Lest we forget

Remembering Pinochet’s Chile introduces a trilogy of books by Steve Stern exploring how memories shape Chilean political culture


Remembering Pinochet’s Chile: On the Eve of London, 1998: The Memory
Box of Pinochet’s Chile

Steve J. Stern
2004, Duke University Press
247 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

THE MEMORY BOX of Pinochet’s Chile is a trilogy of books by Steve J. Stern on the role of collective memories about the country’s military dictatorship, the struggles these gave rise to and their legacy for Chilean democracy. The books contribute to a growing body of literature on dictatorship and memory in Latin America and are theoretically and normatively informed by Holocaust studies.

This literature has, above all else, explored a central theme in twentieth-century history: the relationships between modernity, technocracy and state terror. Stern introduces the Chilean case as part of a broader framework of “dirty wars” and dictatorships in Latin America, and of societies that have turned violently against themselves. He argues for a theoretically informed understanding of memory that draws upon existing literature in this field and that suggest memories form part of a historical process.

Memory is understood here as the effort to define the meaning of a collective trauma – the September 1973 coup against the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, and the unrestrained political violence against perceived enemies of the new regime that it led to. What made the Chilean shock so dramatic was its symbolic role at that time for Latin America and internationally at the height of the Cold War.

An effort to define and understand what happened has shaped Chilean behaviour ever since, and as Stern points out the “memory question” has been central to the remaking of politics and culture. The study of memory is, as a result, one nuanced dimension of the broader study of political and economic development in Chile during and since the military period. As Stern notes, in Chile the theme of memory had already crystallised into a key cultural topic and battleground by the 1980s, enabling social scientists to begin exploring in detail such key questions as legitimacy under military rule. Struggles over memory are, for example, key to understanding why the military’s project to remake Chilean politics and society enjoyed apparent hegemony.

Innovative approach

A systematic focus of this kind on the making of, and the disputing of, memory by social actors in such a deeply divided society represents an innovative approach in Latin America. At the same time, Stern provides a wealth of material – recorded oral histories – about the very real human dimension of the experience of dictatorship.

Book One, Remembering Pinochet’s Chile: On the Eve of London 1998, is an introductory volume aimed at general readers and students contextualising Stern’s ambitious project from the vantage point of the divisions in Chile of 1996-97 and Pinochet’s arrest in London in 1998.

This uses a number of case studies – selected human stories – to present the key themes in the study of Chile and to introduce conceptual tools for analysing memory as an historical process more generally. Stern uses these stories to introduce the major frameworks that came to be influential in Chilean memory culture and debate and to offer a human portrait of Chile’s divisions on the eve of the London arrest.

To provide empirical material for these volumes Stern interviewed Chileans from across the political and class spectrum, and he uses their accounts to illustrate how memories of Pinochet often reflect attitudes towards the Allende government. He examines three main ways in which the Pinochet period was remembered: “heroic memory”, that is, memory of the coup as a salvation in a time of crisis under Allende; its opposite, “dissident memory”, in which the Pinochet era was seen as a time of brutal persecution; and “indifferent memory”, in which those who were involved in the violence of the era try to put this behind them and forget it. He then puts forward the notion of “emblematic memory” which is unlike individual memory in that it provides a framework in which people construct and shape their personal memories.

Stern’s interview with Doña Elena F., a member of the landowning upper-class elite, provides an example of heroic memory. Doña Elena remembered the day the military overthrew Allende’s government as the best day of her life, saving Chile from “imminent catastrophe”. The recollections of Señora Herminda Morales, by contrast, are employed as an example of dissident memory almost in direct juxtaposition to Doña Elena. A working-class leftwinger whose two sons were victims of military “disappearances”, Morales was sad at the overthrow of Allende and interpreted the dictatorship as a wound that had yet to heal. Colonel Juan F. provides Stern with insights into the memory of a military officer who served during the Pinochet dictatorship. The colonel demonstrates “indifferent memory”, seeking to close the book on the past and trying hard to forget his own role in the violence of that period. Stern’s own research suggests the colonel – who insists that Chileans do not care about the past – was not as ignorant of an atrocity that took place in the province where he was posted as he would have had the researcher believe.

Subsequent volumes of Stern’s trilogy undertake the historical analysis of memory struggles as they took place in time. The second book, Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, 1973-1988, examines memory under the Pinochet dictatorship itself, exploring the development of “official” and “counterofficial” memory frameworks and the struggle between these. This struggle contributed to what Stern describes as a “volatile transitional environment” after Pinochet’s 1988 defeat in the plebiscite to ratify his continued rule. The third book, Reckoning With Pinochet: The Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989-2001, will examine the politics of memory truth and justice in Chile’s transitional environment, with memory here acting according to Stern as “the most explosive fuel” in the combustible political atmosphere of the period. This third book completes the circle by taking the reader back to the context of Book One.

Stern’s collection makes an important and original contribution to our understanding of how interpretations of the role played by the Chilean coup influenced subsequent political culture, and is a valuable exploration of personal histories through ethnographic research. Stern can only be praised for recording and disseminating stories that have rarely if ever been heard before, demonstrating a rare gift for eliciting testimony that is a tribute to his skill as a researcher and providing the reader with a potent and, indeed, moving sense of the full impact that the Pinochet dictatorship had on Chilean society.

The extension to Latin America of an approach informed by the study of the Holocaust is a worthwhile exercise because scholars of the region have so far tended to look at the structural and institutional processes that defined dictatorships or the social movements that challenged them and not at the role played by memory and trauma. Indeed, Latin American studies today is being transformed by volumes focusing on the institutional dimensions of politics and society that depart from the more sociological trajectory of a decade ago. Now is precisely the right time for academics to follow Stern’s innovative lead. At the same time, the study of memory informed by research on the Holocaust is an important personal issue for Stern, who reveals that he himself is the Jewish child of Holocaust survivors.

Yet despite his august position within Latin American studies, this trilogy is theoretically eclectic and introspective to the point where it will be of limited value to students, especially those new to the concept and study of memory. It is difficult, picking between the objectives established for this trilogy within the introductory volume, to position it within political studies more broadly and a greater effort from the outset to give the reader a more accessible summary of the trajectory of memory studies in general and the questions this generates would have been a welcome addition to these volumes.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books