Chile’s Government Wages War on Historical Memory and Truth*
by Ramona Wadi
Tuesday, 24 January 2012
In his public ‘Letter to Chileans’ in 1998, Augusto Pinochet sought to reinforce oblivion by portraying the dictatorship as a memory of salvation from socialism, generating a justification amongst right wing sympathizers of the dictatorship. Prominent historians issued a ‘Manifesto of Historians’ in the newspapers, which challenged the portrayal of the coup as a legitimate military intervention which allowed the perpetrators to disassociate themselves from the atrocities committed under the dictatorship.
The practice of countering memory by oblivion has been innovatively applied to the Chilean primary education system. The Minister of Education, Herald Beyer, approved a change in the primary education curriculum, stipulating that from the first through the sixth year of education, the term ‘military dictatorship will be obliterated from students’ history, geography and social sciences textbooks, to be replaced with ‘military regime’. Beyer, who was involved in Pinera’s presidential campaign, also formed part of the committee drafting the Ley General de Educacion (LEG) during Michelle Bachelet’s presidency. According to a report in La Nacion, human rights lawyer and member of the Chilean Communist party Hugo Gutierrez is quoted as saying, “I have a document stating that at the time of former President Michelle Bachelet several universities were proposing the elimination of terms such as military dictatorship and human rights in education, to be replaced with ‘essential rights’.” The decision is due to be reviewed after it sparked an intense furore amongst Chileans.
The reason given for using ‘military regime’ in reference to the 1973 – 1990 era was, according to Beyer, to give a more general view of what happened in Chile. According to El Mostrador, the proposal states the necessity of imparting “different versions of what happened in Chile, the breakdown of democracy and subsequent restoration in the end of the 20th century, considering the different experiences of people during this time and the current consensus on the value of democracy.”
The decision to manipulate history and memory through primary education is reminiscent of Pinochet’s calls for practicing oblivion ‘to move forward’ and reinforces Chile’s split memory – vanquishing those who suffered by suffocating any possible mention of atrocities committed during the dictatorship. The decision sparked both outrage and acquiescence. Carlos Larrain of Renovacion Nacional defended the National Council of Education and the Ministry of Education’s decision, saying that “… historical situations are subject to interpretation.” Larrain denied the existence of the dictatorship and stated that Chilean history should be taught “in a respectful manner”; also that Marxist socialism abused the concept of culture for political ends. Elizabeth Lira, from the National Council of Education stated that the change is “legitimate, since the government is formed of 50 percent of people who supported Pinochet.” A self-declared Pinochetista, Ivan Moreira from Unión Democrata Independiente (UDI), declared that eliminating the term ‘military dictatorship’ from the text books is “more just”. 
In an article published in El Quinto Poder, professor and historian Alberto Harambour expounded upon the ramifications of this controversial decision. Coercing language into neutrality translates into intentionally decreasing the power of vocabulary. This restriction, combined with the intention to eradicate the reality of Pinochet’s dictatorship, creates a violation of a person’s right to memory.
The shift from military dictatorship to military rule is an effort at raising a generation of people within the concept of oblivion. Politically, the term ‘military rule’ displaces blame, making it easy for students to view the soldiers as the sole perpetrators of violence while conveniently providing society with a euphemism for the dictatorship.
As Harambour states in his article, forcing students to deny any existence of the dictatorship threatens the stability of Chilean society – students are indoctrinated through the education system, lessening their social consciousness while damaging their right to creativity and memory. The decision will also serve to alienate young students from the generation who witnessed and endured horrors which the current government, through various methods, seeks to stifle while showing leniency towards many perpetrators of injustice who still wield power in Chile.
Amongst the National Council for Education members responsible for the curriculum changes is former CNI agent, General Alfredo Ewing Pinochet, who according to Gutierrez, was also head of the Chilean Army’s Intelligence. Gutierrez denounced Ewing Pinochet’s involvement in the issue as a conspiracy, stating that the inclusion of this former officer in educational matters “invalidates any reinterpretation of national history; particularly anything related to the dictatorship.”
Vice President of Partido Radical Socialdemócrata (PRSD), Patricio Tombolini, accused the government of intentionally eliminating “Chile’s darkest historical period.” Tombolini reiterated that students had the right to know about torture, concentration camps, human rights violations, genocide and exile. Instead of being ascertained that such atrocities must never happen again, the government has chosen to stifle 17 years of military dictatorship.
Senator Eduardo Frei of Democracia Cristiana (DC) also accused the government of attempting to change the collective memory of Chilean Society. Frei’s father, former President Eduardo Frei, died during the dictatorship’s tenure, enforcing his son’s belief that he was assassinated.
Echoing Alicia Lira, President of Agrupacion de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos (AFDD), who described the changes as “a serious offence to the victims of state terrorism.” , Lorena Fríes, National Institute of Human Rights Director, expressed concern about the lack of transparency surrounding the decision to change the terminology. The political move is significant as it deviates from the formation of citizenship and the exercise of human rights as “…democracy implies knowing what happened during the dictatorship.” Fríes added that negating the military dictatorship’s existence is a central theme for the institute, which strives to promote the education of human rights.
Since Jan. 5, an open letter to Minister Harald Beyer has been circulating online, garnering 5,000 signatures so far from civilians opposed to the elimination of dictatorship terminology. The letter calls on Beyer to retain the definition of Pinochet’s era as dictatorship, briefly citing the brutal repression, torture and extermination carried out by DINA and CNI “beyond all legality and ethics”. The letter deems the negation of the dictatorship as absurd (a view endorsed also by Chilean historian Gabriel Salazar) and an educational blunder which “prevents students from properly distinguishing the characteristics of dictatorship and democracy; a deficiency which hurts their civic education…What cannot be accommodated is the denial or trivialization in the curriculum of a fact as obvious and painful as the existence of a dictatorship in Chile between 1973 – 1990.”
Senator Guido Girardi has called for a special session in Parliament, hastening to add that “a minister who is an accomplice and wants to hide the fact that human rights were violated in Chile cannot remain Minister of Education.” He added that while the Council of Education may have made a mistake, an endorsement by the minister accepting the denial of human rights violations is unacceptable. 
In the latest developments, several Chilean students protested in Santiago against the attempt to eradicate the memory of the dictatorship. An organizer of the demonstration stated, “We wanted to make this public intervention to protest the Ministry of Education’s decision to change the meaning of what was experienced during the dictatorship period”.  The march ended, appropriately and significantly at Londres 38 – a detention and torture center during Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Ramona Wadi is a freelance writer living in Malta. Visit her blog here.
 Reckoning with Pinochet by Steve J Stern. Duke University Press, 2010
* First published in Upsidedown World