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Image: Social workers attending a memorial event

Gianinna Muñoz Arce
Department of Social Work , University of Chile

Chilean Social Work and the Legacies of the Dictatorship

It is well known that the right-wing, civil-military dictatorship led by Pinochet in Chile between 1973 and 1990 produced not only economic and political damage to vast sectors of the population by the violent imposition of the ‘neoliberal experiment’, but also provoked a significant fracture in collective trust and social bonds. Fragmentation of the Chilean society in factions ‘in favour of’ and ‘against to’ the dictatorship and neoliberal policies, along with fear, repression, and censorship, created an extremely complex political environment at that time. It needs to be added that unemployment and poverty reached a peak during the 1980s -nearly 50% of the Chilean population was under the poverty line in 1990; while privatisation policies were rapidly conducted and the state was reduced to its minimal expression (Ffrench-Davies, 2010).

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Image:Workers of the Vicariate of Solidarity

Social work, as a profession always shaped by its political context, also experienced such divisions and tensions: many social workers were intimidated, persecuted, arrested, imprisoned and tortured (López, 2012; Catañeda and Salamé, 2013, Aguayo et al., 2018). According to the registers of the National Association of Social Workers, 19 colleagues were arrested and ‘disappeared’ during the dictatorship’s first years, including at least four social workers who were pregnant at the time of detention (Vera, 2016). At the present time it is still not known where their bodies are.

But many other social workers survived and resisted such a period, struggling for the recovery of democracy. As Aguayo et al. (2018) have expressed, the history of social work is ‘a history of lights and shadows’, full of conservative, reactionist, colonial and oppressive practices as well as critical initiatives, committed to the struggle for social justice. The Chilean dictatorship not only represented violence and repression, but also reminds of the courage of those social workers who took the road of defending human rights and contributed to the recovery of democratic regimes, as several studies have illustrated (Morales, 2010; Castañeda y Salamé, 2013; Rubilar, 2018; Del Villar, 2018). These social workers worked under dangerous conditions, protecting those people persecuted by the regime, organising community food banks during the economic crisis, creating popular and feminist collective movements, producing knowledge from participatory active research and popular education and forming alternative professional associations (López, 2012).

Looking at the dark side

The other side of this history -often the silenced one- refers to those social workers that collaborated with the authoritarian rule of Pinochet either in passive or active ways, “deciding to maintain or even upgrade their positions at the expense of declaring their adherence to de facto regime or even justifying the repression against their colleagues” (Hernández and Ruz, 2005: 96). Some social work academics accepted to remain in their positions at universities under the rule of Chancellors and Deans imposed by the Military Junta at the same time that some of their colleagues were expelled from universities due to ideological reasons and some frontline social workers continued to work in municipalities under the direction of Mayors imposed by Pinochet. Even the Board of the National Association of Social Workers was imposed by the Military Junta bypassing established democratic procedures of election. This Board, formed by social work colleagues who supported the Pinochet’s rule led social work professional organisation until 1985 (López, 2012).

Some social workers have also been accused of participating in irregular adoptions occurred during the dictatorship. Despite evidence gathered as part of a judicial inquiry suggests that irregular adoptions transcend the period of dictatorship, it has been estimated that there are more than 20,000 victims only between 1981 and 1983 (Inquiry Commission’s Report, 2018). In a similar vein, the historian Alfaro- Monsalve (2018) has suggested that “data provided by international adoption centres indicate that between 1975 and 1982 the percentage of Chilean children who were subject to adoption increased considerably” (Inquiry Commission’s Report, 2018: 63).

The judicial procedure, currently in development, indicates that at least nine social workers collaborated with irregular adoptions, receiving considerable payments for their professional services . According to the Inquiry Commission’s Report (2018), social workers used to write legal reports indicating that children were neglected by their parents and suggested families able to provide them care and protection, demanding legal entitlement for adoption. Then, social workers took the children out of Chile -mainly to the United States and European countries- to proceed with the adoption process . In most of the reviewed cases, there was a financial contribution for mothers .

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Image: Stone which reads: “Here life and freedom were defended..., here hope and dignity were recovered. Here operated the Vicariate of Solidarity. Sept 1973 – March 1990”

According to many of the testimonies gathered in the Inquiry Commission’s Report (2018: 54), “after giving birth, most of the time mothers were told by social workers that their children had died”, and “social workers wrote false reports” to support the cases for adoption. These testimonies claim that children were taken without their parents’ consent and that most of these children were not registered in the National Civil Registry as required by the Chilean regulations. The Inquiry Commission has not arrived at any conclusion regarding the motivations underlying these irregular adoptions’ procedures, although a working hypothesis is that irregular adoptions were politically motivated and underpinned by an ideological approach inspired in the ‘civilizing project’ and ‘class hate’ driven by the Pinochet’s dictatorship (Alfaro-Monsalve, 2018).

Recognising the legacies, looking for hope

The question that arises here is why Chilean social work has been able to recognise the legacy of its heroes and martyrs but has dismissed the darkest side of such a history: that of those social workers who acted against or declined to act in favour of human rights during the dictatorship. Different from professional associations in Argentina and other countries that have experienced institutional violence, Chilean social workers’ organisations have been unable to investigate and even speak about that darkest side of our professional history. We can look at structural conditions to find out some clues that may help us understand why we have negated or at least silenced such a dimension of our professional inheritance. The Pact of Silence that has protected data related to the crimes committed during the dictatorship may have inhibited disclosing the truth about those social workers that collaborated with the dictatorship. In addition, if we look at the trials for Justice and Reparation conducted since the return of the democratic regime, we can see that the results have been generally unsatisfactory for victims, marked by a prevailing denial of political crimes and a rejection of their vindication as necessary for the good of the country (Lira, 2010). This creates an environment of defencelessness, desolation and isolation, which may have also affected social workers by means of professional trauma. Whereas this may contribute to understanding the context, more research is needed to deepen this analysis, especially from the voices of those social workers that experienced this brutal episode of the Chilean history.

What can we do with our history? Reiterations and regressions to its past show that social work is pendant and in process, an unfinished project. Historical and political fractures that have shaped Chilean social work during the last four decades emerge today as a legacy that involves both neoliberal oppressions inherited from the dictatorship and resistance against them. Such a professional inheritance places limits to social work, but, at the same time, provokes the creation of emancipatory strategies to contest the hegemonic order. Our past is not a sentence. As Cortés (2018) has claimed, recognising professional inheritances compels us to choose, prefer, exclude, let collapse the legacy in order to answer the call of the present. Despite the traumatic professional past and the fact that the consequences of the dictatorship are far from ending, Chilean social workers are called, from a critical perspective, to examine the ‘lights and shadows’ of our professional history to recompose memory and look forward.


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