On Wednesday, March 2, the day after our arrival in Santiago, Chile, at the suggestion of the host at the apartment we rented, we went for what proved to be a very moving tour of a museum in Santiago known as the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights).
The emotional impact of visiting this museum is similar to the experience of touring the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. It brings vividly to mind the horrors inflicted on ordinary people by a brutal government, through the details of their individual stories.
A museum of this type also gives the visitor pause. “Could this kind of thing happen to us, in our country?”
Or perhaps, “how close are we in our country to this kind of thing? What is it that protects us against it?”
When I Was 20
“To understand the man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was 20.” – Napoléon Bonaparte
On September 11,1973, when I was 20 years old, I followed closely the events unfolding in Santiago, when a military coup backed by Nixon and Kissinger overthrew the elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende and installed a military dictatorship.
Allende died in the Presidential Palace in Santiago, ostensibly by a self-inflicted gunshot wound, as the Palace was being bombed by the Chilean air force, after delivering an emotional farewell speech that was broadcast on the radio.
Immediately, a kind of reign of terror descended upon Chile. Thousands of Allende supporters were rounded up and tortured, and many were killed.
The most prominent of the victims, in my own memory, was Victor Jara, a renowned singer, songwriter and theater director.
Victor Jara’s stature in Chile was comparable at the time to that of Bob Dylan, but if anything he was even more influential.
Jara, along with thousands of others, was arrested and taken to a soccer stadium. The military broke his hands and wrists before executing him. He was shot to death with more than 40 bullets, and his body was dumped outside the stadium.
Imagine if the U.S. Military bombed the White House, killing the President, and then tortured and murdered Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger and thousands of others.
That’s how I felt, in September 1973, when I was 20, watching the events in Chile.
The memory of those events remains vivid in my mind today, more than 40 years later. To me, as an idealistic, somewhat opinionated 20-year-old, this was a clash between the forces of good and evil, pure and simple.
It was, therefore, particularly vivid and emotionally moving for me to tour the Museum of Memory, and to watch and listen to all the accounts of the victims of the terrible repression and hardship imposed by the Pinochet military government– especially the testimony by the torture survivors.
Chile Today: Democracy Restored
In Santiago today, life has returned to normal. The government is back in civilian hands. The terrible repression of the Pinochet regime no longer exists.
Justice for the victims of Pinochet’s regime is very slow in coming, and in most cases to be realistic will never occur.
But this museum in its own way achieves a measure of justice for those who suffered under Pinochet.
Respect for human rights is a precious thing. The suppression of human rights is a scourge. A tour of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago conveys a sense of hopefulness to the visitor. The very fact that this museum exists is uplifting. There is power in remembering.