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50 years after Pinochet: We must learn from the past to protect our future

50 years after Pinochet: We must learn from the past to protect our future

Today, Chile will be commemorating 50 years since Augusto Pinochet's coup. As my country goes through this period of remembrance and reflection, the public debate still circles around democracy, human rights and its conditions or unconditionality. However, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to learn from our recent past.

Our country is still looking for answers 50 years after the coup that resulted in the bombing of one of Latin America’s most stable democracies. Recent headlines of the newly declassified files about the coup and dictatorship in Chile released by the U.S. government provided a long-awaited advance toward historical clarification.

Additionally, victims and families — mostly women — of those who endured human rights violations during the dictatorship and have yet to find justice are again in the spotlight after decades of being forced to search for their loved ones through their own efforts. The Chilean government just weeks ago made a new state's commitment to seek justice through the recently launched national plan to track down the more than thousand people who remain missing after they disappeared during the military rule and were imprisoned, tortured and killed.

While we work to amend the pain of our past, we must make it a priority to protect and better democratic structures for future generations. Chile is not alone in this, as we are facing a global sensation of being at a new tipping point for the value and legitimation of democracy. We have seen the erosion of democratic institutions during Trump and Bolsonaro presidential periods, the rise of the far-right movements in El Salvador, Italy, Hungary, Sweden, Finland, noteworthy elections in Germany and Argentina, and several recent coups in African countries that have left their mark on the world stage.

Across the globe, countries have a historical opportunity to take agency collectively and citizens individually, of making ourselves responsible for an ethical and committed defense of every person’s freedom to exist, differ, discern and choose. And let us not forget Arendt’s lucid arguments about the possibility of judgment even in moments where some try to even out the guilt, because when everyone is supposed to be responsible, no one can be held responsible. No, judgment is morally and judicially possible; justice, memory and history are necessary for not repeating horrors of the past.

Reflecting on our past, we should be able to identify the threats to a country’s democracy when they are in front of us. We know some at first seemingly harmless signs: the use of misinformation, fake news campaigns, movements aimed toward devaluating democracy, the influence of transnational financing, internal attempts to erode democratic institutions. These trends are happening across the globe, and it’s our responsibility to ensure we concretely expand democratic values and institutions.

I’m deeply troubled by what I’m seeing in our country today. While I take pride in being part of a political party and my public role as the first lady, my foremost identity is that of a citizen and an activist who passionately believes in the right of my fellow people to live in a stable and thriving democracy. I envision a Chile where our rights are the starting point for equality and where pluralism flourishes, where people can both dissent and achieve more freedoms.

To achieve this vision and make democracy defendable, governments must modernize in order to be more transparent and efficient, allowing for their citizens to actually appropriate it as its own decisional instrument that responds and reflects in the best way possible dynamic societal transformations. The work must also go beyond the halls of power, as there is a cultural and educational responsibility to keep reminding and reshaping a country's collective historical consciousness, in order to show the impact of past governments on our present, avoiding replicability of acts, attitudes and mindsets of dehumanization at all costs.

We must create a more fertile ground for younger generations to live in a healthy democratic society that allows for robust debate, compromise and differing opinions, particularly in political life. We must not allow any normalization of narratives that can lead to dehumanization of other human beings based on differing ideals, and we should condemn making human rights conditional to certain aspects of context. We should enable mindsets that can also allow new right-wing generations to reshape a political vision, freed of the still strongly anchored idea of right-wing identities being intrinsically attached to justifying Pinochet's coup.

Let us not aim for younger generations to aspire to comfort themselves by defending only those they see identical to themselves. Singularity and collective freedom have to be defendable at the same time. Are each of us doing our very best to better our democratic structures for the generations to come — and the present ones?

Irina Karamanos is the First Lady of Chile.


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