||Volume 22, Number 7, May/June 2010
The “Memory Museum” and the neo-liberal experiment
By Larry Kuehn
The teachers’ organization in Chile (the CPC) has been carrying out, for the past 10 years, a project they call the Pedagogical Movement. It is a union teacher research project that has been supported by the BCTF International Solidarity Fund, along with teacher unions in France and Sweden and by Education International.
They call it a movement because it is not individuals doing research just for their own situation. Rather, it is a collective way of reflecting on the important educational issues, particularly in the context of reviving civil society and a sense of the right to participate after the many years of dictatorship.
I was in Chile because they wanted not just to share among themselves, but also with the international groups that have supported this work on its 10th Anniversary.
Teams of teachers in each region in the country have carried out research on areas of concern, from curriculum to student and societal issues. They are working in the country that was the experimental farm for the neo-liberal ideas. Milton Friedman and his cronies at the Chicago school in the 1970s advised the Pinochet dictatorship to privatize schools, services, industry, and even pensions. Private schools (with state subsidies) now have 55% of the students in the country. Privatized pensions lost 30% or more in the market declines of the past year. If Chileans live too long or investments lose their value, when the funds in a personal pension account run out, they no longer get a pension.
Some of the teacher projects looked at the impact of these policies on education. While the formal power of the military dictatorship has faded, history is very much alive in Chile.
On the second day, our program began with a visit to the Memory Museum. It is aimed at keeping alive the memory of the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende, the elected president, in 1973 and that initiated a long period of dictatorship. A second focus of the museum is on human rights violations in other countries. It displays, for example, copies of Truth and Reconciliation reports, including that from South Africa.
This new museum was just opened a couple of days before by the president of the country. President Bachelet had herself been arrested, tortured, and forced into exile. Her father, a military officer, died of cardiac arrest from torture after supporting president Allende rather than going along with the military coup.
The presidential runoff for a new president was to take place on January 17, two days after the end of the pedagogical conference. Chile has a one-term limit, so Bachelet was not able to run again, although she is so popular that 70% of the country supports her according to polls. The two runoff candidates from the left and the right were neck and neck, the pollsters said. One candidate had just over 50% and the other just under.
The Memory Museum shows a very moving multiscreen film. Military jets take off and then bomb the presidential palace. President Allende is shown in a military helmet and carrying a gun, looking as uncomfortable with it as one might expect from an academic and politician used to fighting with words. Later, Allende is heard making what he knows is his last radio broadcast to the people.
I recall hearing an interview on CBC’s As It Happens from within the presidential palace as it was under attack. My memories of listening to the radio report of these events from September 11, 1973, are as strong as those from watching on TV the towers fall on another September 11.
Just before the presidential palace was taken by the military, Allende was killed, with the official story that he killed himself, rather than be captured, tortured, and sent to exile.
You get an idea of what he might have expected when you come to one corner of the museum and see a metal bed frame with a wooden box next to it with wires coming out. People were tied down on the bed, then electricity was run through it, reaching everywhere a body pressed down on the metal criss-crossing the frame.
One wall holds pictures of former members of the Allende government who were later assassinated while in exile. The car of the former foreign minister was blown up right in Washington, DC. Another wall of pictures shows some of the thousands killed or “disappeared” after the coup.
The bilingual staff person from one of the US teacher unions pointed out to me that the narration said that the final word to the military to go ahead with the coup came in English, not Spanish. Nothing more needed to be said to understand the underlying message of complicity.
The Chilean teachers we were with were clearly affected greatly by their first visit to the museum, talking later about the importance of remembering so this is never allowed to happen again.
However, I think back less than two months ago to when I was in Honduras. As in Chile, people resisting the coup in Honduras, many of them teachers, have disappeared, been killed, or detained. The military there was in the streets and even running the socalled election. Many Latin Americans elsewhere are afraid of another round of the coups and military governments that dominate the region, not just Chile.
The Memory Museum is intended as an inoculation against Chile going down that road again. However, on January 17, the right-wing candidate was elected with just over 50% of the vote. TV news in Latin America showed some of the right-wing supporters celebrating not by shouting the name of the new president, Sebastian Pinera. Instead, they were shouting “Pinochet.”
Not everyone wants to remember the same things.
Larry Kuehn is the director of the BCTF Research and Technology Division.