Human Rights Violations under Pinochet: An Excursion to Santiago
As I alluded to in my previous post, we spent one Saturday visiting Santiago, more specifically the Museo de la Memoria, the general cemetery, and Villa Grimaldi; three places that, today, commemorate the myriad atrocities committed by the military regime under general Augusto Pinochet between 1973-1990. It was an incredibly powerful, moving, shocking, infuriating, and sometimes downright depressing experience to see what people are capable of doing to each other and how this gets replicated in every part of the world. For a better understanding of what all these places we visited actually signify, I imagine a very brief, very simplified historical description of this time period might be in order.
In 1970, Salvador Allende, the world’s only democratically-elected socialist/Marxist president, became President of Chile, whose efforts to implement nationalization of certain industries, land redistribution, reform of the health care system, all of which, in the first year, achieved significant economic growth and extensively improved the standard of living for most Chileans. However, by the end of 1972, the growth had stagnated and there was significant opposition from right-wing parts of Chilean society, both on the political front and within society at large, which paralyzed any initiatives the government wanted to take to address the problems the country was facing. Furthermore, strikes started occurring, paralyzing the country and its economy even further, and further polarizing the country. The majority of Congress claimed that Allende had been abusing his powers in order to establish a state more in line with his socialist vision, and passed a revolution on August 22 1973 that called for Allende to reform; if not, he could quite possibly be overthrown by the armed forces, who tended to support the more right-wing factions of Chilean politics. 20 days later, on September 11 1973, the Chilean Navy took control of Valparaíso, whilst the Army, led by Augusto Pinochet, sent in troops to La Moneda (an impressive palace which is the traditional seat of the President of Chile), supported by the Air Force, who bombed the building until the president and his staff inside surrendered. When it was over, it became clear that, a few hours after Salvador Allende had given his farewell speech, informing his country about the coup d’état and his refusal to resign, he had committed suicide inside the building, rather than be captured by the armed forces. Afterwards, Pinochet took control of the country, and ordered the killings of thousands of Chileans who were suspected of having socialist sympathies. Many more were imprisoned, tortured, exiled, or simply “disappeared” – even today, there are 1210 people who are considered detenidos desaparecidos, or those who were detained and then never heard from again, and no one knows what happened to them or where their bodies lie. This is what the Museo de la Memoria, and other monuments, intend to memorialize, para que nunca más – so that it never happens again.
The Museo de la Memoria was only constructed in 2010 – this in itself tells you about the lack of willingness both to talk about what happened and the resistance from more conservative parts of Chilean politics to acknowledge the atrocities that occurred. As it was constructed so recently, the museum doesn’t simply have artefacts to look at and observe; they make use of videos and more interactive materials to allow you to explore the parts that you find more interesting and want to learn more about. The first part of the museum (it is constructed chronologically, so you start off with how Pinochet came to power, learn about how he consolidated power, how the strategies to control the general people changed and developed, and finally how he eventually lost power in a plebiscite held in 1988) demonstrated the coup through a multitude of videos. The main video gave a 10-minute overview of the events of most of what I described previously, but there were also three other videos that I found more interesting. One of these was a collection of scenes that showed the shortages in the final stages of Allende’s presidency, the long queues outside the shops, but also the determination of people and the support that Allende had amongst large sections of the people (it was later discovered that the more conservative business owners were actually holding back a significant number of goods, so that when Pinochet came to power and things started looking up again as more goods became available, it would look as though Pinochet was actually saving the country for disaster). One other video relayed Allende’s farewell speech before he committed suicide; this was honestly one of the most emotive, powerful speeches I have ever heard, especially considering the context (an English transcription of the speech can be found here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Salvador_Allende%27s_Last_Speech). After that, we were lead to a section which talked about the first few days of the military junta’s control, and how they arrested and assassinated hundreds, if not thousands, of people they felt were a threat in some way, shape, or form. In the first three months of the coup, several thousands were killed, imprisoned, or made to “disappear”. A culture of fear was created in which everyone was afraid to speak their minds and afraid to figure out what had happened to their loved ones because of what might happen to their remaining family. One part of the museum demonstrated children’s drawings, who had depicted people holding up placards, with words on them such as “where are they” or “where is my uncle” or “I want my father”.
I wanted to cry and I wanted to scream, even then. But we kept going, to a different part where they were showing videos of people recounting their stories, recounting how they had been tortured. There was one video in particular which stood out to me, which showed something slightly different. There was a woman with her 8, 9-year-old son trying to walk down the sidewalk, but the police wouldn’t let her. She was asking them why she couldn’t walk on the sidewalk, why she wasn’t allowed to do this mundane, normal thing, why the police and the armed forces were forcing everyone to live like this, why they had killed her father, her husband, what more could they take from her, and why they were doing this to their own people, to their own country. All the while, the police just stood there, staring stonily at her, reiterating that she couldn’t walk on the sidewalk and that she had to leave. One of two things I could think about was how incredibly heartless, callous, and blind those police officers had to be with what they were doing. How incredibly apathetic they seemed to this woman’s suffering and, by extension, the suffering of so many others. How proud they seemed that they were maintaining order. The other thing I could think about was perhaps even more horrifying. It was that I’d seen all of this before. Seeing this video reminded me of videos about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and the treatment of Palestinian villagers by the Israeli army. Learning about the forced disappearances, the tortures, the political assassinations, reminded me of what the Holocaust, of apartheid in South Africa, of American war practices in the Middle East, and the list goes on, almost always perpetuated by rich, entitled white men who think they control the world and can do whatever the hell they want, and yet humanity never seems to learn.
Nearing the end of our visit to the museum, there was a huge wall, on which were hung hundreds of framed pictures of detenidos desaparecidos. Seeing this expansive wall, with pictures taken by friends or loved ones of these people, innocent pictures, of all these people who were detained and then never heard from again, really has quite an effect. I don’t really know how to describe it, but it makes you stop, especially as it seemed so profoundly personal.
After that, we headed outside to discuss a little bit what we had seen and what we felt both when in the museum and now that we were outside. I said that I wanted to fight, I wanted to scream and cry and raise Pinochet from the dead just so that I could torture him myself, even though I personally didn’t have anything really to do with what happened. I didn’t have family killed, I wasn’t tortured or forced to live in fear for 17 years, and this monument to what happened made me feel so many things. In that sense, it really does do a great job, but I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the people who actually lived through that period of time. Walkyria, a 65-year old woman who was exiled to Sweden in 1975 after being arrested and tortured earlier, came with us on this trip to the museum (she had given us a talk a few days earlier telling us about her life in during the years of the dictatorship), and she told me that she finds it impossible to stay in the museum for too long because it’s simply too painful.
After the museum, we headed to the general cemetery of Santiago, which is a large cemetery where around 2 million people are buried, amongst which are all but 2 of Chile’s presidents (the exceptions being Videla and Pinochet). It is a very pretty location, and we walked along it for a while, seeing the graves of a reasonable amount of famous/important Chileans.
During our walk, I asked Walkyria whether she felt as though Chile had learned anything from the years under the dictatorship (she currently works in the hills of Valparaíso, helping those with few resources in whichever way she can. She is an incredible woman, and I feel honoured to have met her and talked with her), and she told me that the only thing that Chile had learned was how to make oppression less obvious. She said that the right-wing parts of Chilean society have, with U.S. help, been able to make their oppression more covert, have been able to enforce their will on society in more indirect, less obvious ways, which has made it even more difficult to combat the problems Chilean society faces today.
At the end of our walk, we sat down in front of this gigantic stone slab which had engraved on it, on one side, names and dates of the arrests of the detenidos desaparecidos and, on the other side, names and dates of death of those who were politically assassinated.
We were then given roses to place at the memorials of certain people, and Walkyria walked straight to two memorials in particular to lay down these roses; she told us they were her dear friends of hers who were killed by the dictatorship 40 years ago, but she still cherishes their memory to this day. When learning about the dictatorship, or similar oppression in general, I’ve always found that it’s easy to forget how profoundly these events impact not just the society but also specific people. Hearing those few sentences reminded me that individual people also all have their stories, and all lived through different tragedies, different forms of despair, desperation, and helplessness.
After that, we headed to Parque por la Paz Villa Grimaldi, a villa/restaurant that was converted into a torture centre under the military regime, where Walkyria was also held for a month before she was exiled. She gave us a tour of the different buildings and their different functions, telling us stories of what happened during her short time there and the different kinds of torture they inflicted upon the prisoners, and where the prisoners would be dumped after they had been tortured, so that they could get their strength back somewhat only for them to be tortured once more a few days later. The park contained a lot of tiles with text, explaining what the different parts of the park were used for and their current significance:
At the end, there was a small garden of roses; when the place was being used as a torture centre, the prisoners would be able to smell the scent of roses. As such, there is now a small garden of roses which each corresponds to the names of the women who were killed at the Villa Grimaldi:
Before we left, we entered a small room which contained some salvaged personal artefacts from those who were tortured or executed there, providing yet another reminder that these were all common people who were detained, normal people whose lives were utterly destroyed.
All in all, that day was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I felt very… I guess fortunate or privileged might be the right words, that I was able to learn about this indescribably important aspect of Chilean society. It might not have been the happiest excursion, but I was still very glad that I had the chance to experience and better understand this essential period of Chilean history and the deep, deep wounds it has left, and continues to leave, on Chilean society. I don’t really have a good way of summing up my feelings at the end of that day, apart from that it had an incredible impact, and can hopefully deter anything similar from ever happening again.
Para que nunca más.