Past Human Rights Struggles in Present-Day South America

By Simon McMurchie

Catlin Gabel School, Catlin Speak

Pedro steps to his left, allowing us to see inside the small wooden structure he has been describing. A holding cell of sorts, he tells us, designed to hold no more than five or six individuals. From our vantage point it looks like it couldn’t hold two.

He continues forward, ushering us to move with him through the memorial site. Once a gruesome center of detention and torture, the buildings were torn down by the military dictatorship in Chile near the end of its decade in power, and after mounting community protests, converted into a memorial center and park. There’s a rose bed, and murals covering the grounds, but any beauty is wiped away by the memories spilling out of Pedro, a docile man in khakis and a collared shirt.

He describes the torture, the techniques implemented by the agents of the dictatorship, and the immense physical and mental pain he felt during the dark days he spent in Villa Grimaldi, the summer house-turned detention center on the outskirts of Santiago, the capital city of Chile. For the most part he speaks matter-of-factly, showing little emotion beyond a kind, remorseful smile, even when delving into the memories of the most horrifying moments of his life. The stories were difficult to hear; one cannot imagine what they would be like to relive.

The day is clear and warm, in sharp contrast to the harsh experience of the moment. The group is a varied collection of Catlin Gabel students on a late March global trip, predominantly upperclassmen and most of whom have never come close to a survivor of traumatic events like these. Descriptions like these affect everybody differently; there are some that lean in to get the full story and some that look like they couldn’t take a sentence more.

Something noticeably changes in Pedro when we make our way to the Santiago General Cemetery, a massive area in which more than five million bodies lay buried. This is not what causes Pedro to lose control of his emotions; that comes at the foot of the tomb of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected and avowedly Marxist president of Chile that Pedro was imprisoned and tortured for supporting.

Pedro speaks of the tomb’s location, among the other affluent Chilean families who’ve spent millions to build personal mausoleums, and of what he imagines would be Allende’s desire to be buried with the people, nearly half a mile away, where stacked graves can be found in place of tombs, and holes that aren’t filled with coffins are filled with trash. It is these people that Allende believed in, Pedro says, and as he describes the man he so ardently supported he finally breaks down and a few tears run down his face.

Pedro’s life is similar to that of many Chileans, all of whom seem to have a story to tell. There’s the juggler who runs out to perform tricks at stoplights, balancing a ball on her nose and flipping pins, who when prompted immediately responds by describing her aunt, who had two fingers cut off by soldiers in the years of the dictatorship. There’s the owner and head chef of a vegan restaurant a few blocks off of a main road, whose grandfather was blinded when he was hit in the back of the head for being out after curfew.

The scars lay just under the surface, not just here but in each of the South American countries that fell victim to military coups in the mid- and late-1900s, all of which were brought about by the United States and the aggressive U.S. foreign policy of the time, predominantly under President Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser. In Stephen Kinzer’s “Overthrow”, a book describing U.S. foreign policy of the 1900s, he describes a story of the Chilean foreign minister accusing Kissinger of knowing nothing about the continent. He responded succinctly, “No, and I don’t care … What happens in the South is of no importance.”

It’s this reputation that modern Americans have to overcome when talking to civil rights activists in countries affected by the United States. At Automotores Zorletti in Buenos Aires, a former site of detention and torture, two men and woman stood, obsessively drinking maté (a popular Argentinean tea drink) and speaking in contempt of the U.S. and its recent history. Eventually, by the end of the tour and dialogue, they told us that we had shown them a new side of Americans, that their judgment was better spent on those who perpetrated the human rights abuses themselves. They also asked us to “never vote for the Republicans.”

Walking along the streets of the big cities of the Southern Cone, everything appears peaceful at first glance. Cars zoom around in a lightly-regulated traffic system, men and women lounge outside of cafés. Still, eventually one happens upon graffiti, the tool of the dissident, often depicting either the members of the dictatorships or mocking the United States. At José Domingo Cañas in Santiago, a memorial site with walls covered in street art, one picture depicts a vulture with the American flag tattooed on his wings clutching a Chilean dove in his talons.

These are the difficult issues that United States citizens need to consider about our complicated past, beyond junior-year curriculums and outside of the narrow scope of our everyday lives. Human rights is not an issue of the past.

In Guatemala, a country ravaged by an oppressive regime instituted by John Foster Dulles and President Eisenhower, healing is a difficult process. When President Bill Clinton visited Guatemala City soon after peace was reached in 1996, he spoke frankly about his nation’s role in the atrocities committed in the country, and how the U.S. can learn from its mistake.

“For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread violence was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake,” Clinton said.

We must learn from the mistakes of our past as a nation, and understand how it can inform foreign policy in the modern age. Human rights have only increased in relevance since the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and are as important to support as ever.

According to Human Rights Watch, a leading international advocacy group, the U.S. has a few issues to solve of its own. The current immigration system often leads to mass detentions, as non-citizen detainment centers go through about 400,000 individuals a year, including a portion in solitary confinement. Our prison system is in desperate need of reform, as our percentage of incarcerated citizens nearly one in 100 – in comparison, Mexico, a country struggling to find peace with a vicious drug market, is one in 500. The list of injustices goes on.

These cases should not be taken as slights against the U.S., but rather as opportunities for meaningful change. It is important to utilize one’s position in society to help others who desperately need it.

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (

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