One of Santiago’s nicest and newest museums is dedicated to the fight for human rights around the world. It is also about the years Chile was under a fascist dictatorship. This museum is not to be missed–it covers difficult topics, like torture and execution, but I think is very important to understand Chile’s recent history and political culture.
The Museum of Memory and Human Rights was inaugurated recently, only in 2010, and has a wealth of information and exhibits about the political climate through Pinochet’s regime. It is easy to get to–it is just across the street from the metro stop Quinta Normal on Línea 5. Entrance is free, but everything is in Spanish. We rented an English audio guide for 2.000 pesos and highly recommend it–the information is too dense and complicated to understand without it.
A brief history of what happened:
In the 1970s a socialist/populist/political movement swept across Latin America, reacting against the dramatic inequality and inherent structural problems in governments (think Che). Chile was split between Marxist views and more conservative, fascist ideas. Salvador Allende became the first openly Marxist president of Chile. There was some unrest, which the totalitarian military leaders took advantage of. On September 11, 1973 General Pinochet led a military coup d’etat against Allende’s government. Beginning at the port city of Valparaiso around 6 am, it ended that night with strict curfews in Santiago. Allende had committed suicide, locked away in a government building, and the military rolled through the streets of Santiago shooting at anyone linked with Allende’s government or the socialist party.
The United States covertly backed this coup through the CIA, eager to get rid of a communist-leaning country in the western hemisphere. Pinochet privatized much of Chile’s economy, and some say his reforms did help Chile develop. However, his political regime was brutal. He suspended the 1925 constitution and Congress. The worst years were the earliest, 1973-1977, when people would disappear, never to be seen again. Everyone lived in fear of the DINA, the secret police, taking them away to secret camps. The most horrific of the crimes were stories of Pinochet’s henchmen tossing pregnant women out of flying airplanes. Around 3,200 people disappeared, most being killed and buried in secret, mass graves.
Torture, specifically electric and water torture, was commonplace. They took anyone suspected of harboring leftist politics and interrogated them. Sometimes they took children for no reason at all. In 2003, an article published by the International Committee of the Fourth International claimed that “Of a population of barely 11 million, more than 4,000 were executed or ‘disappeared,’ hundreds of thousands were detained and tortured, and almost a million fled the country.”
The United States verbally condemned the military dictatorship, but did not make efforts to block arms deals until the 1980s. In the meantime, Pinochet was “elected” again and again in a “democratic process.” Leftist guerrilla groups banded together, fighting against the DINA and the military, but were largely wiped out. Finally, in 1988 a new election came around. This time the Chileans voted against Pinochet. Literally, the political campaigns were called “Si” for Pinochet and “No” for electing someone besides Pinochet. Fifty-five percent of Chileans voted No, against Pinochet. It took another two years for the regime to leave power. During the two years, massive reforms were pushed through to make sure those in the regime would not be prosecuted for their crimes. Pinochet stepped down as president but kept his position in the military for another eight years.
Now, if you visit Chile, you would never know there was a 16-year brutal dictatorship. People are friendly, the economy is developing, and life seems normal for the Latin American country. But the people of Chile do remember this time, especially those who lived through it, with great sadness. Many of the current political leaders in Chile, and those who presided over the inauguration of this museum were among those tortured and imprisoned. But this museum, though focusing on a dark time in recent history, also highlights the victories of human rights workers and the endurance of people throughout the world that suffered through violent regimes.