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Santiago, Chile: A sobering afternoon at the Museum of Human Rights Abuses

The Museum of Memory and Human Rights Abuses, which memorialises the atrocities under the Pinochet right wing dictatorship, 1983-1990 is a must visit I think for anyone in Santiago. We were keen to understand more about what happened and educate ourselves on this hugely important part of the Chilean consciousness.

We had a fascinating interaction with our cab driver, who, when we told him our destination of the Museo De la Memoria, clearly felt very strongly that he wanted to communicate something to us. “Habla Espanol?”... "Poquito, poquito", we said. That was enough permission for him to launch into a passionate diatribe, not at us, but in general. The museum doesn’t tell you all the truth, he said. We assumed he meant that the museum euphemises and sanitises some of the atrocities. However with the help of google translate (bloody amazing) which can simultaneously translate live speech, we managed to understand the gist of what he was so passionately trying to tell us. The museum doesn’t focus on the extreme poverty and instability experienced by Chileans prior to the right wing coup in 1973. The long lines for bread and water, the civil turmoil. He seemed to be saying that yes, what happened under Pinochet was bad, but Chile would have been much worse off had it continued down the communist path. Look at Russia, look at Cuba. He seemed to be saying left wing bourgeois like Pablo Neruda inspired this socialist / communist vision but that it was a lie.

At one point we thought he was saying the young people forget. We clarified, and with a weary look on his face, he said, "No. No. They do no forget. They are fixated". My take out of the interaction was that, understandably, the weight of the horrors of what happened under Pinochet still looms large in the Chilean consciousness, particularly the young, and is fuelled by places like the Museo de la Memoria. But it squews the political ideology of a nation, giving the weight and vindication of morality to the Left, when actually that may not necessarily be the best thing for the country. He said repeatedly the words chaos, disorganisation, disarray, referring to a communist / socialist Chile, both pre Pinochet and projecting forward into the future.

It was fascinating to me, thinking of the political situation in the UK, to imagine if the Left had an open wound to exploit, like the atrocities under Pinochet, and how that would affect and colour the political discourse of a nation for years to come. The truth is that Chile is now one of South Americas most stable and prosperous nations. It has the highest GDP per capita and the highest income per capita of all the South American nations. It also has the lowest perception of corruption. It’s interesting to compare to somewhere like Bolivia, very much a socialist nation, (low life expectancy, higher infant mortality, much higher levels of crime, corruption and poverty. However on all these measures, Bolivia has made huge improvements in the last few years) and imagine where Chile would be had they indeed continued down the socialist past. That “fate” was avoided, but at what cost?

This interaction provided a fascinating context for our visit. I could have spent hours in there but sadly it closed all too soon at 6pm. The montages of footage of young Chileans, marching jubilantly through the streets against fascism, pre-1973*, contrasted with the footage of the burning presidential palace, La Moneda, which was bombed during the US-backed Coup D’etat, and then the footage of activists being rounded up and humiliated by the military, was overwhelming. There is also the recording of the last address of the democratically elected President Salvador Allende, barricaded inside La Moneda, addressing the Chilean people with a highly emotional and inspiring speech before he took his life:

“Placed in a historic transition, I will pay for 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 shriveled forever. They have strength and will be able to dominate us, but social processes can be arrested neither by crime nor force. History is ours, and people make history”

You can read the full speech here if you like.

Then you can hear the harsh tones of the first address to the people by the Military junta, which is quite chilling.

There is also testimony of the victims of torture and detainment, including some young children which is really hard to experience.

One of the things that’s hard to get your head around is how people could do that to each other, especially when it’s so recent you can’t cop out with an explanation of simply that people’s mentalities were different. There was a clip of an old woman recounting something one of the young guards had said to her: “Forgive me madam, I’m under orders. You remind me of my mother.”

We had to leave before we’d really scratched the surface, and I’d encourage everyone to go. If you’re interested to understand more I found this interesting article which helped give me more context to what the cab driver was trying to explain to us. Be warned, it’s not for the faint hearted:

*The cab driver is correct in that, as far as what we saw, the museum doesn’t present a view of the issues Chile prior to 1973, especially for example the montage of happy, jubilant Chileans prior to the coup. There is no footage dwelling on the breadlines for example.

Feeling quite affected, we made our way back to our hotel.

Picture courtesy of the Museum website

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