A Monument to Chile’s Selective Memory

The narrow focus of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights implies the Chilean state never violated human rights before 1973. (Flickr)

EspañolThe Chilean Museum of Memory and Human Rights, opened in 2010, is an expansive display of exhibitions and documentation dedicated to the tens of thousands of victims of the military dictatorship that ruled Chile from 1973 until 1990.

Both the concept of human rights, and the numerous examples of human rights abuses, have people as their objects, whose lives and dignity are assets that are not subject to negotiation.

These rights take priority over all other less significant concerns: ideology, political affiliation, or religion. They are necessarily exempt from utilitarian, pragmatic, and rational calculations; each human life is unique, incomparable, and irreplaceable.

I conduct this reflection to emphasize that in no way do I intend to compare the severity, magnitude, or circumstances that accompanied — and even justified, according to some — the need to put abuses and outrages in parentheses to achieve some political or social objective. I am among those who, in the face of lost or broken lives, considers statistics or comparisons insensitive and unforgivable.

According to the Chilean institution, its mission is to “make the Museum of Memory and Human Rights a space … that rescues the recent history of Chile and replaces it with the truth, [and] that grows and carries forth the promotion of a culture of dignity and respect for all people.”

Their statement refers to what must be protected above all else: the human rights regime.

But let’s be more reflective. From this statement, it can be inferred that, in its 200-year history, the Chilean state was never a coercive force against its own citizens before 1973. This is undoubtedly false, as is the case with all states.

Although a formal definition of human rights did not exist until just a few decades ago, a look back on the abuses of the state is necessary.

The history of any American state begins with the destruction of the “ancestral” rights of the indigenous peoples who inhabited these lands. This is followed by a long list of groups and individuals who were persecuted, oppressed, or even killed in the name of the state: the Mapuches, laborers, blacks, mestizos, women, landowners, capitalists, owners of the means of production, liberals, communists, etc.

Although I admire the invaluable work of those who collected and documented the stories of the lives sacrificed, taken away, or disappeared during these 17 years, I remain confused by the incomplete, selective, and unfinished testimony presented as the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. The history of Chile has 200 years of human rights violations.

On one hand, since the restoration of democracy in 1990, Chile has experienced a difficult, yet much needed, political and social reconciliation. On the other hand, historical memory has been hijacked through the political management of history, identity, collective memory, and truth.

Historical memory, as opposed to facts and objective considerations, is largely a reconstruction and reinterpretation of the past based on life stories, individual biographies, and memories of historical subjects.

This is not about imposing strict criteria of factual accuracy, but more precisely, it is about creating a meeting space for personal stories united by experiences of pain, injustice, loss, and death, caused or promoted by the state.

Here the question is how a society reminds itself that existing conflicts regarding various historical memories can impair the healing of collective wounds, impeding the possibility of rebuilding trust and social cohesion in a deeply polarized Chile.

Political history, if it is to contribute to a collective social reconciliation, should be inclusive of all the victims of human rights violations.

A balanced reading of history, in as fair and open a manner as possible — recognizing faults, setbacks, and abuses on the part of the state and its agents in various stages, ages, and phases — is an indispensable condition for true reconciliation. Only then can a nation create the conditions in which everyone is able to forgive, and also able to ask for forgiveness.

Translated by Alex Clark-Youngblood.

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