Another few cents on Latin American memory museums

Lillie, Colin and Otto have commented about how the Econo missed on Latin American memory museums. A year ago, as I was putting together an article about the 40th anniversary of the coup d’état in Chile, I had the chance to interview Ricardo Brodsky, executive director of the Museo de la Memoria, Santiago de Chile’s spectacular museum that the Economist says presents a biased version of history.

I understand The Economist’s concern. I had it myself before I learned what the Museum of Memory was. Like the Economist, I thought it was supposed to be a history museum. But it makes no sense to study a coup that was supported by, at least, a sizable minority of the population while ignoring why so many people sided with such a thing. I thought it was bad history-telling.

But as Brodsky explains in this interview, the Museum of Memory isn’t a history museum. For the record, here is my interview with Brodsky, translated by me. Let me know if you want a copy of the tape.

How do you respond to those who say this is too much about the left, it doesn’t give context, doesn’t show the deaths of police officers in that era, that sort of thing?

Well, there are different kinds of critiques. As a museum, we show everything that’s in the Informe Rettig and Informe Valech. That’s the argument, the script. In the Informe Rettig, there are victims of human rights, political executions, disappearances, and also deaths in protests. It also remembers the deaths of Carabineros (police officers) and Army personnel, and the armed forces more generally, that died in attacks or confrontations. All of that is in the museum. If someone says it’s not there, it’s because one isn’t familiar with the museum. It’s in the museum.

I didn’t know that either.

In the memorial area, for example, there is a computer screen, you put in the name of a victim, and they are all there.

Carabineros, for example?

There are 75 Carabineros in there. Also 40-some members of the armed forces who died either on the day of the coup or during protests or things of that sort. There are even members of the armed groups, those who died in the assassination attempt on Pinochet, the bodyguards. It’s all there. Obviously they are in the context of what happened. All these uniformed personnel who died, who are mentioned in the Informe Rettig are characterized as “political violence.” There are also people who died as a result of a violation of human rights. They are two separate categories. The museum has both.

The second thing I want to say is that the function of the Museum, its mission, is the recognition of the violation of human rights that occurred during the dictatorship. Why? To give the society a consciousness of the human rights violations so they don’t happen again. Because in the end they are attacks on human dignity that deeply wounded the society up to today.

So we as a museum don’t go into depth analyzing the causes of the coup. Even though we have put within the exposition the books, the chapters of the Informe Rettig that referred to the political context of the coup d’état. But we don’t enter into this in the expositions in a deep manner, beyond what’s in the Informe Rettig, because it’s outside our mission. Our mission isn’t necessarily about the causes of the coup. It’s about what happened immediately after the coup, which was the systematic violation of human rights over the course of 17 years.

Because it wasn’t systematic before?

There was a great political crisis, which explains why there was a coup.

But systematic human rights violations?

It’s not explained by what came before.

Under Allende?

No, it was a democratic regime. With abuses, of course, there was a political crisis.

But the violation wasn’t systematic in the same way, with thousands of victims.

No, there was violence, from one side to the other. There were attacks against Patria y Libertad by groups of the extreme left, there were situations that the government couldn’t control, but it wasn’t a policy of human rights violations on the part of the state. There was conflict over state policy. For us, the basic issue is that this museum is a response to violations of human rights. And this museum is an act of moral reparations to the victims, victims of agents of the state.

If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand the museum. That’s the key. Any critic of the museum that fails to understand that, fails to understand why the museum exists. Because the victims require moral reparations.

The museum isn’t a history museum, it’s a memory museum. That’s why it’s called a memory museum. Because the memory is associated with something a bit beyond, a certain comprehension or vision of the events. The memory, in this case, is the memory of the victims. It seeks to provide the society with a message that isn’t a message of vengeance or old hatreds, but rather that this experience can’t be allowed to happen again.

The museum also has a judicial purpose. That isn’t to name guilty parties. It demonstrates what happened. It isn’t our role to say who’s at fault.

That’s interesting, you say it’s not a museum of history but of memory. So for example, this year the history museum is also working on this.

They are revising their script, because the script of the national history museum ends in 1973, with the coup. It doesn’t touch the following period, the dictatorship or the transition.… It’s a conservative, militaristic historiography. The current script is from 1982.… They want to revise this script that nobody likes. They want to include the latest chapter of Chile, the last 40-50 years, and also change things further back, including the indigineous communities in a different manner. They are now shown as something of the past, very small. They have nothing now, and act as though the indigenous communities had disappeared.

That’s the history museum. And if anyone has the role of explaining why the coup came about, it is that museum. Our job to explain the context of human rights violations. This context is the installation of the dictatorship, the elimination of political parties, Congress, the free press, the creation of security apparatus and control above all, the end of the rule of law, is the context of the human rights violations. This context is very close to this museum. So the criticism of context lacks a basis.

I understand those that say it isn’t objective. But I don’t know what they want. You need to identify the human rights violations.

Has President Piñera been among them?

No, he has supported the museum, he has come here, he has made very positive statements. He has maintained our budget. I don’t see him like that. I imagine he has to say things for his [right-wing political] sector. There are people very opposed to this museum. Of course these are people with dirty hands.

A young woman I spoke to called it the Museum of Selective Memory.

That’s a member of the young right, I’d say. People are raised with prejudices. I can’t say much about it. Of course most of the victims come from left-wing parties. Socialists, communists. That’s how it was. The museum isn’t standing up for their political ideas. It’s standing up for their human dignity. And this goes to a left-wing critique. They say these people were victims, they died for having particular ideals, and the museum should therefore put those ideals on display. We say ok, but these ideals were diverse. That doesn’t interest us so much. For us, it’s about their human dignity. We respect their politics, of course, but it’s not the mission of the museum.

So are you saying there’s also a left-wing critique that the museum isn’t sufficiently…

For sure. Not combative enough, not supportive enough of the Unidad Popular, or whatever.

Sure, I can see that it’s possible to leave here without any increased understanding of what Marxism is, for example.

There’s nothing on that.

Is memory now in place? Is it fixed?

Memory is always in dispute. There is memory of the victims on one side and that of the coup perpetrators on the other. Those who supported the regime and so forth. There is still a fight over how to read history. In this 40-year anniversary, this commemoration, there has been a great advance in that memory of the victims has become the memory of the society, the most socially accepted memory. There’s been an explosion of recognition of actions, which is very important.

Today what is happening at the Supreme Court — today the full court met and issued a declaration recognizing that it had abandoned its obligation to universality [by supporting the coup]. That’s a very deep criticism. It’s a self-criticism. It had a major lack of institutionality. What Pres. Piñera did and the Supreme Court did, those are major acts.

What Presidents Aylwin or Bachelet did weren’t the same, because everyone knew where they stood. But when Piñera speaks, and he had many passive collaborators in the civil and right-wing political worlds, that did seriously harsh things, it’s very important for the country to accept a common memory.

What institutions still haven’t recognized their actions?

The political right hasn’t taken responsibility. In fact the UDI party, the only thing they’ve done is to criticize Piñera. The right still doesn’t accept that it was an accomplice in the violation of human rights.

And the armed forces?

The armed forces. In the Bachelet years they made some institutional changes. We’re talking about a bit of self-criticism, but it hasn’t really sunk in.

I don’t know where the planes are that bombed the Moneda. Some Hawker Hunters are abandoned behind the aerospace museum. What’s to be done with them? Should they be part of a museum?

They’re spread around, maybe in the north. There are a lot of places that have been memorialized, like [torture centers] Villa Grimaldi and Londres 38. But there are a lot that haven’t been. For example, 3 and 4 Alamos (?), which were concentration camps and torture centers, are now part of the youth protection system. They have juvenile delinquents in these torture centers. Tejas Verde, in San Antonio, where they created the DINA, and was a torture center under Contreras, is also a house of the youth protection system. It’s awfully strange. A lot has been done around this but there’s much to be done.

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4 thoughts on “Another few cents on Latin American memory museums

  1. Carol Watkins

    Would the Economist publish your story as a counterpoint to theirs? Or even part of it as a letter to the editor? It is so clear that this point of view is important.

  2. lgg2011

    Good interview, and good discussion on the memory museums.

    The way I understand the The Economist’s piece is not that preserving the memory is a bad thing, but that leftist (progressive?) governments around Latin America are revising the history to show some sort of struggle between good (left, marxism and whatnot) and bad (US, capitalism, Kissinger, whatever), and to point that they were right all along.

    Granted, the The Economist piece is poorly written and has some lack of judgement (both sides authoritarian? how can that be?). But the main point, at least for me, stands: it is a great thing, and morally justified, to guard the memory, so these things do not happen again. It is not that great to use the memory to rewrite the story in terms of black and white, good and bad.

    1. Steven/Setty Post author

      The Economist totally misses the point of memory museums. It doesn’t even mention their original role, which is to serve as monuments to the dead who will never have gravestones. It’s like complaining that the US’s Grave of the Unknown Soldier fails to give the context for why the war started, and whether it was really justified in the first place. It’s a dumb complaint by ignorant people.

      That said, yes, the final piece of the conclusion is correct — there is a stupid blind spot in the eyes of many left-wingers when it comes to violations by the left, for example by Cuba, Venezuela or the FARC. But if that’s their point, they chose a dumb way to make it. They spend paragraphs attacking a straw man, and then make a reasonable conclusion.

  3. Erik

    Well, this increasingly ancient and awful history is still being discussed. That has to count for something.

    The violent left in Latin America will have a day of reckoning in the future and explicitly recognize how it hurt people and how its actions have delayed development in some countries by decades if not by over half a century.

    Allende put through radical, incompetent reforms with 1/3 of the popular vote.

    FARC-EP now uses the same rational as the Israeli Occupation forces when it maims or kills civilians.

    The big winners have been the bohemian sons and daughters of comfortable bourgeois families from the northern hemisphere looking for an authentic, quaint tourist experience. *Backwards is beautiful* should be the slogan.

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