In a confidential cable sent to Washington in early 2007, shortly after Pinochet’s death, the US ambassador in Chile stated that the Chilean people were less resentful of their past and the dictatorship than Spaniards are of the Franco dictatorship. Albeit superficial and somewhat inaccurate, his remark can serve as a springboard for a quick venture into comparative history, regarding the similarities and differences between the two dictatorships and the way they are remembered.

Pinochet learned a lot from Franco. Like his Spanish predecessor the Chilean dictator tried to impose a view of history that would legitimise the need for his coup d’état and depict him as the saviour of the nation. During their dictatorships, Franco and Pinochet celebrated 18 July and 11 September respectively as the mythic events underpinning “national salvation” from Marxist revolution. This official version of things, embedded thanks to the control of education, censorship and harassment of anybody who dared take issue with it publicly, spawned disinformation policies and the massaging of history, and this proved very hard to combat during their respective transitions to democracy.

The Pinochet coup on 11 September 1973 was not the trigger for civil war and at 17 years his dictatorship lasted 20 years less than Franco’s. After murders by the thousands and massive trespass against human rights, both dictatorships enjoyed considerable support from their citizenry. Franco died in his bed and never had to worry about answering for his crimes against humanity. Pinochet outlived his authoritarian government by 16 years and his arrest in London in October 1998 provoked a thoroughgoing debate about the past, bringing the contrasting stories and memories of the military and of the families of the disappeared and the victims of repression flooding back.

The legacy of the crimes of the two dictatorships was tackled very differently in the two countries. In Spain, in the wake of the Amnesty Law passed on 15 October 1977, the state undertook not to initiate any judicial investigation in the future or to apportion blame with regard to “crimes committed by public officials against the exercise of the rights of the person”. In light of traumatic memories of the war, represented as a sort of collective madness, with crimes attributable to both sides and of the fear enforced by the dictatorship, there was no talk then of setting up truth commissions to look into the thousands of murders and systematic violation of human rights practised by Franco and his armed forces right up until the last gasp.

In Chile, though, and even though its democracy, watched over and constrained by the still living dictator, there was no derogation from the amnesty that the military had awarded themselves in the 1978 Law and the first democratic president, Patricio Aylwin, decided to establish a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Aylwin reasoned that there could be no national reconciliation unless the disappeared and the victims of the armed forces were first unearthed and then acknowledged. Made up, under the chairmanship of the prestigious jurist Raul Rettig of human rights experts as well as of supporters of the dictatorship, such as historian Gonzalo Vial Correa, the Commission delivered its 1350 page report on 9 February 1991, less than a year after receiving its official commission.

Construed by the Chilean military as an attack on their honour and dignity, the Rettig Report was a milestone in the process of rebuilding democracy and collective memory. In Spain, during the Transition period and over the long decade of socialist rule since, there were no policies providing for legal or moral reparations for the victims of the war and dictatorship. Not only were the alleged executioners not brought to book, as the Amnesty Law laid down, but nothing was done to honour the victims and uncover their remains either.

So it is scarcely surprising that when at last, after nearly three decades after Franco’s death, the necessity for public commemorative polices began to be mooted in Spain, as had been done elsewhere, there came a huge rumpus from those most discomfited by the memory of the violence (the excuse being that this was planting the seeds of discord and placing peaceful coexistence and reconciliation in jeopardy). Used to getting away scot free and to crimes committed from positions of authority being forgotten about, they refused, and refuse still, to remember the past in order to learn from it.

To many Spaniards, rejection of the dictatorship and breaches of human rights has not been part and parcel of the shaping of their democratic political education. Which is why we have such difficulty looking at traumatic 20th experiences from a vantage point of freedom, knowledge and rigour. It looks like we are marooned in an endless debate and in actual fact we remain surrounded by fear and falsehoods. And, most importantly as far as out future is concerned, bereft of any clear educational and cultural policies vis a vis human rights. — PDFISSUU

Julián Casanova 06/02/11

Ediciones El Pais SL

(Translated by Paul Sharkey)