Although Death and the Maiden never specifically names Chile as its setting, playwright Ariel Dorfman based the play on his home country’s struggle to return to democracy after several decades of dictatorial rule. In the play, Gerardo has been appointed to the Investigating Commission, which will examine human rights violations under the fallen dictator’s rule. This fictional commission is based on the real-life Rettig Commission that democratically-elected president Patricio Aylwin established in Chile. The characters of Death and the Maiden express their doubt about the Investigating Commission's ability to achieve justice for the country – in fact, Paulina’s actions are entirely motivated by her suspicion that the commission will fail to enact the kind of justice she truly needs to move on.
Chile’s transition to democracy after Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship was rocky at best. Faced with massive opposition, Pinochet finally called for a vote in 1987 to determine whether or not he would remain in power until 1997. He was defeated and agreed to step down after a 1989 vote named Patricio Aylwin the new democratically-elected President of Chile. However, transitional provisions kept Pinochet in power as Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army until 1998. Pinochet supporters continued to occupy significant positions in the government's judiciary branch and the Senate; his proponents could be found in town councils all around Chile. Aylwin now presided over an “authoritarian democracy” established by Pinochet – Aylwin’s government had limited control over the military and limited ability to promote legislative reform. Additionally, an amnesty law decreed in 1978 forbid Aylwin’s government from prosecuting any offenses committed by Pinochet or his supporters before that time.
Despite these restrictions, Aylwin attempted to establish an official and authentic record of the atrocities that occurred during Pinochet’s rule. For this purpose, he established the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in 1990, commonly known as the Rettig Commission after its head commissioner, Raul Rettig. Although the Amnesty Law of 1978 prohibited the commission from prosecuting any crimes it unearthed, it would nonetheless pursue as accurate a picture as possible of the human rights violations under Pinochet.
The commission had about 9 months to complete this task, a far cry from the years that some might have recommended given the thousands of unsolved disappearances it would be looking into. Because of the limited time frame, the commission was limited to investigating only cases that ended in death or its presumption, leaving out the tens of thousands of Chileans who were tortured but survived.
Because the commission was established by Presidential decree rather than congressional mandate, it lacked the authority to subpoena testimony from witnesses, which proved to be one of its major weaknesses. Most of the commission's requests for information from institutions that participated in the torture – such as the Ministry of Justice, the Civil Registrar, and the Chilean police and armed forces – went unanswered, or were met with the response that all relevant documents had been lost or destroyed. Even though the 1978 Amnesty Law protected the military and police forces from prosecution, most of them still remained silent throughout the interviewing process. Pinochet himself was never interviewed.
Eventually, the Commission for Investigation registered over 3,400 cases. In 1991, the group presented its final report, which was over 2000 pages long and included emotional, and in some cases, cathartic reports from family members of those who had disappeared. For many, the experience of recounting their stories was enough to justify the commission's creation; the interview process provided a critical outlet for healing.
The report also provided many recommendations for reparations and follow-up prosecutions, although it did not ultimately recommend repealing the 1978 Amnesty Law, which disappointed proponents of justice. Additionally, many Chileans had been hopeful that the report would provide key information to the whereabouts of the thousands of people who disappeared, but because of its limited power to subpoena, the commission was unable to secure conclusive details.
Following the report, President Aylwin appeared on television and officially apologized on behalf of the government for the trauma that so many Chileans had faced. He formally recommended that the legislative and political bodies that participated in these crimes against humanity “make gestures of recognition” towards those who suffered from abuse. However, because this was a suggestion and not a mandate, few if any public figures actually did so.
The Supreme Court of Chile, the National Security Council, and the Chilean Armed Forces criticized the report for being unjust. Later, in 1991, right wing senator Jaime Guzman was assassinated by a leftist group, substantially diminishing the impact of the report amidst an uproar from the right that the report merely served to stir up further violence. Ultimately, the legacy of the Rettig Commission remains controversial – although it was celebrated for publicly unearthing Chile's painful past, it has also faced criticism for its inability to pursue true justice on the victims’ behalf.