I will start with a quote by Victor Jara – one with several interpretations that sets the scene for a discussion of memory frameworks in Chile departing from la nueva canción Chilena. Brutally tortured and murdered by the military in the aftermath of the dictatorship, Víctor Jara is synonymous with the nueva canción movement – the militant song movement in Chile. Victor had once stated, “I need the wood and strings of my guitar to give vent to sadness or happiness, some verse which opens the heart like a wound, some line which helps us all to turn from inside ourselves to look out and see the world with new eyes.”

Salvador Allende’s brief presidency accomplished this and more. The support of the masses, given to Allende during his electoral campaign, brought about the fulfilling of a dream -inscribed in songs of unity such as Canción del Poder Popular and Venceremos! Allende’s campaign was also epitomised by a banner that expressed support for cultural foundation within the revolution: “There is no revolution without songs”. The musicians themselves participated wholeheartedly in Allende’s electoral campaign, becoming cultural ambassadors for the socialist revolution during Allende’s presidency. Nueva canción songs became the voice of the people. In turn, the people became a unified entity. It was the widespread participation of the people, the nueva canción movement, the amalgamation of people and aspirations within a socialist revolution; that also created strong foundations for the memory framework that was able to fight the imposed dictatorship oblivion.

The last inscription of this unity between Allende, the nueva canción movement and the people, can be seen in the beautiful song El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido – The people, united, will never be defeated. Unfortunately, this hymn was short lived. Only a few weeks later, Chile’s socialist revolution was brutally destroyed by Pinochet’s US-backed dictatorship. The metaphor of el pueblo unido, therefore, was challenged to move beyond Allende and the atrocities of the dictatorship. It had to reinvent itself, to become part of the memory process that even now, remains fragmented within two major frameworks – continuity and rupture.

A few weeks ago, writing about Palestine, I included an observation about the importance of collective memory. Very briefly, because the full quote would generate various references, I stated that imperialism attempts to fragment collective memory into selective remembrance to enforce a constant impunity. This is also what neoliberal violence achieved in Chile. Oblivion, or forgetting, was Pinochet’s final legacy – an attempt to silence the whole process of memory.

Briefly, here is an overview of what Pinochet instructed Chileans to forget:

Over 1200 detention and torture centers – where detainees were electrocuted, sexually violated, brutally beaten, used for biological and chemical weapon experimentation, forced to hear or witness the torture of their comrades and, in thousands of cases, administered cyanide injections, following which the bodies would be burned in drums or else packaged and loaded onto helicopters to be dropped into the ocean.

Pinochet also wanted Chileans to forget about direct orders regarding the targeting of communist party and MIR militants. However, several testimonies attest to the fact that Pinochet personally ordered the detention, torture and extermination of many opponents.

Dictatorship terror was meticulously planned. Whether it concerned the banning of nueva canción material, the burning of books deemed subversive, or the intelligence operations carried out to destroy leftist resistance, the intent was to create an imposition upon Chileans that would ultimately attempt to control not only society’s actions, but also memory – the complexities of which remain evident to date.

Chile’s September 11 intensified the deep divide in memory, contributing to further rupture. The Chilean right wing, endorsing Pinochet’s insistence upon oblivion, generated an alien history incompatible with the realities of the dictatorship. Departing from the dictatorship as “Chile’s salvation”, it was convenient for the right wing to enforce its interpretation of the atrocities as allegedly necessary to save Chile. Only recently, Adriana Rivas, a former DINA agent now residing in Australia and wanted by the Chilean courts for her participation in the crimes committed at Cuartel Simon Bolivar, stated that her years at DINA were the best of her life. The glorification of torture was normalised, generating absolute indifference to the repercussions of such violence. Right wing historian, Gisela Silva Encina, biographer of former DINA Agent Miguel Krassnoff, describes the torturer as “a prisoner for serving Chile”.

The right has created a myth that suits their denial. Pinochet had breakfast every day with Head of DINA Manuel Contreras, had full knowledge of targeted militants and their fates, yet was allowed to escape justice on accounts of alleged dementia. Victor Jara’s alleged murderer, Pedro Barrientos, resides happily in Florida, protected by the country that instigated the coup.Last year, former torture instructor Cristian Labbé was offered a lecturing post on the topic of “the evolution of political thought in Chile”. A former DINA agent recounts the elaborate system of fabricated identities, not only of agents serving at Cuartel Simon Bolivar, but also of the victims, in order to eliminate all possible traces and ensure a complete disappearance. Three years ago, the right-wing government of Sebastian Piñera decided to eliminate all references to “dictatorship” in primary school textbooks – a plan to divest younger generations of memory. The plan however, is said to have emerged during Michelle Bachelet’s previous presidency – a woman who was tortured by the dictatorship and who applied Pinochet’s anti-terror laws to incriminate Mapuche resistance. With Chile’s political left being severely compromised, the struggle for memory has essentially been left to the people.

As long as the rupture in memory exists, there will be the necessity to discover and articulate the shared history, which has been manipulated and interpreted according to the political spectrum. However, Chilean memory faces additional hardships. The Concertacion governments remained under a dictatorial constitution that granted impunity to former state players and agents. Hence, official efforts to reconstruct history were limited. Human rights organisations, the relatives of the disappeared, victims of torture, are still awaiting slivers of truth to emerge.

The struggle is about truth rather than justice. The magnitude of crimes ridicules the concept of justice for victims. It is an impossible outcome – no wonder the resilient slogan is entrenched in memory. Neither forgiveness, nor oblivion. It is a legitimate form of resistance against state impunity, which is reflected in various contemporary issues in Chilean society – all resulting from the dictatorship. Besides the controversies in education, with former agents deciding the curriculum, health services have also become a source of contention. Impunity has allowed medical torturers to work in clinics and hospitals – a desecration of the profession. These surgeons and general practitioners in the past were collaborating with torturers, making sure dictatorship victims could survive another round of immense cruelties – relieving pain without curing the sustained injuries. There are published lists detailing the location of these former torturers, yet dictatorship impunity has so far allowed them protection, despite various incriminating testimonies.

The state’s complicity in safeguarding impunity has resulted in several doubts with regard to the official version of events. It is impossible to go into intricate detail about the 3,200 disappeared people. However, it is worth mentioning the suspicious circumstances regarding the deaths of Salvador Allende and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Allende’s death, described as suicide by official sources, still remains a source of debate and controversy. A book published last year in Chile gives an alternative version – that of Allende being murdered during the assault on La Moneda. Given the circumstances of his death and the fact that, despite his stance against armed resistance which resulted in clashes with the MIR, Allende did not hesitate to use weapons during the assault, murder remains a possibility. The book, authored by Francisco Marín, also draws upon forensic detail discussed with Luis Ravanal. Although autopsies have determined suicide, doubt remains entrenched within Chilean memory – the main reason being the impossibility of trusting state institutions with narrating a true version of history. In this case, there needs to be a proper recuperation of memory. For example, one might question how, in the event that Allende was murdered, would the memory framework change and to what extent? Many cite Allende’s final broadcast as proof of suicide. However this is subject to interpretation. It is not a matter of choosing between details, or determining what remembrance should constitute. The justified doubts intensify the rupture caused by the dictatorship, rendering memory a traumatic experience.

The narrative surrounding Pablo Neruda’s death is even more firmly grounded. One of Pinochet’s main struggles was with the dissemination of culture and learning – a fear that led the dictatorship to collaborate with several countries in order to spy on writers and intellectuals in exile. Pablo Neruda, a former ambassador in Allende’s era and also a well known poet, is known to have wanted to go into exile in order to start resistance abroad. According to Manuel Araya who was Neruda’s chauffeur, the poet was administered a toxic injection while residing at the Clinica Santa Maria – a temporary adjustment until plans for exile were finalised. Neruda’s death was put down to advanced prostate cancer. However, while there is no denial that Neruda was indeed suffering from cancer, radiology reports have not specified the presence of metastasis. Additionally, the newspaper El Mercurio, affiliated to the dictatorship, had been issuing warnings about Neruda’s impending death, with Pinochet hastening to inform the people that “if Neruda dies, it will be from natural causes.” Preliminary investigations carried out on the exhumed remains of Neruda did not yield evidence of toxic substances, yet other tests are expected to be carried out. However, apart from the consistency of Araya’s testimony, other incidents indicate the possibility of assassination. The Clinica Santa Maria has, in recent months, been under heavier scrutiny with organisations in Chile calling for a complete investigation. This is also the place where Eduardo Frei, a former president of Chile, was assassinated through the administering of toxic substances.

In Neruda’s case, the unknown doctor whose identity is still debated, is alleged to have been Michael Townley – a former CIA and DINA agent now living under the witness protection programme in the US, was employed by Pinochet specifically to aid in the manufacturing of biological and chemical weapons. Townley had also asserted his presence at the extermination center Cuartel Simon Bolívar, experimenting with newly manufactured weapons upon two indigenous detainees.

Additionally, the Fundacion Neruda vehemently refused initial requests to cooperate in the ongoing investigation into Neruda’s assassination. Instead, the Foundation endorsed the dictatorship’s official statement. However, further research reveals a sinister network in which the foundation’s affairs, for example, were regulated by people aligned with the dictatorship. Neruda had wanted to bequeath la Isla Negra as a retreat for artists and intellectuals – a wish that was disregarded by the Foundation. Additionally, the foundation became economically aligned with Cristalerias Chile – an enterprise founded by Ricardo Claro who was a torture coordinator and financial supporter of Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Hence the determination of a man who immediately denounced Allende’s death as murder, and who stated his intention to fight the dictatorship from exile in Mexico, was brutally exterminated to soothe Pinochet’s obsession. Many have accused Araya of fabricating testimony, but his version of events is much more in concordance with the usual practices of the dictatorship against influential opponents, than the official version circulated by the state and endorsed by the corrupt foundation.

I have here focused upon “icons” of the Chilean left to give an overview not only of the rupture caused by the dictatorship through violence, but also the tenacious struggle of Chileans who suffered under the dictatorship for their rightful memory which is reflected, for example, in the persistence exhibited by the women of Calama to discover the mass graves of men disappeared during the Caravan of Death massacres, which marked the beginning of systematic extermination and disappearance. Chile’s history and memory is an emblematic reflection of the destruction wrought by violence – the same violence that imperialism has unleashed upon various countries while hypocritically calling upon people to embrace non-violent forms of resistance. The Cuban Revolution, and indeed Fidel, are proof that armed resistance against imperialist violence is the only way to liberation – a legitimate struggle against usurping power. In his meeting with Allende, Fidel had warned the Chilean president of the importance of arming the masses, sensing the possibility of impending military action against Allende’s presidency. Had the masses been armed, history might have been inscribed differently. But, for Chile, Allende had managed to impart a socialist revolutionary process through the already-existent democratic frameworks. Meanwhile, as Chileans struggle to validate their memory, the state remains willingly shackled to a dictatorial constitution, ensuring Pinochet’s imposition of oblivion still holds sway over society.


Nueva Cancion Research

Soy una escritora freelance que investiga la nueva canción Chilena. Si tienen cualquier narración o memorias del movimiento chileno por favor póngase en contacto conmigo. Gracias. Ramona Wadi (Malta), Ramona Wadi on Facebook or Twitter @walzerscent
I am a freelance writer researching the nueva canción Chilena. If you have any narrations or memories of the Chilean movement, please get in touch! Ramona Wadi (Malta), Facebook Ramona Wadi on Facebook or Twitter @walzerscent
Remembering Pinochet’s Chile. On the eve of London, 1998
Steve J Stern
Duke University Press, 2006 As Pinochet’s tangible presence receded from the Chilean political structure, a vibrant memory legacy erupted, challenging dictatorial impositions and awakening the struggle for historical memory. The volatile political environment following the disintegration of the dictatorship created a complex memory framework fighting not only the imposed oblivion, but also an ingrained process through which memory became an essential part of the collective experience on both sides of the political spectrum. In ‘Remembering Pinochet’s Chile. On the eve of London, 1988’, Steve J Stern explores the national experience of the dictatorship, fragmented into several memory camps beyond the usual distinction of memory versus oblivion, depicting the diverse ramifications of collective memory and the induced oblivion in return for complacency and indifference, thus extracting the fight for remembrance promulgated by the marginalised opposition to the dictatorship. Right wing rhetoric frames political violence as a necessity, with remembrance based on recollection which do not necessarily represent personal experience. Memory as salvation – the expression of a collective national sentiment as purported by Pinochet’s adherents is detached from historical reality and fails to question the dynamics of Chile’s left, such as whether violent revolution was favoured by Salvador Allende. The remembrance associated with the experiences of other harbouring similar sentiment indulges in a convenient dismissal of torture and disappearances. The fear of violence becomes displaced, projected onto the resistance incorporated by the militant left, in order to justify the violations committed by DINA. Dissident memory, incorporating memory as rupture, persecution and awakening, involves a transformation of various struggles of the collective. An embodiment of contradictions between life and memory, existence is organised around memory, with different forms of expression contributing to the collective. While memory as rupture manifests itself as an expression of anguish, particularly in honouring the disappeared and executed, memory as persecution is characterised by an inevitable division of society owing to contrasting memory camps, in turn validating social commitment and values to promote solidarity through activism. Stern also acknowledges a process through which a form of passive oblivion is inadvertently practiced. Using the metaphor of memory as a closed box, Stern describes a process of silence through which atrocities remain unchallenged. A lack of validation of a collective expression in the public sphere becomes prone to a form of idolisation of victims which shifts the focus from the actual issue of dictatorship atrocities and the quest for justice.

Despite the encompassing collective experience, other forms of memory remain obscured due to guilt and unintended complicity. Various leftist supports willingly presented themselves for questioning, others urged to comply by family members. The ensuing permanent disappearance rendered a guarded expression of memory, with remorse being less explicit due to the burden of guilt. Enlisted conscripts, among them former leftists, were also coerced to participate in arrests and torture – an experience which failed to safeguard against DINA retribution, such as in the case of Carlos Alberto Carrasco Matus who, upon confiding in his friend about the horrors perpetrated by the dictatorship, was forced to take part in arresting his friend. Both ended up prisoners in Villa Grimaldi – Carrasco was beaten with chains and murdered by DINA in Villa Grimaldi, while his friend was exiled and in 1990 testified before the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Besides Pinochet’s insistence upon oblivion, Stern discerns another memory framework which negates atrocities through an intentional misinterpretation of history. Memory as indifference is established by recalling the alleged reasons as to why the coup was a necessity, while undeservedly attributing altruistic adjectives to a military which constantly proved its macabre character. According to an interviewee in the book identified as Colonel Juan F, the Chilean military possessed a ‘socialist character’ and was the salvation to Chile’s future through its solutions of problems posed by a welfare system. Any failure was blamed upon the Allende era having produced ‘mentally sick people’, depicting a complete irrelevance to the deterioration of progress which rendered society irrelevant in order to justify political violence.

Measures were also taken to enable the military to distance themselves from the atrocities committed. A particular instance refers to the Calama massacres, where Colonel Eugenio Rivera sought to protect himself and his soldiers by placing the blame solely upon General Sergio Arellano Stark, in charge  of the ‘Caravan of Death’.

The various memory frameworks have created a volatile coexistence shaped by elements in a constant struggle. Different experiences of life under Pinochet’s dictatorship have provided the framework for the ensuing cultural silence battled by a quest for justice, memory and recognition of committed atrocities. Considering the split within Chilean society, the major obstacle to emblematic memory is its displacement due to persistent right-wing hegemonic narratives. Hence the projection of emblematic memory into the public sphere in order for the collective experience to escape fragmentation and isolation, which in turn strengthens the case for historical legitimacy. Chilean society is imbued with ambiguities – certainties mingle with doubt, the struggle for memory resisting certain narrations which, despite the relevance to the struggle, are perhaps perceived as blurring the divide between various forms of rupture, as in the case of conscripts who resisted implementing torture and suffered the same fate as left wing supporters. Stern’s book serves as a compelling reminder of an incomplete sequence in the Chilean struggle, one that is partially dependent upon a dissolution of impunity in order to eliminate the process of selectivity and the peril of descending into various forms of oblivion.


My review of Reckoning with Pinochet, published in Upside Down World at

“My father had breakfast every day with General Pinochet during four years…I cannot understand that General Pinochet could say today ‘I have no idea’,” stated Manuel Contreras Valdebenito in 1999, whose father was head of DINA, Chile’s intelligence services during Pinochet’s dictatorship. By then, a division in loyalty had started to occur between Pinochet and his secret police DINA (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional).

During Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship, violence was implemented as a means of annihilating all socialist and Marxist support in the country. Death and disappearances, torture and exile were common occurrences. A vital factor aiding the regime’s tenacity was the population’s subsequent silence. Fear and terror had created a long, temporary absence of vociferous socialist support, and the definition of justice had been mangled and manipulated by the absence of a memory made public.

Two particular memory frameworks prevail through the book Reckoning with Pinochet – The Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989 – 2006 (Duke University Press, 2010), described by author Steve J. Stern as emblematic memory and loose memory – the social memory and the personal memory. Although they stand in contrast, it is by blending both concepts that the memory becomes national; the memory of Chile. Personal accounts of torture, disappearances, murder and exile sustain the social experience, which in turn creates a framework that is capable of combating the memory oblivion of the right.

Reckoning with Pinochet delves into the memory question and the process through which memory became an essential part of Chilean culture. Drawing on the obvious split of loyalties within Chilean society, Stern vividly portrays the memory of both sides, bringing to light a conclusion which, despite the obvious, has the tendency to remain cloistered in a realm of its own. Despite the propaganda of democracy, Pinochet’s rule was a brutal dictatorship which resorted to extremes to annihilate any evidence of socialist or communist support. Yet, due to the flaws inherent in the subsequent transition to democracy, there still remains a segment of the population which perceives Pinochet as a saviour, and therefore defines atrocities as a method of preserving Chile from ruin. While the socialists perceived the pre-1973 years as the prologue to adversity, supporters of Pinochet drew upon Allende’s presidential term as the disaster prior to deliverance. What the right eliminates from memory is obviously the reality of Pinochet’s brutal massacre of Chileans and other atrocities that render an individual split from his humanity.

In its essence, memory can be elusive – a series of certainties that differs according to the recollections of people. At a distance, the repression of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile may be perceived solely as a fragment of the country’s history, not having been burdened with a legacy of death, torture, disappearances and exile. As the book draws on the memory of people, grassroots organisations, elites, truth commissions and judges, it becomes evident that the memory of Chile is strong enough to be sustained beyond its borders. With the rupture of silence, the atrocities committed during the dictatorship became translated into an experience of that particular era in Chilean history, documented both for Chile and for the rest of the world.

Throughout the years of transition, Pinochet argued in favour of memory oblivion, describing the concept as “mindful silence as a positive good.” Memory had created a conflict on both sides out of the quest for truth and justice. Patricio Aylwin’s Convivencia law was aimed at shattering the silence that shrouded the era of torture and oppression, thus giving an outlet to narrations of brutality. In the wake of evidence starting to seep out, the military and the Right had “adjusted to the documented factual truth of memory as rupture.” By displacing responsibility for the committed atrocities, Pinochet and the right wing had justified their detachment from the process, and even from culpability.

The memory transition at best seemed fragmented. Pinochet sought honour and amnesty. Aylwin was pressing for political stability and ethics, while victim survivors were clamouring for justice. The transition satisfied nobody, yet it was through this period that grassroots activists ascertained the legacy of terror would not be ignored. As testimonies started to emerge from the truth commission’s investigations, the memory oblivion encouraged by Pinochet was relegated to its own irrelevance within the context of the oppressed people’s quest for memory truth.

Stern also presents memory as an experience. Whilst the culture of oblivion shelters the middle class from the moral obligation of affirming state violence, thus clashing with the concept of human rights, the memory framework of the socialists is dependent upon exposing atrocities in order to reach a semblance of salvation. The rupture of silence was essential in order to create a framework that portrays the injustice inflicted on Chilean supporters of Salvador Allende, activists within the Unidad Popular and other people who had a socialist background to bring about a relative consciousness that sustains itself from within the confines of history. In due course, other media and creativity sources sprang up, conveying the social memory of the oppressed to the Chileans as a nation.

The memory quest for justice remained replete with obstacles from the past, as Pinochet’s legacy loomed over any shattered frontier. In a letter addressed to Chileans in 1998, Pinochet stresses that he never sought power and was trapped by a communist conspiracy. The actions of embedding past realities in the present was unacceptable to the right wing which, in its futile efforts to preserve the culture of oblivion, persevered in a wave of disassociation negation, fabricating a reality that diminished the essence of justice.

As the truth emerged, Allende was once again reaffirmed as the leader of marginalised people. A sentiment which had to be sheltered during Pinochet’s reign had once again manifested itself in the loyalty of the people. This was a memory totally independent of justice and its manipulations.

Pinochet was finally deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia, a relic of another fallacy of justice. Responsibility was never legally acknowledged or declared through a trial. Findings state that the scale of torture during Pinochet’s dictatorship was massive and it was also a ‘policy of the state’. Thus, Chile’s memory remained an inconclusive metaphor, blemished by tragedy and the ambiguous process that was supposed to pave the way through democracy.

One Comment Add yours

  1. excelente trabajo,compañera! Gracias desde Chile

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