I’m not sure what to say about today, so I’m just going to go for it. The beginning part of this entry is great, the next part is depressing and very rough but I hope you read it anyway.
Today started off with a bang, since Lisa and I didn’t get our wake up call. Thank God, I woke up at 6:55 anyway, when we needed to be ready at 7:30. We got ready in a flash and I even got some breakfast before we hopped on the bus and headed off to CODELCO for a meeting, which is the biggest Chilean copper company. We had a very nice presentation from an adorable man, whose name I have forgotten. He was cute and shy about his English, though. We had the presentation in a room made *entirely* from copper, which was fantastic and a bit too shiny for so early in the morning, but it was copper and wood and looked very classy. Since we were dressed nicely, it felt great to be there. Outside of the room but in the CODELCO building, they had an exhibit of, of all things, Mexican art. We got to look at that for a bit and it was very interesting. Our presenter brought up the issue of education in Chile, which is an interesting one given that it’s very bad compared to the rest of the developed world (although Chile is still classified as “developing”.) Evidently the government is only now beginning to work on this. Also he talked about how copper is a finite resource and if no new mines are discovered, it will be gone in 70 years. He also talked about the need to protect the environment, which I assume is hard to do if you’re drilling huge holes in the ground.
After CODELCO, we wandered around a part of Santiago called “Plaza de Armas” for awhile. It seems like a great part of the city and there’s a big Cathedral, but we didn’t have enough time to go in. Instead, we quickly went and got coffee at a Hatian coffee bar- and literally, it’s a bar in that you’re served coffee and you drink it standing up at the counter. I actually got hot chocolate and it was a transcendental experience- it was SO SO GOOD. So I’m going to have to come back to Chile if only for that.
After Plaza de Armas, we went to another business meeting, this time at the Central Bank of Chile with the man who is in charge of sending out the stability report for Chile’s economy. Basically, he’s super important. We got to have the meeting IN the board room! We had amazing and plush chairs, a fantastic huge wood table that we all sat around, water in classes next to us, and leather writing pads. It’s hard for me to explain but imagine the board of director’s room in the biggest and most rich bank you can think of, and that’s what it was. High ceilings, sumptuous carpet- very classy and very intimidating, given that I know nothing of economics. :-D The man was very interesting and he explained why Chile is the strongest economy in Latin America right now. It has a lot to do with Chile’s natural resources and Free Trade Agreements. He was of course very concerned with portraying Chile well and not talking about the weaknesses, but overall it was very nice.
After the Banco Central de Chile, we took the bus to another part of Santiago where we had lunch. Mirelle, Maggie and I went to a small café called Café Almacen which means Café Grocery. I got a nice vegetarian sandwich that had asparagus and olives and tomato. It was very good. Lisa and Aga climbed up St. Lucia again.
After lunch, we went to La Moneda. This is in fact a HUGE deal because, after the palace was bombed after the coup in which Pinochet took power, it is very hard to get in. Somehow our group was allowed to go. We had a tour guide that only spoke Spanish so one of our own guides interpreted. The palace is gorgeous. They have guards everywhere. There are two at the front how are like the London guards because they can’t talk to you, but the others can. We didn’t get to see the room where Allende committed suicide during the coup, but we saw many other places. There is some amazing artwork and amazing furniture that dates to Napoleon, and some amazing sculptures in the big courtyard. It was a huge privilege to be allowed to go in, and it was a fantastic experience that I will always remember. I have been in the Presidential Palace in Chile! That’s more than I can say about the White House. Also they didn’t have a metal detector, though they did take out passports. :-D
This is where it gets a big rough. Well… a lot rough, so read with care because I don’t want to sugar coat this. I want to remember it. Or don’t read it if you don’t want to be horrified and depressed- I am serious.
The next thing we did was go to a place called Villa Grimaldi. Villa Grimaldi was originally a farming commune during the 1800’s. Later, it was bought and turned into a beautiful Villa by an Italian family. During the coup that put Pinochet into power, the military was going back and forth along a road that passed the Villa. Although it is in the midst of the city now, at the time it was far away from the city with nothing surrounding it. The military saw the high walls and the distance and thought “Perfect!” and Villa Grimaldi was taken from its owners and became one of about 1200 torture and detention centers for “subversive” Chilean citizens under Pinochet.
It’s actually very hard to talk about this meeting. Villa Grimaldi has since been turned into a memorial by private donations from torture victims and others. Our guide was a former torture victim who was held not in Villa Grimaldi, but in Valparaiso. He told us we could ask him anything, and we did. Villa Grimaldi is a very symbolic place now. He took us to where the cells were located. Now, there is a path that blocks out where the cells were with one birch tree planted in each “cell”, since birch trees are “ugly, and peal, and droop… but they are very strong.” Each cell was 1 ½ m. by 1 m. and there were usually 10 people to a cell. To say that these were tiny is a horrific understatement. They ate once a day, food that the guards had urinated and spat in. Everyone was naked and blindfolded, and tied at the hand and foot, but they looked forward to eating because they could touch one another with their arms and know there was someone else there. Women were raped by men and dogs, and if they were pretty then they were raped systematically. Often men were raped as well. There was a type of torture called “the grill”, which was a metal bed which the prisoner would be forced to lie on and which would then be lit up with electricity. It was called the grill because afterwards you would smell burning flesh. Children were forced to watch their parent’s torture. There was a old structure that had been used to hang meat when it was a Villa, but it was then used to hang prisoners by their hands and feet and electrocute them in a certain way which would cause them to turn as if they were on a spit.
There were other things that Ignacio, our guide, told us but I don’t really want to go into it now, since everything in worse than the next. He told us about his torture, and he does things many times a week. You could tell it was hard on him but you could also tell he was happy. What a brave man. I asked him what he thought of people who approve still of Pinochet, and he told me that he things that everyone has a right to an opinion but there is nothing that can justify torture. Many Chileans don’t believe that these events ever occurred, or believe that those who it happened to deserved it. They don’t talk about it, ever, and there has never been a public apology. He said that every Chilean citizen over 35 who says that don’t/didn’t know about this is lying and a coward, and that they would be better off to say they were simply afraid, although that still justifies nothing. He had a story about a time when he confronted one of his torturers. Well, actually, he had been very very close friends with a poorer boy when he was young. The boy later joined the police force because it was a huge step up for him, and so they lost touch.. 5 or 6 years ago, Ignacio saw him on the street and they started talking, which Latin American’s in general do often. He started asking the general questions like “how is your family”, when his friend interrupted him and said “I know what happened to you.” Ignacio said “Yes, I know, it was in all the papers that I was arrested.” And his friend said, “No. I know because I tortured you.” Igancio just walked away. The horrific thing is that I can understand how fear and the desire to fit in with the crowd can lead people to do things like this, though Ignacio is correct that there is no justification.
After the area with the cells, we saw a list of 249 names of people who were killed at the camp. The average age of person killed was 24, and many were younger. After this, Ignacio took us to the “tower”, a room where prisoners went to die. The bottom floor was nothing, just a room, though under the dictatorship it had many torture implements and the metal beds. The next floors up were the most horrific, though. At first you just saw a hallway, but then he bent far down and pulled up a little hatch, which led to a tiny tiny tiny tiny cell just large enough for one person to stand up in. The hand only went up to about calf length, though once forced through the door into the cell you could stand up straight. It would then close so there was no light and no air. People were kept there for days a time, one woman for 3 months. Then, usually, they were killed. (All of this is known due to testimony of the torturers, a miniscule percentage of which are in jail). The lucky ones were shot in the head, and then their stomach was opened, their entrails removed, and bits of wood and metal put inside. This is so that when the Chileans tossed them into the sea, they would sink. In other camps, the people had their eyes and teeth taken out, and their hands and the soles of the feet burned so that they were unidentifiable. In each case, only the lucky were already dead when this was done.
After I exited the tower, it will not surprise you to know I was sobbing. It’s one thing to read about it in a book, and known academically that horrible things happened. To *be there*, at the place, and talk to a person that they happened to, makes it so so real. There was a rose garden with a rose planted for every woman who died at Villa Grimaldi, and it was beautiful, and tragic. I don’t know what to say about it.
After the tower, Ignacio sat us down again and we asked more questions. Basically, what he wanted us to come away from the experience with, and the reason he does it time and time again, is the knowledge that we *have* to stop all intolerance and violence, because political intolerance and violence can’t happen unless it already exists.
The last thing we did was go into a separate room where some of the wood and metal from the bodies of the people were recovered from a lake. The bodies weren’t found, but the other substances that were in the chest cavities never decayed. There was music of the ocean playing, and Ignacio said that it was actually happy, because these beautiful sounds and peace were what welcomed the victims when they reached their final resting place. I’m crying thinking about it.
There was a memorial room with pictures of many of those killed.
On the plus side, I spoke a lot of Spanish to him and made sense.
I’m not sure what else to say. We got home about nine and didn’t feel at all like going out, even though we hadn’t eaten since 12:30 about. Eventually Lisa and I went to a sports bar and had a beer and a sandwich and then came back to the hotel and think. This was probably the strongest and most emotional experience of my life, and I haven’t done it justice in this entry. I can’t tell you how it felt to be there in such a beautiful area and know the pain and death that happened on the *exact* spot you’re standing. I don’t know what to say.
The transition from the economy and copper, businesses that like Pinochet because he improved the economy, to the site of the death of Allende and Villa Grimaldi… what a dichotomy that exists in Chile.
Interestingly, the current president is very concerned with human rights, because she and her mothers were both prisoners in Villa Grimaldi, though as true Chileans they have never spoken about it. But she is concerned, at least, which is more than previous democratic administrations who only wanted to forget can say. But the situation has never been publically acknowledge and many people deny it happened. For Ignacio to go out nearly every day and talk about it… what can you say about such bravery?
All I can think is that we have to do something about the United State’s stance on torture, especially rendition and Guantanamo… and everywhere. Like Ignacio said, you can’t pretend to know, and you can’t be afraid. But also what can you do?
I had an experience I would never have missed for the world. And one I will never, ever, ever forget.