Thursday, October 28, 2010

Chile's complicated commemoration of 1973


This September Chile celebrated its 200th birthday. And not unlike other nations that have marked this monumental milestone, the Southern Cone country rolled out the proverbial red carpet to celebrate the event. Throughout the long, thin country festive festivities flourished: fiestas patrias, national dances and dishes, declarations and speeches.

In addition to the bicentennial celebrations, Chile also put together a laundry list of public works projects to polish the occasion: Santiago’s 690 kilometer intra/intercity bike path, the river-walk park Gran Parque Mapocho, Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center, and the renovation of the nation’s National Stadium, among many others.

This September also marked the 37th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Marxist president Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973. But for the commemorators remembering ‘la via chilena al socialismo’ (the Chilean path to socialism) and Allende’s Popular Unity government, mixing the bicentennial euphoria with the memories of a socialist dream crushed by the harsh realities of dictatorship brought about a bitter-sweet taste.

Perhaps this was no more apparent than at the September 11th memorial act hosted by the human rights organization Agrupación Metropolitana de ex Presas y Presos Políticos at the National Stadium. As many may or may not know, the National Stadium was converted into a concentration camp for 58 days following the bloody U.S.-backed coup. There, countless thousands of Chileans and hundreds of foreigners passed through the portals and into hell: tension, torture, terror; detention, disappearance, death.

I had followed an invitation by the Agrupación’s president and director, Ms. Wally Kunstmann, to participate in the inauguration ceremony not of the newly remodeled stadium (something reserved for the following day) but of a small section of stadium seating that had been left untouched during the bicentennial renovation. Assigned “special protection” status in 2003 when the stadium was declared a National Historic Monument (thanks in large part to the Agrupación’s initiative), the wooden bleachers and entranceway just beneath, known as “Escotilla 8,” were saved in memory of the stadium’s one-time prisoners.

The handbills distributed at the evening event by aging members and younger allies of the Agrupación informed me and hundreds more that “For the first time, the National Stadium opens its doors on this emblematic date to pay tribute to President Allende, to the comrades that were detained in this site of prison and torture” and that the stadium’s “stands after 37 years recover their dignity.”

Today’s visitor to the stadium will at once notice the marked difference between Escotilla 8 and the newly polished stadium dressed in state-of-the-art seating and a world-class track and field. Escotilla 8’s splintered row-benches and uneven concrete stand in stark contrast to the clean, straight lines of the stadium’s new multi-million dollar improvements. The disparity between the historically saved section of seats and the stadium’s upgraded aesthetics is at once drastic, and impossible to ignore, generating an emotive, if not eerie, sensation for the unsuspecting visitor.

Memorializing the figurative and physical starting point of seventeen years of state-sponsored terror has proved a daunting task. Even with the 2003 National Historic Monument designation, constructing mediations at the site has resulted in a laundry list of problems: competing memorialization projects, state and political stonewalling, and schisms between human rights organizations. It is ironic then that the bicentennial renovation contributed to revealing the stadium’s not-so-secret secret. By revamping the sporting complex, so too was the stadium’s scar exposed.

The inauguration of Escotilla 8 proved to be historically important for human rights actors and activists commemorating a complicated past. The large banner I helped hang with Agrupación members above Escotilla 8 read “Contra la Tortura y la Impunidad” (Against Torture and Impunity), an assertion that seems especially urgent given September 12th’s official bicentennial inauguration of the newly renovated National Stadium. This event was presided over by recently elected right-wing president Sebastian Piñera (whose party faithful make no bones about their pro-Pinochet sympathies) in an effort to move the country forward to an uncomplicated future. In Chile, then, the official mantra appears to be: in with the new and out with the old—leaving human rights commemorators with the difficult task of “reconstructing memory” in the face of impunity.

But I have a feeling that the future, like the present and past, will indeed be complicated. In many ways Escotilla 8 and its nod to 1973 stand out as a bitter black-eye, not only in the newly polished National Stadium but also in the sea of Chile’s bicentennial sweetness—and, of course, in the annals of human rights and history.

~ Zachary McKiernan

Guest blogger Zachary McKiernan is a graduate study in the History Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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