This article was originally published on The Santiago Times in September 2013.

Carmen Hertz is one of Chile’s best known human rights lawyers. Since her husband Carlos Berger was killed in a military sweep known as the Caravan of Death in October 1973, one month after the coup d’etat that overthrew Salvador Allende, she has relentlessly been fighting to expose secrets of the 17-year military dictatorship that followed.

From being a plaintiff in the Caso Riggs investigation of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s secret bank accounts to seeking truth for the victims of the Caravan, Hertz has never ceased to defend the memory of those who were killed and tortured under Pinochet.

She spoke with The Santiago Times about collective memory in Chilean society and how impunity for many of the perpetrators has meant justice is yet to be done.

What do you think of the way the Chilean government is dealing with the theme of memory; is it doing enough to both recognize and distance itself from the coup?

Today’s government? What attitude could [President] Sebastián Piñera’s government have? It’s a Chilean right-wing government, it’s the same right wing and the same actors which justified the coup, pushed for the coup, applauded the coup and applauded the extermination policy against a sector of Chilean society. They claimed they couldn’t really do anything, but they celebrated the coup d’etat.

[The right] has not received any punishment, and I don’t just mean legal punishment for its complicity in the crimes, but also political and moral punishment for the role they played not only in the overthrowing of Salvador Allende, but also in the policy of terror which followed, and which meant the arrest and execution of thousands of Chileans. The Chilean right has not been punished at all. There has been the most absolute social, moral and political impunity and that is a scandal. It’s very bad for us as a society to see impunity of this kind, of this nature, because it has mostly affected citizens, and nothing good can come out of that. It’s not possible to really reconstruct a democratic and decent society with this impunity. That’s on one hand.

On the other hand, when people say 40 years have passed and that is a long time, that it’s just looking into the past, I tell them no! It’s 40 years of something that changed the life and the destiny of the Chilean society forever. The coup d’etat, which we know was encouraged by the U.S. administration at the time, financed at the turn of the Cold War by the [Richard] Nixon administration, which is in the report of U.S. Sen. [Frank] Church that reveals the money that was given to Salvador Allende’s opponents to overthrow him.

So, the destiny of Chilean society changed, the lives of thousands of Chileans changed, and it provoked a breakdown in our society which never — even though the years go past — will be forgotten. Never. It caused injury to the heart of Chile's social fabric that was so deep, not only because of the institutional coup but also because of the persecution and terror that was in place after, which makes it impossible to forget. It will never be forgotten.

It’s like saying that in Germany they are turning over a new leaf on the Holocaust. No, these are things you can’t turn pages on, they will always be part of history because a society can’t modify the pages of its history, of such a traumatic past, because we can’t model a decent future this way. We saw this happen with the jews, they’re not turning pages on their past — it's because of their past that they can’t model a really coherent future. That being said, I think that 40 years from the coup, we are left with a few debts.

In terms of the truth on the criminal activities and episodes that the Pinochet dictatorship undertook, with the support of the right, we have progressed thanks to the perseverance of the human rights world, and not thanks to the political elite. Also with the perseverance of the families, of the organizations, of a group of honest judges and journalists, it has been possible to progress in the quest for the truth.

In terms of justice, the progress has been relative, the doses of justice are small or insufficient compared to the magnitude and importance of the crimes committed, which are crimes against humanity. In Chile, violations to fundamental human rights were systematically committed on a large scale and these are crimes against humanity, ordered by the state apparatus. This is what happened in Chile. And the justice that has been served is not equivalent to the nature of the crimes that were committed.

And we are in debt in terms of memory, without a doubt. The collective memory has only recently began reforming itself with the truth, and the reality of what happened, because memory before had been completely distorted. That includes during the transition years, because transition in Chile was made through a pact, and this was a pact with criminals. This is the truth, and within this pact, there were many silence agreements and unspoken impunity pacts, which we got a proof of when Pinochet was detained in London through, when the official and unofficial powers organised or worked together to bring those who committed genocide back [to Chile].

If the Concertación won the elections, would it break all these pacts of silence?

No. The Concertación governed for 20 years during the transition. And they made [Juan Emilio] Cheyre commander-in-chief! And when Pinochet was detained in London, they brought him back and made up the story about his illness, he wasn’t ill at all! When the [United Kindom’s] House of Lords had decided he should stay as he didn’t have immunity, they got him out with an administrative scheme, saying he was ill. And he arrives in a wheelchair and with this, in an act of defiance, he walks out free. And then they began the process to remove his privileges and immunity.

I was a plaintiff in this case, for the crimes committed by the Caravan of Death when Pinochet lost his immunity, and when he was about to be charged, he declares himself senile! He preferred declaring himself mentally ill rather than face the action of justice.

So the silence pact has only started to break recently. It is happening at the lowest levels and thanks to this we’ve found out, for example, the existence of the Simón Bolívar execution center, where they killed two members of the Communist Party leadership in 1976, which previously we had no idea about, and how they were assassinated in the most atrocious way, placed in bags and thrown into the sea.

This is coming out now because guards from various ranks have recently handed out this information, since 2008. During the transition years, there was no stimulation for the military pact of silence, which is a sort of mafiosa "hormeta," to be broken. This has slowly happened naturally and because of the judiciary investigations, the campaigning of families, the human rights groups etc. Because there’s been no one, and at the end of the day they’re old and at lower ranks, to open their mouth.

And do you think this could happen on a wider scale, or is it too controversial?

No, the only way pressure will work, is if the legal pressure for facts to come out continues, and once again, if Chilean society takes charge of what happened and doesn’t try to justify it and to throw it into oblivion. It needs to be an active collective memory. If there is one, like in Argentina for example, this is an element of pressure for the pact of silence to be broken. But otherwise, no.

And does all this contribute to the fact that many people may think what happened wasn’t that bad?

Of course, although I don’t know if there are so many now. I think that, of course, what is at play is that there’s a lack of public knowledge, the right wing keeps saying what they’ve always said, and most of all the impunity. The impunity of civilians, the fact that the right wing has gone completely unpunished, because they’re the ones who conspired for the coup, the right wing made the coup happen, and used the military as the puppets to do it all.

And the state’s terrorism policy that followed was completely brought about and theorized by the right wing, using the military. There is this impunity where the same people are still political actors today, the ones who were part of all this, and nothing happened. It could be senators, members of parliament, Sergio Diez, people from Pinochet’s inner circle, in high places, ambassadors, and they are still here. So this impunity is also holding back the democratic reconstruction process, for a real democracy, not only in appearances but for a decent society where we are all part of a project. Not just a handful of people, but a place we are all part of.

Because if they go free and unpunished it sends the message that maybe they aren’t guilty, or what they did wasn’t that bad?

Of course. And also people lose trust in institutions. The Chilean citizen knows that whatever infraction they commit, even a small one like a traffic infraction, they are going to have to pay for it. There will be a punishment. So deep down, they know that if you have power, like those criminals and the civilian accomplices, nothing will happen to them. This generates an erosion of institutions, a distrust in them, and in the end less democracy, less democratic sense and less civic sense.

And do you think there’s a risk the recuperation process might not continue, might get diluted?

No, because it is in the collective memory of the people. The attempts by the elite to forget and turn the pages, move on, and to put it to rest have failed. They’ve been the absolute power, and it hasn’t worked because it is artificial. In all societies it is. You couldn’t do that in Germany. You couldn’t try in Germany to forget the Holocaust. It couldn’t have been done. Because what happened happened, and you can’t leave it behind.

It’s possible that some Nazis filtered through but the fact is what happened is in the German collective memory for generations. And in the European collective memory for the generations to come. So I think that here it won’t be possible to forget either.

I think these are processes that develop separately from the establishment’s process. The establishment goes one way, and society goes on another, in parallel. What the establishment has tried to impose has not been possible.

But the fact that no politician will say so in public, that they’re not condemning the coup strongly enough ...

Of course, this has happened in parallel and has shown that politicians are among the most protected people in this country. If there’s one institution in which the public doesn’t trust, it’s Congress. But another attitude can be seen working in parallel. Look at this for instance: This series Chilevisión is broadcasting on Wednesday nights, called "Chile Imágenes Prohibidas (Chile’s Forbidden Images)," is hosted by Benjamin Vicuñam, who is a well-known actor. It shows pictures from French cameramen and from Teleanálisis, which was kind of a clandestine television station in the 1980s, and they filmed a lot of things. There are four chapters, shown once a week.

Well, last week they got the best rating of the whole night. They doubled Canal 13’s main series, whatever stupid program they show at this time, Soltera Otra Vez or something. They scored 26 points in ratings which means 5 million people were watching it that night.

And in September, Chilevisión is showing another miniseries about the crimes of the Caravan of Death, directed by Andrés Wood, one of Chile’s best directors,called Ecos del Desierto. And you know, Chilevisión is not a channel that gets high ratings, that many people watch, so this shows people are really interested in seeing these programs. Because otherwise, the series Soltera Otra Vez would have triumphed again ... It exceeded all expectations, and this shows there is a lot of interest.

And this could be coming from people who maybe are younger, or don’t know much about what happened?

Of course, the average citizen who watches television on Wednesday night, after the news, normal people.

And do you think this interest is still growing?

Obviously. This can be seen in many instances, for example many of the theater productions at the moment have content related to our remembrance, from the smallest theaters to the most famous ones, and the most successful ones have been those of Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón, there was Escuela, Villa+Discurso, Clase, the one that’s in Teatro de la Palabra now.

Our theater is great at the moment, and shows sell out all the time, and if you look at Chilean theater’s programs today, I’d say at least 70 percent of the plays, from

GAM to the Teatro de la Palabra, have something to do with the theme of memory. If it wasn’t such a popular theme, this wouldn’t happen. Playwrights wouldn’t be writing about it and the theater companies wouldn’t be producing those plays, because why would you do things that are artificial, that don’t have a connection with society.

And this is only possible now, for artists to come back to Chile and talk about this?

I’d say that from the 2000s, from when Pinochet was detained in London, there was a turning point in this country. Pinochet and others had to change their attitudes. So all the judges, ministers, etc. who thought this should be investigated, and there hadn’t been much room for that before, only recently started investigating crimes in Chile.

So there’s a turning point with the judiciary power, there’s a distinct point where people dare to speak openly about it, and to tell more. Take me for example — at that point I was one of the lawyers that was most on television, and the number of followers that I had was impressive, really impressive. I’d walk into a restaurant asking for a papaya juice, and they’d bring me two. Or in those days, where buying online wasn’t as common as it is today, I’d go to the bank and the cashier would call me to the front and would tend to me first. I stepped out of a lift in Valparaíso once and people recognized me and did this [makes a thumbs up motion]. One morning in [the small town of] Licán Ray, I was jogging around Lake Calafquén and two people recognized me and greeted me.

People recognised me, and greeted me. Now these people would never have done that in public before, because the 1990s were an atrocious time here in Chile. The transition years were marked by censorship, a truly awful time really, during which very few other than the victims dared talking about what had happened because it was more or less frowned upon. This began to change around the year 2000, when Pinochet was a political cadaver, and then from 2010 it was everywhere. It was in the social movement, in the students too, and the lid was taken off this in Chile. In the creative fields as well, people began to come out, artists, filmmakers started addressing this theme.

It has been a long process.

Copyright 2013 - The Santiago Times
Image via Archivo Museo de la Memoria