Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989-2006 by Steve J. Stern

Patrick Blaine | Morningside College

Stern, Steve J. Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989-2006. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. 548 pages; 30 illustrations; $99.95 cloth, $27.95 paper.

Steve Stern’s Reckoning with Pinochet is the long-awaited culmination of an extensive, foundational trilogy on the nexus of history and memory in the Chilean post-dictatorship that encompasses the period from 1973 to 2006. The series, The Memory Box of Pinochet’s Chile, engages with the difficult work of tracing the circuitous route of memory battles in a country that was rocked by state terrorism during the dictatorship, and then the posterior struggle between often-conflicting impulses toward accountability and reconciliation. This third volume begins with the first furtive years of democracy in the early 1990s, and ends with 2006, the year of Pinochet’s death and Michelle Bachelet’s election as President of Chile. Stern shows how the country was profoundly affected during the entire period by the simultaneous trajectory of Pinochet as a sociopolitical force, as well as the national historical narrative or “memory script” of a heroic national liberation that he and his supporters so strongly advocated as a justification for the human rights abuses of the regime. Stern argues that the transition to democracy (and towards truth and justice) was far from linear, and involved the interplay and conflict of four “memory frameworks” that formed the underlying dynamics of the sociopolitical changes of the period: “memory as salvation, as cruel rupture, as persecution and awakening, as a closed box” (5).

Chapter One covers the political and legal endgame of the military regime, the restoration of democracy, the confrontation with the dangers of truth, and the exceedingly delicate work of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (also known as the Rettig Commission). Chapter Two features an in-depth analysis of the Commission’s focus on documenting indisputable cases of death caused by state agents as a foundation for future legal action, and the attendant political and memory fallout from this narrow scope of attention. The third and fourth chapters largely cover the reforms carried out on the Chilean court system and military, along with the memory impasses that occurred,  the continuing efforts to break through them, and also the unintentional ruptures caused by what Stern refers to as “memory knots.” These are places and times charged with meaning and tend toward the disruption of complacency and exhaustion. Stern’s memory knots are notably similar to what theorist Nelly Richard has called “cultural residues.” Other theorists, such as Idelber Avelar and Willy Thayer, have discussed the phenomenon at length as well, although this critical conversation is conspicuously absent from the trilogy. Chapter Five revisits the pivotal events of 1998 and the arrest of Pinochet in London, which are discussed in much greater detail within the first book of the trilogy, Remembering Pinochet’s Chile (2004). The final two chapters of the book describe the new national situation that followed, and of particular interest are the sections (in these chapters and previous ones) on the work of Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia, who was a leading force in the prosecution of Chilean human rights abuses until his retirement in 2005. Another vital event discussed at length is the work of the Velich Commission, whose November 2004 report finally confronted the issue of torture during the dictatorship, which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had intentionally left aside, to the consternation of many.

Much of the historical and cultural criticism on the post-dictatorship focuses on two diametrically opposed memory camps, and the official efforts to arrive at a much-maligned “consensus,” which serves as a sort of false consciousness by which the deep conflicts inherent in Chilean society are in effect papered over, but still bubbling under the surface. Stern’s approach, on the other hand, is not so plainly dialectical, and allows for a distinct representation of the dynamics driving sociopolitical change during the fluid early years of political transition and the later democratic and institutional stabilization that followed. Stern portrays the middle space between the two camps, occupied by the political elite of the left-leaning Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia and the more right-leaning parties, to have been a powerful source of memory narrative and democratic action that acted independently and often in necessary realpolitik compromise with the country’s military and business sectors, while asserting the authority and legitimacy of the new government. Stern’s thesis, however, shows the way in which tensions between truth, justice, and memory caused tectonic shifts in the politico-cultural environment and the eventual emergence of a new memory script of “shared tragedy,” even for the military and the technocratic right, even as the “war thesis” persists in certain circles. Far from serving as an apologist for the Chilean political class, Stern attempts to relate the shortcomings, successes, and mitigating factors in the long struggle toward rebuilding a shattered nation.

Stern’s now-completed trilogy is a remarkably varied, multi-disciplinary, and well-researched study of the Chilean memory question and recent history in general. It provides a number of insightful frameworks to describe the relationships between history, memory, and politics in the process of democratic reconstruction. By virtue of its clear explanations and graceful prose, it is well-suited for any readers interested in Chile or general issues of human rights and memory studies. It lays the foundation for more work in cultural and literary studies, and will surely remain one of the most important works in the field for years to come.

Patrick Blaine completed his PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Spanish at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, teaching language, literature, cinema, and cultural studies. His work explores comparative aspects of literary and film studies in the post-dictatorial Southern Cone, and Latin America in general.