“Mommy … why are there holes in the wall?
“Mommy … what does it say here?”
“Uh … ‘aquí tortura.’”
“In English, what does it say?”
Okay, my fault. Obviously, Mark was going to ask questions. He isn’t exactly a passive kid.
“Okay Mark… Imagine: for example, if you want something, like a toy, and I don’t think it’s a good idea, what happens?”
“You say, ‘no, maybe tomorrow, you have too many toys at home already’?”
“That sounds about right. Now, do I hit you very hard?”
Mark laughs. “No! You don’t hit me!”
“Do I scream and hurt you?”
“No, silly! You just say ‘no’!”
“See, if we disagree, we talk. Well, sometime, some people are not nice. And a long, long time, people who disagreed were hurt. Back then, the police wasn’t nice. The police took them to this house and hurt them.”
“This is NOT nice.”
“Nope. But this was a long time ago.”
In Mark’s years, it was. But really, the 1970s are not “a long time ago” and even I can’t believe I’m standing there, at Londres 38, a nice house in a quiet street of downtown Santiago, where the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional clandestinely held, questioned and tortured those who opposed the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Ironically, the building housed an office of the Socialist Party, but it was seized by the junta and used in 1973/74, right after the coup.
The black-and-white tiles in the hall beyond the entrance were the only thing that the blindfolded victims could see when they arrived here. Most of the rooms in the buildings were left bare but for remnants of installations, like pipes protruding out of the wall, broken tiles, burn marks on the wood floors, and holes in the wall. If you don’t know where you are, you’d feel like you are visiting a lovely posh building in the city centre but the atmosphere is uneasy and eerie.
I must have walked in Calle Londres five or six times before I paid attention to the building, now a memorial.
This year, I’m interested in Chile’s past. As I’m walking in the streets of Santiago, I see anarchist slogans, peaceful demonstrations, gay couples holding hands, immigrants from all over Latin America settling in Chile. It feels like an open-minded country, a democracy, a progressive city.
It’s hard to believe that forty years ago, a military dictatorship ruled the country.
If you aren’t familiar with Chile’s history, here is the gist of it. The dictadura militar was an authoritarian military government that ruled Chile between 1973 and 1990. It was established after the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup d’état on 11 September 1973. The dictatorship was headed by a military junta presided by General Augusto Pinochet. It presented its mission as a “national reconstruction” but—surprise, surprise…—the regime was characterized by the systematic suppression of political parties and the persecution of dissidents to an extent that was unprecedented in the history of Chile. Overall, the regime left over 3,000 dead or missing, tortured thousands of prisoners, and forced 200,000 Chileans into exile. Eventually, Chile transitioned back to democracy in the 1990 and now, the country is facing its dark past with courage.
Most of Latin America was ruled by military dictatorships in the 1970s: the Revolución Argentina, the Brazilian military regime (1964–85), Augusto Pinochet’s regime (starting in 1973) and Juan María Bordaberry’s regime in Uruguay.
These are countries I love and as a naïve outsider, I think they changed a lot—for the better.
I want to understand how they went from darkness to light and how they deal with the past.
After Londres 38, I visited the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, dedicated to commemorate the victims of human rights violations during the Pinochet regime. The displays aren’t graphic but the museum is chilling with a strong focus on what Chileans experienced during the dictatorship. What happened to the desaparecidos (people victims of forced disappearance, abducted or imprisoned and most often murdered) is absolutely terrifying and many families are still fighting to know what actually happened to their loved ones.
When I stepped out of the museum, the sun was shining, a group was laughing and smoking outside and Mark was asking for a sandwich.
And somehow, as we walked through Barrio Brasil, I felt hopeful instead of being depressed by such terrifying events.
Chile went through hell and years of terror. But at one point, people had enough and democracy returned. Chileans fought and won their freedom back.
I’m just a traveller and only a Chilean would be able to assess how the country is doing—no doubt there are social issues, like anywhere in the world. But I admire the way it faces history with courage and honesty and confronts the enduring legacy of dictatorship.
It’s going to take time. I speak as a European and a French—over there, we are still dealing with the legacy of WWII, colonialism, the War in Algeria, among other dark pages of history.
But we can accept history, face it and move forward for the best.