Thursday, April 12, 2012

Michael Lazzara's Luz Arce and Pinochet's Chile

There is a large and still growing literature on traumatic memory in Chile.  Nearly forty years after the coup and over twenty since Augusto Pinochet left power, the powerful psychological effects of political violence remain painfully relevant. The academic literature has gradually though incompletely responded to understand it. In Luz Arce and Pinochet’s Chile:Testimony in the Aftermath of State Violence, Michael Lazzara grapples with some of the most difficult aspects of memory through a series of interviews with Luz Arce.

The case of Luz Arce is unsettling and tragic, not only because of the suffering she depicts but because she forces all of us to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about how we would react under extreme duress. As she detailed in her book El infierno (published in Chile in 1993, with an English translation, The Inferno, in 2004) she became part of Salvador Allende’s inner circle in 1972 and worked as a militant in the Socialist Party. The military government abducted her in 1974, tortured, raped, and shot her, then worked to make her a collaborator.  She subsequently provided not only details about the structure of leftist organizations, but also specific names. She became a formal employee of the dictatorship’s notorious intelligence agency, the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), and its successor, the Centro Nacional de Informaciones (CNI). That book is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the depth of repression of the Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Lazzara begins with an abridged version of her statement to the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1990, which is essentially a boiled down version of The Inferno. He follows with seven thematic chapters consisting of interviews he conducted with Arce from 2002 to 2007. It ends with a discussion by a number of participants in a 2008 forum in Santiago based on the based on the book, which was first published in Spanish but then updated and expanded in an English version.

It isn’t easy reading, because of course the interviews probe the very architecture of authoritarian repression in all its naked brutality. When confronted by the reality that her work with the DINA led directly to four deaths, she quickly responses that “as a functionary I bore no responsibility for deaths linked to the detention of people or to torture” and that “I was forced to be a functionary” (p. 80, emphasis in original). She struggles to reconcile her personal need for catharsis by writing the book in the first place with the fact that she worked for the DINA for an extended period of time, an experience she admits was not entirely negative.

What the book demonstrates is the need for a framework within which we can better understand not only memory but also collaboration.  The complexity of Steve Stern’s trilogy on memory in postauthoritarian Chile (TheMemory Box of Pinochet’s Chile) attests to the difficulties inherent in explaining the experiences even of those who did not switch sides. When perpetrator and victim get blurred together, analysis is even harder.  For example, the forum itself demonstrates how problematic the term “collaboration” can be. The discussants—one of whom suffered the loss of her husband because of Luz Arce--differ greatly in their treatment of Arce, and come to no agreement about how to determine where the line can be drawn between victim and active participant. Rather than acting as a real conclusion, the forum is characterized by the raising of multiple and sometimes contradictory questions.  Arce’s testimony reflects the fact that her answers to such questions change over time.  When asked whether she felt that she was a victim, she responds that initially she did not, but then later did, especially after talking to the Rettig Commission (p. 87).

Ultimately, then, this is a book that seeks not to answer questions, but to leave them open intentionally.  In the introduction, Lazzara notes that he hopes the book can serve a pedagogical function (p. 9).  Of that, there is little doubt.  For an instructor, it would be a useful addition to courses on Latin American politics or on authoritarian rule more generally for the issues it forces the reader to contemplate.


KevinJ 10:45 PM  

I'm in complete agreement with you about Lazzara's book, it's very compelling and brings up some of the problems at the heart of understanding a dictatorship like Pinochet's. I especially worry that, as time passes, people will forget why it is necessary to remember him. Just using google, you can find dozens of web pages dedicated to glorifying Pinochet, and others that, because of their right-wing politics, are attempting to portray Pinochet as a hero for ridding Chile of the "Marxist cancer" and preventing Soviet expansion into Latin America (as if this was the problem).

I think this book needs to be in the curriculum of any class on dictatorships or on 20th century Latin America. Lazzara's book acts as a window into how Pinochet's intelligence agencies destroyed people's lives. The really unfortunate thing is that this isn't an isolated case. How many other Luz Arce's are out there? How many people were forced to collaborate not just with Pinochet, but with the military juntas in Brazil and Argentina? I think it's vital to emphasize that some questions cannot be definitely answered, if only because human speech sometimes lacks the words to produce one. But keeping open these uncomfortable questions may help us to, at the very least, keep the memory of the dictatorship alive.

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