Chilean Chronicles, Part 44: Memory Week Continues

A sopaipilla salesman in front of posters for an artist performance.

A sopaipilla salesman in front of posters for an artist performance.

Chile’s eruption of memory continues as the 40th anniversary of the Pinochet coup approaches.

Ricardo Brodsky, the head of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, spoke on Monday about how a presidential election and the decade anniversary of the coup also occurred in 1993.

But whereas the observances of the coup then were more controlled by the state, now they have been taken up by a wide range of sectors within civil society.

Nightly events held at the public library in Parque Bustamante.

Special sections and editions of newspapers.

Documentary films.

An exhibit of banned, burned and recovered books.

Artistic performances and international conferences held throughout the city.

Lectures that cover nearly every conceivable aspect of the coup, from music to art to media to memory.

Gatherings at Villa Grimaldi, the former torture center that has been turned in recent years into a peace park.

The “goal of silence” in the international soccer match that is taking place between Chile and Venezuela.

The apology by judges for their failures during the Pinochet regime.

The acknowledgment for the first time by Catholic University, the institution that was home to many of the Chicago Boys who trained under Milton Friedman and applied his free-market theories during the Pinochet era, of the people from that community who were disappeared, tortured and murdered.

This of course says nothing about the official commemorations that are taking place next week.

Last night, Dunreith and I watched the first of four chapters of the documentary series, Chile: The Forbidden Images-a project that brought out for the first time incidents that have been covered for four decades.

The water hoses and the green shirted police officers striking their fellow citizens were in 1980s era-Santiago, but they could just as easily have been in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 or Soweto in South Africa during the State of Emergency in 1985.

Today, we attended lectures about Salvador Allende, memory, forgetting and the art of memorialization at a conference sponsored by the Museum of Memory and Human Rights at the University of Diego Portales.

Together, these materials, along with the other sessions we have attended, materials we have read, and conversations we had, evoke a picture of a fascist regime that sought to suppress the seething resentment and increasing levels of protest with brute force.

I had been aware of this, even as seeing the extent and the physical violence was jarring.

But what has also become clear is the degree to which the regime sought to define completely people’s mental reality.

This took place through controlling the media, and thereby the information to which people had access.

It also took the form, as Patricio Guzman depicted in his haunting film Nostalgia for the Light, of flying murdered Chileans’ bones hundreds of miles and dumping them in the ocean or the desert so that their loved one would never experience the closure of finding them.

In so doing, the regime sought to erase any semblance of public memory. (Steve Stern, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke today about the assertion of a right to memory that has surged in Chile and other nations.)

The various forms of memory acts are unusual, and, as psychoanalyst Juan Flores suggested today in one of the panels, integral parts of moving from a story of unspeakable pain to one in which the suffering that occurred during that time was a temporary defeat of the values and practices that define a democratic nation.

The arrival at that desired destination of course is far from certain.

There are many incidents for which accountability has not been rendered.

Chile has a five-year statute of limitations on torture cases, for instance, so there has been essentially no punishment for those who victimized tens of thousands of their countrymen.

There is also the question of how Chilean youth, many of whom have been raised on a diet of video games and who are part of a wired generations and have increasingly short attention spans, will engage with a past they did not themselves experience.

And some of the more popular materials that they see are devoid of historical accuracy, according to cultural critic Nelly Richard, who provided a thorough dismantling of Pablo Larrain’s No, a movie about the 1988 campaign to defeat Pinochet in the plebicisite.

These are real concerns that are similar to those faced by South Africans, Germans, and, yes, Americans.

And what is abundantly clear is that the cultural landscape here has undergone a seismic shift, thanks to the efforts and struggles of Chileans throughout the country who have found it within themselves both to create the opportunities and structures for testimony and commemoration and, once established, to participate actively in them.

Memory Week continues tomorrow.

Humbled and grateful, Dunreith and I will be there, attending, learning and sharing what we can.

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