This September Chile celebrated its bicentennial, and like other nations that have marked this extraordinary milestone it rolled out the proverbial red carpet to commemorate its 200th birthday. At the same time some Chileans commemorated the 37th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew the democratically-elected government of Marxist President Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973. For these commemorators, though, mixing the bicentennial euphoria with the memories of a socialist dream crushed by the evils of dictatorship brought about a bitter-sweet taste.
This September Chile celebrated its bicentennial, and like other nations that have marked this extraordinary milestone it rolled out the proverbial red carpet to commemorate its 200th birthday. Throughout the country festivities flourished: fiestas patrias, national dances and dishes, declarations and speeches.
Of course planning for such pageantry was no small task, as even a cursory look at the list of public works projects to polish the occasion attests: Santiago’s 690 kilometer intra/intercity bike path, the river-walk park Gran Parque Mapocho, Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center, and the renovation and remodeling of the nation’s National Stadium, among many others.
This month, too, some Chileans commemorated the 37th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew the democratically-elected government of Marxist President Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973. For these commemorators, though, mixing the bicentennial euphoria with the memories of a socialist dream crushed by the evils of dictatorship brought about a bitter-sweet taste.
Perhaps this was no more evident than at this year’s September 11th public memorial act at the National Stadium. The stadium served as a concentration camp for Chileans and foreigners alike for 58 days immediately after the military coup. According to a 1973 Red Cross report, the official number of people that passed through the stadium’s portals and in to hell is around 7,000, though other estimates suggest as many as 40,000. Meanwhile a former prisoner recently recounted to me that he believes the number is closer to 80,000.
Following an invitation from Ms. Wally Kunstmann, the president and director of the Santiago-based human rights organization (HRO) Agrupación Metropolitana de ex Presas y Presos Políticos, I went to participate in the inauguration ceremony not of the newly remodeled National Stadium—something reserved for the following day—but of a small piece of the arena’s stands that had been untouched during the bicentennial renovation. Assigned “special protection” status in 2003 when the stadium was named a National Historic Monument (thanks in large part to the Agrupación’s initiative), the small section of wooden bleachers and entranceway just beneath known as “Escotilla 8” was saved in memory of the stadium’s one-time prisoners—and to remind stadium spectators of the human rights violations that occurred there and other public sites throughout Chile between 1973 and 1990.
The handbills distributed at the evening event by aging members and younger allies of the Agrupación Metropolitana de ex Presas y Presos Políticos 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.”
With the inauguration of Escotilla 8 there is now an immediate emotive, if not eerie, sensation walking into 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 aesthetic make-up is at once drastic, and impossible to ignore.
Sadly, though, until this September, the 2003 National Historic Monument designation had existed only on paper and a small plaque placed in an obscure location outside the sports complex—a plaque that had caused Ms. Kunstmann “great indignation” given its less-than-conspicuous position and obvious vagueness concerning the stadium’s prominent role as a concentration camp in 1973. Moreover, Escotilla 8 and seven other stadium sites with “special protection” status since 2003 have remained painfully inconspicuous, and subsequently, publicly ignored.
Even for myself, after a handful of trips to the stadium and hundreds of conversations with Chilean friends and colleagues about it, its ‘official’ historic status was revealed to me only after visiting Chile’s Council of National Monuments. There, in 2008 as a graduate student conducting “place-memory,” I also uncovered the Agrupación’s then-not-yet-approved memorial/museum project Estadio Nacional:Memoria Nacional, a project put in place by the HRO Agrupación to “activate” the stadium as a National Historic Monument and undo Ms. Kunstmann’s indignation; a project that exposed the future plans for Escotilla 8.
The historic opening of Escotilla 8 this bicentennial year represents the first (physical) step in an almost decade long march by the Agrupación to construct Estadio Nacional: Memoria Nacional—a march that has included not only political opposition and seemingly endless bureaucratic barricades but also schisms between HROs and competing memorialization projects. With Escotilla 8 inaugurated, however, the Agrupación is optimistic about the path that lies ahead: memory mediations for the seven other protected sites, as well as a human rights education center within the sports complex.
The evening of September 11, 2010, proved to be historically important for human rights actors and activists commemorating a painful past, especially given September 12th’s official bicentennial inauguration of the newly renovated National Stadium 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 as the large banner I helped hang with Agrupación members above Escotilla 8 read: Contra la Tortura y la Impunidad (Against Torture and Impunity), I have a feeling that the future, like the present and past, will indeed be complicated. Because 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.