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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.