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Historical memory and national reconciliation

“Experience shows that amnesia is why history nightmarishly repeats itself time and again. A good memory permits us to learn from the past, because the only sense in recovering the past is if it serves to transform life in the present.” (Eduardo Galeano, 1996)

On 11th September 1973, the democratically elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a military coup by General Augusto Pinochet. In the days and years that followed this incident, thousands of people were arrested, some tortured and others “disappeared.” Although the exact numbers remain unknown, in February 1976 the Chilean Ministry of the Interior admitted to having detained 42,486 people under the state of siege.

Later research estimates that, of these over 40,000 people, some 2,000 were subsequently disappeared. These are the people known as “detained-disappeared;” men and women seized from their homes, often tortured and, finally, thrown into the sea from planes, abandoned in the desert, or simply buried in mass graves. Unfortunately, this is a concept all too present in today’s Chile, given that most of these crimes have never been brought to justice, the facts have never been clarified and the bodies have still not been found.

The Vicaría de la Solidaridad (Vicariate of Solidarity), a Chilean NGO dedicated to researching human rights violations during the military regime, succeeded in documenting 668 cases of forced disappearances, estimating that the remainder was never registered due to fear, having occurred in rural areas, the break-up of family groups, etc.

Nevertheless, despite legal and social obstacles, the families of many victims continue their struggle to find the bodies and discover what really happened. The point is that, to be able to overcome the trauma and live in peace without bitterness, the work of individuals is often insufficient, hence social recognition of their suffering and repair of the damage caused become necessary.

The women searchers don’t dig up the desert sand simply to find a mummified body or the odd bone; for them, discovering the truth would help to ease the pain of their private lives and bring the social recognition that would help them to grieve and not transmit their bitterness and resentment to the coming generations.

Collectively, recognising the suffering of the victims and the responsibility of those who caused it is essential to reconstruction of the social fabric. The people who suffer from state violence must be able to demand justice and responsibilities permitting them to mourn and progress towards true national reconciliation. Just as wounds need air to heal and can’t be cured by covering them up, it has been proven that forgetting does not provide the formula for social reconstruction. Learning the errors of history is therefore essential if their repetition is to be avoided. However, while recognising the truth is an important step towards social repair, judging the facts and repairing the damage must follow. This is, however, something often prevented by state structures.

In the period of transition towards democracy following military governments or violent incidents, it is anything but unusual to find that the authorities want to turn the page of history, to silence it or to create its own official version of the events, where those involved in the conflict have equal responsibilities in what happened. However, contrary to what we may think, recovering historical memory doesn’t mean living with an eye on the past or reopening old wounds, but quite the opposite. Learning and shedding light on what happened in previous regimes is the best way to heal wounds and achieve national reconciliation.

In the specific case of the Chilean transition, to escape prosecution and prior to stepping down from power in 1990, General Augusto Pinochet sought and obtained constitutional recognition as a lifetime senator, a status granting him total procedural immunity in Chile. But the families of the victims, in their determination to overcome the impunity and obtain repair of the damage suffered, launched legal proceedings in Europe and succeeded in having Pinochet accused of genocide and arrested in London in 1998.

Following more than a year of detention, the British Home Office decided that Pinochet was unfit for trial and authorised his return to Chile for health reasons. Weeks after his return, a Chilean tribunal withdrew his immunity and over 300 lawsuits were taken out against him, leading to his subsequent house arrest.

Given the length of time involved in these procedures and his elderly age, Pinochet died in December 2006 before being brought to trial. However, simply having detained and accused him of torture and genocide marked an important step towards achieving national reconciliation for Chilean society as a whole. And for the victims and their families it brought the strength to continue with their struggle to find out what happened. In fact, today a number of lawsuits remain open against other presumed perpetrators of human rights violations during the Chilean military regime.