Three Museums, Constitution Plaza, and Interesting Chilean Drinks

On March 9-10, we made three short to very short visits to three more museums, the Gabriela Mistral Education Museum, which we visited on the afternoon after our visit to the Memory Museum, the Pre-Columbian Art museum, and Pablo Neruda’s House.

Gabriela Mistral had an impressive career. Famous for her poetry, she became the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. The government also appointed her to be a diplomatic consul to 10 different cities in Europe and the Americas.

But her first career was in education. She grew up in poverty and left school at 11 to support her family by sewing and then working as a teacher’s aide when she was 15. Her teaching career attracted notice and the Ministry of Education appointed her as director to several prestigious high schools in Santiago. Later she moved to Mexico to help reform the education system there.

The museum itself was mostly about the history of education in Chile.

Shortly before the Pinochet dictatorship fell, he handed over the education system to private corporations, who continually raised fees and reduced services. In 2006, students throughout the country rebelled. Called the Penguin’s Revolt, a reference to their black and white school uniforms, students demanded that the Chilean government stop allowing corporations to make a profit from their education. The signs below (clockwise from the top left) say, “It’s going to fall; it’s going to fall, the education of Pinochet.” “Let’s go, comrades. We have to put a little more effort into it. We quickly go out onto the street. Chilean education is not sold; it is defended.” “Education is a right.” “The rebel penguin doesn’t sleep.”

That evening we went to a Chinese-Venezuelan restaurant that included ham and cheese egg rolls on the menu. I will say no more.

The next day, we went to see the National Museum of Pre-Columbian Art. At first, the plaque commemorating the inauguration of the museum by General Pinochet put us off. Michael asked at the front desk why the plaque was there, but the guy at the desk had no answer.

Then, as we entered the second room, we realized all the pieces of art in that room had been looted from Indigenous burial sites, so we left after maybe 15 minutes.

We then visited Constitution Plaza, site of La Moneda, a combination of presidential palace and seat of government.

For Chileans September 11 will always refer to the day in 1973 that the Chilean military, with the support of the U.S., launched a coup against the democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende. And the most famous images from that day were the strafing of La Moneda by the Chilean Air Force, which used unguided rockets and cannon fire.

When we were visiting Sandra in Uruguay, she told us that Allende had arranged to go into exile, but he heard military radio communications indicating that his plane would never reach Cuba. So he delivered his final radio address, part of which is engraved on his statue in the plaza, and then committed suicide. The quotation on the plaque reads

Pablo Neruda’s home in Santiago, called La Chascona, after his mistress, was the third museum we visited that day.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, but you can see some of the rooms here. Neruda, Chile’s most famous poet, also won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was friends with Gabriela Mistral. One of his most famous poems is “Ode to a Watermelon”:

Currently, the watermelon has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance, because Israel punishes those who display the Palestinian flag. With its black seeds, green rind and red fruit, the watermelon serves as a stand-in. When we saw this apron, with a line of the poem in Spanish, Michael knew immediately that he wanted to give it to a Palestinian friend, who posted this picture on Facebook.

Finally, we encountered some beverages in Chile that we did not in any of the other countries we visited. I got spoiled by the cheap expresso drinks I was able to order in most of the places we ate. At this particular restaurant in Chile, I decided I would go for something simpler, and ordered cafe con leche, coffee with hot milk. Below is what I got. In Palestine, this type of coffee is a special drink that Palestinians serve to guests (despite the boycott), but for me, it symbolized a return to reality.

However, even though Chile doesn’t have cheap expresso drinks, it does have some interesting soft drinks. Top left is sugar cane juice with lime. Now, it didn’t even sound good to me, and it tasted just like it sounds: watered-down molasses with lime juice. I guess I just like trying new things.

Inca Cola is actually a Peruvian soda, with lemon verbena as the main flavor. Bilz, after Coca-Cola, is the most popular soda in Chile. The company describes the flavor as “fruit.” The pictures for Pap and Kem I downloaded from the internet. I didn’t actually see the former, and didn’t think to take a picture of the latter. One has the taste of papaya and the other the taste of pineapple. Guess which is which.

I believe next post will be the last of the trip.

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Museum of Memory in Santiago

The Museum of Memory in Chile had its own style, just like the museums in Uruguay and Argentina had their own style. Like Argentina’s museum, it is designed professionally, and makes the “disappeared” reappear. I think Chile’s museum tries to tell a story. How did this happen? What happened? Who made it happen? Who stopped it from happening.

For those who are interested in the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende, see my previous blog post about our friend Sandra’s work with the Salvador Allende Society in Uruguay.

At the entrance of the Museum of the Museum the walls exhibit the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

When you enter the museum, the first exhibit you see is the number of people from other countries that the Chilean regime killed.

While Argentina’s ESMA museum mentions that other memorials to the victims of the Dirty War exist, Chile’s Museum of Memory gives a visual representation and short description them all. The University of Santiago memorialized two of its professors with the colorful mural: Enrique Kirberg, and Víctor Jara, an internationally known musician, and Latin American icon.

Below is a brief summary in English of the drastic change in Chilean society when the dictatorship took charge.

The picture on the left shows an exhumation of a grave in Santiago. Prosecutors exhumed mass graves to gather evidence to indict the human rights abusers during the dictatorship. It says, “How did we come to deny the humanity of people?”

People around the world began to protest the human rights abuses in Chile, as they did those in Argentina and Uruguay.

Orlando Letelier was a Chilean economist, politician and diplomat under the presidency of Salvador Allende. Tortured and imprisoned under Pinochet’s regime, he eventually moved to the U.S. where he held several academic positions. A car bomb explosion ordered by Pinochet killed Letelier and his U.S. secretary and interpreter, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, on September 21, 1976 in Washington, DC. The photo on the right is a picture of their memorial on Sheridan Circle in DC.

In the Buenos Aires Museum of Memory, the victims of torture describe in horrifying detail what happened to them. Chile’s museum takes a more clinical approach. For example,

It’s a different kind of horrifying.

Below are letters written home to families informing them of their loved ones’ deaths. The large letter was one a father wrote to his child from prison.

Walls filled with names of those whom the government killed. The lighting was terrible and you could barely read them. I adjusted the exposure on the photos to brighten the names.

Like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, eventually some Chileans decided they had had enough of fear, and worrying about their the loved ones. The large black human-shaped poster says, “Maria Edith Vasquez. Did you forget me? YES___ NO___.”

Near the end of the Museum, it does its great “undisappearing” act by having the victims’ faces jut out from walls in a great hall. I think the treatment of the disappeared is also one of the differences between Chile’s museum and Argentina’s museum. The Argentina museum tried to tell as many stories of as many individuals as it could, and have their faces in as many places as it could.

Arpilleras (Ar-pee-YER-as) are a traditional type of Latin American Folk Art. We have several hanging in our front room. (I took a picture of this one on a slant to reduce the glare on the glass.) They are often quilted to had texture, and typically depict village life.

Chilean women, during and after the dictatorship, made arpilleras that reflected their stories. At one point General Pinochet forbade their sale. Here are some pictures I took, again at a slant, to reduce light reflecting of the glass. On the lower right, armed authorities shoot a man in a white shirt, who was standing among people in the street. The arpillera above seems to show monsters attacking. In the picture on the right, the arpillera in the lower left corner shows a a person sitting in a pool of blood, surrounded by barbed wire, while a sinister-looking black bird flies overhead. To the right, a group of women marches up a hill, where dark figures, possibly armed, await them. To the right of that, the lower arpillera shows a photo of another protest, with mothers holding up pictures of their children, and someone hold ing a sign that says, TRUTH/JUSTICE in Spanish.

For better photos of arpilleras created by Chilean women see the websites, Weblog of the Education for Peace Initiative at Prajnya and Chilean Arpilleras: A chapter of history written on cloth

From the beginning of the dictatorship, the regime encouraged people to spy on their fellow countrymen. The sign below says, roughly,

The town of Pisgua had an internment camp previously used for male homosexuals under the dictatorship of General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo between 1927 and 1931. Under the Pinochet regime, it became one of the country’s many detention/torture centers. A Catholic human rights organization demanded that a mass grave in the local cemetery be excavated in 1990. Due to the arid climate and the amount of salt in the soil, the twenty bodies inside were unusually well preserved and easy to identify. I don’t actually remember what the other photo is about, but it’s self-explanatory.

When the Pinochet dictatorship came into power, it shut down most of the newspapers, and saw that the others printed only positive things about the government. The papers and the pictures refer to a Red Cross visit to the internment cap at Pisagua. They speak of the “humane and just treatment” the prisoners receive, and how “well-ordered, disciplined and clean” the camp was. The photos show smiling prisoners.

I highly recommend Jacobo Timerman’s books, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number and The Longest War . In the first, he writes of his experience of detention and torture during the Argentina’s Dirty War because he was a Jew and the editor of La Opinion. In the second, he writes of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. I mention these books here, because an anecdote from the second book has stuck with me since I read it in the 1990s. On a trip for journalists to Southern Lebanon with the Israeli army, soldiers had the journalists talk to Lebanese civilians. They told the journalists how much better life was for them now that the Israeli military was in control of the region. Timerman instantly recognized what the expression on their faces meant. His face had assumed the same expression when the Red Cross had visited his prison, and he had told its representatives that the authorities at the prison were treating him well.

Below are letters that prisoners wrote to their families had to pass through a censor. Prisons even had a form for prisoners to fill out to send home to their families.

In 1988, Chile’s Constitutional Court ruled that the country should hold a plebiscite as per Article 64 of the Chilean Constitution. Fifty-six percent of the voters rejected the extension of Pinochet’s presidential term, in part because of an upbeat advertising campaign that focused on what Chile’s future could be without a dictatorship. Pinochet left power in 1989.

I took photo below, which commemorates the tenth anniversary of the museum’s creation, on our way out of the museum. The sign says, “Adios, General. Joy has arrived.”

Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of the coup that left over 3,000 Chileans dead or missing, tortured tens of thousands of prisoners, and drove an estimated 200,000 Chileans into exile. And yet, polling shows more than one-third of Chileans today justify the military overthrow of a democratically elected government. Sixty-six percent of respondents agreed with the statement that rather than worry about the rights of individuals, the country needs a firm government. Several people polled said that under Pinochet, there was less crime and the streets were cleaner. Others said he had saved Chile from Marxism.

Reading this article caused me to reflect how time launders the crimes of powerful people. In this country, Nixon became a venerable political commentator after illegally spying on journalists, authorizing the break-in of the Democratic National Party’s headquarters, covering it up—and massively bombing Cambodia. Henry Kissinger, whom NPR called a “legendary diplomat and foreign policy scholar,” and was often treated as a bon vivant by the press, has the blood of 3 to 4 million people on his hands.

I generally support not judging people by the worst thing they’ve ever done. However, for people in power, it’s different. They rarely face accountability for the crimes they commit and the lives they ruin. So they remain unrepentant, and their victims never receive justice.

I also think that people have a way of looking back at the “good ol’ days” and thinking life was better then. Leave It to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show certainly depict spaces where people could live safely and largely harmoniously. But both shows filmed in eras when black people could not vote in southern states, and women could not have credit cards in their own names or take legal action for sexual harassment in the workplace. Sheriff Andy would never have tolerated the Ku Klux Klan in Mayberry, we know, but at the time it was filmed, southern sheriffs not only tolerated, but were often members of the organization. They also gave allowed lynch mobs free access to the prisoners in their jails.

In 2023 Kevin Clardy, the Sheriff of McCurtain County, Oklahoma was caught on tape wishing he still lived in an era when Black people were lynched.

And that’s why we need memory museums—to remind people what the good ol’ days were really all about and that the people in power at the time were monsters.

Perhaps the closest thing we have to a Memorial museum in the U.S. is the Legacy Museum and the Memorial to victims of lynching in Alabama, which we visited a couple years ago. Michael and I found it one of the most profound experiences of our trip.