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Chile's Turning Point | The Nation

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Chile's Turning Point

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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."

About the Author

Katherine Hite
Katherine Hite is a professor of political science at Vassar College.
Peter Kornbluh
Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington, and co-author (with William M....

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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.

A Pinera victory marks a major turning point in the post-Pinochet transition, and perhaps a return to power of some of the hardcore rightists who collaborated with the military regime. (Pinera's brother served as Pinochet's Minister of Labor.) For twenty years the Chilean center-left political elite has governed in a stable if cautious approach to Chile's economic and political evolution; the coalition is now paying the price for failing to build and mobilize a mass base. The historically strong political parties that make up the twenty-year governing Concertación alliance have failed to excite or incorporate young people. (Current legislation requires all registered voters to cast ballots, but it is not obligatory to register to vote. Of a total of 12 million potential voters, close to four million, or 31 percent, are unregistered. A law is pending that would make registration automatic and the vote voluntary.) Interviews at polling stations on Sunday reflected a sense among young Chileans that Frei simply carried no appeal to their interests.

The museum reflects a similar political dynamic. Bachelet's administration initiated the project with little participation of the human rights constituencies who might have played a role. Still, the existence of the museum is the culmination of a persistent struggle by human rights groups for a major public recognition, in a major public space, of the state terror that took place under Pinochet. Over the past decade, organizations of victims and their families have led successful efforts to establish a range of memorials, which now dot the country. Until now the administration resisted representing the past in any way that would be interpreted by the Chilean right, particularly, as "taking sides."

Indeed, the right has attacked the project for focusing exclusively on the state terrorism of the Pinochet era, and excluding a "context" for the coup. A January 12 editorial in the leading newspaper El Mercurio, a bastion of the Chilean right, was entitled, "a respectable but partial memory." In her inaugural speech, Bachelet addressed such criticism: "Tragedy [of human rights violations] can have many explanations, but absolutely no justification."

It is clear that neither the creation of the museum nor a Pinera victory is going to bring closure to the human rights issues that continue to fester in Chile. Even before Bachelet finished her speech, the inauguration ceremony was dramatically interrupted by two young women, who climbed a light pole and demanded to be heard. The first, a Mapuche woman, shouted, "I am the sister of Matías Catrileo, assassinated during your government, President Bachelet!" The second was the sister of the Vergara Toledo brothers, killed in 1985, toward the end of the dictatorship, who demanded justice for her family's case.

After a brief silence, Bachelet said she understood their pain, but that in a democracy, "justice will be done." As the women continued to shout, Bachelet raised her voice to demand respect for "the pain of all these families, that like you, want justice." The protest uncomfortably underscored the point that on human rights, Chile has yet to arrive at a consensus on closure or national memory.

The main issue for the museum's future is not the attacks of the right or protests of the left; it is whether it will draw Chileans to reflect on their dark past and apply its lessons to a brighter future. "Indifference," noted Marcia Scantlebury, who directed the commission that designed and built the museum, will be the museum's biggest challenge. But when the museum opened its doors to the public the next day, 1,500 people came, and the press is reporting a steady stream of visitors.

The importance of what they see takes on a new meaning now that the right has been elected to power in Chile. On the entrance wall is an inscription from Bachelet, which she repeated during her inaugural speech: "We cannot change the past," she said. "All that remains for us is to learn from what we have lived. This is our responsibility and our challenge."

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