A Feel for History: Walking with Pinochet

Anyone who knows me knows I love history. It was always my favorite subject in school. I read presidential biographies for fun and The History Chicks is one of my favorite podcasts. For crying out loud, I used to be a volunteer docent at a small historic tavern museum in my quaint colonial town (holler, Gadsby’s Tavern). So, it has been fun for me to explore Chile through its history, and here in the mining lands of the desert you can ride around through these abandoned towns and literally walk through history you guys. It’s super awesome.

One of the more interesting chapters in Chilean history is undoubtedly the overthrow of the Allende government in 1973 and the installation of Pinochet who ruled through a military government until the 90s. I am far from an expert on the man, but Pinochet is widely recognized as a dictator who really enjoyed building the nation’s infrastructure but had a very casual regard for human rights.

But it isn’t black and white. Many hate him and are deeply affected by what are referred to as “the disappearances” – the thousands of intellectuals, political enemies, old people, and other ‘undesirables’ or enemies of the state that vanished during the Pinochet years never to be seen again. It was at this time that the cueca, the national dance I saw performed dozens of times during fiestas patrias, became a form of protest. Traditionally a pair dance, women would dance it alone to highlight their missing partner. It was such an important act during those years that Sting even made a song about it.

Others appreciate what Pinochet did to build the country, including some of the roads that unite the country and allow thousands of people a year to visit Patagonia (as I will be doing in a few weeks, hopefully). Furthermore, I have heard that as long as you didn’t speak out against Pinochet you actually had more freedom under him than under the previous Allende communist regime (which, for example, limited freedom of movement in and out of the country). This side of the debate doesn’t sit too well with me, though. It is too close to saying “well it’s not a problem for me, so it’s not a problem” …

Regardless of your opinion, it is strange to think about how recently all this happened. Pinochet didn’t leave power until after I was born. There are constant reminders and touchpoints of the Pinochet years. I saw it even in my first week in Chile, when I was in Santiago for my program’s training and orientation. Every day we went to our classroom on Calle Londres, and we would see walking tours stopped at the building next door. For some reason, it took a few days for us to investigate further because it appeared to be a normal building. Until I noticed the graffiti that said “aqui torturaron a mi hijo.” Here they tortured my son.

In addition to this prison/torture house in the middle of a modern city, I have also seen literal signs related to Pinochet in the desert. In Pedro de Valdivia, someone left a poster next to someone else’s grave, hot pink and eternally hopeful, begging for information regarding one of the “disappeared.”  Recently, I had the chance to go to a place called Chacabuco a former mining town that closed its gates in the 1940s and became a national heritage site.

In the 1970s, the Pinochet regime turned this heritage site into a concentration camp for men who were predominantly intellectuals and political enemies. The guide informed us that other than one suicide, no prisoners died here. Just your regular torture, I suppose. It was eerie walking around the abandoned towns seeing messages on the wall, both from those who were imprisoned there and those keeping the memory alive.

News and popular culture consistently refer to these years. The news has recently been covering the death of a woman who had spent the majority of her life trying to find her husband, children, daughter-in-law, and unborn grandchild who got caught up in the disappearances as well. People still frequently listen to Victor Jara (rest in peace) and Illapu, some of the bands famous for protesting Pinochet in that time. History is never gone.

To wrap this up with a positive note, while we were wandering around he ruins of Chacabuco my friend Andres asked me if the US has ever had a dictator. Of course, the US is far from a perfect country and has faced very rough times both in the past and at present. While the current states of politics in the US is definitely cause for concern, we have not lived under a violent dictatorship that completely suppresses freedom of speech and creates a culture of fear to the extent that Pinochet did. May it always be that way.

**Para que nadie pierda la memoria porque soy parte de esta historia/ So that no one loses the memory because I am part of this story**

— From the song “Tres Versos para una Historia” by Illapu



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