Pinochet's death

Jorge Larraín
12 December 2006

Pinochet has died. He was a traitor, a systematic abuser of other human beings who got immensely rich in office, just like any other prototypical "banana republic" dictator. Therefore I ought to be happy; he is gone for ever. Yet I am not. It is painful to have to accept that he was never convicted by a Chilean court. This, I am sure, will be argued over forever by his supporters in Chile. Not that they are too numerous or politically articulate, but all the same, some of them are powerful and vocal.

This is why the death of Pinochet makes me reflect on the weaknesses of our democracy, in particular, the miserable failure of our judiciary. If Pinochet had not been detained in Britain, he would not even have been taken to court or if he had, probably most judges would have dismissed the cases against him. Such was the fear he was able to instil in everybody.

Jorge Larraín is a professor in the faculty of social sciences and pro-vice-chancellor at Alberto Hurtado University, Santiago. His books include Identity and Modernity in Latin America (Polity, 2000)

Pinochet's rule was marked by fear from the very beginning. He was absolutely ruthless and systematic in his attempts to eliminate all opposition. He took a personal interest in that horrible task, and was implacable even with members of his own army. Many of them, from rank-and-file soldiers to generals, paid with their own lives for criticising or opposing his procedures.

He divided Chile between the "patriots" (supporters of his regime) and the "internal enemies" (those no longer considered members of the Chilean community). The latter were savagely tortured and killed; or, if allowed to survive, were exiled and not allowed to return, or denied a passport, or deprived of their nationality.

All those who merely supported (or were supposed to have supported) the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) movement and remained in the country were informed against, watched over, expelled from their jobs, subjected to massive home searches, called "humanoids" (an expression regularly used by Admiral José Toribio Merino, a member of the military junta, to refer to members of the left), and advised to go and live in Cuba.

In short, Pinochet introduced a fracture in the Chilean identity which remains unhealed until today. A new element was added to his notorious brutality. With many of the victims of the military regime, a transgression was carried out which went beyond pure exclusion: what was attempted was to make the most material basis of their identity disappear - their bodies. Not only were they killed, but the regime sought to obliterate their very existence from the national historical memory.

Also on Chilean politics and the Pinochet legacy in openDemocracy:

Geoffrey Bindman, Juan Garces, Isabel Hilton, "Justice in the world's light" (15 June 2001)

Roberto Espíndola, "Chile's new era"
(16 January 2006)

Justin Vogler, "Pinochet: chronicle of a death foretold"
(11 December 2006)

Alan Angell, "The Pinochet Regime in Chile"
(12 December 2006)

There can hardly exist anything more dissolving and threatening for a collective identity than this. More terrifying than mere torture and death, said George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, is the possibility of manipulating the past by saying that this or that event never happened. If physical elimination and other forms of exclusion inevitably fracture that imagined community which is the nation, the disappearance of people's bodies achieves more: it prevents that fracture from healing, it makes it last in time until today, it becomes an obstacle to the reconstitution of identity.

After sixteen years of democracy and more than thirty-three years from the military coup, one could have imagined some quieting of passions, some sort of forgetfulness, some resumption of normal life. Up to a point, it can be said that this has happened. Some timid steps were taken on both sides to recognise mistakes. People on both sides of the divide have been talking to each other and sometimes cooperating in common enterprises. Even the last commander-in-chief of the army was able to say "never again", and many rightwing politicians have recognised some excesses.

But it suffices for one event like Pinochet's death to occur for the semblance of normality to disappear, and for the emerging structures of reconciliation to be shattered. The popular response to Pinochet´s passing has been astonishing: many thousands of people on the streets burning fires, fighting the police, chanting, singing and rioting, nobody knows for sure to what end. Feelings run very high, the old divisions and frustrations resurface.

It is an awesome spectacle to see how the dictator, even in his death, continues to divide and traumatise the Chileans. My only hope is that this sudden explosion is just temporary and that the reconstruction of a sense of common identity will be able to carry on. But in order for this to happen, most people need to see that truth has come out and justice has been done. The judiciary still has to deliver in this respect.

Sadly, the main culprit will never pay. But at least all the others who hid behind him should be held to account in the near future. Whatever the course of development that Chile democratically decides to follow in the future, its chances of success will partly depend on whether Chileans can overcome that fractured identity which is still present thirty-three years after the military coup, and which has resurfaced with a vengeance on the occasion of Pinochet's death.

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