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Presenting Pinochet

2012/05/19

This was for a class called modern Latin America. We were supposed to write a response to several articles about Pinochet, IIRC.

Augusto Pinochet has been dead eight years and out of the president’s office for twenty. Chile is now a liberal democracy and well past its bureaucratic authoritarian phase. However, this leaves the question of how to deal with this period. Twenty years is not so long ago. A significant number of Chileans still think he was, with some caveats, good for Chile. Closely related to the question of how to remember this era is how to present it in the media, which is the subject of my three New York Times articles.

Larry Rohter’s “The Dictator and the Disco King”[1] concerns Tony Manero, a recent Chilean film set in 1978, several years after Pinochet’s coup. It was co-written by director Pablo Larraín and star Alfredo Castro. Castro plays Raul Peralta, a socially-misfit dancer who aspires to be John Travolta’s titular Saturday Night Fever character and goes to extreme and violent lengths to win a look-a-like contest. The movie is not just a thriller, but a commentary on Chile under Pinochet’s rule. According to Castro, it is about the breakdown in the social order that occurred when the government, which is supposed to be the guardian of morality and public order, broke its social contract. Peralta reasons, “If the state is killing hundreds, why can’t I?”

Obviously, this didn’t go over well with Pinochet’s supporters, but some of his detractors aren’t happy about the movie, either. Their principle complaint is that it “presents an overly negative view of Chile.”[2] Implicit in this is the idea that children and people from other countries will base their views of modern Chile on the thirty-years-gone version seen on the screen. Sadly, Rohter only gives this a passing reference and doesn’t delve into the issue. These complaints are left anonymous and unelaborated. This likely unavoidable, though. Presumably, people who would rather forget about Pinochet are unlikely to give interviews about him, creating an unfortunate gap in our understanding. Stern doesn’t have any equivalent figures in his book, Remembering Pinochet’s Chile, though it does broadly fit into his concept of a manners-conscious “memory as a closed box.”[3] Still, the international audience who saw Tony Manero in Cannes or New York presumably already knew about Pinochet, and while it is outside the scope of the article, I would have liked to hear about how others propose to deal with this fact.

Hector Muñoz also represents Chile to the world, but in a very different capacity. He is Chile’s ambassador to the United Nations. Muñoz, like Larraín and Castro, is no fan of Pinochet and has recently released a creative work dealing with Chile under Pinochet’s rule. MacFarquhar’s profile of him isn’t so much about his position as a diplomat, but about his new book, The Dictator’s Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet.[4] It is not like Tony Manero. It is a book rather than a film, a memoir rather than fiction and an argument rather than an impression. Muñoz intended not only to expose the social destruction and human rights abuses of the Pinochet years, but to directly counter the economic arguments of Pinochet’s supporters.  While many conservatives, such as Stern’s subject Doña Elena, defend Pinochet by arguing he had to remove Allende to prevent him from driving Chile into economic ruin, Muñoz argues Pinochet’s policies were not actually beneficial and that most of the recovery happened after he left office.

To Muñoz, Pinochet is properly presented as a cautionary tale. He sees the story of Chile as fundamentally about the struggle to remove Pinochet, not Pinochet himself. His own take on the matter is that “[The fight] symbolized a sense of purpose, fighting for human rights and becoming politically active, never forgetting that democracy is feeble unless we are able to strengthen it.”[5] This emphasizes Chile’s political positives without minimizing the brutal authoritarianism of the past.

Robert Bolaño’s Distant Star is another book from a Chilean author about the Pinochet years, this one fictional. Like Tony Manero, it tells the story of a violent and generally unpleasant person, in this case across several decades. New York Times book reviewer Anderson Tepper characterizes this period as “the tragedy of an entire country” and emphasizes the murder, torture and other nightmarish aspects of the Pinochet presidency.[6] If economics come up in the book, they aren’t prominent enough to warrant a mention in the admittedly short review, which also lacks details on Bolaño’s experiences with the Pinochet government or how the book was received in Chile in its initial publication.

Bolaño, Castro, Larraín and Muñoz are all in their own way concerned that people might forget about Pinochet via what Stern describes as the “will to forget,” allowing a similar sort of situation to happen again.[7] Bolaño and Muñoz were both victims of the regime, exiled to Spain and the USA, respectively. Muñoz was also arrested, beaten and suffered a broken hand. This actually makes them some of the luckier leftists. Stern recounts testimonies about numerous people like the Morales brothers who suffered worse fates despite being far less politically involved than Muñoz and unlike him, non-violent.

The foundations of Castro and Larraín’s views on Pinochet are left curiously undefined. Rohter doesn’t address Castro’s background at all. Larraín was not a victim of the Pinochet government, but a beneficiary. He is the son of a conservative senator and a woman who made her fortune during the Pinochet years by indirectly profiting off his abuses. Like Gabriela in Stern’s book, Larraín was a child in a pro-Pinochet household, yet unlike her, he went on to be an outspoken critic of Pinochet.[8] His own family is a microcosm of the social stresses tearing at Chile and, according to him, they get along, but they apparently do this by only talking politics in public, not with each other, which is a solution that cannot be applied to the country as a whole. Unfortunately, Rohter only remarks that Larraín’s politics are unexpected and does not inquire into how he came by them. This is the only article in my selections that deals in much detail with the fact that Pinochet still has supporters, yet skips right over this point. MacFarquhar briefly addresses this idea in an abstract way when talking about Muñoz’s book shooting down claims that Pinochet’s government caused Chile’s “economic miracle,” but for the most part relegates such views to the past. All three authors have clear and strong anti-Pinochet sympathies, expect the same of their readers and do not feel this requires any explanation. I think an explanation would have helped U.S. readers understand the cultural context a lot better. Part of this is surely a matter of reflecting their subjects’ own views, but I doubt any of them could write an article about a Pinochet supporter without mentioning the human-rights abuses.

All this is important because most of the world was not directly affected by Pinochet. In about ten years, the majority of Chileans will be too young to remember him. Works such as those covered by the New York Times articles as well as the articles themselves are highly influential in the politics of what Stern calls “making collective memory.”[9] In this case, it is the international collective memory being shaped. However, this does not necessarily lead to a negative impression of Chile. While it may at one time have been the sort of country where the events of Tony Manero could happen, it is now the sort of country where films like Tony Manero are made. The authors of these articles, at least, appear to understand this.


[1] Larry Rohter, “The Dictator and the Disco King,” The New York Times 5 July 2009, AR13.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Steve J. Stern, Remembering Pinochet’s Chile: On the Eve of London 1998 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 88.

[4] Neil MacFarquhar, “As a Memorist, a Chilean Diplomat Takes Off the White Gloves,” The New York Times 15 November 2008, A6 New York Edition.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Anderson Tepper, “Fiction in Translation: the Scars of the Past,” The New York Times 27 March 2005, Sunday Book Review.

[7] Stern, 89.

[8] Ibid., 36, Rohter.

[9] Stern, 124.

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