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Villa Grimaldi: Here, never more

Sign at the entrance to Villa Grimaldi

Sign at the entrance to Villa Grimaldi

It’s going to be a bit of a serious post today, but yesterday was an intense day for the ND group: a tour of Villa Grimaldi, a detention and torture site during Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship, topped off with a visit to the General Cemetery of Santiago. Our guide for both tours was a torture survivor himself, a law student at the Universidad de Chile when the U.S-backed military coupe overthrew President Salvador Allende’s socialist government in 1973 and installed a dictator that would last seventeen more years. As a student member of a socialist political group, our guide was detained, tortured, and then exiled to the U.S in 1976, not returning to his native country until 1991. He was visibly shaken recalling details of his experience, but in a country where the horrendous human rights abuses of Pinochet’s government are rarely discussed or taught—they are seen as an embarrassment, an atrocity that many would prefer to forget—it’s easier to understand the desire to bear witness to these crimes, however difficult.

I don’t want to get into too many political details here, but quick and extremely simplified history: Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970 with only 36% of the vote, thanks to the conservative opposition’s inability to organize against him. Because Allende’s government came to power with the support of only a third of the population, implementing its “Chilean road to socialism” proved nearly impossible, leading instead to economic problems, hyperinflation, shortages, and black markets. The opposition began organizing almost immediately, believing that the only way to save free enterprise would be to overthrow the government. They succeeded on September 11, 1973, and General Pinochet took control of the country. With a combination of “antipoliticization” (i.e. politicians are the problem and the military knows best), a heavy reliance on the University of Chicago school of free-market economics and neoliberalism, and a campaign of state terror that crushed dissidents and successfully prevented them from organizing, Pinochet’s regime stabilized the Chilean economy—but also committed some of the most egregious human rights abuses of the decade. In 1988 Chileans voted not to extend his term in a plebiscite, and elected a new president in 1989, thus transitioning successfully back to democracy.

Few people would say that Pinochet’s economic successes justified his oppressive regime, but the details are rarely discussed. My host sister here told me that most Chileans don’t know what Villa Grimaldi is, nor do they know about the other 753 other clandestine torture sites that existed. This was confirmed when her friends looked at me with blank stares when I told them I’d toured Villa Grimaldi earlier that day—I guess it is the domain of classes in Chilean Politics and earnest foreigners.

I couldn’t stop thinking about what our guide told us: that thousands of people were tortured or disappeared (the official count of deaths and disappearances is just over 3,000, and higher for torture victims), that torture ranged from physical (electrical shocks, backing trucks over people) to psychological (confining several people in a cistern so that they lost all sense of space, time, and themselves) to sexual humiliation (rape and forced bestiality)—but the worst part was knowing that this isn’t unique to Chile. Pick any country in the world and you will find cases of abuse of power, torture, oppression, and genocide, whether within their own borders or not. So how do we heal? How do we demand accountability and freedoms from governments, and work for positive change? This testament, at least, is a start:

Translation:  This place that has become a park was just a few years ago a site Mosaic at the entrance of Villa Grimaldiof torture and cruelty.  Its corners serve as a testimony to the anguished memories of the survivor of the ex Villa Grimaldi.  Every flower given with the tears of yesterday is a firm promise that here, never more!  Never more will torture be repeated in Chile.

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    August 22, 2009 at 6:12 pm

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