Chile’s Battle for Memory: A Report From the Latest Front

Chile’s Battle for Memory: A Report From the Latest Front

Chile’s Battle for Memory: A Report From the Latest Front

The fight over a memorial to my friend Carlos Berger and other victims of the Caravan of Death reveals that there are still many in Chile who resist the lessons of our country’s tragic past.


Santiago, Chile—Every morning, as I take my daily walk up toward the nearby Andes mountains, I pass by the Aeródromo Tobalaba, an airfield catering to a wide variety of private planes.

For most neighbors in La Reina, the district in Santiago where my wife and I keep a house, this is a welcome open space in a congested city—a guarantee that no high-rises will blot out the horizon. For me, in a year that marks the 50th anniversary of the coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, the Aeródromo stirs up less-warm feelings.

It was from here, a few weeks after the September 11, 1973, military putsch, that a huge Puma helicopter took off filled with Chilean Army officers on a mission from Chile’s dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet: to summarily execute Allende supporters who had already been condemned to light sentences by local military tribunals. Among the 97 political prisoners who were dispatched in this manner by what became known as the Caravana de la Muerte (the Caravan of Death), was a friend of mine, a young Communist named Carlos Berger.

Carlos and I were colleagues at the State Publishing House, Quimantú, which brought out popular magazines and millions of books at very low prices. I remember him now as mischievous and handsome, earnest and joyful, sharing my commitment to the peaceful revolution launched by Allende when he had won the presidency in 1970. The last time we met, Carlos told me how excited he was that his wife, Carmen Hertz, had given birth to a son, Germán, and that the boy would live in a world without exploitation or injustice. Carlos himself was leaving Santiago to direct a radio station in Calama, a town in the north of Chile strategically located close to the rich copper mines nationalized by the socialist government. He could not know that this transfer would be his death warrant.

Though the 30-year-old journalist had offered no resistance to the coup, he was condemned to 70 days in prison in Calama—a sentence that had been commuted to a fine. Then the Caravana de la Muerte arrived in that Puma helicopter, and, on October 19, Carlos and 25 other political prisoners were taken into the Atacama desert, where they were first eviscerated by bayonets and then shot point-blank. Their bodies were buried under the anonymous sands. Though Carmen and Germán survived this tragedy, Carlos’s parents did not. In 1984, his father, Julio, committed suicide and, a few years later, so did his mother, Dora. His widow had to wait till 2014 for a funeral service to be held, when forensic scientists identified some tiny human fragments found in a dune as belonging to her husband.

Last year, Carmen, a well-known human rights activist and now a member of Congress, cosponsored a law that will build in front of the Aeródromo a memorial to the victims. Because that airfield was not only the place from where the Caravana had departed. Other Puma helicopters that took off from there were subsequently used to cast the bodies of prisoners who had been tortured to death into the sea, tying their bodies to sections of railroad track to ensure they did not surface. Which is why the proposed monument, stark and imposing, displays a row of upright steel rails clamoring into the sky against the “vuelos de la muerte,” the death flights. The law, approved in the lower house (88 in favor, 49 against, 15 abstentions), is expected to be ratified soon by the Senate.

Not everyone, however, agrees with the memorial. A group of inhabitants of La Reina has started a campaign to stop the monument from being erected. They are full of fear, they say, that it would create conflict, cause disturbances. Social media warns that it will encourage violence, that mobs will paint graffiti on walls, build barricades, loot stores. Though there is not one case where such violence has occurred at any of the dozens of other human rights memorials, that has not deterred those who suggest that it would be better to move the memorial to another part of town. Out of sight, out of mind?

It would not be worth even mentioning such protests against a memorial in one solitary Chilean community, if this were not representative of something more dire. This attempt to rally citizens against a shrine for victims of human rights abuse is one more skirmish in a larger and prolonged national battle for memory that has been ramping up as the 50th anniversary of the coup approaches. The question Chileans cannot avoid answering all through this year is how we want to remember that day in September of 1973 when the Presidential Palace was bombed, and Salvador Allende died along with the democracy he was defending?

There are two main answers to that question.

The government of President Gabriel Boric, a charismatic 36-year-old former student leader—and an unabashed admirer of Allende—is organizing a series of activities and commemorations that will culminate on September 11. The emphasis will be on memory and human rights as a way of guaranteeing a future where a dictatorship is inconceivable, especially for the new generations who did not live the endless nightmare of terror that their elders endured, the young who are increasingly skeptical that democracy can respond to their frustrations and cravings.

The stakes could not be higher. Like so many countries around the world, Chile is in crisis. Unbridled crime, waves of immigrants, economic insecurity, drought and forest fires, odious political polarization—all are fertile ground for the rise of authoritarian populism, fueled by a nostalgia for the days when a strongman ruled Chile and there was order in the streets. To foreclose the prospect of new forms of tyranny, it is not enough to recall the atrocities of the past, the railroad tracks weighing us down. Equally necessary is to rekindle the popular belief that a different and better Chile is possible—the dream that drove Allende’s peaceful and democratic revolution. It is also a way for Boric, whose government is still reeling from the resounding defeat of a progressive Constitution last year, to change the narrative and retake the initiative, reminding the people of how many politicians and overly rich entrepreneurs who now call themselves democratic profited from the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship and were and still are its accomplices.

To recall those Pinochetista roots and horrors is inconvenient for Boric’s rabid right wing opponents. They would rather frame the 50th anniversary as an occasion to leave the past behind, as proven by the 42 percent of conservative congressional representatives who chose not to approve the Aeródromo memorial. If the past is to be remembered, what they want brought to mind are the errors and disarray of the Allende years, and how the desire for a socialist society led to insurmountable divisions that compelled the Armed Forces to act. “Excesses” (the murder of Carlos Berger?) should be deplored, but Chile needs to learn yet again the basic lesson of the coup: If we persist in demanding too much change, the result will be disastrous. And virulent. Boric should be wary of trying to push through excessively radical reforms.

These two visions will confront each other throughout this year—as indeed they have for the last five decades. In Chile, as in the rest of the world, the way in which a nation understands its most traumatic past is constantly determining its deepest identity, the sort of future it imagines for its children.

I cannot foretell how my country will emerge from this search for an elusive unity, a consensus about who we really are.

What I can hope is that the dead will not be absent from this process of national reckoning.

From the dark night of his receding voice, Carlos Berger is demanding that his compatriots not forget him. And by that fierce and gentle remembering, help ensure that no child like Germán will grow up without a father, no parents like Julio and Dora will die from grief and despair, no widow like Carmen will have to recall him through a monument. It would be the best legacy left to us—from Carlos and so many of his dead brothers and sisters: that their memory of their existence, can bring us together instead of pulling us apart, encouraging us, as a nation, to defeat the fear and hatred and blindness that stops justice being done to the living and to the dead.

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