SANTIAGO, Chile—Silver-haired and clad in an expensive-looking suit, he looked to me like a dignified, grandfatherly figure. But this man was definitely not my grandfather; he was the president of the Pinochet Foundation—an organization dedicated to promoting the life and legacy of the notorious Chilean dictator—Hernán Guiloff Izikson.
This afternoon visit was meant to be just like the other activities on the orientation for summer program, but how could it be?
It is impossible to describe the feeling of listening to someone praise a man who was responsible for the torture and death of thousands of Chilean citizens during his brutal 17-year regime. I tried to keep in mind the purpose of our visit: earlier that day we took a tour around Villa Grimaldi, which was one of the chief torture and detention centers in Santiago, and now we were at the Pinochet Foundation to hear “another perspective.” But trying to see “both sides” wasn’t easy given the atrocities that took place in Chile between 1973 and 1990.
On Sept. 11, 1973, Pinochet helped lead a military coup that overthrew then President Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government. Pinochet’s takeover heralded a period of brutal repression–Marxists, students, and suspected political dissidents were interrogated and tortured in government detention centers. Many of these individuals were “disappeared,” their bodies never found.
Everything about the foundation felt disingenuous in some way, from a book filled with glossy photos of a smiling Pinochet with grandmothers and little dogs that the institute gave us as a parting gift, to the foundation’s chartiable work; it offers scholarships for students who wish to go to university. We collectively cringed as a young woman—I think she was an intern—flitted about enthusiastically snapping photos of us sitting near a life-sized portrait of General Pinochet: I could just imagine the promotional caption, “Harvard students visit the former office of a great man of Chile!”
When the floor opened up for questions, Izikson neatly skirted inquiries about the gross violations of human rights perpetrated by Pinochet’s government. Against the threat of communism, he said, Pinochet did what was necessary to prevent the destabilization of the country and the outbreak of civil war. One of the few things he thought Pinochet could have done differently? “Well, I think it was a mistake not to return the bodies of the dead to their families,” he said.
A mistake indeed. The lack of physical corpses was what allowed international prosecutors to press charges against the dictator in his later years. Cases of torture and murder, which had been dismissed as “accidents” under Pinochet-era investigations, were declared still open to investigation because the victims’ bodies were never found.
I had to remind myself that most Chileans today would condemn the human rights violations that occurred under the Pinochet dictatorship, although some still praise him for implementing free market reforms that helped turn Chile into a modern, economically powerful Latin American country. The Pinochet Foundation undoubtedly sits at the most extreme end of the spectrum, but Izikson’s apologizing for the General’s “use of force” isn’t as far out as it might seem.
Most of us left the foundation feeling unsettled by the experience of hearing unspeakable violence discussed in coldly rational terms. It would have been useless to try to debate Izikson on any of the points he made, since he was clearly operating on a system of logic that was entirely incomprehensible to me, one that wrote off human rights violations as unpleasant but justifiable necessities—not as fundamentally repulsive acts.
In the spirit of intellectual inquiry at Harvard, we’re always encouraged to see complexity in everything, to explore multiple perspectives, to avoid looking at things as black and white. But to be perfectly honest, there’s nothing that will ever convince me that Augusto Pinochet Ugarte was anything but a monster.
Adrienne Y. Lee ’12, an associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House.