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Exploring Pinochet’s Controversial Legacy at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights

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Santiago’s Museo de la Memoria y las Derechos Humanos, opened in 2010

When we decided to go to Chile, I realized I didn’t know all much about the country. I knew that the people had endured a dictatorship for many years. I knew his name (and made the association that Pinochet = “bad”), but I didn’t understand the extent of what the country had experienced or the controversy that still stands.  So when we arrived in Santiago, Chile, we looked up the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights), a museum dedicated to documenting and remembering the atrocities of the era.

It began on September 11

September 11 means one thing in the United Sates, but for several decades, the date has signified another dark day in Chile’s history. On September 11, 1973, a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet overthrew the government of socialist President Salvador Allende. From 1973 until 1990, the military ruled the government that ruled over dissent with a heavy hand. The coup was supported by the US government (fearing the spread of communism—surprise, surprise!) but was rejected by many other Western countries and the UN.

Many of the exhibits at the Museum of Memory include written documentation of the history of the dictatorship and the atrocities they allegedly committed. There are newspaper clippings from domestic and international media, letters from prisoners and family members, maps, and legal documents. It’s very heavy content and not something you can easily take in if you don’t have native Spanish reading skills, so if you don’t, I’d strongly recommend you take one of the museum’s free, English-language tours every hour.

Funeral urns of political activists executed under the military regime of Pinochet

Funeral urns of political activists executed under the Pinochet regime | Source: Wikimedia

Anyone who dared to protest in the streets and even residents of neighborhoods where there was a high concentration of political dissent, were taken away to detention camps across the country. Prisoners included pregnant women and even children. The youngest documented prisoner was 12 years old. Apparently he was scooped up on a raid on his village while he was playing in the streets. I’ll never forget seeing the handwritten letter that he wrote to his father asking him not to worry about him.

We saw some pretty touching and disturbing videos.  There were videos showing the excavation of bodies found from mass burials in the desert and bodies thrown out to sea. There was a wife whose husband had been disappeared a year earlier, screaming in agony to the police as she demonstrated outside of La Moneda (the government palace where Allende was captured then, allegedly, committed suicide).

Groups of women in formed in communities where men had been taken away. The mothers and wives started a support group and protest initiative where they would meet and do a variation of the national dance of Chile. The women would dance in silence, alone, without a partner, but holding a photo of her husband, son and brothers who had disappeared. Here is a video of the sorrowful dance, La Cueca Sola:

In the 17 years that Pinochet ruled, more than 3,000 people were killed or disappeared and more than 250,000 others had been imprisoned.

The controversy

I went into the museum believing that it was generally accepted knowledge that Pinochet’s regime was bad. I was surprised to find out that even today, many people disagree with the assertion that Pinochet was a dictator. In government documents and in schools, they call this era the “military government” rather than a “dictatorship”. When Pinochet died in 2006, he was not granted a state funeral (awarded to elected officials) but did have an official military funeral where 60,000 people turned out to pay their respects. The current Chilean government has never come out and said that Pinochet’s government committed war crimes.  They admit that people were killed, but they don’t consider this to be more than was necessary to bring peace back to a divided country.

Families don’t talk about the time and teachers are reluctant to discuss it. I got the feeling that the Museum of Memory provides an opportunity for teachers to bring students to learn the case against Pinochet without having to take the risk of discussing it themselves in class.

There is even the Pinochet Foundation, an organization and a museum seeking to honor his legacy. Frankly, the cover photo turns me off, but I’ll admit it’s probably worth a visit to see the other side of the story.

At any rate, the Museum of Memory is a great reminder that history is constantly changing and always subject to interpretation. Nevertheless, the museum makes a great case for the need to seeking justice for the victims and tolerance of dissent. For me, it’s a must-see stop in Santiago. Check it out and make up your own mind.


Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos
Matucana 501, Santiago
Right across the street from Metro station: Quinta Normal, línea 5
Open: Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 6 pm
Entrance is free


Have you ever visited a controversial monument or museum? If so, what did you learn?

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  1. [...] afforded the ability to speak out or join such a march. When we visited Chile, we learned about tragic consequences of being a labor or political activist under Pinochet. In Peru, we learned of people that were [...]

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