Chilean Chronicles, Part XXXXI: Memory at the Heart of A Divided Chile


After seven weeks here and as the fortieth anniversary of the coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet draws near, I´ve come to the following conclusion: Chile is a deeply divided country, and memory is at the heart of the divide.

You can see it on the street around the corner from where we live that close to two months ago was renamed after contentious debate from Avenida 11 de Septiembre, in honor of the coup that toppled democratically elected Socialist leader Salvador Allende from power, to its original name of Avenida Providencia Norte. (After giving an emotion-filled speech on Radio Magellanes, the people´s radio station, Allende either killed himself with a rifle given to him by Fidel Castro, or was killed, depending on whom you believe.)

You can hear it in the language that Chileans use to describe the 17-year period in which Pinochet held power in the country.

For supporters, it was a period of a military regime.

For opponents, it was the dictatorship.

Carlos Aldunate Balestra, journalism department chair at the University of Diego Portales where I´m teaching, made the point that Chile has had divisions since it gained its independence from Spain.

But if historical memory resonates in this land that is close to 3,000 miles long, the noise from the coup is still the loudest.

The buildup to the anniversary is a deluge of panels, films, and programs in radio, broadcast, print and the web, all of which are tackling the question of the fateful time leading up to “el golpe” and its aftermath.

You can also see the enduring divisions in The Judge and the General, Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco’s award-winning documentary film about Judge Juan Guzman. After leaving the insular right-wing world in which he had allowed himself to live, Guzman immersed himself in the gruesome details of the Pinochet regime, and ultimately indicted the man who had been largely responsible for his professional ascent.

The film opens and closes with footage of Pinochet’s coffin being carried onto the street after the dictator died without having been prosecuted or convicted of the crimes that impacted so many Chilean families.

Then-President Michelle Bachelet, herself a torture survivor, former exile and the nation’s first female president, refused to declare Pincohet’s death cause for a national day of mourning.

Her decision prompted an outpouring of venomous yelling and epithet hurling from hundreds, if not thousands, of Pinochet supporters who cursed their newly elected leader and chanted, “They never got him!” (This footage starts at 10:39 of the movie clip.)

A dismayed Guzman speaks while watching footage of the protests about the division that clearly existed within the country.

They haven´t learned anything, he says.

Of course, Guzman could have just as easily gained an understanding of the regime´s brutality by visitng the Images of Resistance Dunreith and I went to at the Salvador Allende Museum on Avenida Republica.


A chronology painted on the wall of the room that you enter first explains that Allende established the museum to make art available to and for the people. All of the works in the building, including those by masters like Joan Miro, were donated by the artists.

The chronology signaled the importance of the coup by making it a round circle many times larger than the other items on the timeline. Pinochet’s seizure of power did not stop the artists who had contributed to the museum and others who joined in the cause from registering their outrage throughout his bloody reign.

The timeline detailed the years and dates of exhibitions held by artists to show their support of the Chilean people and their opposition to the Pinochet regime. Intellectuals, philosophers and authors like Michel Foucault, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roland Barthes also expressed their dissent.

Many of these countries were enduring their own governmental oppression like Poland, Cuba and Mexico. The University of Chile held the work during the dictatorship, showing it again after Pinochet left power in 1990.

The imprint of his reign can be felt throughout the two floors, perhaps nowhere more strongly than in the basement, which the museum calls the bestiary.

The text introducing the room states that the works of art show what happens when the state has unfettered power.

The room contains images of leaders like Pinochet in a Nazi swastika on his sleeve, relentlessly turning flowers into corpses, towering about the landscape he’s trampling through, A separate piece is called, In Nixon We Trust. Nixon is in the center like a coin. The names of some his top henchmen who fell in the Watergate’scandal-Liddy, Dean, Mitchell, Erlichman and Haldeman-are on the side.

An image from the Salvador Allende Museum.

An image from the Salvador Allende Museum.

But beyond the political satires there are literally beasts, especially a pair of horrific, grotesque, larger than life blue figures, one of which has its own face while the other is a skeleton wearing a mask.

There`s also an enormously disturbing image of a small naked man whose buttocks are visible as he lies face down into the stomach of a much larger, reclining Statue of Liberty whose vagina is bleeding profusely.

An image from the Bestiary at the Salvador Allende Museum.

An image from the bestiary at the Salvador Allende Museum.

The second floor shows what the bestiary wrought.

“They did not break us,” is the title painted in black letters that crawl down the entrance of two of the rooms. But while the inability of the torturers to destroy their victims can arguably be classified as a victory, the pictures in the rooms showed the heavy price they paid.

And whereas the basement depicted the depravity of the torturers that was unleashed and given sanction by Pinochet’s regime, the second floor generally focuses on the tortured, the murdered, and the survivors.

The first room one enters is drenched in pain, blindfolds and the assertion of sheer forcé by the state over its citizens.

In one image, three blindfolded men with thick, wavy hair are screaming in anguish. In the next room a man with a gag around his mouth is tied to a pole and forced to bend at his midsection.

A picture of three men in blindfolds at the Salvador Allende Museum.

A picture of three men in blindfolds at the Salvador Allende Museum.

Enforced silence is a theme throughout the exhibit. One images has a man´s mouth that looks like part of burlap material that is literally ripped out of the canvas, rendering him mute.

A picture of enforced silence at the Salvador Allende Museum.

A picture of enforced silence at the Salvador Allende Museum.

The institutional silence and complicity of El Mercurio, the country’s leading newspaper for more than a century, is the focal point of the room, Todos Los Poderes, or All the Powers. While guns are a more frequent image in the room and the exhibition, the dripping blood, paper’s name, and resemblance to a distorted front page leave no doubt about the artist´s call for accountability for the paper that consistently went beyond the proverbial turning a blind eye to the regime’s abuses to securing, and then publishing, photographs from Pinochet’s secret police.

This silence is all the more upsetting in the context of these brutal images.

A picture of El Mercurio at the Salvador Allende Museum.

A picture of El Mercurio at the Salvador Allende Museum.

One of the most haunting painting shows five women in various stages of shame and violation. The perpetrator who presumably abused them is naked. His genitals are visible, but he has no identity above the chest.

An image of sexual abuse at the Salvador Allende Museum.

An image of sexual abuse at the Salvador Allende Museum.

The concealing of torturers’ identity was a common practice and a theme that runs through a number of the paintings.

Interior Room 3, a two-panel series another naked woman stands while light is shining on her. She is interrogated by a man wearing sunglasses who appears to be directed by a man speaking into a microphone from the second panel. Behind him a man’s carcass lies inside a cage, as if discarded.

Another image of torture at the Salvador Allende Museum.

Another image of torture at the Salvador Allende Museum.

After attending an exhibit like this, it seems almost inconceivable that Chileans could somehow think life in the country was better during Pinochet.
But Roberto Agosin, a dentist we met in Vina del Mar, said that there are ways for people who want to do so of making sense of such times.

Whereas Argentina´s Dirty War saw 30,000 people killed, in Chile the total was only 3,000, the reasoning goes, he said. Most of the murders happened in the regime´s early years, when the situation was unstable.

For his part, friend and broadcast journalist Miguel Huerta said that those families who were not directly affected by the regime would understandably have a different perspective on the history than those who did have relatives murdered, killed or disappeared.


Pro-Pinochet sentiment is offered voluntarily and without hesitation from ordinary people on the street.

People like Senora Carmen.

She´s a retired teacher who used to work in one of Santiago´s poorest neighborhoods. We met at Santiago´s Biblioplaza a little more than a week ago.

Things were better during the dictatorship, she said, unprompted, when I asked her how her former students whom she taught for four consecutive years were doing.

There was more order then.

More control.

There was respect.

A woman working in a bakery in downtown Valparaiso offered nearly the identical words when I asked her how long she had been working there.

Twenty three years, she answered.

I imagined that Chile´s changed a lot since then, I said.

It has, and for the worse, the woman replied before launching into the praise of the tight control, order and lower levels of drugs that existed during the Pinochet regime.

Luis, a cab driver who took us from our apartment to the tony St. George´s school on the city´s outskirts, agreed.

He issued a passionate and unprompted denunciation of the dirt, sloth, drunkenness and general grime that permeated the city during Allende´s 1,000 days in power.

Pinochet cleaned things up, made the place more modern and got people to sleep at a more regular hour, declared the mustachioed driver, 67, who has been driving in Santiago for nearly half a century.

Alfredo Inostroza, a 64-year-old security guard at all purpose store Falebella, said he remembers when Pinochet came to power as well as the years afterward.

There was a fear, said Inostroza, a trim man with glasses and greying hair parted on the side that seems to carry his seriousness and dignity. The streets were much more empty.

But Inostroza does not necessarily equate the fear with a negative assessment of the general´s leadership.

Things were very unstable under Allende, he said. The economy grew during Pinochet.

And Maria Eliana Eberhard, a prominent anesthetist, told us that her staunch anti-communism comes from the pain caused by her brother-in-law´s brother being killed by a communist. A shadow crossed over her normally exuberant face as she recounted the memory.


Perhaps nowhere are the divided country and memories more visible than in the current presidential campaign, which, for the first time in the nation´s history, pits two women candidates against each other.

The first, of course, is Bachelet. The former president and a divorced mother of three children, she served as Defense Minister at the same time as Donald Rumsfeld held that position in the United States.

She is also the daughter of a former Chilean Air Force General.

So, too, is Evelyn Matthei, her opponent.

Ironically, their childhoods bore many similarities.

Both were daughters of Air Force generals who grew up in privilege, attending elite prívate schools, mastering several languages as well as a profession or skill that required extensive practice and training. (Bachelet is a certified pediatrician, while Matthei is a clasically trained pianist.)

The two not only knew each other, but were childhood friends.

It was during the Pinochet era, though, that the similarities ended.

Whereas Matthei’s father was part of the junta, Bachelet’s father Alberto remained loyal to the constitution and to Allende. Because of that, he was tortured for months and eventually died at the Air Force Academy headed by the elder Matthei, even though he personally was not there at the time Bachelet’s torture occurred.

Bachelet and her mother both were tortured as well in the infamous Villa Grimaldi compound where legions of others also were tortured, murdered and disappeared.

Even though she did not break, Bachelet has said that she still grapples with the emotional scars from that experience.

Author Heraldo Munoz has written about how Bachelet would see one of her torturers in the elevator of the building in which she lived.

One day, she confronted the man, telling him, “I know who you are. I have not forgotten.”

In subsequent trips the man averted his gaze.

Bachelet has at different points shown compassion for the torturers, saying they carry bags of guilt with them. And when she was elected president, she offered a gesture of reconciliation, hugging Matthei’s father and calling him, “Uncle Fernando.” (Her opponent has said her father and Bachelet’s father were friends.)

In her initial comments after being chosen by her party following Pablo Longueira’s surprise withdrawal from the race , Matthei asserted that Bachelet was eminently beatable.

That remains to be seen.

So, too, does the question of whether the election of either woman will inch this beautiful, blood soaked land further away from its wounded past and closer to a more shared and united present.


2 responses to “Chilean Chronicles, Part XXXXI: Memory at the Heart of A Divided Chile

  1. Bette o. Adelman

    A fascinating depiction of the contrasts between Allende and Pinochet followers. It will be interesting to see the election results and subsequent

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Bette.

      I agree with you about the election results and look forward to continuing the conversation.

      Hope all is good with you and your family.


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