politics of memory, and the politicization of memory, with particular reference to Chile and the human rights violations inflicted upon the population by the Pinochet regime.
What memories are present in Chilean society? In 1973, Chile witnessed a political coup, with President Salvador Allende's left government being overthrown by the military dictatorship of General Pinochet. Following this coup, Pinochet made it his mission in life to eradicate 'leftist' thinking, to rid society of the evils of this thinking, by killing political opponents, by torturing people thought to be of a leftist persuasion, by forcing leftists thinkers into exile (Angell, 2000; Brook, 2000). Thousands upon thousands of people 'disappeared' in Chile during the Pinochet regime. This situation brings about many memories, all of which are painful. For those on the left, there are the memories of the people who were killed, memories of the torture, memories of their family members forced in to exile (Silva, 1999). For those on the right, this situation brings a host of emotions. For the people who perpetrated the actions, there are the memories of killing/torturing another human being, and the concomitant horror and feelings of guilt that brings, and the cascade of emotions and memories that the whole era brings (Constable and Valenzuela, 1991).
What, then, are the difficulties involved in bringing such memories out in to the open in Chile: why, in Chile, are memories suppressed? In Chile, it is easy to understand why memories are suppressed: Chilean sociologists agree that the brutality of the Pinochet regime instilled deep-seated and long-lasting fears into Chilean society, regarding personal security, collective identity, and participation in the public sphere: as such, against this background, it is easy to understand why 'the people' are wary of discussing what happened during that time, are unwilling to dig up these memories (Hite, 2003a; Hite, 2003b; Silva, 1999). In such a climate, it is easy for 'memories' (as a general, societal level, term for what happened, not as any specific reference to personal memories) to become politicized, and for these memories to be used as a political weapon, in the battle for supremacy in government. It is also understandable that 'the memories' (in the societal, not personal, sense), which are not often spoken of, should be suppressed, under what is called by analysts 'a pact of silence'.
The notion of a 'pact of silence' applies very well to Chile, and its political elite, regarding their relationship with the past. For the political left of Chile, this pact of silence refers to the left's reticence to challenge the dominant narratives of the 1973 breakdown of the democratic regime, and the repression that followed, for fear of challenging the validity of the feelings of those people involved. For the political right of Chile, the acceptance of this pact of silence equates to a refusal to assess their contributions to the events of 1973 (and post-1973), and an equally strong reticence to question the tactics or broad-scale policies of the dictatorship (Hite, 2003b; Wilde, 1999).
This 'pact of silence' could be said to be convenient for the left of Chile, according to the following argument. Historians have revealed a historic enmity between the center and the left in Chile: indeed, these two forces now govern the country, as the Concertaci n alliance, and it has been suggested that this historic enmity is central to the 'pact of silence' (Hite, 2003b). The political left has learnt to value the democratic process, as never before, as they lived through the dictatorship, and all of the brutality that that entailed, and so they feel that they have to prove, more than ever, and better than they would ever have had to do, had the events of 1973 and post-1973 not happened, that they were fit for government: a whole nation, subdued and battered by the dictatorship, was looking to them, and still looks to them, to prove their governability (Hite, 2003b; Klubock, 2003). It is argued that such lessons have discouraged the governing left to resuscitate societal-level memories of conflict or societal-level memories of failure (Hite, 2003). Yet, this very silence on behalf of the government has hampered societal efforts to come to terms with the past, and indeed has exacerbated widespread societal disaffection with Chilean politics (Hite, 2003b).
Let us talk more about the 'pact of silence' entered into by the political left of Chile, in terms of guilt. Many on the political left, who governed during the difficult years of transition, from 1970-1972, when there were strikes, and demonstrations, which led to infighting and mistakes being made within the party (the UP, Popular Unity party); many, consequently, feel that had the decisions that led to this situation not been taken, or had the actions been rectified at that point, then none of what followed would have happened (Hite, 2003b). The traumatic events of 1973 would thus lead to feelings of powerlessness, especially as they feel that, in some way, the events were their fault, as they had not recognized the path to the events that would follow, and changed course, as it were (Hite, 2003b; Silva, 1999). This leads to a situation where they perceive the traumas suffered as their own doing, and where this sense of responsibility paralyzes them, so that they internalize these feelings of guilt, which then become ever-present dimensions of their subsequent choices and political identities: thus, the 'pact of silence', as it is perhaps easier not to discuss the traumas you believe were responsible for causing (Hite, 2003b; Silva, 1999).
There is also a great deal of guilt amongst those from the left who survived: they wonder why they survived, when hundreds, thousands, of their comrades were killed, when perhaps several of their close friends were killed (Silva, 1999). In contrast to the political 'pact of silence', these people experience the silencing effect of witnessing death on such a scale, on such a personal level, as they consider themselves, as survivors, 'statistical errors', and do not wish to talk about their experiences. This, then, contributes to the politicizing of their memories, in to the 'pact of silence' that is used by the current political left, as we have seen above.
Why do we talk of the 'politics of memory': why, indeed, are memories contested, and in what ways have they been contested? As we have seen, the difficulties of bringing memories out into the open in Chile are many and varied, and the 'pact of silence' that has developed around these memories, on both sides (the left and the right) has gone some way to ensuring that memory is politicized in Chile, and that memories are, more often than not, not contested. This changed, for a short period, however, with the increasing numbers of discoveries of the bodies of the 'disappeared', which has forced the issue into the open, in terms of opening up the debate about the events of 1973 and post-1973, and forced these memories to be returned to, and discussed. This happened for a short period during 1990, when hearings took place before congress, but the assassination of a senator, Jaime Guzman, traumatized the political elite into a new silence.
Following this brief interlude in the silence, human rights groups became involved in the proceedings, and demanded that the workings of the Pinochet regime be uncovered, as, they said, the families of the victims had a right to know what had happened to their sons, fathers etc. Thus, the memories began to be uncovered, by lawyers, and by internal and foreign human rights groups, as bodies began to be exhumed on a more regular basis, and as answers needed to be sought more urgently. The human rights 'brigade' made such a noise in Chile that commemorations and protests were organized for the dead. Cases came to court, and through these trials, memories began to be exposed to public scrutiny, and as such, left bare for detailed analysis. This led to memories being contested, by witnesses in court, and, on a wider societal scale by people watching the cases, and through this new openness, and atmosphere of justice, suddenly being able to talk about their experiences, and being able to disagree with testimonies, and to contest witnesses memories of events as relayed in court proceedings. This period was a time of great openness in Chile, where many pent up, traumatic, memories were released to both private and public arenas.
For those contested memories, which memories are likely to have the upper hand? As we have seen, memories have been contested in Chile through the opening up of debate about the events of 1973 and post-1973, through the involvement of human rights groups, and through high profile court cases, during which testimonials by Pinochet's henchmen were subjected to close scrutiny, and during which, their memories of events were contested. In these terms, under this situation, it is only possible that the memories of the Pinochet regime's victims are given the upper hand. It is only decent, only…