Interview with Manuel Antonio Garretón, Chilean sociologist and political scientist

Jul 16, 2013 Comments Off on Interview with Manuel Antonio Garretón, Chilean sociologist and political scientist by

By Marisel Mendoza

Translation by Jessica Sequeira

Manuel Antonio Garretón, a recognised Chilean sociologist and political scientist educated at the Universidad Católica of Santiago, with a doctorate from L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, is considered a regular contributor to the sociological field in Chile. As researcher and professor, he has taken on a range of themes, including political sociology, democratisation and transition, state and society, authoritarian regimes, university education, and state reform, among others.

In 2007 he received the National Award for the Humanities and Social Sciences for his prominent and ongoing contribution to the development of these disciplines, and his work has resulted in more than forty books and 300 academic publications.

He has been director and dean of various academic institutions, professor at universities both national and international, and head of many research projects. Since 1994, he has been chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Chile, and throughout 2012 and the beginning of 2013 he held the position of Simón Bolívar Professor at the University of Cambridge, in England.

Ventana Latina: In 2013, forty years will have passed since the coup d’état and the start of the military dictatorship. In the context of contemporary Chile, with its new political actors and social referents, and with a government led by a coalition of the right, how should one look back at this event that defined the political and social path of the nation?

Manuel Antonio Garretón: Everything we say about today’s Chile can be understood only as a product of reaction by the dominant sectors, which saw themselves affected by the political process of 70-73, and before that by the agrarian reform and transformational processes that took place in the 60s. These sectors made use of the military in their reaction; political crisis provoked by the resistance these sectors offered to projects attempting transformation was resolved through a coup d’état which attempted to generate a society negating the 60s and 70s. That fundamentally meant constructing a society in which the role of the state was eliminated, such that during this period a powerful private sector with a system of absolutely concentrated mediums of communication, as well as a political system working to preserve a certain socio-economic model, were generated. This is the reason that the military regime’s first reaction was the violation of human rights (…) which was the systematic attempt to eliminate not only politics, but all those who participated in certain ideas, entailing physical elimination through death, arbitrary detention, exile, and an elimination let’s call cultural, that is to say, the imposition of an authoritarian system in the educational system, the university, and so on.

VL: What happened with the end of the military dictatorship?

MAG: Chile is the only country in which the move away from military dictatorships of this type was achieved through governments formed by the combination of various opposition groups. What made this opposition unique in Chile was that it was formed by parties and social movements that were part of the political movement, that is, in Chile there was not a separation between political and social movements (…) Political majorities in Chile were constructed through parties, and that implied an alliance of the centre with the left, a cooperation that the parties learned throughout the dictatorship period, and that culminated in the creation of the Consensus of Parties for Democracy. Without a doubt, these governments were the most successful the history of Chile has ever had, responsible for the transition of Chile from dictatorship to democratic regime. They corrected the socioeconomic model, but were incapable of overcoming the socioeconomic and political model expressed in the Constitution. In some way, what defines the social movements of 2006 – fundamentally that of the secondary school students, but also including the Mapuche and environmentalist movements – as well as, above all, the student movement of 2011, is their exhaustion. They are the end of a cycle of corrections to the system, but not the overcoming and refoundation of a socioeconomic and political model.

VL: What task lies ahead?

MAG: The problem today in Chile, above all if we continue thinking in terms of the last 40 years, is the following. It has to do with – and this is what is latent in the social and student movements of 2011 – the remaking, overcoming, and transformation of the economic model put in place by the dictatorship, which one cannot change without also changing the political model established in the Constitution and its norms of a dual system, qualified quorums, etc. The question is who will effect that transformation (…) Today the great task at hand is to overcome these two anchors that bind Chilean society to the dictatorship, the society that was installed as a reponse to the social transformations of the 60s. And to make that leap presupposes a new sociopolitical subject.

VL: How would you characterise that new sociopolitical subject?

MAG: It cannot only be the political parties. Previously, when one referred to political parties, one also referred to social movements. There was no ‘No’ vote if the parties and the social movements were not the popular vote, and there were not mobilisations against the dictatorship if the parties and the social movements were not together. When one said working class in Chile, one said the Socialist party and Communist party; when one said student movement, one said the Political Youth of the parties of the Centre Left (…) Today, although all the parties of the opposition are close, they do not play a very important role in society, which expresses itself in another way. So what one has to look for are formulas through which a relationship between parties and social movements can be established. In my opinion, one moment when that can happen will be the next presidential election. If it doesn’t, I believe that a great effort has to be made for a social and political mobilisation implementing a new Constitution.

VL: Is it possible to give new significance, and resituate, the inconclusive experience of Popular Unity and the legacy of Salvador Allende?

MAG: I believe that the principal legacy of Salvador Allende is, first of all, the conviction that politics plays a fundamental role in the transformation of societies, and that it is through political action that societies question themselves, redefine themselves, overcome themselves, and set out those horizons or goals for themselves that give society a large role, but at the same time resolve the more individual and particular problems of citizens. The second fundamental element in his legacy is the idea of the transformation of society and the profundization of democracy, which is masterfully described in his speech of 21 May 1971 when he points out that the great task of the nation is to deepen democracy – to generate socioeconomic democracy in order to strengthen political democracy.

VL: In what way do you think the sociopolitical processes in Chile rooted in the coup d’état have been reflected in diverse forms of artistic expression (in the cinema, literature, etc.)?

MAG: The theme of art goes beyond the political situation; it has its own dynamic. But one has to recognise that in all countries, and in the Chilean case without a doubt, there has been a link between artistic expression on the one hand, and the reflection on, or preoccupation with, the fate of society on the other. This applies even in the case of poetry, the most intimate and subjective form of artistic expression. This has been very clear in the Chilean case, in which one might cite the name of Pablo Neruda, but also that of Nicanor Parra, Raúl Zurita, and even Oscar Hahn, whose poetry is less political but has a deep content. And if one wants to explain to the youth how Chile was during Popular Unity, what happened 40 years ago, nothing is better than a film.

VL: From that perspective, what film would you recommend?

MAG: Nothing is better for explaining how things were to people unfamiliar with this history than a film called ‘Machuca’. Its interest is that it is a film about what happens to society at a very micro level – that could be a secondary school, for instance. And yet through that angle, one is given all the drama and meaning of the political and social struggle. The film speaks very little about politics directly, and neither Allende nor the parties appear, and yet it shows all that occurs politically in society. It’s my feeling that something like this is very difficult to express in a sociological essay; artistic expression, in this case cinema, expresses it better.

VL: And from the literary point of view?

MAG:  I believe that to understand certain things about Chilean society, whether or not you like it from the literary point of view, the novel ‘The House of Spirits’ (1982) was tremendously illuminating. In another novel, ‘Of Love and Shadows’, Isabel Allende introduces to Latin American literature the theme of the people who disappeared under the dictatorship, which hadn’t existed until then (…) If one wants to understand Chilean society from its origins up to society under the military regime, the novel ‘Country House’ by José Donoso is fundamental, and to understand what happened in Chile before the coup, Donoso has another novel called ‘Despair’. As these examples show, the artistic and cultural world in Chile has been extremely perceptive about society, revealing angles not seen from other points of view, such as that of the scientific discipline.


As for the work of Garretón himself, whoever embarks on the task of reading the first book of his professional career, titled The Chilean political process (which discusses the crisis of society, the period 70-72, and the analysis of the military regime), continues with Towards a new political era (which takes on the theme of transitions), and finishes with Neoliberalism corrected and progressivism limited: The governments of the Consensus in Chile 1990-2012 will have a complete overview of the 40 years since the coup d’état and the sociopolitical process of the period.


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