That September 11 would change world history forever. Long before the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York City, that date already commemorated a horror of yesteryear in Latin America. Betrayal, torture, disappearance, rape, abuse, silence, death: dictatorship.
That word, “dictatorship,” might seem like a concept very far from Puerto Rico. But if historians know anything, it is that when evil wants to spread, we must pay attention to the signs. September 11, 2023 marked the 50th anniversary of the coup d’état in Chile that ended the democratic government of Salvador Allende and in which General Augusto Pinochet took power by force. The Pinochet years were marked by terrible abuses by the government, abuses from which five decades later, a large part of Chile’s population is trying to recover.
In this context, teachers Marcelo Luzzi and Windy Cosme from the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras have organized an exhibition that brings to light the horrors of the Chilean dictatorship while also serving as a type of cautionary tale that anyone can learn from.
The exhibition, titled “State secrets: declassified history of the Chilean dictatorship 1970-1990″ is an original exhibition project by Peter Kornbluh, director of the Documentation on Chile project of the National National Security Archive, and consists of a series of documents from both the Chilean government and the US government in which secret operations, missions, conversations and other communications during the time of the dictatorship.
“This was an exhibition that was originally presented in 2017 at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Chile. We have a collaboration project with the University of Michigan and within the framework of the 50th anniversary of the coup d’état, we have developed this joint project,” explained Professor Windy Cosme, who was in charge of the design of the exhibition that will be on until October 3 in the Student Center.
“Our exercise was to create an exhibition for the students of the University of Puerto Rico in the space we had. One of the elements that we wanted to use, which was also part of the museum’s methodologies, was to present a history of the documents, when that documentation related to Chile began to emerge since Salvador Allende won the elections in 1970 and how in a At a given moment, those documents were leaked, at a time when declassification was not intended,” he said.
From the walls of a small room you can see dozens of official documents that narrate a large part of one of the darkest stages in the recent history of Latin America. In addition to the impressive documents in which you can see conversations between historical figures such as President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger about intervening in Chile, the organizers also wanted to include audiovisual elements to the exhibition, so they commissioned a video that narrates the trajectory of the dictatorship from its beginnings until the Chilean plebiscite of 1988 that ended Pinochet’s mandate.
“The selection of documents that are in the exhibition are 27 documents that go from 1970 to 1989. So we have a first document of the reaction of the United States government to the victory of Salvador Allende in the elections and in which it is given that first plan that the first thing the United States government seeks is to prevent the inauguration from taking place. After the inauguration, we have some documents that show the United States’ plan to destabilize, make the Chilean economy scream, which is literally what the document says, until the coup d’état is reached,” said Professor Cosme. who is currently finishing his doctorate in history with a thesis on the Museum of Memory in Chile.
Historian Marcelo Luzzi, for his part, expressed satisfaction with the reaction of the students and people who came to the exhibition. “The truth is that there has been a lot of surprise on the part of the students, because some obviously knew, but they didn’t seem to realize it. So I think that at a certain point having a video, seeing a series of documents that normally they are not so used to seeing this type of document, had a great impact on them.“, said.
“The truth is that it is a satisfaction because it was really designed for that, to awaken a certain awareness. We say that the objective of the university is to generate critical thinking, but in defense of something we call democracy, we cannot not defend democracy regardless of the political opinions we have. That is to say, there must be a resounding condemnation of a coup d’état. And it is in that sense that this exhibition shows us a little and that it seems to me that the students, from that perspective, have understood it and the general public that has come too,” he continued.
But beyond a portrait of the past, for Luzzi an exhibition like this also speaks of today’s world. In a context in which the far-right around Latin America is gaining strength, as in the case of Argentina, where Javier Milei is emerging as one of the strongest candidates, the exercise of remembering is more important than ever.
“We inaugurated on the 5th and speaking of Milei, on the 4th there was an event in the Congress of Deputies in Argentina organized by her party and her candidate for vice president, Victoria Villarruel, which was a praise of genocidal soldiers. Her saying ‘we are going to recognize those who experienced the violence of the left’. Was there violence from the left in Latin America? There was, that is not discussed. Now, equidistance cannot be sustained, because there is violence that is the product of a repressive apparatus of the State. If there was any type of violence by someone who broke the law. In a democratic State, that person is tried, they are not arrested and they disappear. That is what the dictatorships did,” said the professor.
“What role do these exhibits play? It seems to me that an unambiguous defense of a democracy and also an unambiguous defense against the denialism that means saying ‘well, but if there had not been this coup d’état, Chile would have become such’. We don’t know that,” he continued.
“Above all, it shows us a conviction that something that is said a lot in Latin America, that idea of ’never again’, has to be an unquestionable reality.”.
“State Secrets” will be on display until October 3 and as part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the coup, a cycle called “History and Memory” will be held. 50 years after the Chilean Coup d’état”, which will feature two conferences and three commented screenings of documentaries that aim to help contextualize the exhibition. The cycle culminates in November with the International Symposium Recent History and Memory of Civil-Military Dictatorships, organized jointly between the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Chile.