Editor’s note: I knew when I made a new friend in the British Museum, bonding over the Elgin Marbles and their story, that Kathryn just had to write for The Royal Tour one day. That day is today. Right now, she is taking a year to explore the world – inspired by me, so she says – and will write the occasional piece for us. Please join me in welcoming her to the family here!
“Un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro” (a people with no memory is a people with no future)
-Inscription in Santiago’s National Stadium (former internment camp)
Walking into the courtyard of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago’s West Side, a large sign on the wall proclaims that ‘This Museum is a School.’ As a history major and politics nerd, I know the basic outlines of Chile’s story: General Pinochet, the dictatorship, violent repression, Amnesty International, and the restoration of democracy in the wave that swept the world in the late 80s/early 90s. I’m interested to visit it, but I’m expecting a dry, somewhat worthy museum which will appeal to my intellect whilst leaving me and my companions largely unmoved.
My instincts are reinforced as we walk into the lobby, pick up our English audioguide and printed handout, showing the layout of the museum. Along the back wall stretches a map explaining the activities of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions around the world, and the activities of the UN to protect human rights worldwide. I’ve heard about these Commissions on the news over the years, specifically with reference to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and in South Africa following the end of the apartheid system. It’s interesting enough but I can’t help feeling it’s a little… abstract, and I find myself wondering why the guidebook considered this museum such a must-see.
We wander up the stairs to the first floor and that’s where everything changes. I’m suddenly surrounded by screens showing grainy black and white newsreel footage of bombers flying over an official-looking building; in the darkness the sound of machine-gun fire fills the air, and a man’s voice speaks in Spanish over a crackly radio.
It’s September 11, 1973. The military has seized power in a violent coup d’etat and overthrown the democratically-elected government of Socialist President Salvador Allende. Troops are on the streets and air force bombers are attacking la Moneda, the Presidential Palace, where Allende and his remaining supporters have gathered. Refusing to leave the city, he makes a defiant final radio broadcast. “I am not going to resign! I will pay for my loyalty to the people with my life. And I say to them that I am certain that the seed which we have planted in the good conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans will not be shrivelled forever.” He would be found dead in the building a few hours later.
The junta, led by Army Chief Augusto Pinochet, moved swiftly to consolidate their power, eliminating any and all opposition to their regime with ruthless effectiveness. They immediately suspended the Constitution and Congress, put in place a curfew, implemented strict censorship, and banned political parties. The Caravan of Death, a Chilean army death squad, was dispatched in helicopters to execute around 100 people held in army garrisons around the country. 10,000 students, left-wing activists, trade unionists, and Allende supporters were rounded up the week after the coup and imprisoned in Santiago’s National Soccer Stadium, which functioned an as internment camp and torture centre.
The museum’s first floor tells tell the story of the next seventeen years, and the violent repression that followed the coup. Under Pinochet, who took the title of President in 1974, an estimated 40,000 Chilean citizens were tortured, more than 2,300 were killed, and 1,300 exiled, many of whom had their citizenship rescinded and/or were pursued overseas by intelligence agencies. The legacy of Pinochet’s rule also includes the “Desaparecidos” or “Disappeared” – people who were taken secretly, and of whom the authorities never admitted any knowledge. Over 1,000 remain unaccounted for today.
These numbers recall the quotation (usually attributed to Josef Stalin) that “the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of thousands is a statistic.” But a brilliantly curated selection of oral and written testimonies from torture survivors, letters, legal documents, and press cuttings from around the world bring the stories of individual victims and perpetrators vividly to life. The last exhibit on the first floor is a section dedicated to the children who were victims of the military regime. The youngest documented victim was a twelve-year-old boy, picked up by the authorities playing in the streets of his village and never seen again. The most moving exhibit I saw was the letter he wrote to his father from prison, telling him not to worry about him.
It’s the objects on display that have resonated loudest and longest in my mind since the visit. The torn, stained flag that flew on the roof of the Moneda on the day of the coup, rescued by a supporter of Allende and hidden by his family for over two decades is only displayed alongside a typewriter, salvaged from the rubble that day and battered beyond recognition. The watchtower from the Calle Republica 580 torture centre looks out on the museum’s courtyard. We walk alongside the “grill,” a metal bedframe on which prisoners were tortured with electric shocks and look at playing cards and dolls made by prisoners to occupy their time and to act as symbols of resistance. They make the brutality of the regime and the humanity of its victims feel all too real. It’s grim, it’s compelling, and it’s impossible to look away.
Shaken, I head up the stairs to the second floor, which (to my immense relief) focuses on the resistance to the regime: the growing demand for truth and justice, the fight for freedom, and the political campaign that would ultimately lead to the restoration of democracy in Chile, and the end of Pinochet’s term as President. It tells the story of the people who protested, resisted, demanded answers, and helped others to do the same – and whose courage, creativity, and resilience often cost them dearly.
The second floor also houses the physical and metaphorical heart of the museum – the Room of Absence and Memory, a wall of photographs of those killed or who disappeared during the dictatorship, illuminated by candles. Visitors are invited to sit and reflect quietly on those individual victims, and to honour their memory.
By the late 80s, the world was changing, and the pressure on the Chilean government was increasing, from within its borders and without. Within the government, rifts and divisions were growing between members of the junta unhappy with Pinochet’s increasingly paranoid tendencies and repressive actions. The Cold War was drawing to its close thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika in the USSR, and the West no longer had such a strong need of anti-Soviet allies in Latin America. In 1987, Pope John Paul II visited Chile for the first time, bringing the full weight of the Catholic Church’s moral authority to bear on the regime when he publicly re-asserted his support for human rights and civil liberties, and privately asked Pinochet to resign. Amnesty International had maintained an intense awareness campaign during the 1980s, drawing international attention to the human rights abuses in Chile with support from high-profile musicians and actors including Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Superman himself, Christopher Reeve.
In 1988, a national plebiscite or referendum was held, asking the Chilean people whether Pinochet’s Presidency should be renewed for another eight-year term. The Museum tells that story, too. You can watch the campaign ads for both “Yes” and “No” in a typical Chilean living room. You can read the now-declassified US State Department’s morning briefing to President Reagan, emphasising that the Chilean Ambassador had been warned of their “serious concerns” about any attempts by Pinochet to cancel or nullify the vote. You can read the minutes of the junta’s meeting the night of the result: an angry and insistent Pinochet demanding that he be granted special emergency powers to allow the military to take over the capital, and Air Force General Matthei refusing to do so under any circumstances.
Out of options, Pinochet was obliged to concede defeat, and Patricio Aylwin was duly elected as the new President of Chile, overseeing the return to democracy in the country, and beginning the process of coming to terms with this dark chapter in its past – one that is still ongoing today.
Determined to avoid the mistakes of those in history who “have forgotten nothing and learned nothing” (as another noted diplomat, Talleyrand, described his countrymen), the Museum of Memory and Human Rights exists in part to honour the memory of the regime’s victims, but also to tell the story of the past so that all who hear it might look to the future, and ensure such a thing can never happen again.
It’s not just a great museum; it’s an important one. It doesn’t shy away from the brutal truths of what happened, but never sensationalises them, and is a vital introduction to Chile’s recent past. It is full of drama, pathos, and humanity, with every assertion it makes backed up by the archival records. Visit it, learn, be thankful for the rights and privileges that you enjoy, and make sure you protect them.
The museum is free to visit, and open Tuesday-Sunday. The nearest metro station is Quinta Normal.
Photo credits: @passportstampliving, @kilo.juliet.kilo
Hi, I’m Kathryn. Born and raised in London, I’ve lived in Australia, Paris, Tokyo and New York over the last twenty years. My favourite game as a small child was to line my soft toys up on my bunk bed and pretend it was an airplane, explaining to my (inanimate) passengers what they could see out of the (non-existent) window. I never lost this passion for exploring the world and telling people about it. So, with a solid freelance career in corporate communications under my belt, 2020 is my year to experiment with remote working. I’ll be travelling through Latin America, Asia, Europe and South Africa and writing the occasional guest post for The Royal Tour along the way. If you’re interested in keeping up with me on my travels, you can follow me on Instagram @kilo.juliet.kilo. For more of her writing, click here.
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