Our guest blogger today is Leith Passmore, whose new book, THE WARS INSIDE CHILE’S BARRACKS: Remembering Military Service under Pinochet, is published this week in our series Critical Human Rights. From 1973 to 1990 in Chile, approximately 370,000 young men—mostly from impoverished backgrounds—were conscripted to serve as soldiers in Augusto Pinochet’s violent regime. Some were brutal enforcers, but many also endured physical and psychological abuse, survival and torture training, arbitrary punishments, political persecution, and forced labor. In his book, Passmore examines the emergence, in the early twenty-first century, of a movement of ex-conscripts seeking reparations. In his blog post for us, he comments on the continuing effects of the Pinochet regime on today’s Chile.
During the brutal military regime in Chile under Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), two young protesters—Rodrigo Rojas de Negri and Carmen Gloria Quintana—were set on fire by Chilean military personnel and left for dead. This infamous 1986 incident, known as the caso quemados (case of the burned ones) helped consolidate the growing opposition to Pinochet on Chilean streets. It also proved to be the last straw for the Reagan administration, which withdrew American support for the dictator as a result.
Fast forward to September 2017, as candidate Loreto Letelier ran for congress in Chile. She suggested on her Facebook page that Rojas de Negri and Quintana had in fact set themselves alight. Her comments came just days after thirteen retired soldiers were indicted for the murder of Rojas de Negri and the attempted murder of Quintana. The version of events peddled by Letelier is not new, but its reemergence reflects a particular and urgent moment in Chile’s memory struggle as a generational horizon looms.
The context of Letelier’s comments is the current presidential election. Conservative former president Sebastián Piñera was favored to win before the recent vote on November 19th, 2017. However, third-place, left-wing candidate Beatriz Sánchez performed better than expected, creating uncertainty in the upcoming runoff election between Piñera and the second-place finisher, the socialist candidate Alejandro Guillier.
As for Letelier, she received less than 1% of the vote in her district. During the campaign Piñera eventually distanced himself from Letelier’s comments and later her candidacy, but he also courted sectors of the community still loyal to Pinochet. The far right has raised its voice in recent years in opposition to social reforms regarding abortion and marriage equality, but also in relation to the memory question. “Pinochetistas” have publicly revived hardline narratives and appropriated the language of rights to demand the release of convicted human rights abusers, citing the prisoners’ advanced age among their justifications.
The flipside to the urgency felt on the pinochetista right is the campaign of victims and their supporters to bring remaining human rights abusers to justice before they die. Victims’ groups have pressed for a change to the legislation that has kept secret the information provided to truth and reconciliation commissions. Proposals are currently before Congress. Although not responsible for the current initiatives, outgoing president Michelle Bachelet did promise to consider removing the embargo, after a 2015 meeting with Gloria Quintana.
The quemados case was reopened in 2015 after an ex-conscript, Fernando Guzmán, testified that Lieutenant Julio Castañer had ordered another recruit to douse Quintana and Rojas in gasoline before setting them alight. A second ex-conscript subsequently corroborated Guzmán’s testimony, and their version is in line with Quintana’s own 1987 testimony to Amnesty International.
Declassified CIA documents also show how the military launched a disinformation campaign in the wake of the incident, buried a compromising police report, and intimidated witnesses, judges, and lawyers. A 1991 finding in the military justice system codified this “official” version, finding no one responsible for Rojas’s death or the burning of Quintana. The narrative that Letelier insists on is the result of this process. It was already actual “fake news” in 1986. In 2017 the case reveals not only the fundamental divisions within Chilean memory, but also at least one unresolved silence.
Ex-conscripts have emerged as important witnesses in high profile cases, but not as narrators of their own stories. The 370,000 former recruits who served under Pinochet may be perpetrators, victims, both, or neither. They may vote left, right, or not at all. Many have a story to tell, but Chile still does not know how to process such shades of gray.
Ex-conscript groups are demanding recognition and benefits, with their appeals assuming their own urgency as their members approach old age and their health fails. While presidential candidates were quick to respond to an ill-
informed social media post, none made time to meet with the men drafted into Pinochet’s army. Theirs is a complex and difficult story that does not lend itself to sound bites.