate governance, in fundamental contrast with the norms of dictatorship, by recognizing a history of human rights violations and the attendant thirst for truth and justice. It needed to promote democratization reforms of an undemocratic constitution. Success on these fronts would also presumably hold together the Center-Left coalition and its electoral base.

Economically and socially, convivencia would foster the stability the government needed to reconcile the logic of economic growth with that of equity. In this vision, strong and sustained growth would reduce poverty and provide political and economic underwriting to sustain equity-oriented reforms: tax reform to generate revenues to address the cumulative "social debt" of dictatorship, through increased spending on health, education, and housing; upward adjustment of minimal wage and pension levels; moderate reform of a labor code that lacked protection against firing without cause and placed a miniscule cap (a five-month wage formula) on indemnifications to dismissed workers. To achieve high growth, the state had to build investor confidence, despite initial hostility and skepticism, that it accepted the basic outlines of Chile's neoliberal revolution-privatization of many enterprises and functions once run by the state; policy emphasis on market competitiveness, export-driven growth, and efficient modernization, through an aggressively "open" strategy within the international economy; and technical credibility with multilateral economic agencies and foreign investors, through fiscal discipline and overall coherence.

In the minds of Aylwin and his most important advisors, such goals required broad social backing-not only a wide base of political support, but also an atmosphere of convivencia that convinced at least some skeptics and critics that the government acted in good faith and considered the needs of all. To the degree that the government could build accords with leaders of Renovación Nacional-the party that defined itself as a "flexible" and democratic Right, in contrast to the ethos of Pinochetista loyalism that suffused UDI (Unión Democrática Independiente), the other major party of the Right -it would solidify convivencia and render its policies sustainable. Leaders of the key parties of the Center-Left Concertación-particularly the Christian Democracy and Radical Party in its centrist wing, and the Socialist Party and Party for Democracy in its leftist wing-would also constitute major players, but they would be expected to understand and support presidential leadership. In this vision, it was better to proceed toward the objective by steps, through negotiated understandings among political elites and accompanied by public acknowledgment of constraints, than to insist on one's goal so rigidly that the stability of the transition process itself would come into jeopardy. Nor should one, according to backers of Aylwin's vision, encourage street mobilization to create political pressures from below and a climate of conflict that might block or undermine accords among political elites. Precisely because Chile was coming out of a period of dictatorship that transformed dissidents into "enemies" and covered truth with misinformation, convivencia was not a habit. Aylwin concluded his victory speech in December 1989 with a call on Chileans to learn democratic habits of dialogue and mutual respect, to keep maximalist politics in check, and to remember what was at stake. "For the higher well being of the nation, I ask of everyone prudence and collaboration. What is at stake at this hour is constructing a stable democracy that can guarantee liberty and progress for all.... The challenge is beautiful."

Truth and political adversity, these were the rub. As we shall see, the difficulties emerged forcefully during the long prologue to democratic governance-the interim between the plebiscite of October 1988 that rejected continuing military rule, and the actual inauguration of an elected civilian president in March 1990. Looking back in 1997, Aylwin likened the task of his government of transition to that of building a new "common sense," based on truth. The legacy of human rights violations and false cover stories required a response. Truth was important not merely because the human rights legacy was important within the culture of the Concertación coalition and its voting base. The issue went deeper. Truth was an ethical imperative and a prerequisite for convivencia. During the 1989 presidential campaign, Aylwin had not yet figured out specific policies on truth and justice. But he considered truth about human rights indispensable.

We considered the theme of human rights a vital matter to reestablish confianza [confidence, good faith] among Chileans.... I always said ... that truth is the basis of collective convivencia, that where truth is lacking one loses confianza, [whether] in the heart of a marriage, in the heart of the family, among parents and children, among neighbors, among citizens. In political life it is the same. We either trust [in good faith] or do not trust and to trust one has to start with respect for truth.

Truth about political violence by the state, however, posed a paradox. It was essential to build convivencia, but it could also explode convivencia. It constituted the most controversial legacy of military rule-the focal point of struggles over competing frameworks of collective memory and ultimately, the legitimacy of the dictatorship. Truth also posed a volatile corollary: justice. The election program of the 1989 Concertación coalition called not only for truth about human rights, but also for penal sanction of perpetrators and revocation or annulment of the junta's 1978 Amnesty Law. Translating such calls into effective policy, however, was another matter. In 1989 Pinochet bluntly drew his line in the sand. In June: "If they want to go to the homes of officers looking to jail them, submit them to trial, one can also put an end to Rule of Law." In October: "The day they touch one of my men, the Rule of Law is over!"

During 1989, the Concertación's advisory commission on human rights and justice pondered the dilemma. José Zalaquett, a key human rights lawyer-activist expelled in 1976, had returned to Chile. He offered acute analysis in comparative perspective-the intellectual architecture for a new government's truth-and-justice policy. Zalaquett's exile had sparked years of work with Amnesty International (he eventually became its president) and similar groups, fellowships to facilitate analysis and reflection, and service on Amnesty International missions to transitional regimes facing a legacy of atrocities in Argentina, Uruguay, the Philippines, and Uganda.


Excerpted from Reckoning with Pinochet by STEVE J. STERN Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xiii

Maps xviii

Introduction to the Trilogy: The Memory Box of Pinochet's Chile xxi

Introduction to Book Three: Reckoning with Pinochet 1

Chapter 1 The Perils of Truth: Opening the Memory Box, 1989-1990 13

Afterword "My Dear President" 61

Chapter 2 Toward Memory Impasse? The Truth Commission Moment, 1990-1991 65

Afterword The Futility of History? 99

Chapter 3 The Circle of Truth, Justice, and Force, 1990-1994 106

Afterword The Sound of Tick-Tock 136

Chapter 4 Between Prudence and Convulsion: Memory, Triumphalism, and Disenchantment, 1994-1997 143

Afterword The Joys of "Not Too Much" 200

Chapter 5 The Turn: Consequences of 1998 211

Afterword Covering History with History? The Making of Silence 265

Chapter 6 Memory as Unfinished Work: New Reckonings, 2002-2006 273

Afterword Unsettled Monuments: The Struggle for Londres 38 314

Chapter 7 Reframing Democratic Transition: Toward the Memory Paradox of Bachelet's Chile 324

Afterword The Curious Burial of Augusto Pinochet 348

Conclusion: Reckoning with Pinochet 357

Abbreviations used in Notes and Essay on Sources 387

Notes 389

Essay on Sources 503

Index 525

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