The Art of Darkness

Article excerpt

Byline: Mac Margolis

The new Chilean President, Sebastian Pinera, has his work cut out for him, and temblors and tsunamis may be just the beginning. In January, a month before the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that shook this South American nation, outgoing president Michelle Bachelet inaugurated the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago. She dedicated the sleek, glass- and copper-sheathed building to the victims of the dirty war, the thousands of Chileans who were murdered, tortured, or "disappeared" during the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. "Only injuries thoroughly cleaned can heal," Bachelet, a physician by training, said at the opening. Visitors to the three-story gallery take in halls of silent horrors--snapshots, letters, even the bones of the dead--and come face to face with a wall of 1,000 photos of those arrested and never seen again. But poking wounds is risky, especially in Latin America, where some of the worst human-rights atrocities are just coming to light. Now Pinera must help Chileans not only get back on their feet but also quiet their ghosts.

Chile is not the only country in Latin America seeking to reconcile its past. Peru will name the architect to build its Lugar de la Memoria later this year. Plans to open or upgrade human-rights museums are underway in Guatemala, Argentina, and Mexico. At one level, these are monuments to renascent democracy, which was shut down across Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, with devastating consequences. Some 3,065 people were killed under Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990. Ten times that many fell to serial juntas in Argentina from 1976 to 1983, while 70,000 Peruvians were killed by terrorist groups or state security forces between 1980 and 2000. Remembering victims publicly is not new--think Holocaust museums, or South Africa's Apartheid Museum--nor is the laudable claim behind such memorials: that societies must own up to their darkest hour so as never to repeat it. What's -different--and dangerous--about Latin America is how fresh the wounds are. "The Holocaust memorials went up when most of the victims and perpetrators were long gone," says Princeton historian Jeremy Adelman. "In Latin America, they're walking in our midst."

Managing memories is now part of the job description of the new generation of Latin American leaders, and how they fare at the task may determine the fate of the hemisphere's still-tender democracies. Clearly, the monuments have been painstakingly planned. A jury of international architects, including Kenneth Frampton and Rafael Moneo, will select the designer of the Peru museum. Chile's $19 million Memory Museum, designed by Brazilian architect Marcos Figueroa, dominates an entire block in Santiago. Argentina's Memory Museum, newly relocated to the city of Rosario, includes exhibits from the dirty wars in Honduras, Algeria, the Soviet Union, and the Balkans. Some offer interactive galleries where visitors can transport themselves, via "virtual" technology, to the past, and all feature personal effects, letters, and photographs of those who died or disappeared. …