When Barack Obama arrives in Chile on Monday for a 24-hour visit, something crucial will be missing from his agenda. There will be succulent seafood, speeches praising Chile’s prosperity, bilateral agreements and meetings with the high and mighty. But there are no plans, I am sure, for the president to encounter what has been the defining experience of Chile’s recent history, the trauma that the people of this country underwent during the 17 years of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s regime.
And yet, it would not be impossible for Obama to witness a small sample of the grief of Chile. A scant seven blocks from the presidential palace, La Moneda, where he is to be feted by President Sebastián Piñera, 120 researchers are busy all day long compiling a conclusive list of Pinochet’s victims so that final amends and compensation can be made. This is the third attempt since the dictatorship ended in 1990 to deal with the massive losses it left behind. Two officially sanctioned commissions had already investigated an enormous number of cases of torture, execution and political imprisonment, but it became apparent as the years went by that countless human rights violations remained to be identified. And the current inquiry has, in fact, received 33,000 additional petitions for redress.
Although Obama would be unable to read any of the confidential reports about these cases, a few minutes spent away from his strict calendar of events, talking to some of the men and women who are carrying out the inquiries, would tell him more about the hidden agony of Chile than a thousand briefing books.
For instance, he could talk to a researcher named Tamara. On Sept. 11, 1973, the day President Salvador Allende was overthrown, her father, one of Allende’s bodyguards, was arrested — and never heard from again. I worked at La Moneda at the time of the coup, and my life was saved by a chain of miraculous coincidences. But Tamara’s father was not that lucky, nor were several good friends, whose bodies have never been found.
Or Obama could look into the eyes of a lawyer I know, who was abducted one afternoon a few years after the coup and tortured for weeks before being dumped one night on a strange street and then almost immediately rearrested for breaking the curfew. Obama might listen to an anthropologist who had to go into exile for 14 years, losing country, livelihood and language. Her return to Chile was as painful as the original banishment because her children, having grown estranged from the country of their birth, stayed abroad, splitting the family forever.
If Obama prefers places to people, he could acquaint himself with Villa Grimaldi, a former torture house turned into a center for peace, or devote 10 minutes to the Museum of Memory, where exhibits recall the darkest days of Chile’s history.
One of the reasons Obama should do everything he can to catch a glimpse, however cursory, of our vast affliction is that the United States, alas, is partly responsible for its existence. Washington aided and abetted the downfall of Allende’s democratically elected government and the tyrannical rise of Pinochet. Today, when the revolt in Egypt, among other nations, reminds us of the consequences of propping up brutal regimes, it would be sobering for a president as thoughtful and compassionate as Obama to see a few men and women who have been destroyed by those U.S. policies.
And Chile also offers a cautionary tale of how difficult it is to deal with crimes against humanity — how difficult but also how necessary. In Chile we have learned that if we, as a people, do not face that terrible past and bring its sorrows into the light, if the perpetrators are not punished, we risk corrupting the very soul of our nation.
It is a lesson that Obama and his fellow citizens should also learn. Two years after his inauguration, Guantanamo remains open, and there has been no prosecution of the human rights violations of the George W. Bush administration or an apology tendered to its victims. A U.S. commission modeled on the one established in Santiago might constitute a first step toward a reckoning that, as Chileans are aware, cannot be postponed indefinitely.
Important as this experience might be for Obama, another one could be even more significant. He will be having dinner at the presidential palace where Allende died defending the right of his people to choose their own destiny. Allende is buried in a cemetery not far from where the country’s elite will be toasting the friendship between the United States and Chile.
In 1965, during a momentous trip to Chile, Sen. Robert Kennedy stepped outside the tight protocol arranged for him and met miners and university students; he plunged into the country to try to understand it. What if Obama decided to follow Kennedy’s example and went off script to do something unprecedented, like visiting Allende’s grave? What if Obama simply stood there in silence for one lonely minute? No need to publicly express regret for America’s intervention in Chilean affairs or for supporting Pinochet.
That simple gesture in homage to a president who gave his life fighting for democracy and social justice would send a message to Latin America and, indeed, to the whole planet that would be more eloquent than 50 speeches. It would be a signal that perhaps a new era in the U.S. relationship with its neighbors to the south might be feasible, that the bitter past will never again return, nunca, nunca más.
Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean-American writer and professor at Duke University. He is the author of Death and the Maiden and the forthcoming Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile.