Saturday, September 13, 2014

Chilean memory between continuity and rupture


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 safely 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.

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