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The dictatorship is everywhere in Chile.

From memorials peppering the city, to the always-present flowers on folksinger and folk hero Victor Jara’s grave, to the fact that one of the main streets is called September 11th, the date on which the golpe militar, or military coup, started in 1973.

Augusto Pinochet held power for 17 years during a period of Chilean history many Chileans would prefer to put behind them, and many choose never to talk about. As a foreigner, I often feel it’s not my place to say a word with respect to the dictatorship.

The dictatorship is everywhere, and it’s nowhere.

There are demonstrations every September 11th, and March 29th (for Day of the Young Combatant, which remembers two brothers active in the leftist resistance movement who were shot and killed by the police during a demonstration) but the rest of the year there is a whole lot of silence.

You might ask someone where they picked up such flawless French, or ask how their family in Sweden is doing, but never ask the underlying questions: Were you in exile, too? Were you one of the 30,000 people imprisoned or tortured? Is one of your family among the 3,197 people killed or disappeared?

With the inauguration of the $22 million Museo de La Memoria y Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights), this quiet is lifting, giving way to dialogue. A conversation in which the older generation comes to watch the news footage of the era, reminding themselves of time and place, and the younger generation congregates, surprised to see that in Europe, protests were held against the dictatorship. Parents take children born into democracy on a history ride through their own family tree, pointing and explaining, and answering questions the children are just now learning to ask.

The museum is a stark, glassed-in building in a giant sloped plaza, opposite the Quinta Normal Metro stop on the green line (Linea 5) in Barrio Yungay, one of Santiago Centro’s working-to-middle class neighborhoods.

The permanent exhibit is three floors of documentation, multimedia, memorabilia, news clippings, poetry, art, and stark reminders of torture. The first floor looks at human rights as a universal challenge, with a rough map of the world laid out in photos that show efforts to maintain human rights.

Below, are a series of plaques representing the truth commissions established to document what happened in each country’s dictatorship. Alongside Chile are Serbia, Bosnia, Uganda, Chad, El Salvador, East Timor, and dozens of others.

Further upstairs, the events of September 11th, 1973 are shown, aged black and white footage showing the attack on the presidential palace, the moving in of troops among civilians, the falling of curfew. Further exhibition spaces show international newspapers condemning the dictatorship, repression, and torture, and stark black panels where children’s drawings and letters are posted, asking where their parents have gone.

Up further still, under strong sunlight let in by the museum’s glass walls, the demand for truth and justice is documented, along with footage of families of the disappeared talking about the future. Mementos of the era are under a large glass display, an open time capsule with vinyl records and food packages of the day. The displays take the visitor through the demand for justice, and the plebiscite vote that returned Chile to democracy, proclaiming “Nunca Más” (Never Again).

All the while, a backdrop of black and white photos of more than a thousand of the disappeared, many taken as enlarged photocopies of their national ID cards, are framed against a pale green wall that stretches along the height of the museum, with empty frames interspersed among them.

The museum was inaugurated by President of the Republic Michelle Bachelet in January 2010. Ms. Bachelet had been detained, tortured, and ultimately lived in exile during the dictatorship. The museum calls itself an “invitation to reflect on attacks made on life and dignity from September 11, 1973 to March 10, 1990 in Chile.”

I’m hoping it’s an invitation for people to talk about what’s been unsaid, and for me to listen, and ask the questions for which I’ve wondered the answers for the five years I’ve called Chile home.

Community Connection:

Eileen Smith, a regular contributor to Matador and one of our community ambassadors, is also Matador’s destination expert on Chile. Don’t hesitate to connect with her if you have questions about Chile, and check out her blog.

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