What mysterious deaths and memory struggles in Chile can teach the U.S.
The week after I took my children trick-or-treating on the streets of our Philadelphia suburb turned out to be a time of ghosts in another place where I once lived: Chile. On November 5, Chile’s Interior Ministry released a public statement calling it “highly probable” that Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, died of poisoning soon after the coup that ushered in Augusto Pinochet’s 27-year dictatorship, and not from the natural progression of the prostate cancer for which he was being treated at the time. If true, this would confirm years of suspicion that Neruda, like the singer Victor Jara and thousands of other Chileans, was a victim of Pinochet’s violent efforts to suppress political dissent.
Chile’s Interior Ministry released a public statement calling it “highly probable” that Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, died of poisoning.
The retelling of Neruda’s death began when the poet’s former driver stepped forward in 2011 to allege that after treatment in Santiago’s Santa María clinic for his cancer, and only hours before his death, Neruda confided that he had been given a strange injection in his stomach. The path to an official investigation—which would result in the exhumation of Neruda’s corpse from his seaside grave and posthumous travel to four different forensic laboratories in as many countries—has been contentious.
Despite the Chilean government’s bold declaration, the tests thus far don’t offer conclusive evidence. The Staphylococcus aureus bacteria found in his body has no relation to cancer, but this does not conclusively prove that Neruda died from poisoning. Further tests are still needed to clarify the origins of such a potentially lethal microorganism (healthy individuals can be perfectly asymptomatic carriers of the bug), and even then we may never know for certain. For those inclined to think Neruda died of cancer—possibly accelerated by grief at seeing his country fall into the hands of a brutal dictator—and those who believe he must have been poisoned, there is no reason yet to significantly alter their version of history.
I lived through none of the hardships of that history, and have nothing but a semester abroad, stints teaching English and conducting academic research into forensic science and human rights, and many dear Chilean friends to tie me to the place. Yet, in tandem with my understanding that I am now entering middle age comes the realization that I have seen more than one epoch of memory in Chile: I am, in my own small way, a witness. The age in which the families of the “disappeared” victims of the dictatorship were the most visible face of Chile’s human rights movement, and in which Chileans pinned their hopes on courts abroad to try Pinochet and other war criminals, is gone. Now is a time of cases working their way through Chile’s own courts, of forensic laboratories sorting out, test by test, the veracity of one historical narrative versus another (Salvador Allende, the Socialist president deposed by Pinochet, and Victor Jara are among the other famous dead whose bodies have been exhumed in recent years). Perhaps most importantly, it is an age in which the biggest protests are not over the injustices of the past, but rather the hopes young people have for the future—particularly for an affordable education. And yet, as the Neruda case shows, in Chile the past is not yet past.
Now is a time of cases working their way through Chile’s own courts, of forensic laboratories sorting out, test by test, the veracity of one historical narrative versus another.
Some may see these haunted forms of memory as the distant problems of far-off lands. After all, here in the U.S., we generally only use the term “human rights” to talk about things that happen in other countries. We like to mark a difference between ourselves and the large swaths of territory we see as violent, confusing, and fundamentally similar to one another—lands still routinely depicted in Hollywood films as an “African war zone” or “unnamed Latin American country.”
Yet we too live with the legacy of atrocities; and we too are in need of processes of remembrance and repair. The torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Base, and our domestic solitary confinement cells, the long history of injustices that have made “black lives matter” (which should be an obvious truth) into a necessary slogan, the now almost rhythmic eruption of shootings in schools and workplaces: these experiences stay with us even after a supposedly definitive government report has been published, even as the coverage of them wanes and we enter another election cycle.
We too live with the legacy of atrocities; and we too are in need of processes of remembrance and repair.
When we fail to see these legacies through the shared global lens of human rights, we mark ourselves off as exceptional in ways that simply do not hold true. We also lose the opportunity to garner wisdom from the study of other nations that have dealt with legacies of widespread violence.
From Chile, I have learned that as eager as politicians and many in the public are to look towards the future and turn the page on a dark past, that is simply impossible for—and cruel to ask of—the communities most directly impacted. For these people, it is not just that the injustices remain painful and present, but that the institutions that have victimized them (either through direct participation in violence, or through failure to respond to their suffering) do not have basic legitimacy, and cannot be partners in shaping policy for the present or future, until they have addressed their own histories.
Individuals are not the only vessels for memory. Memory lives on in places, symbols, and language, whether at Neruda’s tomb or in the choking gesture activists make when they repeat Eric Garner’s dying plea, “I can’t breathe.” While fights over symbols such as the Confederate flag seem to some like an unwelcome distraction, in fact these symbols are crucial mediators by which we not only negotiate how we wish to tell our national story, but also communicate our willingness to recognize the memories of others as having the same depth and urgency as our own.
Finally, the recent news from Chile is evidence that the period of reconstruction or reconciliation after atrocities is very long (some scholars, such as Robert Meister and my colleague Jill Stauffer, argue that we are best off thinking of it as “permanent”). This ongoing project must take place across a multitude of places and institutions, and not only the obvious ones. In Chile, the state morgue—where the unknown “disappeared” and famous men such as Neruda and Salvador Allende have been examined—has become a more vivid site of contested memory than the city’s shiny new Museum of Memory and Human Rights. In the U.S., the well-documented existence of a “school-to-prison pipeline” for young African-American males indicates just how complex our racial injustices are, and how many of our institutions will have to be transformed to amend them.
At the end of his documentary about historical memory in Chile, “Nostalgia for the Light,” the filmmaker Patricio Guzmán says, “Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who have none don’t live anywhere. Each night, slowly, impassively, the center of the galaxy passes over Santiago.” I know I am not alone in preferring the idea of life in a place of mournful memories, difficult conversations, and long arcs of justice to life in a place that is no place. To get there, however, requires that we stop thinking of ourselves as being at the center of the galaxy. We are each standing in just one of many points in space, all moving together from painful past to uncertain future.
Stanford University Press blog
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How participating in protest helps dispel reflexive racism.
On the power of symbols and their contested meanings.