Claudia Stern on class and urban space in Chile, c.1970-c.1990

For our last seminar of the year, the group was treated to a stimulating talk by Claudia Stern (Tel Aviv), one of the Centre’s two visiting fellows this year. Following a workshop and a screening of the documentary film ‘Nae Pasaran’ the previous day, Claudia delivered a richly detailed presentation exploring how middle class identities were redefined in Chile over the course of the 1970s and 1980s. Robbie Johnston was there to listen to her presentation.

The military dictator Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990

The 11th of September 1973 remains a notorious date in Chilean history. It was on this day that military forces, headed by General Augusto Pinochet, toppled the democratically elected socialist government of President Salvador Allende in a coup d’état. The subsequent military regime would rule over Chile until 1990.

Claudia’s talk addressed a crucial, but understudied, aspect of this long period of dictatorship, namely the development of middle class identities. Her paper explored this through the lens of cultural trauma, defined as an aftereffect of social collapse, a force that undermines group identities, sense of belonging and community. The importance of public space was also a central part of Claudia’s analysis.

Claudia began the talk by contextualising the political turmoil of early 1970s Chile, as its social fabric came under increasing strain. At a fourth attempt, the leftist Allende won the Presidency in the 1970 election. In a relatively short space of time, the new Government nationalised the country’s highly prized copper industry, and initiated a host of sweeping reforms in land and housing. Such radical change did not go uncontested. Large sections of the Chilean middle classes had contempt for the Allende’s ‘Chilean Road to Socialism’. Claudia presented her audience with the spectacle of an early protest (or ‘Cacerolazo’) against the socialist government on the 1st of December 1971. The picture was striking. Middle and upper class women took to the streets of Downtown Santiago, banging pots, pans and various kinds of kitchen utensils to register their discontent. Occupying the streets in dramatic fashion, they sought to demonstrate how women – specifically housewives – felt the effects of economic deterioration especially hard (by 1973, inflation reached a dizzying rate of 600 per cent).

Of course, the middle classes did not respond to these disorientating years of political polarisation in a unified way. As Claudia stressed throughout the talk, although the middle classes tended to share common values, they moved on multiple planes in terms of how they viewed themselves. Identities were in flux between generations. For instance, young men from middle class backgrounds were often attracted to left wing movements, identifying with the projection of a masculine, proletarian image.

A major part of Claudia’s talk centred on the national football stadium. The ground, the Estadio Nacional de Chile, became an iconic space in 20th century Chilean history. It contributed to the formation of the middle classes and their place appropriations; it highlighted the extreme split of Chilean society between Allende’s followers and Pinochet supporters; and it symbolised the first effect of the dictatorship on this civic space.

Chile’s Estadio Nacional was converted into a detention centre during Pinochet’s dictatorship

In September 1973, the military junta converted the stadium into a detention centre, where political prisoners were tortured and executed. It remains a site of cultural trauma. Hatch 8, a point on the terrace where prisoners were led into the stadium, has been preserved as a monument to the brutality of the regime. ‘Un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro’ read the words inscribed on the stadium wall. (‘A people without a memory are a people without a future.’)

“Hatch 8” in the Estadio Nacional

Elsewhere, in its attempt to stir patriotic sentiment behind the regime, the dictatorship appropriated national symbols and public spaces, including the national stadium, as its own. Claudia drew our attention to Pinochet’s lighting of ‘The Chilean Eternal Flame of Liberty’ in Bulnes Square, Santiago. The ceremony, marking two years since the coup, was plainly designed to symbolise the triumph of ‘light’ over forces of ‘darkness’. The fervently nationalist discourse of the regime had some appeal. Many welcomed the new regime, at least in its early stages. One of Claudia’s interviewees, whose parents had both been middle class employees at private firms nationalised by the UP government, spoke to this outlook. Although he later came to regret the dictatorship, he nonetheless recalled: ‘I was so calm that I was not interested in knowing anything. Tranquillity was back. Though we could not go out at night, we lived in peace’.

Claudia then examined the ways in which urban housing was contested over this period. The radical public housing programme of Allende’s left-wing Unión Popular (UP) played a key role in its electoral rise. Much of its strength came from rural migration into urban areas. By 1970, Santiago alone contained over 33 per cent of Chile’s entire population. As Claudia emphasised, many of these voters became politicised; the working class politics of the time was well captured in the song of Victor Jara, ‘Las casitas de barrio alto’. In power, the UP defined housing as an ‘inalienable right’.

However, Pinochet’s regime, under the influence of the Chicago School of economics, instigated a pushback. Housing was reframed as a ‘right that is acquired through effort and savings’. Policies like these inscribed the politics of the regime into the everyday spaces of city residents.

Edinburgh’s own Tereza Valny opened the discussion with her comment. She focused her remarks on Claudia’s ‘methodologically innovative research’ and the ways it illuminated such multifaceted experiences. Her enthusiasm for Claudia’s work shone through clearly.

Claudia commented that she had not initially intended to centre her project on the idea of cultural trauma. However, its utility as a guiding concept for her work became clear as she gathered testimonies. In addition, Claudia spoke to the problem of conducting archival research. She commented that during her PhD work, looking at an earlier timeframe of 1932 to 1962, archival material was far more readily available. For the 1970s and 1980s, she has had to fill archival gaps by drawing more extensively on different methodologies, in particular, oral history.

In any case, it was clear that Claudia’s research is rich in content and at an advanced stage. It was a fitting presentation to round off this year’s theme of ‘Space’, as the Centre moves to looking at ‘Revolution’ next year.

Robbie Johnston is a PhD student in History. His primary research interests lie in the twentieth-century politics of Scotland and Britain. He is currently working on a thesis which explores the development of Scottish Home Rule and Nationalism from the 1970s to the 1990s.