If you’ve never been to Chile, I’m happy to tell you that this country is incredible. I feel privileged for having seen it and advise everyone to do the same. No other place has made such a strong impression on me for quite some time. And the reason for this is the tremendous strength of the Chileans as people.
I’ve always been endlessly fascinated with the ability of humans to withstand the harshest of trials and come out stronger on the other end. The people of Chile embody this principle, and each and every single one of them shows incredible spirit.
As some of you may know, Chile has suffered under a bloody military dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet. The dictatorship lasted for 17 years (1973-1990). During this time under the regime, over 3,000 people were executed or went missing with no sign of them ever seen again. About 200,000 were driven to exile. Tens of thousands more tortured and mentally scarred. Even those, not directly targeted by the regime, each had their own tragic story, like the one of Hernan Gutierrez. Unfortunately, not all stories have a happy ending, like Mr. Gutierrez got.
The Pulitzer Center has plenty of snapshots of the people of Chile 40 years after the coup. There are those, who lost entire families and are still carrying on the weight of grief that is unfathomable. Thousands of children were traumatized by the happenings around them. And they grew up to be the modern faces of Chile, a country that currently is one of the fastest-developing states in both Americas.
What amazes me in this story is that the Chile of today holds so very little resemblance to the troubled state of less than three decades ago. I went to many free tours in Santiago just to see the city from the point of view of the local people. I advise everyone to try it as touring a city in a small informal group with a local guide gives you a unique perception. Single tourists are always treated as outsiders. Yet, when coming with ‘one of their own’, you’ll be most likely seen as ‘that friend of a friend’. It’s from this position that I’ve seen this country as strong, beautiful, ambitious, and filled with talented and smiling people.
True, not everything is good here. But there’s no place that’s perfect.
It’s also true that quite a few people, especially those of the older generation, still bear the marks of the dictatorship. To some that’s grief, to others – marks of torture, to everyone – the signs of having lived through a hardship the majority of us cannot even conceive.
And yet, they lived. They came out victorious over those, who tried to crush their spirits and futures. They lived and grown to make the Chile of today so much stronger than it has been, and a country can only be as strong as its people.
The challenges we face help form who we become, but they do not define us.
Watching the people of Chile, I have realized one essential thing. They do not reject their past. They do not ‘get over it’. In fact, there’s still division in the nation about whether Augusto Pinochet was the monster that the history portrays him as. (Do note that the history portrays all dictators like that, and rightly so.)
What I found to be the most incredible, admirable, and inspirational about the Chileans as a nation, is that they learn from their past. They draw strength from it. They use their wisdom to see that for all that was horrible during those bloody times, not everything was bad for Chile as a country.
Most importantly, they build on that.
That is something that all of us can, and should, learn from these people. To see our past, no matter how bad it was, as a fuel for our future. While you may never ‘appreciate’ having gone through some trials, they did make you stronger. They made you the self-aware person that you are today. You can use the lessons they taught you to grow into an even better person.
Coming back to Chile, I’ve seen that growth in the faces of people, in the fact that they live to the fullest and make their country a better place. The Chilean art is fascinating, especially the movies produced after the dictatorship.
However, it’s economy that truly defines the level of a country’s recovery after a crisis. And the Chilean economy today is the freest in both Americas and is number 7 in the world. The country is switching to the ‘green’ power at a rate that makes the rest of the world envious (The NY Times).
Do you want to know the most amazing thing about all this?
This current success came from building up on the revolutionary reforms that came into being after the coup that removed the previous socialist government. These reforms were put in place and pushed forward by the dictatorship of Pinochet.
Does that make the dictatorship good?
Of course it doesn’t. Nothing will ever excuse the deaths, ruined lives, and thousands of human rights violations.
But, instead of being broken by the pain, the Chilean people turned it into something that made them a power to be reckoned with.
That is what we should all learn from their example. To never allow a tragedy to bend us to its will. To never give up. To see what can be used from the horrors we’ve lived through and grow from it. To keep going forward because there is no going back.
So, if you ever visit Chile, look for those things. Then, you’ll see the people, who surround you in shops, cafes, and on the streets, for the heroes they are. I’m sure that this can push you to discover the ability to rise over whatever it is that’s still haunting you and move forward.