The Long Shadow Of Pinochet’s Dictatorship


The memory of collective trauma is said to last far longer than its initial impact and is often carried across generations beyond those who lived through the immediate impact. This is certainly true of Chile’s national trauma, which continues to resonate nearly thirty years after the country ended General Pinochet’s seventeen-year-long military dictatorship. Although Chile’s development since 1990 has achieved significant economic and social mileage through stable centrist governments, deeper foundational changes need to occur in order for the state to grow beyond the long shadow of its traumatic past.

According to the Global Peace Index (measured by the Institute for Economics and Peace), Chile is ranked as the 27th most peaceful country in the world. Furthermore, Chile’s high level of stability and security has been granted the most peaceful country in South America. Peace and stability are important drivers that allow countries to thrive and benefit from “low levels of conflict and militarization….(as well as) relatively low level(s) of spending on developing heavy weapons or financing large armies.”

Chile’s political stability and freedom from burdens of shouldering military campaigns have allowed the country to support financial efforts towards productive economic development. World Bank records indicate Chile’s average Gross Domestic Product (GDP) levels over the past five and ten years have been 3.06% and 3.54% respectively. Comparatively, these growth rates measure very favourably relative to the average world GDP growth of 2.5% and 2.6% for the same five and ten year period.

Chile’s economic performance in recent decades has attracted significant acclaim from the international economic community. However, below the surface of their successful and stable growth lies what the United Nation’s (UN) Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights described in 2016 as a “highly segregated and unequal society.”

Chile’s economic divide highlights an embedded system of class and institutional structure that remains largely unchanged despite the shift in the political landscape. The Rapporteur’s comment and concern on this point is that Chile’s “thriving democracy needs to pay attention to the quality of political participation and the ability of people to influence the shape of the society.”

The issue of inequality has been most evident in areas of education, public policy and law enforcement. Civil policing, although significantly more civil than it was during the Pinochet era, still echoes attitudes and some practices from the time when police, secret police and the army were granted coordinated authority to repress and terrorize Chileans into subordination.

The 2017 Human Rights Watch World Report notes Chile’s Public Ministry continues to receive a high level of complaints from civilians responding to the excess use of force and violence against them by police.

While the country’s civil courts have actively prosecuted former participants of the regime’s apparatus who were found to have violated human rights, the judicial structure of the Supreme Court has, in many cases, overruled or diminished sentences, thereby undermining processes to bring about real justice; but change is in the wings.

The country’s current centre-left government, under Michelle Bachelet, passed a bill in late 2016 to re-align the jurisdiction of military crimes against civilians to be heard under the civil court system rather than the military court. The potential change is significant and could correct proceedings that for decades have been suspected of being inherently bias due to what Human Rights Watch maintain are a clear  “lack (of) independence and due process” to achieve transparent outcomes.

Although changes to the foundations of Chile’s policy and legal framework have been much slower than the pace of economic development, positive progress is being made. In early June this year, a major court ruling was passed, sentencing over a hundred former Pinochet secret police agents for their involvement in kidnapping, torturing, and murder of civilians during the early years of the dictatorship.

While the socio-political journey of recovery from traumatic events experienced by Chile during the military dictatorship years of 1973 – 1990 has been both long and arduous, there is hope for change. Firm political efforts to create meaningful change to legal policy and security structures appear to be finally aligning. If actioned correctly, Chile’s national healing will begin in earnest, allowing it to flourish across socio-political and socio-economic spheres in much the same successful capacity that the country has achieved in its economic development.

Carolina Morison