Chile confronts past with new museum

What they’ll leave in and what they’ll leave out -- that question haunts Margarita Iglesias as she considers next month’s opening of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.

That Chile is recognizing victims of its military dictatorship in a striking new “monument to memories” is positive, said Iglesias, both a victim and a historian of Augusto Pinochet’s bloody 17-year rule. As a high school student activist in Santiago in 1975, she was tortured before fleeing with her family to France.

“It can’t be just a horror show. The political movements and conditions that led to the coup and its aftermath must be explained. If not, how can you understand how state terrorism came about?” said Iglesias, 51, now a University of Chile professor.

The $19-million museum that opens in downtown Santiago on Jan. 11 is dedicated to the 31,000 murder, torture and kidnapping victims of the 1973-90 military dictatorship of Gen. Pinochet.


Museum directors are keeping a tight lid on the specific exhibits, hoping for maximum effect.

Designed by Brazilian architect Mario Figueroa, the block-like, three-story construction is sheathed in a striking green metallic screen of oxidized copper.

In addition to exhibits in its capacious hall, it will house a collection of photos, records and first-person chronicles by victims and their families, many of them wrenching accounts.

UNESCO has given these archives its “Patrimony of Humanity” classification, meaning they are of global, historical or cultural value.

The opening ceremony will be an emotional event for a country still in recovery from national trauma. Chileans are divided over the atrocities of the past and how to deal with them. The inauguration is sure to push those divisions to the fore.

The project was spearheaded by President Michelle Bachelet, a torture survivor whose father, an air force general who opposed Pinochet, died of heart failure under torture.

“The museum will cause a lot of conversation because the controversy over the dictatorship is very much alive and the reminders are everywhere,” Iglesias said. “Not long ago, I was in an elevator with the wife of one my torturers.”

According to museum director Maria Luisa Sepulveda, the facility’s purpose is to ensure that democracy and human rights are never hijacked again in Chile. Its construction is part of the process of the nation coming to grips with its past -- a process of truth and justice that “Chilean society is still going through,” she said.

For Iglesias and others, that process isn’t moving fast enough. Iglesias said the country should repeal the 1978 amnesty law that protects military and police torturers, as well as the 1980 constitution that she says legitimized the dictatorship.

Her concerns are echoed by one of the largest groups representing survivors and victims’ families, the Assn. of Families of the Detained and Disappeared.

Leader Lorena Pizarro, whose husband was killed under Pinochet, said that, for her, the museum is a reminder that too few -- about 20 -- members of the military and police have been sentenced to prison for their roles as executioners and inquisitors.

Iglesias, who as part of a class action recently won a court claim against her air force torturers, wants the museum to identify military and police tormentors, something that she fears it will leave out to avoid offending the military.

“The government is afraid to pursue the military. How can you conduct policy on the basis of fear?” Pizarro asked.

While declining to comment on whether the museum will highlight individual torturers, Sepulveda said the facility will remind visitors that Pinochet’s reign of terror lasted right up until he finally ceded power in 1990 to elected President Patricio Aylwin.

Another aim, Sepulveda said, is to show how pervasive the repression was, shining a light on the 1,200 sites across the country where detainees were held, tortured and killed.

Some of those sites -- such as the infamous Villa Grimaldi and a spy facility known by its street address, Avenida Londres 39, both in Santiago -- are now independent museums.

Sepulveda noted that other countries that suffered in the last century from dictatorships and oppression are undergoing similar soul-searching. Just last week, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva announced an investigation into his country’s 1964-85 military junta.

“We’ve been to many similar museums in Washington, Germany and South Africa, and ours is different,” Sepulveda said, noting the high-tech, interactive features that she hopes will engage young people.

Reminding the young about recent history, Iglesias said, is crucial. Since becoming a history professor after her return to Chile in 1990, she is frequently dismayed to find many of her students have little grasp of what happened after the Sept. 11, 1973, overthrow of President Salvador Allende.

So she is grateful, albeit with reservations, that the museum will “give institutionality” to victims’ long-standing demands that their histories be told.

“Many of us have never stopped asking for justice since 1973, and we have plenty of documentation,” Pizarro said. “Will it be shown?”

“What we are waiting to see is whose version of history will be given,” Iglesias said. “The official version of victims as anarchists and terrorists? Or that of the people who were crushed for simply exercising their political rights?

“In Chile,” she said, “the battle for history is still being waged.”

Kraul is a special correspondent.