An urgent call to action in Aysén, Chile: Casa Memoria José Domingo Cañas 1367

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[EDITOR’S NOTE:  Zachary McKiernan, a doctoral student in public history at the University of California/Santa Barbara and a regular reviewer for “Off the Wall,” is working on a series of “Letters from Chile,” based on his current dissertation research.  An overview of the series, framing its purpose and context, will follow shortly, but because of the urgent nature of the events Zach writes about here, we are posting it sooner rather than in its originally scheduled place in the series.]

Scene in Santiago during Feb. 28, 2012 Aysén solidarity march

A few weeks ago this review was different.  A few weeks ago Chile’s Aysén Social Movement “My Problem is Your Problem” in the Patagonian south was not being violently repressed by the Chilean state.  All this changed, however, when the movement’s demands of lower combustible prices, improved healthcare access and infrastructure, and labor equality, among others, were answered with “bloody repression, the reproduction of the practice of torture, the use of vehicles to trample people, the maiming of three people’s eyes, the [pellet and tear gas] shots fired directly at people’s faces and heads, all which have left indelible marks on many of Aysén’s citizens.”

Important to public history and broader audiences interested in human rights, these observations were announced at a February 29 press conference by a team of Human Rights Observers at Casa Memoria José Domingo Cañas 1367.  This memory space is a small neighborhood center that once housed a small home in the middle-class community of Nuñoa.  For a short time after Chile’s 1973 military coup it was a safe-house for asylum seekers, but it soon fell into the hands of DINA (National Intelligence Directorate) and was operated as site of detention and torture between August and November 1974.  Today, it is an open space of encounter that encompasses a historical, cultural, social, and political moment and movement.

Besides investigating the cases of the persecuted persons that passed through it, interpreting and denouncing the human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship, and fostering cultural memory through the recovery of a former site of detention and torture, the Casa Memoria is an active (and activist) agent against today’s human rights abuses in Chile—particularly in the present moment: Aysén.  Given the extreme repression in this region, it is important for us to consider where official information is coming from, who are the actors speaking out against it, and what the mantra “from memory to actions” really means.

Feb. 29, 2012 press conference at Casa Memoria José Domingo Cañas 1367

The opening words of the press conference by Marta Cisterna, the chief of the Human Rights Observers team, clearly painted this picture for Chile’s big media players (ChileVision, La Nación, Radio Bio-Bio, among others) and general public: the human rights abuses at the hands of the State at José Domingo Cañas during the dictatorship have much to do with the human rights abuses currently occurring in Aysén.  Recognizing this, then, puts into play the continuation of a state policy of terrorism, the corresponding impunity, and the necessary politics to counter it.  Thus, it is no surprise that the Human Rights Observers teams making reports, denouncing the abuses, and demanding accountability are a collaborative mix that span generations, political spectrums, and social-economic experiences.

In the center of this mix is Yenny Aros, José Domingo Cañas’s young executive director, recently returned from NGO work in Africa and, even more recently, the Aysén region.  In Aysén she challenged the regional commander of the Carabineros de Chile (the national police force) about the intervention and repression, verified and listed the detained and hospitalized, and brought this information back to Santiago via the Casa Memoria.

Since meeting Aros in January and after multiple visits to José Domingo Cañas, my initial intention of learning how the memory site preserved the past has morphed into an engagement with contemporary themes that go well beyond that.  Or, in another sense:  I have become involved in the politics of memory.  We all make our memories out of the political present as a way of giving meaning to the past—and vice versa.  But in Chile, this process challenges and confronts hegemonic (and historic) paradigms that perpetuate human rights violations.  In recent years, sights such as José Domingo Cañas have become ground zero for such work, novel nodes of memory-making by committed activists calling a spade a spade, torture torture, history history.

Human rights observers at Feb. 28 Santiago march

On the eve of the press conference, I accompanied a team of Human Rights Observers from the Sites of Memory Network to the solidarity protest with Aysén in Santiago, was shot by water cannons, witnessed police repression, and was comforted by the fact that the Observers documented these details.  Too, I couldn’t help but thinking that the presence of the teams’ white helmets reading “Human Rights Observer” kept in check the Carabineros’ potential proclivity for greater violence.

A mural at Casa Memoria José Domingo Cañas 1367 memorializes 1974 torture victims

The following day at José Domingo Cañas, I walked past the memorialized names of the dictatorship’s victims, past eye-popping political murals (like the one above), and past Fernando Traverso’s bici memorial.  This, to arrive in a room full of microphones and a real-time connection to a parallel press conference in Aysén, a real-time connection between past and present, a real-time connection to historic work at an historic place for political as much as moral reasons.

This should come as no surprise in a country that is, I would argue, still in political transition.  As Chile looks to consolidate and legitimate its two-decade democracy since dictatorship, ruptures such as the Aysén Social Movement “My Problem is Your Problem” and the state-terrorist response to it shows just how fragile the transition is.  In situations like these, repression is rampant—as is the resistance to it.  Thus, in the words I translated to English for the human rights activists’ Public Declaration: “like yesterday in the face of the violations of dictatorship, we demand TRUTH, JUSTICE, and INTEGRAL REPARATION for the people of the Aysén region affected by this terrorist policy applied by the State.”

~ Zachary McKiernan

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on “Off the Wall,” the blog of the National Council on Public History from 2010 to 2012.