A Time of Forgetting The Myths of the Chilean Transition

September 25, 2007

Nothing indicated that the Chilean postdictator.ship would be a time of forgetting. Nothing prepared us for the sustained attack against the memory of the crimes of the past launched by the elites who now hold power. Duritig the dictatorship, in fact, the cult of remembering was ever-present, for it fed the passion of struggle. Remembering was a necessary exercise for those who participated in the fight against the military regime-it was a way of reinforcing their commitment. The acts of the dictatorship were so atrocious, of course, that the only ethical option was to remember. And although it tried, the dictatorship failed to exile remembering to the depths of the collective unconscious.

If remembering and forgetting are the constitutive elements of memory, then forgetting is not the death of remembering, but its eclipse. This is precisely what has occurred during the Postdictatorship. And it was the shift in the role assigned to remembering by leaders of the Concertación that made this effacement complete. Before coming to power, the Concertación, the coalition of the centrist Christian Democrats, the Socialist Party and the Pro-Democracy Party that came together to defeat General Augusto Pinochet in the 1989 plebiscite, had made the crimes of the military regime central to its oppositional discourse. In 1990, however, the coalition's politics of memory underwent a dramatic shift—a shift which was the result of the very nature of Chilean transition.

The transition was carefully circumscribed by the 1980 Constitution, which was written by the ideologues of the military regime and approved in a plebiscite. The "protected democracy" put in place by that Constitution could not be substantially altered by any transition government. The 1980 Constitution grants "guardianship" to the military—which reserves the right to intervene if things get too unruly—while ensuring the Chilean right veto power over all key political decisions.

The institutional mechanisms of Chile's protected democracy include a "mixed" Senate—comprised of 39 elected members, nine "designated" members (three of whom are appointed by the Supreme Court, four by the National Security Council and two by the president), plus seats for former presidents who have served six-year terms. This set up ensures that the right will always have enough votes to block any attempt to amend the Constitution. Another key mechanism is the binomial electoral system which, in order to protect the stability of the system from the "dangers" of majority rule, favors an equilibrium between the two main political camps. This effectively stacks the deck in favor of the right, which has never captured ranch more than one-third of the vote.

In addition, the role retained by the armed forces in appointing the commanders-in-chief of the different branches of the armed forces and in promoting officers gives them substantial legal as well as de facto political influence. The military was able to retain this influence because the political climate at the outset of the transition simply did not allow for challenges to its power. This has permitted the military to act like a political party, participating actively in politics in order to protect and preserve the legitimacy of its masterpiece-the "Chilean miracle"-and ensure the "virtuous memory" of its 17-year effort to restore stability. Given this context, the Chilean transition was extremely precarious, marked by minimal possibilities for transformation, aiad plagued by constant pressures and threats from the military.[1]

One of the principal political struggles of this socalled transition was over the issue of memory. Just before handing over power, the military dictated a provision which impeded Congress from investigating the crimes of the dictatorship or from bringing constitutional accusations for actions carried out during the military regime against its leaders. The armed forces sought to prevent an airing of the regime's dirty laundry at all costs. It sought to ensure that the repression, the legal and illegal transfer of public assets to the private sector, and the collusion between the military and the business class would never be the subject of public scrutiny. Obligatory amnesia was decreed so that nothing could perturb the "virtuous" official memory of the period of military rule.

Every time the dictatorship's crimes came to light, the military exerted pressure to enforce silence. When Congress opened an investigation into a shady business deal implicating Pinochet's eldest son-and hence the General himself-Pinochet, in a simulation of war, mobilizeded his troops and forced the civilian authorities to abandon their inquiry. The de facto power of Pinochet revealed that the glitter of the presidential sash was little more than window dressing.

But the leaders of the Concertación also share responsibility for the outcome of the transition. Because the possibilities for change were radically limited by the armed forces, political realism was a necessity. But as the Concertación leaders negotiated the transition with Pinochet and the armed forces, they confused realism with appeasement. The country's new civilian elites became accomplices in the consolidation of Chile's protected democracy, and soon found themselves involved in a massive whitewashing operation.

Whitewashing is a refashioning of the past, an operation in which the blood is hidden under a coat of white paint and the crimes of the dictatorship are spoken of in hushed tones, never openly or out loud. The symbol of the whitewashing that has taken place in Chile is the iceberg that was taken from the Antarctic to adorn the Chilean pavilion in the 1992 World's Fair held in Seville. The designers of Chile's new international image hoped to pull off a technological feat that would amaze the world and establish Chile as a unique and civilized country which had ended up in a continent of afternoon siestas and inefficiency only by chance. They wanted to highlight Chile's power, its entrepreneurial spirit and its "comparative advantage" with respect to the rest of Latin America.

But just as it sought to display Chile's exceptionalism and economic prowess, the iceberg also had to account for the time of the dictatorship. It did so by highlighting only the creative dimensions of the period and hiding the corpses on which the dictatorship's entire national project had been sustained. It was part of the marketing of the New Chile, an attempt to make outside observers and Chileans alike forget the recent bloodshed and present the country as a robust market awaiting foreign investment. That enormous mass of ice was the sculpture of Chile's metamorphosis, representing the social coming out of the New Chile—transparent, sanitized and purified by the long ocean journey. It was as if Chile had been reborn and the wounds of the past had been healed. There were no fissures in the Chile of the iceberg.[2] The memories of the past were erased because the Concertación leaders knew that remembering posed the threat of instability. The Concertación’s politics of memory, which valued stability above all else, ensured the continuity of the socio-economic model put into place by the Pinochet regime.

The iceberg also symbolizes the exaggerated triumphalism of the first years of the postdictatorship. In effect, this triumphalism has been fundamental to the reproduction of the neoliberal model. It was this triuniphalisin, both abroad and at home, that kept the economy going. But it was also what forced the Concertación to adopt the dictatorship's reading of the past—that Chile was strong, that the economy was stable and that Pirochet had been right after all. This marriage between Chile's new political class and the economic model inherited from the dictatorship cemented the conversion of formerly antiliberal elites to neoliberalism. These elites are now part of the triumphal choir of the New Chile.

The entire enterprise of transporting the iceberg to Seville highlighted the tendency of Chileans to idealize their nation. The whitewashing of Pinochet and the dictatorship is the contemporary continuation of this long-standing tradition, which began with the whitewashing of the country's mestizaje. Chile is imagined as European, while its strong indigenous heritage is almost completely denied. The entire country has been deluded by the aristocratic pretense of its land-owning class, which affirmed its noble European origins while erasing the copper- colored fingerprints of native Chile.

Violence has also been whitewashed from the nation's dominant historical narrative. The myth of the immemorial nature of the country's political peace between 1932 and 1973 relies on this rewriting of history. Such a construct was possible only after the wars, revolutions, massacres and military interventions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were erased from the nation's memory. The fact that the Chilean state, established in 1830, was the product of a civil war and forged through the repressive policies of an authoritarian president has been forgotten. The fact that the attempted democratic revolutions of liberal sectors in 1851 and again in 1859 were smothered by the force of arms has been forgotten. The civil war of 1891, in which different factions of the dominant class confronted each other over economic interests disguised as ideological disputes, has been forgotten. The slaughter of workers in the first decades of the twentieth century has been forgotten. The military interventions in response to the reformist experiment of Arturo Alessandri (1924-1932) have also been forgotten. The whitewashing of the dictatorship forms part, therefore, of an atavistic propensity for oblivion.

t was in this context that the Truth and Reconciliatio Commission, also known as the Rettig Commission, was created. The commission, which brought together distinguished attorneys from almost all political tendencies to investigate acts of violence which occurred during the dictatorship, did not have judicial powers. It did not have the authority to establish culpability, much less impose penalties. Its efficacy was notjudicial, it was only political.

The transformation of a criminal act which is subject to legal punishment into an act that receives only political condemnation makes punishment merely symbolic. Such punishment can only be meaningful for those who feel remorse for their actions, not for those who consider their acts to be legitimate-whether they be acts of obedience in the line of duty or acts committed for the salvation of the fatherland. Nearly all the criminals of the dictatorship, in fact, were motivated by ethics and convictions based on military values. For them, their actions are completely justified because they saved Chile from the "subversive threat" and brought peace and stability to the country. For this reason, political or moral punishments do not occasion even the slightest discomfort.

The work of the Commission, which established an "official history" of the repression, must be understood in this light. While many of the crimes of the regime—such as torture and exile—are not mentioned in that history, its acknowledgment of the existence of state terrorism is crucial. After a thorough investigation of each case, the Rettig Report printed the names of those killed and disappeared during the dictatorship in black and white, assigning them the official status of victim. The fact that the final Rettig Report names victims is important in tenus of restoring the honor of those who were killed or disappeared, particularly since many Chileans still believed that such atrocities had never taken place in their country. Until the Report was published, it was possible to argue that a man who had been disappeared had simply abandoned his children or left his wife for another woman.

These merits of the Report are indisputable. But it also contains significant ambiguities. The gravity of the crimes being investigated-crimes which can be categorized as genocide-was diluted in the thousands of pages that made up the Report. The Rettig Report, in effect, permitted an easy way out, providing the Concertación with a formula to sidestep its campaign promise to abolish the 1978 amnesty law. By recognizing the victims of the first five years of the dictatorship in a way that avoided having to confront the hard facts of the past, the Report spared the new government the problem of having to challenge the military's self-proclaimed impunity.

In this sense, the Rettig Commission was a simulation of justice. This does not prevent us from recognizing the courage of its members. The simulation did not originate with them, but within the sectors of the Concertación that opted for the easiest way out. The Concertación’s realism—the idea that given an adverse political situation, perpetual submission to the military's blackmail was the only possibility—overruled questions of political morality when confronting the dictatorship's crimes. In order to avoid upsetting the armed forces, the Concertación chose the road of moral punishment, which, for all intents and purposes, was a legal whitewash.

During the period of the so-called transition, the figure of Pinochet underwent a surprising transformation. Once considered the biggest obstacle to the restoration of democracy, the General was refashioned as a key collaborator to the transition process during the first four years of Concertación rule. This manufactured image portrayed Pinochet as the wise elder statesman who had been able to avoid the more disastrous scenarios that emerged toward the end of his regime. The same person who had pressured and blackmailed the Concertación regime was transformed into a leader of the democratic cause.

The transformation of the image of Pinochet reveals the profound metamorphosis of the political leaders of the Concertación. When these leaders were part of the opposition to the military regime, they were adamant critics of neoliberalism. After they came to power in 1990, they became the administrators of neoliberalism, and later its defenders. It cannot be forgotten that the neoliberal model would not have been implemented in Chile without Pinochet's obstinate insistence. The whitewashing of Pinochet was a way of acknowledging that his mistake was in his choice of means, but not in the ends which he pursved. This, in the end, made it possible to excuse-and ultimately to forgethis cruelty.

Yet when Pinochet decided to assume the position of senator-for-life, a right which he had granted himself in the 1980 Constitution, some sectors of the Concertación considered that he had overstepped all bounds. They symbolically protested by displaying pictures of the disappeared on the Senate floor on the day of his swearingin, but the outrage lasted just a few hours and Pinochet is now enthroned as a senator-for-life. Refashioned as the sacred despot, Pinochet has achieved the highest honor granted to a living citizen.

The most premeditated manifestation of forgetting is depoliticization. It is also the most pernicious, as it saps the strength of social solidarity. In Chile, depoliticization was achieved through a great cultural transformation. A culture in which solidarity and community were highly valued was transformed into a bourgeois culture based exclusively on competitive individualism, which encourages disinterest in public affairs through its obsessive "me" culture. Individual survival strategies completely absorb each person's energies, and there are no aspirations other than those based on individual interests.

Such depolificization is an ideal form of hegemony for developed societies, which attempt to create an illusion that the final objective has been reached. These are societies that do not seek to transform themselves and have become trapped by the dullness of repetition. They no longer think in terms of emancipation because they believe that the system itself produces a degree of equality that no other social system can attain.

Despite the illusions of some, however, Chile is an underdeveloped country that is still undergoing a process of modernization. While the Chilean economy has been growing continuously for 13 years, income distribution is actually as regressive as it was in 1987. This illustrates the priorities of the country's elites and explains why community-based efforts are rejected in practice and dismissed as ideologically conservative. This dismissal makes it possible to escape the question of whether neoliberal societies like Chile are really modern. Modernity has been disingenuously associated exclusively with ideologies of progress and completely divorced from humanism, which necessarily disrupts the teleology between progress and modernity. Neoliberal societies in the periphery cannot embrace a discourse of humanism because the alienation they produce is overwhelming and almost impossible to conceal. The worker is completely subsumed by capital, and the consumer is trapped by objects and forced to perpetuate the system through consumption. Political discourse, meanwhile, is limited to a discussion about which methods are most convenient, while goals are not even part of the debate.

The depoliticitation of Chile sustains the illusion that the country is governed with an almost scientific objectivity-an illusion propped up by the technocratization of political discourse. But interests lurk in every point of view, in every "solution," and behind every official sociologist who criticizes those bent on demonstrating that the present order, in which th em" has supplanted the word "capitalist," is anything but natural and immutable.

Critical thinking is an exercise of memory. The first challenge is to undermine the ideological assumptions which naturalize the social. Even though it is denied, the hypothesis of the "end of history" permeates the thought of many Chilean intellectuals who—because they have accepted the purported impossibility of change—no longer see any need to propose it.

Such intellectuals have affirmed, for example, that social protests are little more than conservative complaints against temporary dislocations produced by modernization. This argument eludes the central problem. What must be asked is whether these neoliberal societies and their utilitarian ideologies have anything at all to do with the ideals of modernity.[3] Marx's optimism regarding the unstable and changing character of capitalist societies-his optimism vis-a-vis modemization-cannot be disconnected from his philosophy of history. He viewed the creative and destructive unfolding of capitalism with optimism because it would lead to its own undoing. The problem is that the actual stage reached by capitalism, with the consummation of globalization and the dissolution of the welfare state, creates conditions in which it is very difficult to retain any kind of optimism. In this respect, neoliberal societies are profoundly reactionary.

The theory of "industrial societies at risk" provides an interesting counterpoint for those engaged in the critical analysis of neoliberal societies.[4] Such societies not only despoil nature, but also exploit the weakest sectors of the work force, the mass of unskilled

laborers who are completely expendable and therefore defenseless in the face of perfectly flexible labor markets. In Chile, this form of capitalism has totally eliminated the labor protection laws instituted in the 1920s as a result of the long and arduous struggles of Chilean workers. Since the Chilean transformation came in the form of a "revolutionary dictatorship," this shift has reached its perfect form-one to which neighboring Argentina and Brazil aspire but have not yet achieved. Chile is the "model" because its regression to the forms of exploitation which were prevalent before the enacte word "mod- ment of progressive labor codes has been complete. Reclaiming the forms of organization prior to Pinochet's "revolutionary dictatorship" is, therefore, not an act of nostalgia. It is a practical exercise in critical memory.

In political terms, the principal instrument of the politics of forgetting in Chile has been the legitimation of the current socio-economic order by the Concertación, particularly by its left wing, the Socialist Party (PS) and the Pro-Dernocracy Party (PPD). The 180-degree turn of both of these parties in favor of the neoliberal model has been fundamental to this process. Their criticisms are directed only at the political system they inherited from the dictatorship, and which they have been unable to change. The reason for this failure is simple: the political system created by the 1990 Constitution is what protects neoliberal economic institutions.The Concertación refuses to publicly denounce the intimate links between the political system and the socio-economic order. Its strategies for political reform are, therefore, also a simulation.

By transforming themselves into instruments of forgetting and agents for the legitimation of the order imposed by Pinochet, the PS and the PPD have forgotten their own history. The Popular Unity was a coalition based on antibourgeois politics, and during the dictatorship, the left criticized not only the lack of political democracy but also the neoliberal model the dictatorship was bent on imposing. It is incongruous to grieve for the dead and celebrate the memory of Salvador Allende and at the same time be the administrators of a society that exploits its workers, concentrates property into a few hands, sells off assets to foreign capital and restricts democracy. This is the double oblivion of Chile today.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Tomás Moulain teaches sociology at the ARCIS University in Santiago,Chile. He is author of Chila Actual: Anatomía de un mito(Editorial LOM, 1998). Translated from the Spanish by Margot Olavarría.

NOTES 1. For a more extensive analysis of these issues, see Tomás Moulian, Chile actual: Anatomía de un mito (Santiago: LOM Ediciones/Universidael ARCIS, 1997). 2. One example of this kind of analysis is lose Joaquin Brunner, Apuntes sobre el mailestar frente a La modemidad. Transfiguradon neo-conservadora del pensamiento progresista? (Santiago: Corporación Tiempo 2000, 1998). 3. Ulrich Beck, Las sociediedades industriales en riesgo (Madrid: Editorial Paidos, 1998). 4. This hypothesis is found in Edward C. Epstein, "Organized Labor in the New Chilean Democracy: The Politics of Demobilization," Paper presented at the World Congress of the International Political Science Association, Seoul, Korea, 1997.

Tags: Chile, memory, Concertación, Augusto Pinochet, democratic transition

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