On a warm summer evening in Santiago, Chile, close to a thousand dignitaries, foreign guests, activists, lawyers and citizens gathered on the massive patio of a visually striking, modernist, green rectangular building which houses Chile’s newest museum, El Museo De La Memoria y Derechos Humanos, the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. One by one, three former civilian presidents–Patricio Aylwin, Eduardo Frei and Ricardo Lagos–who governed Chile in succession in the post-Pinochet era, arrived to increasing applause from the crowd. As the sun set, Chile’s current and extremely popular president, Michelle Bachelet, entered the museum’s expansive outdoor amphitheater to a standing ovation. “There are images I did not wish to remember,” Bachelet told the audience as she officially inaugurated the museum. “But there are also people, good and beautiful people, who, above and beyond all the pain and sadness, I always want to remember again.”
The museum is Bachelet’s legacy to addressing the human rights violations of the Pinochet regime, an issue that continues to reverberate at all levels of Chile’s political society. A victim of human rights abuse herself–her father, General Alberto Bachelet, was arrested for opposing the coup, tortured and died in a detention facility, and she and her mother were detained and tortured at the infamous Villa Grimaldi concentration camp–La Presidenta, as Bachelet is known, has sought to pay symbolic tribute to her country’s bitter past while keeping an eye on its dynamic future. The inauguration of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights took place against the backdrop of Sunday’s elections that brought an abrupt end to the post-dictatorship governance by Bachelet’s center-left political coalition, La Concertación, and a sharp turn to the right in Chile for the first time since Pinochet was forced to relinquish power twenty years ago.
With an extremely close election looming, the inauguration of the museum on January 11 became a carefully orchestrated political affair. The four Concertación presidents, past and present, took center stage. As the audience sat in the heat watching two large video screens, a camera crew followed Bachelet and her predecessors on the first official tour of the museum, through the “salon del 11 de Septiembre,” which addresses the brutality of the coup itself, through the displays on torture, and Operation Condor (with declassified documents provided by the National Security Archive), to the final wall of extraordinary arpilleras–the tapestries made by the mothers, sisters and wives of the dispossessed, tortured and disappeared, which chronicle in colored cloth the repression of the military regime. The camera panned often to Eduardo Frei, a former president and Concertación candidate for president today. Many in the crowd felt an uncomfortable irony: Frei and his father (the first Christian Democratic president from 1964 to 1970) supported the violent 1973 coup. And as president from 1994-2000, Frei Jr. ignored the issue of accountability, and refused to even meet with the organizations representing the thousands of victims of human rights violations. At the end of his tenure, his administration was responsible for liberating Pinochet from house arrest in London and keeping him from being extradited to Spain to stand trial for crimes against humanity.
The focus on Frei was no coincidence. Frei had run a lackluster campaign. In an extraordinary political turn of events, the human rights constituency in Chile became a critical swing-voting bloc that he desperately needed to eek out a victory over billionaire right-wing businessman Sebastian Pinera. As Chileans lined up at the polls on January 17, the election could have been decided by the number of anti-Pinochet progressives in Chile who abstain or cast null and blank votes. In the end, Pinera won by a somewhat larger than expected margin–52 to 48 percent.