Pinochet: General Earthquake (English version)

1985 earthquake: how does one measure an earthquake? Photo by Luis Weinstein

By Carmen Oquendo-Villar

“The death of General Pinochet has caused an earthquake among the army rank and file.” —Channel 13 news, December 15, 2006, 11:30 a.m. 

Chile experienced two earthquakes on September 11, 1973. In this highly seismic country, earthquakes form a part othe daily lives of its inhabitants in certain regions. Only a few of the capital’s colonial buildings managed to survive the frequent flooding and earthquakes of that period. One region in Chile has experienced up to 18 small quakes daily, indicating almost permanent seismic activity.

Chile’s collective imaginary has become accustomed to natural disaster and calamity. Earthquakes and, to a lesser degree, flooding, have dominated its constellation of disaster. The “imaginary of calamity,” as Chileans often refer to catastrophic natural phenomena, finds historical echoes in the devastating earthquakes of 1751 and 1835, which marked the period of revolution and independence of the Republic (1810-1818). The 1835 earthquake became internationally famous when young Charles Darwin experienced the event during his scientific expedition to Chile. He reflected on this trip in the Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, Under the Command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N., from 1832 to 1836 (London: Henry Colburn, 1839): A bad earthquake at once destroys the oldest associations; the world, the very emblem of all that is solid, has moved beneath our feet like a [thin] crust over a fluid.” Darwin continues,”One second of time has created in the mind a strong idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced”. Darwin, Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, Under the Command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N., from 1832 to 1836 369.

More than a century later, this earthquake was surpassed by the traumatic 1960 “Great Earthquake of Chile” which registered 9.5 on the Richter scale. That earthquake tumbled buildings, killed almost 3,000 people and left affected two million.

These natural phenomena exist in the realm of the possible and the imaginable in Chile, in spite of their erratic nature and the great destruction they generate. The country’s governmental institutions and civil society organizations—such as prevention agencies and emergency aid groups—live in a state of never-ending but always insufficient preparation. Earthquake-prone Chile in 1973 could easily conceive of a possibly catastrophic intrusion of nature into the social and cultural realm. What Chileans could not imagine was disaster of a political nature, so typical of the rest of Latin America in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

The experience of a relatively tumultuous colonial period with a permanent state of war because of fierce indigenous resistence to the Spanish Conquest, a relatively long war for independence and two decades (the 20s and 30s) plagued by coups and de facto governments did not keep Chile from generating a self-concept based on political stability and pride in the longevity of its institutions. Chile had long thought of itself as the “Latin American exception” with its solid institutional base. Chile set itself up as the model example of institutionality, pointing to Diego Portales, the “Organizer of the Republic and “Founder of Institutionality” with his work The Form of the State (Estado en forma).

In La seducción de un orden: Las élites y la construcción de Chile en las polémicas culturales y políticas del siglo XIX(Santiago: Ediciones Universidad Católica de Chile, 2000), Ana María Stuven argues that since the 19th century, institutionality and social order have made up fundamental concepts of Chile as nation. Stuven proposes that the idea of nation during the first fifty years of republican life was shaped by the national elites’ fear of endangering the established social order. Thus, these elites sought to avoid the breakdown of the status quo at all costs, including at the expense of the very liberal ideals that had inspired the wars for independence. In this sense, the mythology of institutionality made this country, on the verge of experiencing one of the most infamous coups in the world, think of itself as “earthquake-proof” in terms of its social institutions. Chile thought of itself as invulnerable to political catastrophe, or any “abrupt change of the state of the system” (Royal Academy).


On September 11, 1973, two tiny earthquakes, both under 3.5 on the Richter scale, went almost unperceived, lost in the military thunder of the Chilean Air Force Hawker Hunters blasting at the scenes of deposed order.

While the coup was, to a certain extent, unintelligible within the framework of the national mythology of law and order, it was, in other ways, quite foreseeable. It was general knowledge that the 1973 political crisis had stirred conflict among the Armed Forces, discontent that could lead to rebellion. Enormous collective anxiety stemmed from the sharp crisis set off by the Unidad Popular government—a period of dizzying change confronting the long-reigning dictatorship of supposed stability. From this point of view, the two milestones of the 20th century would be September 11, 1973, and September 4, 1970, the day Salvador Allende was elected president, when Chile brought to power the chimera of socialism without revolution, “socialism with red wine and empanadas,” the famous Chilean way.

During 1973, public opinion debated the looming civil war. In a certain way, the media gave a discursive reality to what would later become empirical reality. Claudio Rolle contends in La 'no historia' de un año crucial en 1973: La vida cotidiana de un año crucial (Santiago: Planeta, 2003): 26, “…paradoxically, the more we argue against a coup, the more a coup appears upon the horizon of expectations, now turned into an almost inevitable threat.” However, nothing prepared Chile for the actual coup. Surpassing all parameters with the force of an earthquake, the 1973 military-political shakeup had the impact of the 1960 geological event. Darwin’s perception that the 1835 earthquake represented a shattering of the “oldest associations” echoed in the Chilean collective memory. Making almost irrelevant September 11’s two small geological quakes, the coup became a historical schism that definitively changed 20th century Chile.

Chile’s political earthquake spread out from Valparaiso to Santiago and then sent a tremor through the entire country. Throughout the years, the coup has continued to have an impact, to the present day. September 11, 1973, has been inscribed as the most significant day-event in Chile’s 20th century history, resonating in the international imaginary of catastrophe in a similar fashion to that other September 11 of recent U.S. history.


If the coup was experienced as a kind of earthquake, Pinochet’s leadership in the caudillo (strongman) style emerged—after the movement of those tectonic layers called the Armed Forces—as a gigantic tsunami that swept through the narrow but long Chilean geography. From there, from the cracks in the imploded earth, from the shaken architecture, arose the totem—somewhere between telluric, marble-like and technological—of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. Pinochet did not produce the coup; Pinochet was produced by the coup. Shaking earth, history and bodies, this event gave birth to the General, with the media serving as midwives. The event gave corporality to his image, projection to his voice, and relevance to his words, generating a body for the dictator, upon which post-coup law would be constituted.

Iconic status has accompanied Pinochet ever since he emerged as a political actor. The dictator’s body, with its paraphenalia and gestuality, was generated in the media through images, sounds and words that in 1973 shook the entire world.It would project itself over and over again in the memories of thousands of people and, with its expressive force, is still capable of striking spectators down to this day. The seismic wave continues to vibrate.

Even after his death, Pinochet returned to protagonize public debate. Pinochet, now in the grave, emerged once again with seismic force. This was the General Earthquake that shook up, for better or worse (depending on one’s viewpoint), Chilean history. With its origins in the coup, this metaphor recurs, just like the earthquakes, without any determinate cycle, to a collective public incapable of reaching a consensus about the strongman’s image and legacy.


There are two scales used to measure earthquakes. The Richter scale measures the earthquake’s seismic energy, based on the seismographic register. The Mercalli scale, on the other hand, is not based on registers, but focuses on structural damage and people’s perceived sensations. With Pinochet’s death, the entire country dedicated itself to processing its perceptions about the caudillo, and to reaching closure in regard to this leader who had not been tried legally or historically. In December, various judgements were being discussed, among them, divine, historical and, obviously, legal. In a phenomological sense, the Mercalli scale was being used to measure the Pinochet earthquake, mostly considering the perception of the military government’s actions and works, as well as its costs and consequences. On one side of the scale of public opinion weighed Chile’s economic prosperity and political stability. On the other side weighed the human and social cost: the assault on democracy and humanity. The strongman’s defenders established their version of the historic perspective; his detractors expressed their discomfort with the idea of progress as catastrophe and asked that the bright economic picture be seen in the light of an ethical mirror.

Polarization accompanied the caudillo’s funeral. In the style of a Jorge Luis Borges character, Pinochet was both traitor and hero. His cadaver was spit upon by the grandson of Carlos Prat, a former military commander murdered in Argentina on Pinochet’s orders. Pinochet’s body, draped in the uniform of Chilean forefather and independence hero Bernardo O’Higgins, was honored by a long procession of followers, while others gathered in the Plaza Italia, celebrating Pinochet’s death, yet lamenting that he had never been brought to justice.

It is not surprising to anyone that postmortem public judgement has a high visual component. Indeed, as writer Carlos Franz has observed, Pinochet had become an “icon of contemporary pop culture.” For many around the world, Pinochet was their only identifiable reference to Chile. As a “Pinochetologist” who has spent the past decade studying the caudillo, I have questioned at times my own monumentalization of the dictator. As a Puerto Rican with only intellectual and emotional connections to Chile, I have experienced this leader as a “larger than life” figure. In my own investigations, I confront the dangerous power of the enchantment of image, and therefore I consider it imperative to take into account the symbiotic relationship between projected image, perception and social control. Media projection must be considered to understand the exercise of power, the retention of social control and the construction of historic memory.

Pinochet’s funeral wove together publicity codes and military protocols. The obsession with icons was the great protagonist at the funeral. Thousands of people, polarized by their ideologies, took to the streets, their icons in hand. Some of them carried the image of the brutal dictator and others of the founding father of modern Chile. On some occasions, opposing factions used the same image, imbuing it with different meanings. Since the measure of an earthquake on the Mercalli scale is one of perception, the media relied on the play of images. Thus, newspapers and magazines published special issues, remembering Pinochet’s trajectory through carefully selected images. New technologies did the same thing; opinions about Pinochet proliferated on blogs and e-mail. Independent Internet broadcaster YouTube received an avalanche of Pinochet-themed videos.


The death of Pinochet shook up civil society’s public opinion, as well as the government and Armed Forces. Two Army officers, one of them Pinochet’s grandson Augusto Pinochet III, demonstrated sympathy for Pinochet during the funeral, expressing their political affinity with a coup as a viable instrument. These remarks alarmed those who believed that 21st century Chile could never endorse a coup, and eventually the remarks were interpreted by the government and the top Army leadership as “political opinions” unacceptable for uniformed officers. Both were dismissed from the Army.

“The death of General Pinochet has caused an earthquake among the army rank and file,” was what the journalist for Catholic Channel 13 noted with alarm, underscoring the turbulent situation faced by President Michelle Bachelet and the Army. The polemic centered around issues like the granting of a state funeral and military honors, but soon escalated to an impassioned argument about the possible construction of a monument in Pinochet’s memory or the placing of an oil painting in his honor in the Gallery of the Presidents in the presidential palace, La Moneda. Although Pinochet’s body had already been cremated, public debate continued about the historic inscription that was to be bestowed upon the caudillo’s body. On those December days, the debate was, and continues to be, what image will remain indelibly stamped and unshakably monumentalized in the imaginary mausoleum of Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte (1915-2006).

Disagreements about the significance of his figure and the decoding of the icon gave way to deep unanimity: the incursion of this military man into Chilean history had changed its course forever. Pinochet’s funeral did away with the most optimistic version of the ultra-negotiated Chilean transition, leaving it behind in the rubble. This version affirmed that the former dictator had been buried as an obsolete political actor in this 21st century, that the former ruler was only a shadow, a remora of the past. But, Pinochet had not died before his death on December 10, 2006, as many claimed. He was dying, but not dead. His figure may have been hidden, but his ghost flickered about and was occasionally glimpsed in the national panorama. Unlike an extinct volcano, the apparently fossilized icon—whether simmering in black-and-white or in living color—seemed ready to cyclically emerge in accordance with the perverse logic of calamity. It is possible that Pinochet, as Ariel Dorfman feared in his posthumous reflection in El País December 12, 2006, “will never be extinguished from the earth.”

Carmen Oquendo-Villar is a curator and visual artist of Puerto Rican and Spanish descent. Educated in Latin America, West Africa and the United States, she is now a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard. Also a scholar, she is currently completing a book on performance and politics during Chile’s Coup, specifically about Augusto Pinochet as its leading political icon.