Steve J. Stern's Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, 1973-1988

A protest action by CADA-Colectivo de Acciones de Arte. Santiago de Chile, 1979-1983.
In Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, 1973-1988 Steve J. Stern (2006) [538pp] explores the history of memory in Chile during the rule of Pinochet.  This is the second book of Stern’s trilogy.  I wanted to read this book in order to use it as a model for reflecting on the history of memory in El Salvador, particularly the memory of El Salvador’s most recent war, but also the memory of 1932.  Stern’s book makes me wonder about the dominant memory frames of the war and peace accords in the case of El Salvador.  What are key events that challenge the dominant frames of memory?  How is memory of the war evolving especially now that the FMLN is in power?  Is a war for the “hearts and minds” being waged in El Salvador?  What are the cultural products and experiences that challenge existing frames of memory of the war in El Salvador?

Battling for Hearts and Minds (Argument)
Steve Stern’s Battling for Hearts and Minds tells the story of memory in Chile from 1973-1988.  Stern argues that various contending narratives of memory were in play throughout the Pinochet era.  Memory as salvation was the most prominent memory frame throughout the coup and Stern traces this back to before Salvador Allende won the Presidency.  There were fears as early as 1964 that a socialist President would spell disaster for Chile.  This set the stage for the military to step in in 1973 to “save” the country.  According to Stern after the coup until about 1977 was a foundational period in which the junta seemed to have won the cultural battle.  Then there were certain things like the case of the list of the 119 abducted and killed and the remains of the 15 detained men in Lonquen that could not easily be reconciled into the view of the coup as salvation.  The first cracks in this memory frame adapted the memory as salvation narrative to admit that the military had carried out harsh actions of repression.  After this in the 1980’s the slow process of “ant’s work” continued to work at challenging the coup.  Later, “loose memories” such as those of Acevedo whose children had been abducted by the CNI, became public examples with which many in society could identify.  Throughout the 1980’s memory became tied up with mass protests and Pinochet began to lose the war for the culture of Chile.  While Pinochet remained in power until the plebiscite of 1988 and maintained political and military power even after the plebiscite, he had lost the crucial battle for “hearts and minds”.

The first part of Stern’s book (Chapters 1-5) focuses on the 1970s and the early years of the coup as foundational years of memory and takes up four ways of collectively remembering the coup that would endure through the 1990s.  The first of these is the coup as salvation of a society in ruins.  “Partisans of junta rule remembered military intervention in 1973 as the salvation of a society in ruins and on the edge of a violent bloodbath” (2).  Another framework for remembering was memory as rupture (relatives of the disappeared, for example).  Many solidarity and religious activists remembered the coup as persecution and awakening.  “Solidarity and religious activists who supported victims and their families and who pushed human rights concerns into the public domain bore witness to the junta’s multifaceted and layered repression”(2).  Finally, a fourth framework was memory as mindful forgetting.  “In this perspective, the early junta years had been times of dirty war that were now thankfully superseded, even as they had laid a foundation for future progress” (3).  Part II (Chapters 6-8) focuses on the 1980s and argues that memory politics merged with mass protests; memory became a mass experience.   

Chapter Breakdown
Chapter One, “Chronicling a Coup Foretold? Previews of the Impossible” shows how the roots of “memory as salvation” go back to Allende’s presidency (1970-73) and can even be traced back into the 1960s.  Stern argues that a public discourse of disaster and catastrophe was compounded by economic crisis.  While Allende knew that his democratic transition to socialism was pushing the boundaries of what society would accept, he did not believe that disaster of rule could really produce a dictatorship.  So, even though the coup as salvation had been scripted into the public discourse, no one really believed that it would happen because they saw Chile as a country where nothing like that could happen.

Chapter Two, “Chileans of a Well Placed Heart, 1973-1976” shows how the junta forged collective memory of the coup as salvation through public exposes (Plan Z), official speeches, media reports, and imagery of respectable in need of rescue.  This discourse “justified a continuing state of war against a minority of diabolical enemies”(74).

Chapter Three “Witnessing and Awakening Chile: Testimonial Truth and Struggle, 1973-1977” charts a moment of rupture in which society started to publically question the state’s official narrative.  In this chapter, for example, Stern describes the bombing of the Paulina Waugh gallery because of the relationship between the gallery and poor women making arpilleras (often focused on human rights, values, economic and social themes, not explicit political content).  

Chapter Four “Road to Oblivion, 1977-82” shows how memory knots had surfaced such as the remains of fifteen detained men found in the ovens of Lonquen that were difficult for Pinochet to incorporate into the narrative of memory as salvation.  The memory narrative shifted to admitting that “harsh action was required to ‘contain the excesses of Marxism and its allies’”, but that resentments were not useful and that it was time to move on (148).

Chapter Five “Digging In: Counter-official Chile, 1979-1982” describes how by 1979-81 the regime had built a supportive bases and had found a way to get around human rights scandals (196).  The left responded with “ant’s work” which is the continued persistence and solidarity of activists in exile, human rights lawyers, and of people in other networks and organizations. 

Chapter Six, “Great Shakings: Memory War in the Streets, 1983-1986” begins to illustrate the transition from private to public suffering.  In the 80s memory struggles merged with mass struggle and mass experience.  The best case of this is Sebastián Acevedo who threatened to set himself on fire if the CNI did not return his children.  The CNI did not take him seriously and he started himself on fire dying later that night from his burns.  Sympathizers made a public shrine and took flowers and candles every Friday for 4 months.  Several thousand attended the funeral where the Bishop called for an end to torture and the dissolution of the CNI.  Voices of the wilderness had become voices in society.

Chapter Seven, “Time travel: Memory War in Media and Politics, 1983-86” argues that Pinochet began to lose a cultural war even while he maintained political power.  People stopped attending the commemoration of September 11, 1973 and stopped seeing it as a point of salvation.  Instead of celebration, September 11th became a symbol of discord.  Even his supporters started to wonder if military rule had outlived its time in Chile. 


Chapter Eight “Did you Forget Me? 1987-1988” discusses the “No” campaign for the plebiscite of 1988 that ousted Pinochet from power.  Pinochet lost the plebiscite, but a large minority 43% had voted for him to remain in power.  He continued on as army commander and had other political power necessary to maintain impunity.  Chile remained a society divided over memory.

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