Research driven to stop suffering

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

Twenty-eight years before the date was seared into the American consciousness, Chileans came to know September 11. On that day in 1973 the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet assumed control of the Andean country.

Santiago-born University of Calgary political science professor Pablo Policzer has carried that national legacy into his academic work. A 10-year-old at the time of the coup, his family moved to Vancouver, where he would eventually take an honours BA in political science at the University of British Columbia.

Following that degree, Policzer again moved, this time to MIT to pursue his PhD. His academic interests were in part driven by his early background in Chile, a similar experience to many of his contemporaries.

“As a Chilean, I knew that I wanted to understand the dictatorship better,” said Policzer. “For Chileans September 11, 1973, is probably the most important day, [one] that has marked generations of Chileans. It’s affected how we think about things.”

Policzer wrote his PhD dissertation — which has recently been published as a book by the University of Notre Dame Press — on the Chilean dictatorship’s repressive apparatus, particularly the secret police. He found that, despite despots’ claims to the contrary, dictatorships are unable to obviate the messier aspects of politics they commonly deride in civilian government.

“When you look at the most fundamental function that any ruler has to do, coercive functions, policing especially, [you find] that this is a fundamentally political activity,” he said. “Policing is a highly political function, even in authoritarian regimes.”

After completing his doctorate, Policzer took up a post-doctoral position at UBC, later coming to the U of C in 2004. Since his return to Canada he has continued to grapple with the reality of repressive regimes, though his focus has broadened.

“I don’t just look at the Chilean dictatorship, but other authoritarian organizations now,” said Policzer.

Policzer currently holds a Canada Research Chair in Latin American Politics and has recently won funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to study “complex armed organizations in Latin America,” particularly in Columbia and Chile, with an associate in Columbia.

As part of the Armed Groups Project, Policzer is assessing how non-state armed groups can be made to comply with human rights guidelines. His work in the area is largely driven by a desire to alleviate suffering under such dictatorships.

“It was motivated by the idea that the more we can understand how these regimes operate, the better we can control them and regulate them,” he explained.

Latin America has experienced a long history of inequality and domination, which, in tandem with a lack of strong states able to monopolize coercive measures, has led to considerable violence, suggested Policzer. One of his research projects the last couple of years has been studying this legacy of violence.

“[Latin America] hasn’t always been violent and it hasn’t been uniformly violent . . . some parts and some periods are remarkably peaceful,” he said. “Having said that, modern Latin America comes into being as the clash of two very different societies, the European and the Native societies.”

Despite the long-standing violence of the region, Policzer feels change is possible.

“If you look back at the history of the Scandinavian countries, a hundred years ago, these are societies that are profoundly violent. But they resolved this problem by creating strong and effective and just institutions,” noted Policzer. “Societies aren’t doomed to keep following even entrenched paths. There are always choices, and they can always choose to improve their lot.”

Policzer is also studying the current state of democracy in Latin America and Andean South America with colleagues at UBC.

In addition to his research, Policzer is busy teaching classes, in which he stresses to students the importance of these issues.

“It’s important to understand these issues critically, because there are real people at the other end of these books,” he said. “The issues we discuss in these courses are ones that affect real people in clear ways. It’s important for students to understand that we are not just discussing abstractions, but real people and real lives.”

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