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Chile: Memoria, 40 years on


I visited Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights with my friend the Mexican anthropologist Luiz Vasquez. For about two hours we relived the crisis which led the military to take power and then the unspeakable repression which was brought down upon the Chilean people for the 17 years until, after the 1989 referendum the military rather ungraciously pulled back from power. It cannot be said too often how important this monument is, and how important it is that no one ever forget.
The museum is an imposing but welcoming structure and the visitor watches videos in which survivors and relatives tell their story and experiences some how political oppression penetrated into the most intimate corners of life, in exhibits of letters of prisoners to their daughters, sons and lovers, and of personal effects. I was particularly affected by seeing film of the people endlessly demonstrating in support of radical change to make a society marked by solidarity and equality. The faces were so young, almost innocent, and in them one could see a mixture of wild aspiration but then, as the months of 1973 wore on and the political situation grew increasingly tense, as something like class war was enacted in demonstrations on the streets, they gave way to increasing desperation and fear, even hatred of the forces which were marshalling against them. A most terrible storm was gathering, but they did not know how terrible and pitiless it would be.
September 11th will be the fortieth anniversary of that coup and the subject is being widely covered in the media. Last night I watched a programme entitled ‘Imagenes Prohibidas’ which has been broadcast in two parts of more than an hour each, showing film of violence perpetrated notably at funerals of victims, in cemeteries and in front of churches, and interviews with survivors and their families. In one case Carmen Quintana who survived – just – an attempt to burn her alive and whose bravery defies description. It can be watched here
Yesterday also the former general Cheyre, the first C-in-C of the Army to recognize the violations perpetrated by his force, and to apologize for them, had to resign from his retirement job as Chair of the Electoral Service (Servel). In late 1973, as a junior officer, he received a child of two whose parents, he was told, had blown themselves up while fleeing. The child, whose father was Argentinian and his mother Mexican, was handed over to a convent in the northern town of La Serena but later recovered by an aunt, and today is a man of 42 – Ernesto Lejderman.
This was at the time when the infamous Caravan of Death led by General Arellano Stark was conducting a systematic campaign of slaughter in the north of the country. Cheyre believed the unlikely story, or at least never asked any questions, for 25 years. This week he was interviewed together with Ernesto Lejderman on live television, and subsequently resigned as Chair of the Commission. Incredibly, he wants to stay on as a member of the Commission. The interview has been posted by Tomas Undurraga and is on the site of the online paper El Mostrado. Click here to watch.
As the sociologist Manuel Antonio Garretón said to me, no one in South Africa dares to express support for apartheid in public. No one in Germany, save neo-Nazi groupuscules, dares express support for Hitler. But in Chile it is acceptable to openly support the violence perpetrated by Pinochet and his people, which continued through till the mid-1980s. It may not be a majority opinion, but it is that of a substantial and tolerated minority. The man who until recently was the candidate of the right, Pablo Longueira, spoke of his conversations with the spirit of Pablo Guzmán, the military regime’s chief ideologue who explicitly stated that an incumbent regime is entitled to violate human rights in order to defend the established order in accordance with nothing but its own judgment.
In polite society people at best say the violence was unfortunate but necessary and may express a palpably insincere regret over ‘excesses’. The left for its part, has repented over and over again for the hostility to democracy which was expressed by some people in the Popular Unity coalition and by sectors on the left who, barely counting with more than the odd pistol, cried out for wholesale revolution.

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David Lehmann's Blog

David Lehmann is a senior editor at LAB. A social scientist who has worked all his life on and in Latin America, he writes on subjects including agricultural development, religion and multiculturalism. He has worked in Chile, Ecuador, Mexico and Brazil and has accumulated a wide-ranging knowledge of peoples, histories and ideas over several decades. He is a former director of the Centre of Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge.

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