A Letter From Santiago, Chile...
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 by Pat Coony
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I recently visited the Museum for the Memory of Human Rights (Museo de la Memoria de Derechos Humanos), a new museum erected in Santiago Chile to memorialize the tragic era of the early 1970's when the elected government of Chile was overthrown by an army coup.

Chile had been a country with a long history of democracy. This tradition was in stark contrast to the rest of the continent which has experienced wave after wave of dictatorial rule. Unlike U.S. voters, Chileans even today are remarkably aware of politics and public policy. In 1971, the Chilean voters elected a Marxist candidate, Salvador Allende, who promised to launch an economic program which would be much fairer to workers. Marxist candidates have long been candidates for elective office in western democracies but have rarely been successful. Interestingly, the only previous success had happened in Spain in the 1930's. In response, the wealthy with the support of the Catholic Church launched that country into a civil war which ultimately toppled the elected government and led to decades of repression and stagnation.

The success of another Marxist election resulted in the same type of reaction within Chile. In addition there was the strong opposition of the United States to the new Chilean government. After all, this was the era of the cold war and the U.S. did not want another communist leaning country in the hemisphere. Largely through covert activity, the U.S. did much to disrupt the Chilean economy. In fairness the economic problems were not solely caused by the U.S.. The progressive Allende government was characterized by substantial political chaos and there were frequent strikes as workers tried to capitalize on their ascendancy to power. September 11 is an infamous date for more than one reason as it was the date in 1973 that the Chilean army under the direction of Augustine Pinochet launched a coup that toppled Allende and suddenly ended Chile's democratic tradition. Rather than accept exile, Allende committed suicide in the Presidential Palace.

The aftermath of the coup was unbelievably tragic. Many thousands of Allende supporters were rounded up, severely tortured and killed. It is this tragedy that is memorialized by the museum. It is extremely sad to consider that ordinarily Chileans (as well as many foreign sympathizers who had come to Chile to help launch the new government) were tortured and murdered for having ideas about a better society and acting on them. Even if these ideas were not well considered or realistic, as free human beings these individuals were entitled to their beliefs and had done nothing criminal.

Ironically, the discipline imposed by the Pinochet regime helped develop the Chilean economy and today Chile is the most advanced of all Latin American countries. Many Chileans even today applaud the military era because of this progress. But no amount of economic success can justify what occurred. The museum does a good job of recounting the tragic story and memorializing the deceased. Perhaps what impressed me the most was the overwhelming sadness in the faces of my fellow museum goers.

Today, Salvador Allende is regarded as a hero and martyr in Chile. His name is on streets and buildings and his image often appears in the media. But modern Chile bears no resemblance to the policies that he advocated. Chile is the most capitalistic country in the hemisphere and perhaps the world. Its society reflects both the virtues and sins of this system of human organization. While there is economic success and plenty of work opportunity, there is massive economic inequality and vital services such as health care and quality education are virtually unavailable to low wage earners.

The Chilean reality past and present basically reflects human historical reality. We are capable of behaving absolutely brutally toward each other. We are far from achieving a human condition which even comes close to approaching the ideals of Salvador Allende, Thomas Jefferson, or even the hypocritical platitudes of most politicians.

Museums can help us remember how bad we are but they are not a cure. It is way too easy to disassociate ourselves from such atrocities. The Chilean soldiers who perpetrated this carnage could have been you or me. We won't really be safe from each other until we figure out a way to fix ourselves.