The Memory and Human Rights Museum in Santiago, Chile’s capital, was an initiative of former president and newly-appointed UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet – who herself was a victim of torture under Augusto Pinochet’s rule.
It opened in 2010 and became part of an ongoing debate over the legacy of Chile’s former leader.
Mauricio Rojas, the newly appointed culture minister, was forced to resign after four days in office over comments he had made about the museum in a 2015 book. He had accused the institution of manipulating history and attempting to shock visitors to “prevent them from reasoning”.
The museum features instruments of torture and victim’s testimonies alongside historical documents and drawings by children whose parents were arrested under Pinochet’s rule.
“It’s a shameless and inaccurate use of a national tragedy that touched so many [Chileans] directly,” he said.
Rojas – who fled Chile following the US-backed coup d’etat that brought Pinochet to power – later said the comments did not reflect his current view and that he had not intended to diminish or justify the “systematic and grave” human rights violations that took place.
On September 11, 1973, Pinochet seized power by overthrowing the democratically-elected Marxist President Salvador Allende, and went on to rule for the next 17 years.
He stepped down in 1990, following a referendum on extending his term.
Under his rule, the Latin American country flourished economically, but the opposition was repressed and thousands of people were executed, disappeared and tortured by state forces.
While Pinochet is vilified as a ruthless dictator on the international stage, the view in his homeland has always been more nuanced, with some still viewing his rule as a positive force.
As the country marks the 45th anniversary of the coup on Tuesday, is Pinochet’s shadow, which has loomed large for decades, beginning to recede?
|Portraits of some of the thousands who were murdered, tortured and disappeared [Victor Ruiz Caballero/Reuters]
“There’s a general awareness in Chile that during the dictatorship years, fundamental human rights were violated in a systematic and cruel manner,” said Francisco Javier Estevez, the director of the Museum.
“[Rojas’ comments] generated a very large reaction. The political and cultural worlds said, ‘No, we’re going to defend this museum because it tells the truth and, if we want to contribute to a more just society, we are going to have to get together behind the principles of truth and justice so that [human rights abuses] never happen again’,” he told Al Jazeera.
Despite survivor testimonies, convictions and state acknowledgement, some so-called “negacionistas” – or deniers – believe that the Pinochet leadership was innocent.
“Those who deny that human rights violations were committed [or] try to justify them are a powerful minority,” said Estevez. “They consider the human rights violations to have been inevitable”.
According to an expert on human rights developments in Chile who requested anonymity, Pinochet was able to tailor his legacy by granting amnesty to himself and other figures as one of his final acts before leaving office.
He remained in the public eye, first in his role as head of the military, which he held until 1998, and then as a self-styled “senator for life”.
“The amnesty legislation fully protected Pinochet. It was a bullet-proof protection from any serious attempts to investigate him for atrocities,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Nobody was taking any local investigation against Pinochet seriously, he was a senator for life, he had immunity, so he felt comfortable.”
A study published three years ago running from 1987 to 2015 found that almost one in five Chileans still held a positive view of Pinochet.
|Supporters of Sebastian Pinera hold a bust of Pinochet aloft following the news of Pinera’s election victory in December 2017 [Pablo Sanhueza/Reuters]
The survey found the Pinochet period was viewed less positively when the right returned to power under Sebastian Pinera in 2010.
The study suggested it was concerns over this return, rather than human rights arguments, that soured views.
In December 2017, Pinera won the presidency once more and appointed two former vocal supporters of Pinochet to his cabinet.
Interior Minister Andres Chadwick and Justice Minister Hernan Larrain had defended the Colonia Dignidad enclave, where a cult-like community operated, led by fugitive former Nazi and paedophile Paul Shafer.
It later emerged that state security officials from the secret police had tortured and murdered prisoners there.
Chadwick, Larrain and Pinera opposed Pinochet’s arrest and detention in London in 1998. They say their views have now changed.
There are concerns that Pinera won’t pursue convictions for human rights abuses under Pinochet as fervently as Bachelet.
Chile still operates under a 1980 constitution, which was approved in a controversial plebiscite during the Pinochet years. It prevents immediate reelection, so presidents cannot serve consecutive terms.
Over the past 13 years, Chile’s top seat has transferred from Bachelet to Pinera, back to Bachelet and then again to Pinera, creating a certain amount of policy overlap.
For the families, there is no reconciliation.
Alicia Juica Rocco, AFDD
In 2011, during his first term in office, Pinera completed a process started during Bachelet’s first term, raising the number of victims officially recognised by the state to 40,018.
The acknowledgement of these 9,800 additional victims brought the total amount of compensation paid annually by the government to around $123m.
Those officially recognised as survivors of rights abuses receive financial compensation, along with health, housing and education benefits. Families of those the state accepts were killed or “disappeared” also receive compensation.
For many relatives, compensation is not enough.
Alicia Juicia Rocco’s father, Mario Juica Vega, has not been seen since he was arrested in August 1976.
The 55-year-old, who was 13 when her father was taken, joined the Group of Relatives of the Disappeared and Detained (AFDD) as soon as she was old enough to go out alone.
“The AFDD is a second home. It’s a group of my equals where I can talk about the shame and rage and hopelessness that I feel,” Juica Rocco tells Al Jazeera.
Protests are expected to take place in Santiago on Tuesday, calling on the military to release information on the whereabouts of the remains of those murdered and “disappeared”.
“The process of identifying victims is ongoing but the main work there is done. What we don’t have is information about what happened to the remains of these victims,” said Estevez, director of the Museum. “This information has been denied us”.
The military initially claimed that no such documentation exists, and now maintains these details were recorded, but the paperwork has been destroyed.
The 2015 study found little evidence of a “sincere reconciliation”, with 76 percent saying they had not forgotten the divisions of the past.
“If we take steps forward with more truth and less impunity, then yes, the possible and inevitable consequence is reconciliation,” said Estevez. “But without justice, without truth, a reconciliation with impunity – this is impossible”.
“For the families, there is no reconciliation,” said Juica Rocco.
“No one can excuse [the disappearance of] a father or son because we are their blood and we have suffered the consequence of their absence in body and soul”.