Chilean Chronicles, Part 51: Like South Africans, Chileans ask, “What Have We Done?”

Hugo Rojas, left, and Christian Viera, right.

Hugo Rojas, left, and Christian Viera, right.

Eighteen years ago I had the honor and privilege of living in South Africa during a pivotal time in that nation’s history.

Just a year removed from the first free and democratic election in its history, the country was starting to publicly delve into the darkest aspects of the apartheid era through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Tutu’s pain at hearing what author Antjie Krog called the “indefinable wail that burst from Nomomde Calata’s lips” prompted the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner to sing Senzenina after the break on the second day of hearings in East London.

A staple at anti-apartheid demonstrations and funerals, the song asks a basic and profound question: “What have we done?”

(Hear Calata’s expression of grief and the song from 1:17 to 2:12 of the trailer to the Bill Moyers film, “Facing the Truth.”)

This is the question that Chileans throughout the country have asked themselves with increasing intensity these past weeks and months, culminating in Tuesday’s outpouring of all types of commemoration events.

It´s a different question than the country asked one or two decades ago, and is likely to ask in 10 years time, according to scholar and friend Hugo Rojas.

Dunreith and I attended a presentation he gave at the University of Vina del Mar, where Hugo was presenting in conjunction with the launch of the latest issue of the university’s Revista de Derechos Fundamentales, or Journal of Fundamental Rights.

Edited by Hugo´s former roommate, law professor and close friend Christian Viera, the publication contains four essays and a series of primary source documents about the 1973 coup,

It begins with a moving, lyrically written introduction that Christian co-authored with Sociology professor and torture survivor Luis “Tito” Tricot.

Christian, who is lean with a short beard and longish hair that curls around his head, read the piece in an even tone before Hugo gave his presentation.

The mustachioed Tito, who has long, black, straight hair, sat in one of the front rows listening with an attentive expression that held a hint of surprise.

Christian Viera, left, and Luis "Tito" Tricot, right,  on Monday, September 9.

Christian Viera, left, and Luis “Tito” Tricot, right, on Monday, September 9.

The book’s opening pages evoked an earlier, more innocent and peaceful time in which Chile was just a small country in the south of the world with a view of the sea.

That country was changed profoundly the day of the coup and in the months and years that followed, they wrote. Pinochet and his minions changed children’s hymns to the screams of the tortured, the murals to the ferocity of the night, the northern desert to the anguish of the murdered.

These changes altered, but did not destroy the dreams of the people, many of whom still dream of Chile returning to that earlier Edenic state.

The public reckoning with the damage wrought during the dictatorship was the focus of Hugo’s presentation.

He explained that in 1993, the twentieth anniversary of the coup, Chile’s democracy was far more fragile. Although he was no longer the political leader of the country, Pinochet still headed the military and was a Senator for Life.

This meant that commemorations of the coup were held much more at the state level.

A decade later, in 2003, the theme of Obstinate Memory ascended, Hugo said. By this he meant the persistence of memory and some within the nation beginning to enter into some of the grittier aspects of what had happened during the dictatorship. He pointed to Patricia Verdugo’s De La Tortura No Se Habla, or One Doesn’t Talk About Torture, an edited collection that examined the case of Catholic University professor Felipe Aguero’s assertion that he had been tortured by fellow academic Emilio Meneses.

This year, the observances were far more wide-ranging, probing and conducted at the level of civil society, Hugo explained.

I wrote throughout the buildup to September 11 about the explosion of memory observances that took all kinds of forms, from vigils to poetry readings to book launches to academic conferences to the showing of documentary films to marches for the disappeared to translations of Greek plays.

Whereas 20 years ago the question was, “What did you do?”, now the refrain underneath these commemorations was the same as in the Xhosa song Tutu and so many others have sung, he said.

In another decade the emphasis is likely to shift again, as, a half century after the coup, the nation will think about issues of intergenerational transmission, of how to convey in a visceral what life under the dictatorship was like to those children who have no direct tie to Allende’s overthrow and the suffocating terror that ensued.

Pinochet was never arrested in Chile for his deeds, and thus never served a day in a Chilean prison.

Tito and Christian address the theme of impunity in their text, writing, “Because in this piece an impunity has been enthroned that, without doubt, constitutes a profound violation of human rights.”

Over the past decade Francesca Lessa, a friend and colleague of Hugo’s who earned her doctorate at the London School of Economics, has immersed herself in the issue of post-dictatorship impunity laws and, more recently, efforts to overturn them.

Francesca Lessa after her lecture about amnesty laws and legal impunity at the University Alberto Hurtado

Francesca Lessa after her lecture about amnesty laws and legal impunity at the University Alberto Hurtado

On Wednesday, at Hugo’s invitation, Francesca delivered a riveting a presentation at the University of Alberto Hurtado about the work she and the other members of the team with which she collaborates at Oxford University have done.

Their project was essentially to build an international database that tallied the number of countries that had passed laws that granted amnesty as part of the transition to a post-conflict society. From there, the group worked to identify those countries in which attempts were made to undo that legislation and the results of those campaigns.

Much of this activity has happened in Latin America, according to Francesca.

She provided examples within the continent of a complete overturn, a partial reduction of the protections of the amnesty law and a pair of countries where the campaign failed, and her analysis of the factors that contributed to each result.

Argentina was the place which had the most successful outcome in undoing the amnesty law passed during the Carlos Menem era of the late 80s and early 90s that pardoned the generals who had led the “dirty war” that saw about 30,000 Argentines killed and many others disappeared.

Francesca attributed the success to an active and continuously insistent civil sector, a judicial branch that was supportive of the cause, international pressure and the involvement of the executive branch in the form of former President Nestor Kirchner.

Since the laws have been reversed, more than 400 people have been tried for the human rights crimes they committed, with at least another 100 people whose cases are on the docket, she said.

Chile has had a less comprehensive reversal-a result Francesca attributed in part to the persistence of a large sector of the population who still sees Pinochet and his leadership in a positive light. This sentiment, Francesa said, allowed those in the country opposed to change to resist the substantial international pressure they faced.

In Brazil, however, there has been no change.

Even though civil society groups are highly involved in issues like violence against women, they have not taken on the conduct of the dictatorship to the same degree. The judicial branch has been similarly unsupportive, Francesca said.

The result in Brazil is more representative of what has happened in countries throughout the world, but the possibility of a constellation of sectors within society advocating in a concerted manner and achieving the change they sought was both provocative and inspiring.

When asked by a student during the question and answer part of her presentation, Francesca said clearly that she believes the abuses of the past need to be reckoned with before a society can move fully into a democratic era.

In that way, she affirmed the importance not only of the question South Africans asked before and Chileans are confronting now, but of rendering some judgment on those responsible for the atrocities committed whose wounds in so many places remain unhealed.

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