Something extraordinary is happening in Chile this week.
All across the country, from Arica to Punta Arenas, and in 30 of the 32 comunas, or districts, within Santiago, public discussion is happening about the coup on September 11, 1973 that was headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet that ousted democratically-elected President Salvador Allende and ushered in 17 years of military rule.
Tonight kicked off the nation’s first Week of Memory. Occurring against the backdrop of the November presidential election, the next seven days will feature previously hidden or unknown testimony, pictures, films and texts.
Four key notions of memory underpin the programs.
The first is memory as an antidote to future such tyranny and oppression happening again in the country-a thought that’s captured in the statement that was said and projected on the screen in the front of the room, “Nunca mas.”
The second conception of memory is a spur to greater levels of fulfillment of democratic principles, of the appreciation both of democracy’s fragility and of the importance of working ceaselessly to protect and advance its flow.
The third notion, according to Ricardo Brodsky, the director of the national Museum of Human Rights and Memory, is of memory as an restorative and reparative act that confers dignity that was previously stripped and violated to the victims.
And the fourth is the idea that the lessons of history and the suffering of the past must be taught to the next generation.
In his opening comments, Brodsky, who’s a childhood friend of poet, academic and human rights activist Marjorie Agosin, noted that this is not the first time that a round number of the coup’s anniversary has been commemorated.
However, as opposed to 20 years ago, when it was marked by a state ceremony, this year the conversations are happening in civil forums.
Places like universities and conference halls and libraries.
The latter is where Dunreith and I went to the kickoff event in Providencia, the neighborhood in the city where we live.
Originally slated to take place outside under a white tent set up next to the branch of the public library that sits in Parque Bustamante, the gathering was moved inside to the library’s basement because of a light drizzle.
The room was largely filled to capacity by close to 100 people of various ages who sat in the stiff red chairs.
Recently elected Providencia Mayor Josefa Errazuriz talked about the comuna’s decision, taken after fierce debate, to reverse the name that had been given to one of Providencia’s major streets in 1980 as Ave. 11 September to its original name of New Providencia Avenue.
She led the fight, she said, because she didn’t want young people to receive any shred of a message that the date was one to be honored.
It’s inconceivable that homage would be given to that name, Errazuriz said.
She added that the street’s renaming was a significant step in an ongoing process of helping to convert the sorrow, hurt and anger from the coup and the Pinochet years and dictatorship into future projects and plans.
We need to put the new generation in touch with how we lived and suffered, she said. The pain has to give place to proposals for the future.
We have to do it, she told me later, during a short break in which various types of cheese garnished with nuts and fruit juices, soft drinks and wine were all available.
The program’s feature event was a showing of 1978 German documentary film. Los Muertos No Callan, or The Dead Are Not Silent.
The crowd watched with a fierce and silent attention that was broken occasionally by a sigh or gasp.
Filmed in grainy black and white images, the movie told the story of the assassinations of top Allende political figures like Vice President Carlos Prats, Defense Secretary Jose Toha and Ambassador to the United States Orlando Letelier.
But if the murdered politicians were silent, their widows gave voice to what happened.
In the movie Moy de Toha and Isabel Letelier narrate their horrific experience with almost unthinkable calm and composure and remarkable detail, even as their faces bear the toll that their husbands’ murders and the recounting of their deaths takes on them.
The deaths happened after forces loyal to Pinochet, who had repeatedly declared his loyalty to Allende, bombed La Moneda, the President’s palace. Fire and plumes of smoke billow on the screen for what feels like agonizing minutes, each successive flame further destroying the democratic ideals on which the nation had been based for nearly half a century.
The coup marked the beginning of Pinochet’s ruthless reign in which Toha, Letelier and many other leaders who were loyal to Allende were imprisoned at Isla Dawson, an island about 100 kilometers south of Punta Arenas.
Toha‘s death came after months of torture-the Pinochet government told Moy that he had committed suicide-and after his wife had confronted the dictator.
I am not talking to the head of the military junta, she said. I am talking to the man who we hosted at our house many times.
Pinochet had done more than visit.
One of the film’s most biting segments comes when the general’s words of effusive praise for the Tohas, which he wrote by hand in a letter and had engraved on a plate, are shown repeatedly on the screen.
Moy de Toha also shows a card signed by 39 of her husband’s former inmates who, like him had been incarcerated on Isla Dawson.
Orlando Letelier was among the signatories.
Letelier moved to Washington after political pressure led to his release from prison and his eventual reunion with his family in Venzuela. He became one of the major voices of the Chilean resistance.
On Sept. 10, 1976, he was deprived of his Chilean citizenship. During a solidarity concert that evening that was headlined by Joan Baez, he declared, “I was born Chilean, I am Chilean and I will die Chilean.”
Letelier then took square aim at the dictator.
Pinochet was born a traitor and fascist. He is a traitor and fascist. He will die as a traitor and fascist, Letelier said.
He was murdered in Washington by DINA agents in a car bombing 11 days later.
The bomb also claimed the life of his assistant Ronni Moffitt.
The Dead Are Not Silent ends after Isabel Letelier describes her fight to get to see her murdered husband.
His eyes were still open.
In his eyes, she said, she saw all of the regime’s horror.
But she also saw the strength necessary to carry on and continue fighting.
Isabel Letelier was in the front row of the audience.
She walked unsteadily, the product of having recently lost the use of a use of one of her eyes.
But her diminished physical state did not mean that her contribution went unrecognized.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
During his comments in the panel after the film, Juan Guzman, the former right-wing judge who indicted Pinochet shortly before his death, paid tribute to the courage, valor and strength of both widows.
The crowd applauded for a long time, and again as Isabel Letelier left the room shortly before the panel ended.
I told Guzman that I admired his transformation through allowing himself to be exposed to the regime’s atrocities from his isolation to his later role as arbiter of justice for the nation.
It was very good, he said about The Judge and the General, the film by Patricio Lanfranco and Elizabeth Farnsworth that traced his journey.
I also asked the judge about the people who had chanted, “They never got him” after Pinochet´s death, referring to the fact that the former dictator eluded prison time during his lifetime.
Guzman had said these people hadn´t learned anything as of the time of Pinochet’s passing.
Had these people still not learned the lessons of history, I asked?
Many of them had not, he said.
Providencia councilman Jaime Parada, who is openly gay, addressed the same issue in response to a question I asked about why so many people we had met asserted that life was better under Pinochet.
I come from a right wing family, and I remember my mother and father crying when Pinochet lost the plebicisite vote, he said.
Forty three percent of the country supported Pinochet during that vote.
Many of them still do, he said.
This happened because of a confluence of factors, according to Parada. He cited the neo-liberal ideology that encouraged people to think only about themselves, and not to concern themselves with the pain of others.
Parada also said that the country was in an extreme anti-Marxist position during the Cold War.
At the same time, he also made the point that human rights violations abuse did not only occur during the dictatorship, but continue today in Chile and nations throughout the world.
These abuses occur to women, to people with disabilities, and to gay, lesbian and transsexual people, among others, Parada said.
The unfinished work that memory calls us to do hung in the room as the session wrapped up at 10:00 p.m. and the group started to disperse into the warm evening.
Practically bursting with all that we had seen and heard, Dunreith and I walked back to our apartment faster than usual.
The conversations about Chile’s past would continue throughout the country the next day.