Before I left I spent a considerable amount of my two-month winter break trying to convince my father that studying abroad wasn't actually about the classes I would be taking but about the people I would be meeting and the things I would be learning about various cultures through those conversations. This generally elicited a laugh but the truth is, in the past month I have learned quite a bit outside of the classroom (and no, I don't mean learning how to make pisco sour).
All of the guidebooks and websites about Chile advise travelers not to mention the Pinochet government or its predecessor, Allende. Although I have tried to stay clear of politics in an effort to be polite, I hadn't been in Santiago for more than an hour when my host mom brought up the golpe. On one hand, Claudia is super open and pretty much talks about anything with me, but still, for such a sensitive issue, that was pretty soon.
One reason is that my birthday is September 11, the day that the coup occurred in 1973. When Chileans hear my birthday, they solemnly nod and inform me that this isn't just a sad day in the U.S., it is also an important day in Chile. Another, more concrete reason, is that the coup really isn't that far in the past. 1973? My parents were alive then. That's not that long ago. Additionally, the country held Truth and Reconciliation commissions during the late 90s and early 2000s, so the wounds are still pretty fresh.
Needless to say, talking about Pinochet quite a bit has shown me a panorama of viewpoints on his government. Before getting into that, here's a quick summary of what happened in 1973: In 1970, Salvador Allende, a socialist, was elected president of Chile but with only 36% of the vote since there were so many candidates in the election. Protests erupted and the country was in some turmoil. Then on September 11, 1973 Pinochet and the military staged a takeover of the government. That day, Allende committed suicide. Pinochet remained in power until 1990 and put in place many neoliberal economic reforms, which were welcome in a nation that was very poor. At the same time, Pinochet and his men arrested, tortured, and often killed anyone suspected of being a communist or socialist. People were taken from their homes in the middle of the night or on the street in the middle of the day. Many were never confirmed dead but have not been seen since, they are referred to as "disappeared".
Pinochet left the presidency in 1990 to a very positive environment in Chile. Many saw him as a hero for saving the economy. When the Truth and Reconciliation commissions began and the gory details of torture and death came out, the discourse in the country changed. Today, virtually no one will speak in public in favor of Pinochet.
At first, this left me with the impression that Chileans as a whole agreed that the horrific acts committed by the government during this period were unjust and that that time period as a whole was something that should not happen again. Over time, what I have found is that some people (mainly the wealthy) actually support Pinochet because of his economic policy. In one of my classes the professor told the class that he would be referring to the government during Pinochet's time as a dictatorship but he did not want to offend anyone, so students should use whichever term they were most comfortable. While UDP hails itself as progressive university, many of its students are very wealthy. Although I have no actual evidence of this since it is somewhat taboo, I'm pretty sure the professor felt the need to preface that statement because he did not want to put off anyone who might support Pinochet.
All of these varying opinions left my head spinning. Where did I stand on this issue? What extent of torture could be justified in the "name" of saving the economy? Then I visited Villa Grimaldi.
Saturday morning my Globalization class and our professor took a bus to Villa Grimaldi, one of the many torture sites used by the Pinochet government. It used to be sort of a country club for Santiago's wealthy citizens, but after the coup it was taken over and turned into a torture camp. We saw the tiny cells were prisoners were housed, the tower where they were tortured. This was the first time I'd ever visited a site that was home to so much human suffering and death. It was indescribable. No one, except our professor acting as tour guide, spoke for the duration of the hour long tour. Hearing about human suffering is one thing, walking on ground where it occurred is another.
On the bus home, I talked with my friend Kevin about how we felt, where to go from there. I had so much emotion and no place to put it. He mentioned that prior to that day he felt he had known Chile, understood it. Our visit proved that we truly didn't. To me, no matter what sort of "economic improvement" Pinochet was able to offer Chile it could never make-up for the suffering of just one tortured person, let alone the hundreds who were left at the mercy of the military government.
As we got off the bus for lunch and I resumed my ordinary day I was overcome by emotion. I'm living in a nation which, like most nations, has a stained past it is still struggling to deal with. I hope that my time here can serve as an opportunity to bear witness to Chile's recovery and struggle to come to terms with what happened here.
Naturally, Claudia and I had a long conversation about Villa Grimaldi and its importance. She explained that many Chileans don't like to visit because it brings up bad memories or they are simply in denial.
To be honest, I'm still not really sure how to come to terms with setting foot in a place where people were tortured and killed, except that I had a profound feeling of being a part of the human race. I guess the only thing I can do from here is bear witness to the past and do my best to be a part of a better future. That's a tall order, but I'm not jaded yet so off I go!
"El olvido está lleno de memoria" -Mauricio Benedetti (Oblivion is full of memory) written on the memorial for those who lost their lives at Villa Grimaldi