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Explore Conflicts Following the Transition to Democracy in Chile

By Nick Creighton

“El Museo es una escuela.  El artista aprende a comunicarse; el public aprende a hacer connexiones”

(The museum is a school.  The artist learns to communicate; the public learns to make connections)

This quote is displayed prominently outside of the Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos in Santiago, Chile, a museum that seeks to reconcile the dark history following the military coup in Chile on September 11th, 1973.  The museum itself is a heavy experience; it recounts a history that sends chills down your spine.  The purpose of my research was to explore conflicts following the transition to democracy, and while the history told in the museum is certainly important, its story ends in 1990, with the inauguration of President Patricio Aylwin.  Rather, it is the significance of the museum itself that interested me, both in what it was trying to accomplish, and the limitations of the history told in the museum.  The museum begins on September 11th 1973 and ends with the return to democracy, yet the real history of dictatorship begins well before the coup, and continues even to this day.  The museum elicits a response in the visitor, but it does not challenge the visitor to think outside the narrative presented in the museum.  It made me think about how tempting it is to give history a nice little narrative, with a beginning and an end, when in reality history is more complicated than that, and escapes the conventions that would make a good novel.

Which brings me to my original question when I came to Chile.  I wanted to look at how certain events after the return to democracy challenged the narrative in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, and showed how the military continued to have power.  At first, I wanted to explore how the military was able to use fear to continue to influence politics.  Unfortunately, I was not able to get any interviews as I had planned, but by going to the archive in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, I was able to see the more concrete ways in which the military held power after the transition to democracy. 

One of the sources I looked at was a report entitled Informe de Derechos Humanos by an organization called CODEPU, the Corporation for the Promotion and Defense of the Rights of the People, that outlined the ways in which the Constitution of Chile, which was written in 1980 by an aid of Augosto Pinochet, was undemocratic and represented a “subordination of the civil power to the military power.”  The report also gave a brief description of some of the conflicts after the transition where this subordination was evident.  The “Pinocheques” scandal involved $3 million in checks that were written to Augosto Pinochets son by the military as part of a deal to purchase a rifle company.  When the democratic government began to investigate, the military appeared in full force in the streets, in what Pinochet would later refer to as an exercise of readiness (ejercicio de enlace).  When I initially proposed my project, I wanted to investigate how these events illustrated the power of the memory of the dictatorship; that by recalling the era of repression during the dictatorship, the military was able to exert control over the so-called democratic system.

I think my initial argument was definitely challenged by what I discovered in the archive and by what I observed in other museums and exhibitions that I attended.  I think that even I was caught up on the idea that the transition to democracy could occur in an instant, or even a year.  While I think it is valid to say that the memory of the dictatorship was powerful, I learned also that there were concrete political avenues to power held by the military that have been slowly whittled away in the last 20 years.  The people that were powerful in the dictatorship—most notably Pinochet, but other military and civilian authorities as well—maintained a certain level of power within the government until they either retired or died.  What happened in Chile in the early 1990s was not a revolution; rather it was the beginning of a transformative process in Chile.  Remnants of the dictatorship still remain even today, but it is a process that must be understood not simply in terms of the politics, but of the culture as well.

I think part of the reason that I felt unsatisfied by the Museum of Memory and Human Rights is because although it did treat the victims of the repression with sympathy, I couldn’t help feeling that it was all in vain; that despite the sacrifices of the young men and women who believed so fervently in their leftist cause, the dictatorship had won, and left in its place the very same system that would create the Museum.  The dictatorship truly had a transformative effect on the culture and society of Chile. The neoliberal economic policies of Pinochet have had a profound effect on the people of Chile, converting them from citizens defined by their political activities to consumer-citizens, like you would see in the United States.

I was in Santiago shortly before the 40th anniversary of the 1973 coup, and because of that there were a variety of exhibitions and talks in commemoration of the event.  Unfortunately, most of them were held the week of Sept. 3 (when classes at Vassar started), so I missed most of them.  However, I did get to see a talk by Steve Stern at the Universidad de Diego Portales in Santiago.  Steve Stern is an American historian who wrote the series The Memory Box of Pinochet’s Chile, which is one of the books that I referenced in my proposal for this fellowship.  His talk had to do with the relation between art and history and how we can understand and interpret history, particularly histories of great trauma, through art.  In the case of the repression and violation of human rights during the dictatorship, sometimes the social memory of the event can be just as valid as the hard facts.  How traumatic events are remembered, and especially how are they are expressed in works of art, can be very illuminating when trying to understand the impact and significance of events like the September 11th coup.

Stern referred to the film Machuca in order to illustrate his point.  Machuca is a Chilean film that was made in 2004 about pre-9/11 Chile.   The film is based on a real school in Santiago that educated boys from different social classes in the same classroom. Allende’s Chile is captured in the film: the politicization of daily life, protests for and against Allende, lines for basic goods and the black market.  The school, like the film, brings into light the inequality that is in every society; it challenges the viewer to confront the inequality and to question its origins.  Stern made an interesting point that the meaning of a work of art is not fixed; it depends on the context in which it received.  He pointed out that between when the film was made and when it was viewed by most Chileans (it was one of the highest grossing films in Chile of all time), the meaning of the film changed, because the context in which it was received changed.  The intention of the director aside, the film had a certain meaning to Chileans because it challenged them to reflect on the past.  Chile is a country that is rapidly transforming, that is still in a transitional stage. In 2006, the first massive student protests began, and they have been continuing on and off ever since. Whether or not the political system changes, the impact of a trauma like the dictatorship is so profound that it may take years for a democratic culture to emerge, for people to feel comfortable enough to go out into the streets and demand a change.

I found that in my trip I was constantly thinking not about the history of Chile specifically, but of history in general, how we understand it, and sometimes, how there is a conscious political choice to interpret history in a certain way.  The significance of an event in recent history, regardless of how it really happened, is very related to how people remember it.  This is the challenge in studying recent history as a historian, because it is often difficult to separate the history from the current political context.  This brings me back to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.  The building is not attempting to give an accurate historical treatment of the events, it is a museum funded by the government and it serves a political purpose.  It is a social history, filtered through the lens of those who created it.  I spoke briefly with my old program director from my study abroad, and he told me that many human rights lawyers in Chile are in support of the museum and other projects like it because they want to cultivate within Chile a culture of respect for human rights.  

This trip was a really wonderful opportunity for me, and really allowed to reflect on my study abroad, and my own idea of history.  I had the intention of writing my thesis on the subject of the transition to democracy in Chile, but I now understand the real challenges that I would have had with this subject.  As a historian, I have studied the military dictatorship and the coup, I understand the context and can complicate the narrative that I found in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.  But in the case of the transition to democracy, the history that I know so well is politicized, in that its significance is not necessarily relate to how it actually happened, but to how it is remembered.  This would have presented a challenge to me in writing a history thesis, because it would have been difficult to take the politics out of my sources.  The 40th anniversary was really the first time since the transition to democracy that the incidents of the coup entered the mainstream conversation, in that there were a variety of very public exhibitions and news specials related to Sept. 11 1973.  Chilean society is still coming to terms with dictatorship, and maybe in another ten or fifteen years, enough time will have passed that a historian can really begin to understand this transformative process.

I am a liberal arts student, which leads me to think about events like the transition to democracy in Chile from a multidisciplinary lens.  I really enjoyed this trip, in part because I was challenged to think about history in a different way, and especially about the ways that history can be expressed through art.  Yet, I found that this was a subject that would be difficult to historicize.  The traumatic events of the dictatorship are still being processed in Chilean society, and historians like Stern use art precisely because it is such a difficult subject to approach from traditional means.   When I made the proposal, I sought to complicate the transition to democracy by looking at events in the years shortly after the change of power.  However, what I found was that even by looking solely at those events, I was making the same error that I was trying to challenge: I wasn’t looking at the entire context, a context that even today is changing.  The events of the “Pinocheques” must be examined as part of a longer process, a process that is still very much underway, and therefore difficult to analyze from the perspective of a historian.