For University Press Week 2018, we are highlighting an interview with Michael J. Lazzara, author of Civil Obedience: Complicity and Complacency in Chile since Pinochet which was published in May as part of the Critical Human Rights series. We spoke with Lazzara about civilian complicity, complacency, and the implications of Chile’s political history on the country today.
Q. Why is it so important to talk about civilian complicity now, more than forty years after the September 11, 1973, coup that put General Augusto Pinochet in power?
A. In the midst of the Cold War, the Pinochet regime (1973-1990) came to power as a violent reaction against democratically elected President Salvador Allende’s “Peaceful Road to Socialism.” Pinochet’s seventeen-year dictatorship resulted in the murder, disappearance, and exile of thousands of Chilean citizens who longed to build a more just and equitable society, as well as the torture of tens of thousands more. Throughout the 1990s, the early years of Chile’s transition to democracy, people almost exclusively attributed the Pinochet regime’s human rights violations to the military, the most egregious perpetrators. Yet we know that dictatorships are always supported behind the scenes by a cast of complicit civilians who play roles—major or minor—in perpetuating the violence and who, through complex processes of rationalization, manage to turn a knowing blind eye to the torture and murder of their fellow citizens.
The stark reality is that many of those who supported the Pinochet regime “behind the scenes” in the 1970s and 1980s remain active in politics, business, and other sectors today. Victims, their families, artists, academics, journalists, lawyers, and concerned citizens have struggled for decades to fight for memory and create a culture of respect for human rights. To a great extent, they have succeeded. But we can’t easily forget that memory and human rights constantly find themselves under attack from political and economic forces that still perpetuate certain violent attitudes fostered under dictatorship.
Q. Is the public discourse of these civilian accomplices relevant for thinking about the “post-truth” era in which we’re living?
A. Definitely! My book is not only about civilian complicity in Chile but also about how civilian accomplices remember and justify their past actions and commitments. I use the phrase “fictions of mastery” to talk about the vital lies (or partial truths) that such accomplices spin, both publicly and privately, in order to live with themselves or to convince others that they were acting in the “best interest” of the country or out of a sense of patriotic duty.
Clearly, our contemporary scene is full of individuals who spin stories to advance particular agendas or maintain their hold on political and economic power. My book deconstructs and “outs” such self-serving fictions—and actors—while also advocating for a need for accountability (moral, ethical, and even judicial, when applicable).
Q. Your work provocatively suggests a relationship between complicity and complacency. How are these two concepts linked?
A. The question is important because it forces us to ask: Who is complicit? My book answers this question boldly, even somewhat controversially. It asserts that the spectrum of complicity is vast—that it includes not only those who participated directly in the dictatorship’s crimes but also those who knew what was going on but stood by and did nothing. Even more assertively, I argue that the vast spectrum of complicity in Chile may very well include certain people who years ago fought for revolutionary change and social justice and who now, decades later, wholeheartedly embrace the neoliberal model that the General and his civilian economists espoused. I call these revolutionaries-turned-neoliberals “complacent subjects” and wonder if their political stance, interested in protecting their own status and wealth, might be construed as a form of complicity with the dictatorship’s legacy.
Q. The Chilean dictatorship ended nearly three decades ago. Many analysts praise the country’s transition to democracy as highly “successful.” Why is it important that we continue thinking today about the legacies of the Pinochet regime?
A. Many people, especially economists outside of Chile, have called Chile an “economic miracle” because its economy did relatively well when compared to other countries in the region. This may indeed be true by some measures. But we cannot forget that Chile’s economic strength has its origins in a dark history of torture, disappearances, and murders. We also can’t forget that, despite its economic growth, Chile remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. Moreover, socioeconomic inequality has sparked massive protests and deep disenchantment with political elites from across the ideological spectrum.
The past does not go away. Anyone who goes to Chile today can see and feel signs of the dictatorship’s legacy everywhere. It’s palpable! The political and economic class that sympathized with the dictatorship is now back in power, and the dictatorship’s constitution, penned in 1980, remains in effect. There are still families who have not located their disappeared loved ones. And despite the valiant efforts of those who have struggled to create a culture of human rights and justice, every so often people in positions of power appear in the media denying past human rights violations or explaining them away. Schools avoid talking about the recent past, particularly at the primary and secondary levels. Lots of families remain politically divided. For all of these reasons, it is just as important now as it was in the 1980s and 1990s that we continue the fight for accountability, truth, and justice.
When I began researching Civil Obedience, eight years ago, almost no one was talking about civilian complicity with the South American dictatorships. The topic was complete public taboo. Over the past five or so years, important works of journalism have started to address the subject, and it is now commonplace to hear people in Chile use the term “civilian-military dictatorship” (dictadura cívico-militar). I hope that my book will help fuel an honest debate about the uncomfortable ways in which Chile’s brutally violent past still maintains a hold on the present.
is a professor of Latin American literature and cultural studies at the University of California, Davis. His several books include Chile in Transition: The Poetics and Politics of Memory and Luz Arce and Pinochet’s Chile: Testimony in the Aftermath of State Violence.
Critical Human Rights
Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, Series Editors