Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part III

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the third installment.]

III.  Them—Us–I


The most powerful part of the faculty seminar, for me, was our visit to Villa Grimaldi, a sprawling estate on the outskirts of the city, tucked into the lap of the Andes, that had been converted into a detention and torture facility immediately after the military coup. Our tour guide, Pedro–a tall, poised man with observant, piercing blue eyes—was not only highly knowledgeable, but a great storyteller. About 20 minutes into the tour, when we first came to the torture chambers, his diction shifted: “And this is where we spent most mornings.” His use of the second person pronoun continued for the next several minutes. I traded glances with some of my colleagues, knowing we were thinking the same thing: “Is he using that language for effect, or was he actually a prisoner here?”

Our suspicions were confirmed several tour stops later, when Pedro began to tell his story. How he’d been taken. How he’d been imprisoned and tortured. How he’d been moved from one facility to another, spending a full 16 months in the regime’s detention system.   How he’d been released, yet stuck in a zombie-like stupor for a long time afterward. How he’d learned, years later, that the reason the regime released people in such a condition was to strike fear into the population. And how, finally, he had come to the US, expressing his gratitude to the late Senator Ted Kennedy for his fierce opposition to human rights violations in Chile.

One of the most striking things about Pedro’s story was the ambivalence he felt toward the United States. On the one hand, the CIA helped foment the coup that led to his imprisonment and torture. On the other, Ted Kennedy’s valiant efforts enabled him to come to the US and put his life back together. America provided the kindling for the fire that burned him, and helped him heal from those very wounds. This ambivalence reflects a tension in America’s self-identity: as nationalistic, self-aggrandizing empire, or as cosmopolitan champion of human rights. Or perhaps the reality is more complicated: the attempt to beat back left wing politics in Latin America through covert support of rightwing dictatorships could be seen as part of the geopolitical struggle against communism, a threat to human rights. In any case, Pedro’s story complicated any simple picture of my country’s relation to his.

But what was most striking was not just his story, but how we told it. There was no theoretical discussion about human rights, no political theory or policy analysis, no history lesson. There was only a singular story of suffering, relayed from one person to another.  And the many stories of suffering he told us.  Stories of kidnap, torture, murder, rape.

And this.


One of the cruelest methods of the Chilean and Argentinian dictatorships was “disappearing” prisoners, which chiefly meant drugging them, throwing them onto a plane, and dumping them in the Pacific ocean. For a long time, however, many doubted this actually happened, racking it up to a rumor meant to demonize the dictatorship.  Reports that the disappeared had had heavy objects, such as large rocks and pieces of metal from railroads, tied to their backs to sink their bodies began to trickle out from survivors of the detention camps.  These reports were hauntingly confirmed when officials began to dredge the ocean floor miles from shore.  While flesh, bone, and clothing were all worn and washed away, the only sign of human life left behind was a single button, encrusted in the rock.