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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!