On September 11, 1973, U.S. trained Chilean soldiers overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. After this coup, the Pinochet dictatorship ruled with an iron fist. It has been forty years since the inception of this brutal dictatorship and 23 years since Chile has returned to democracy, but many civilians are still recovering from the trauma of these events.
A week ago, I traveled with eleven fellow seminarians from Union Theological Seminary to a rally and conference protesting the School of the Americas—the U.S. training ground for the majority of the soldiers who perpetrated these atrocities. On a panel at the conference, Nieves Ayress, Victor Toro, and Mario Venegas shared their stories of survival. They talked about rape, murder, and torture at the hands of soldiers trained and supported by these United States.
*What I am about to share is graphic and brutal…but it is the truth.
For weeks, Ayress was imprisoned, raped and tortured in Chile’s National Stadium. With painful remembrance in her eyes she recalled how, on multiple occasions, metal tubes were inserted into her vagina and anus and then loaded with electrical currents. Ayress recalled the literal dogs (canines) that were trained to rape her and other prisoners. She explained how plastic tubes were inserted into her vagina for rats to crawl into. Once the rats were inside of her, electric currents not only shocked her but the rats as well, causing them to try to claw their way out of her insides. The rats urinated and defecated inside of Ayress causing her to become ill. Due to the destruction of her body, the baby she conceived while being raped was miscarried. Ayress was blindfolded during her rapes but she shared about other prisoners that fathers and brothers were forced to rape their sisters and daughters. Ayress bravely tells her story so that people would know the truth about graduates of the School of the Americas.
It was challenging and infuriating to listen to the gruesome details of her experience, but as hard as it was to listen to these horrific stories, it pales in comparison to having to live through them. I can never forget what I heard. I can never be neutral, and I can never be silent about this injustice. I believe we all have a responsibility to bear witness to the truth so that justice may prevail. Regrettably, Ayress’ experience is anything but an isolated incident.
The Chilean government has officially acknowledged that, “nearly 38,000 people were subjected to political imprisonment and torture.” Among those tortured or killed the most common occupations were teachers, artists and suspected and actual political opponents of the Pinochet dictatorship. It is apparent that the torture tactics and murders were meant to suppress anyone who could influence society to resist the neo-liberal economic, political, and social policies that were being installed by Pinochet’s U.S.-supported government. We must remember these painful experiences because the School of the Americas continues to train soldiers to wage war against defenseless people in Latin America. Additionally, the Constitution enacted by the Pinochet government and its neo-liberal policies are still in place today. Victor Toro explained that the consequences of physical and psychological torture not only affect those who are directly traumatized by them, but they are retransmitted to loved ones as well—sometimes for multiple generations.
Today, Ayress, Toro, and Venegas are fighting for reparations and access to medical treatment for survivors and their families. As a U.S. citizen I cannot ignore the pain and struggle of people merely because they are thousands of miles away. Stories like these compel me to utilize my arbitrary privilege as a U.S. citizen and to educate myself on the origin and history of these issues—to align myself with people on the ground that are fighting for change today. I urge my readers to do the same, not out of guilt but out of solidarity with humanity. Brother Ali put it best when he rapped, “The greatest threat of harm [to the U.S.] doesn’t come from any [foreign] bomb//The moment you [ignore]/refuse the human rights for just a few//What happens when that few includes you?”