As an American, September 11th refers to one year: 2001. But for Chileans, September 11th holds a different significance altogether.
On September 11, 1973, a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende, the democratically-elected socialist president. Pinochet led a military dictatorship for the following 17 years (1973-1990), which continues to be a raw, divisive period for Chileans today.
Regardless of opposing views of each man’s policies or legacy, one thing is clear: the dictatorship committed human rights violations. Tens of thousands of people were detained, tortured, murdered or exiled. There are thousands who ‘disappeared’ during those years and that have never been found. Even to this day, there are Chileans searching the barren Atacama desert for any trace of their family members.
To remember September 11, 1973 and the ensuing dictatorship, Chileans built the beautiful, yet haunting Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago. It’s free to visit and brings to life the events of the day of the military coup, as well as the pain and horror of the following years. It’s a place that stays with you, long after you visit.
Last week at the museum, I was stopped by a group of teenage students on a class trip. They had to interview foreign visitors and ask a few questions about their visit, including one that dumbfounded me: “One of our government ministers said that this museum wasn’t accurate and it doesn’t need to exist anymore. It created a lot of news but don’t worry, he resigned. What do you think about that?”
What do I think about that?! I immediately blurted a stream-of-consciousness response about the extent to which I fundamentally disagreed with that government minister, the significance of the museum to Chileans and foreigners alike, how important it was that they, as students, were visiting the museum, among other thoughts. Their question sparked a sense of outrage and I appreciated my visit even more than before.
Later that day, I wanted to know more about the events they mentioned. I learned that Mauricio Rojas (now former Minister of Culture – that’s right, Culture) was quoted in a 2015 book, criticising the museum. The quote came to light a few months ago, provoking public outrage, petitions and Rojas recanting his previous views. Needless to say, he resigned within a week.
In just over a week in Chile, from my experience at the museum to conversations with various local tour guides and hostel owners, it’s become abundantly clear how complex and emotive Chile’s history is for its citizens. Each person has added a new layer to our understanding of what happened, sometimes with naked emotion clear on his or her face. I’m grateful for their willingness to share their perspectives, and for the more nuanced appreciation it gives me as a foreigner visiting this beautiful country.
To those students whose question sparked my sense of outrage, I dedicate an English guide to the museum. Hopefully it will be useful for future visitors, and for those who may never get the chance to visit.