A museum dedicated to memory and human rights was on nobody’s agenda when the Chilean people managed, after almost seventeen years of dictatorship, to restore democracy to their country in 1990. More urgent tasks awaited. A military government led by General Augusto Pinochet had ruled Chile since the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in 1973. Throughout its years in power, Pinochet’s government not only engaged in gross violations of human rights—mass executions, torture, exile, imprisonment without trial, raids on shantytowns where the men were rounded up and stripped naked in the rain while the women and children watched—but also systematically suppressed evidence of its crimes. This was done so effectively that, by 1990, over 40 percent of the population still fervently supported the outgoing regime and believed that the supposed horrors of the Pinochet era were fabricated by left-wing propaganda outlets. The country’s priority, therefore, was to establish the facts and unite the nation—including many of Pinochet’s misguided enthusiasts—behind a true account of what had happened.
This was achieved in 1990 and 1991 through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealing with cases of death and disappearance. It was followed years later, in 2003 and 2011, by two other commissions that dealt with survivors who had been tortured (almost 40,000 proven cases) and offered them various forms of reparation.1 Gradually the courts—cravenly subservient during the dictatorship—found ways to circumvent the Pinochet amnesty laws that exempted state agents from prosecution. Scores of the most notorious perpetrators were sent to jail, albeit to a luxury prison specifically built for them.2
These steps did not, however, address a troubling problem: What of the innumerable locations all over the country where terror had been inflicted, and that were in danger of being forgotten, erased, or normalized? Under pressure from human rights organizations, many of those places became officially protected as part of Chile’s patrimonio,3 but this process was haphazard and scattered; it quickly became clear that the task of preservation ought to be centralized and its results lodged in a permanent home.
It took twenty years after democracy was restored, but finally, in January 2010, President Michelle Bachelet, herself a victim of the dictatorship (she and her mother had been detained and tortured after the death of her father, an air force general loyal to Allende), inaugurated the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights) in Santiago.4 The museum owes its collection of archival materials largely to the efforts of human rights organizations to record abuses by government officials during Pinochet’s rule. The ground floor of the museum offers a moving and detailed story of the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.