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Originally published Saturday, January 2, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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New Chile museum dedicated to dictator's 31,000 victims

What they'll leave in and what they'll leave out — that question haunts Margarita Iglesias as she considers this month's opening of...

Los Angeles Times

SANTIAGO, Chile — What they'll leave in and what they'll leave out — that question haunts Margarita Iglesias as she considers this month's opening of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.

That Chile is recognizing victims of its military dictatorship in a striking new "monument to memories" is positive, said Iglesias, both a victim and a historian of Augusto Pinochet's bloody 17-year rule. As a high-school student activist in Santiago in 1975, she was tortured before fleeing with her family to France.

"It can't be just a horror show. The political movements and conditions that led to the coup and its aftermath must be explained. If not, how can you understand how state terrorism came about?" said Iglesias, 51, who is now a University of Chile professor.

The $19 million museum that opens in downtown Santiago on Jan. 11 is dedicated to the 31,000 murder, torture and kidnapping victims during the 1973-1990 military dictatorship of Gen. Pinochet. Museum directors are keeping a tight lid on the specific exhibits, hoping for maximum effect.

Designed by Brazilian architect Mario Figueroa, the block-like, three-story construction is sheathed in a striking green metallic screen of oxidized copper.

In addition to exhibits in its capacious hall, it will house a collection of photos, records and first-person chronicles by victims and their families, many of them wrenching accounts. UNESCO has distinguished these archives with its "Patrimony of Humanity" classification, meaning they are of global, historical or cultural value.

The opening ceremony is bound to be an emotional event for a country still in recovery from national trauma. Chileans are divided over the atrocities of the past and how to deal with them. The inauguration is sure to push those divisions to the fore.

The project was spearheaded by President Michelle Bachelet, a torture victim herself whose father, an air-force general who opposed Pinochet, died of heart failure under torture.

"The museum will cause a lot of conversation because the controversy over the dictatorship is very much alive and the reminders are everywhere," Iglesias said. "Not long ago, I was in an elevator with the wife of one my torturers."

According to museum director Maria Luisa Sepulveda, the museum's purpose is to assure that democracy and human rights are never hijacked again in Chile. Its construction is part of the nation coming to grips with its past — a process of truth and justice that "Chilean society is still going through," she said.

For Iglesias and others, that process isn't proceeding fast enough. Iglesias said the country should repeal the 1978 amnesty law that protects military and police torturers, as well as the 1980 Constitution that she says legitimized the dictatorship.

While declining to comment on whether the museum will highlight individual torturers, Sepulveda said the museum will remind visitors that Pinochet's reign of terror lasted right up until he finally ceded power in 1990.

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Another aim, Sepulveda said, is to show how pervasive the repression was, shining a light on the 1,200 different sites across the country where detainees were held, tortured and killed.

Reminding the young about recent history, Iglesias said, is crucial. Since becoming a history professor after her return to Chile in 1990, when democracy was restored, she is frequently dismayed to find that many of her students have little grasp of what happened after the Sept. 11, 1973, overthrow of President Salvador Allende.

"What we are waiting to see is whose version of history will be given," Iglesias said. "The official version of victims as anarchists and terrorists? Or that of the people who were crushed for simply exercising their political rights?

"In Chile," she said, "the battle for history is still being waged."

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