Serapeion Humanitas


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The hidden story: the military dimension of exile

Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez

Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez

Memory is not simply a way to remember and understand a determined event in the history of a country.  Many times its repercussions don’t know boundaries. For example, understanding the Nazi regime from a national perspective blinds us to many of the atrocities committed beyond Germany.  In the same way the active involvement of Chilean exiled knew no limits when it was about denouncing and confronting the abuses of the dictatorship.

As part of the project I worked with at the Museo I realized there was a hidden story that emerged from the testimonies of those exiled that chose the military way to confront the dictatorship.  Indeed, there was an important portion of the Chilean population that opted for a military career and received professional training in several countries of the Soviet bloc. Among them the military academies in Cuba were one of the main destinations for all of those that looked for a way to topple down authoritarian regimes in the American hemisphere.  This was the case of Nelson Chávez and Soledad Contreras for example. The former was a member of the Communist Party during his youth who left his country for Sweden; the latter a normal child who fled to Argentina with her family after the coup and got involved with the Argentinian Communist Party in the 80’s. What binds together these stories is the fact that both were trained in Cuba and fought in the Nicaraguan Civil War (1980-1990) aiding the FSLN against the Contras. In fact many Chileans were a vital part of the structure of the revolutionary forces.

Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional

Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional

In their cases exile was experienced in a different way. For them this phenomenon didn’t imply uncertainty as happened with other Chileans abroad who didn’t take arms against authoritarianism. They conceived their role as the first step to oust Pinochet. In that sense, they had a clear purpose and were the means to an end. But these insurgents eventually learnt that they were not fighting just for a national cause. The aim went beyond, to offer help to those countries that tried to build a different future for their societies.  The fact that they were risking their lives for Nicaragua taught them that there were no boundaries for international solidarity. Or at least they believed so because it was the only way to be fully committed, as a foreigner, in a civil war of another country.  At the end, many Chileans died in combat and never saw the chance to return and fight against Pinochet. Others were able to stay and contribute in the formation of the new Nicaraguan Armed Forces; Nelson Chávez was honored by the Nicaraguan government in a state ceremony in 2009 for his role within this body. And still, others went back to Chile and joined the Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez, a Chilean revolutionary armed group, which fought against the dictatorship during the 80’s and was the main authority behind the failed assassination attempt against Pinochet in 1986.

Nonetheless, as the testimonies of Chávez and Contreras showed me, there is still a hidden story that, I believe, almost no one is aware of and that deserve to be told; especially for those interested in the ways exile affects the identity of both, civilian and military. It can be debated whether this course of action was right or not but the fact is that the fight against the dictatorship was conducted in multiple fronts. In that regard, the dimensions of the military option should not be disregarded when studying the repercussions that the Chilean exile generated within and out of its borders.


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Los caminos del exilio

It’s time to write about my experience at the Museo de la Memoria. In a previous post I shared some impressions about memory and the role of Museums in preserving it. One of the things I am doing there is related to the memory of the exiled.  I believe that their stories not only deserve to be told but their suffering must be remembered as well. This is precisely the idea behind a new project that is been currently developed at the Museo and that I am part of. It is called “Los caminos del exilio” (the paths of exile) and the goal is to understand what means to be an exiled and create social consciousness about it.

In my opinion this is one of the most sensitive issues in Chile. It can generate pubic scorn or sympathy and solidarity; depends on whom you ask. The fact is that there are still many in this country reluctant to recognize the reality of a part of the population that was forced to leave their country and life behind.  That’s the reason why this kind of project is so important. It is not only about bringing these topics to the general debate it is also about generating a permanent dialogue with the public. Inform, acknowledge and participate; that’s the purpose of all of this.

I think exile is maybe the second worst thing a human being can faced after torture and extermination.  Many of the testimonies I have worked with are hard to hear but one of the things I have learned from this work is that exile affects identity in important ways. It is impressive to see how people that went to exile dreamed about returning and, when they did, they felt in a whole different place. That sense of belonging to something is completely disrupted in many cases;those who were in Brodsky’s class last semester and read Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star will understand this. In any case, as a result there are persons who never adapted either to their new home abroad or when they came back. Others were able to adapt and integrate both cultures as part of their identity; and still there are others who adopted only one culture.

My work in that project is related to the selection of the content. As one of the most interesting things to explore, I am orienting the documentary towards the exploration of identity transformation because that’s where the negative and positive aspects of exile can be found; it is also the best way to understand this phenomenon I believe.  This stage is already coming to an end. The production and edition of the video is what follows. I won’t be here when that process begins but I will follow it from Washington.

I am also looking for a way to involve CLAS formally in the co-production of that video. My supervisor at the Museum likes the idea but I still need to talk with his boss and professor Chernick about this. If everything goes as planned, the documentary will be displayed in the screens of the Museum before the end of this year. Stay tune to see what happens next!


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Perceptions of memory: acknowledgement vs ignorance of the recent past

Once I decided to travel to Chile to start my Summer Program I had no doubts that my internship would be at the Museo de la Memoria. This place offered me the chance to delve more into what means to be an exile, its repercussions, the factors shaping identity and, specially, to keep alive the memory of the atrocities committed by the dictatorship for future generations. Though, I will explain in detail what I am doing at the Museo in another post, suffice is to say that I have been wondering about the role of these institutions in society; specially, in relation to the specific type of dictatorships that plagued the Southern Cone. I had the chance to travel to Buenos Aires and Montevideo and visit their Museos de la Memoria and compare them to the one in Santiago.

I want to share two conclusions out of what I saw in my trips. The first one is related to the public knowledge of these places. My second observation deals with their infrastructure. I could be wrong but I think that the size and the architecture of the museums symbolize the importance that these societies place on memory and the way they address or look at their recent past.

Let’s start with the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos in Santiago. When I arrived here I was surprised by the fact that most of the people I met in the streets or in the classroom knew something about this place. Some just had heard about it but others told me about their experiences there and the multiple times they went (for academic reasons or just voluntarily). Anyways, the impression that they left me was that they were aware of the existence of this institution and actively invited me to go there. The next stop was Buenos Aires. There I was thrilled by the idea of visiting the Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos; this cultural center is impressive because it was the headquarters where the military carried out policies of torture and extermination against the population. Therefore, like Auschwitz, it has a strong emotional and historical connotation.  Nonetheless, I was more surprised by the fact that less people care about it. Someone even told me that it could be boring and I should visit other places since I was staying there only for 3 days. In any case, the Argentinians I talked to were aware of this place but didn’t find it interesting. In Montevideo things were different. I was really shocked by the lack of public knowledge about their own Museo de la Memoria. It was difficult for me to find someone who knew where the place was located. I asked bus drivers specially; some of them didn’t know about it at all and others mistook it for another museum (Museo Juan Manuel Blanes). In fact, I spoke with people of my age and they had no clue about what I was talking. That’s when I realized that there were important differences in the way these three societies approached their past.

I want to be clearer about this last point. For that reason let’s consider the infrastructure of these Museos.

Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos. Chile.

Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos. Chile.

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Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos. Argentina.

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Museo de la Memoria. Uruguay.

Here, there are two things worth analyzing; the building and its location. In the case of Santiago and Buenos Aires we are talking about big places. The Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos has several buildings (with the ESMA and the Casino de Oficiales being the most important ones) forming together a huge complex. Besides, it is a place with an historical meaning. The Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos lacks the latter but undoubtedly shows an amazing display of resources and modern architecture devoted exclusively to the preservation of memory and human rights. Also, both are easily located near bus stops or metro stations making them accessible for anyone, foreigner or native; in the case of the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humano, you have both options available. In contrast, the Museo de la Memoria in Montevideo looks like a little old house (well it is!) in front of these two giants. In fact, the tour only takes you less than 30 minutes and it has no more than 6 exhibition rooms. For the magnitude of the Uruguayan dictatorship I think this institution lacks the funds, the attention and the resources necessary. Also, it is located in a remote part of Montevideo and far away from any means of public transportation.  In general terms the house is well kept but the surroundings are not, with a lot of vegetation growing in all directions.  I shared these thoughts with one of the guides at that museum and he told me that in Uruguay there is no real interest for these cultural institutions; a reality that seems related to the fact that the career of Museology was recently closed down in this country as he informed me.

From this experience I now think that each society decided to deal with its own past in particular ways. I believe that, at least in Chile and Argentina, there has been an active role to keep memory and human rights at the forefront of the public debate and the cultural agenda. What I learnt from the people I met and the things I saw in those places lead me to this conclusion. Chile deserves special attention because there the dictatorship left power intact and with considerable rates of popularity till this day. In Argentina the military never enjoyed the support of the population and were completely doomed after mess of the Falklands War (or Guerra de las Malvinas). Uruguay is a different story. Due to the lack of knowledge or interest regarding their own authoritarian past, it seems that in this case the Uruguayan society has chosen to “turn the page” and leave that period behind. What worries me here is that the future generations of Uruguayans could forget or ignore the dimensions of the atrocities that happened in this country between 1973 and 1984. At least in the other two countries there is a social consciousness about this and there exist vast sources of written and oral material at the disposal of anyone. It doesn’t mean that authoritarianism will not return but it will be more difficult with a population and a political class well informed about their past.  This social consciousness seems absent in Uruguay and I feel people chose to forget rather than confront and acknowledge what happened. I hope I am just wrong and everything is a bad impression.


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The day the Hurtado burned

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One of the most pressing issues in Chile in the last decade has been the demand for free and better education. Over the years several protests have erupted led by students and their federations. When I arrived in Chile I started to feel the political effervesce in the streets. The Universidad Alberto Hurtado (where I was enrolled as part of the Summer Program) was quickly caught in the political unrest generated by the Presidential speecFh of May 21st. In that occasion president Bachelet announced an educational reform considering free university education only for a segment of the student population (the poorest 60%).

This announcement is a first step to tackle the high costs of higher education in Chile.  Nonetheless, it is a measure that leaves several private universities out; the educational reform only targets those educational institutions within the Rector’s Council of Chilean Universities (Consejo de Rectores de las UniversidadesChilenas). The UAH is one of the academic institutions excluded from this body and, therefore, from this first step toward free education. It is in this context where the student federations of several private universities started a wide process of mobilization not only to protest against the narrow goals of the government but also to demand more reforms within their own universities. That’s the situation that I found during my first three weeks attending that academic institution.

I was impressed by the way the Federation’s Council (the main student body in the UAH) led the protest. Through an election the students decided to go on strike while the Federation started negotiations with the University’s authorities regarding some key demands (reduction of academic fees, elimination of tuition costs, recognition of student organizations, institutional transparency, better infrastructure, etc). The way in which the process was conducted revealed that the goal of the Federation was to press for their claims in a crucial juncture sparked by the government’s educational reform. Also, their decisions were backed by the students through permanent consultation and electoral participation. The strike was the means to put pressure on the table. Till that moment I believed the movement could achieve important concessions from the University. The democratic and peaceful way through which the Federation acted made their goals legitimate. Nonetheless, what happened next showed me the fractures within the Federation and their inability to exclude radical elements from taking the lead.

The 9th of June a small group of radical students occupied the University illegally.  The Federation rejected this line of action days before in a student Assembly; nonetheless, these radicals proceeded. The 10th of June the Federation made a terrible mistake in my opinion. Instead of rejecting this kind of behavior by groups that don’t represent them, this body convoked an election to ratify this line of action. As a result, a measure that was originally imposed by a minority of students to the rest of the movement was now “legitimized” by this election, undermining the Federation’s credibility.   The facilities of the University remained under the control of this group till the 17th of June. That day, the Federation suffered a damaging blow to their image. The fifth floor of one of the main buildings of the UAH (the one seen in the picture) was set on fire. While investigations still continues to determine if the fire was an accident or something deliberate, the general impression of professors and students I talked to links this radical group to the incident somehow.  With the smoke still hovering around the burned infrastructure, students evacuated the building and the protest came to an end.

From this important episode that I experienced while I was a student in the UAH I concluded several things. First, the student Federation contradicted itself in several ways. They rejected all kind of actions not backed by the students. Nonetheless, the minute a radical group stepped in and imposed their agenda, the Federation not only was unable to reject them but accepted this agenda by legitimizing it through an election. Second, some of the proposals of the movement (reduction of fees and better infrastructure) were undermined by burning an entire floor that will cost several millions of pesos. Third, the credibility of the Federation was damaged by proceeding violently. If the Federation had leverage in the negotiations with the authorities they lost most of it when they were voluntarily displaced by other sectors of the student movement. Finally, the trust among students and between the Federation and the authorities of the University was shattered. It will take some time before the students can rebuild their strength and press again for their demands. Maybe this experience will serve as a lesson in the future as to the importance of avoiding being swept up in the radical rhetoric of a minority that doesn’t represent the demands of students for a free and better education.