“I don’t think you can understand Chileans without learning about the dictatorship.”
BY ZOE BAILLARGEONOctober 16, 2020
Visitors come to Chile to bear witness to majestic wildernesses like Torres del Paine and enchanting cities like Valparaiso, but it’s equally important to spend time learning about one of the darkest moments in the country’s history: the 1973 to 1990 dictatorship.
Starting with a coup of September 11, 1973, which overthrew and killed the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende, a military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet cast a shadow over Chile for 15 years. Thousands of people were tortured and interrogated in secret detention centers. At least 3,000 disappeared, likely murdered. Many fled the country or were exiled.
In many ways, the dictatorship remains an open wound in Chile, which I discovered upon moving to the port city of Valparaiso in 2015. Passing former torture centers that are now ordinary buildings and hearing stories from Chileans, I learned things that had never been taught in my history classes. Notably, that the U.S. government and top officials like Henry Kissinger, fearful of socialism finding a foothold in South America, supported the coup and the resulting dictatorship.
I’ve always been aware of the U.S.’s imperialistic interference in the affairs of other countries, so this wasn’t exactly a surprise. But it was still upsetting to be faced with that reality. Seeing how this history—and my homeland’s role in it—continues to inform daily life was a sobering, humbling experience; one that I think other travelers should experience as well.
To ensure that the atrocities of the dictatorship are never forgotten and visitors are exposed to Chile’s past, a handful of tour operators around Santiago offer educational tours related to the dictatorship, visiting important sites like ex-detention centers, which over time have transformed back into commonplace areas like condos.
“You see how erased the past is,” says Mauricio Paredes, an academic and professor who was a former political prisoner of the regime. “You need to train your eye.”
One such tour is offered by cycling tour operator La Bicicleta Verde, starting at La Moneda and the historic city center where the coup took place, before heading to the general cemetery where there is a memorial to the victims.
“We believe that knowing the political history of the places we visit allows us to have a deeper understanding of the people and their present,” says Joel Martinez, who is Chilean and a co-founder of La Bicicleta Verde. He believes learning about the dictatorship is key for tourists to understand Chile’s modern-day issues, like the upcoming national vote on whether to replace the current constitution, which dates back to that era. “It is important, mainly for Americans, to see firsthand how their foreign policy has profoundly influenced our country. It is an experience that also allows them to know their own history.”ADVERTISEMENT
For some, it can be a very emotional experience.
“Some feel guilt, especially Americans,” agrees the bike tour company’s other co-founder, Peter Lewis, who is American and a long-term Santiago resident. He says their Santiago Human Rights tour attracts people from places like Europe, the United States, and Latin America. “There’s a visceral reaction.”
One of the most important places to learn about the dictatorship is at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. A striking, brutalist building across from Quinta Normal Park, it documents and reflects on the dictatorship through testimonials from survivors, preserved artifacts, and impeccably researched exhibits.
“Visiting a museum of this nature challenges you, provoking a reflective act, forces you to ask yourself questions,” says Jordi Huguet, a former guide and current educational coordinator at the museum. “I have seen everything. People with great pain for what happened, others with absolute denial. Those who recognize themselves as passive accomplices, those who endorsed and justified the coup.”
On tours, local guides also talk about the dictatorship’s ongoing consequences, like the enduring trauma of families who don’t know what happened to their loved ones, and the rifts in Chilean society between those who opposed Pinochet and those who felt his actions were justified (a difference of opinion that’s largely divided along lower- and upper-class lines, respectively).
Although confronting these harsh truths while on vacation is difficult, Chileans and foreign residents alike agree that it’s essential.
“I don’t think you can understand Chileans without learning about the dictatorship,” Lewis says.
Places to visit in Santiago
Human rights and dictatorship-oriented tours like La Bicicleta Verde’s tour and Santiago Freak’s 1973 tour visit many important sites from the dictatorship, with well-informed guides. But due to Santiago’s size and the emotional magnitude of the subject matter, some key locations aren’t included in all itineraries. If you’re interested in learning more and visiting these sites on your own, many of the following locations are open to the public and offer tours or informational exhibits.
Start at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in the Yungay neighborhood before branching out across Santiago. In the European-esque Londres-Paris neighborhood, the stately facade at Londres 38 hides one of the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA) secret police’s clandestine torture and detention centers. The now-tranquil Villa Grimaldi estate once housed DINA’s most notorious interrogation and torture center. Both of these sites have now been turned into information and memorial centers. At the Estado Nacional football stadium, which you can visit on game days or as part of a guided tour, you’ll see several rows of antique bleachers sectioned off in memory of those who died there when it was used as a detention facility, including beloved Chilean folk artist Victor Jara.
Other key sites include the La Moneda Presidential Palace, which was bombed during the coup, and the somber Memorial to the Disappeared at the Santiago General Cemetery, which lists the names of the desaparecidos (disappeared).
What to read and see before your trip
You can also educate yourself prior to visiting Chile. Paredes recommends perusing some of the declassified CIA and State Department files related to the dictatorship, available online at the National Security Archives or the Office of the Historian. With thousands of documents to shift through, Peter Kornbluh’s book The Pinochet File offers a succinct primer.
Books like A Nation of Enemies, Chile: The Other September 11, Curfew, and Fear In Chile: Lives Under Pinochet, and films like No (2012), Machuca (2004), Colonia (2015), and the work of documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán also offer both fictionalized and non-fiction accounts of the Pinochet years.