Thursday, 12 September 2013

Walking the History of Independence in Santiago de Chile

How do we remember what is important? Why are some human beings remembered after their deaths with books or statues when most of us pass into oblivion without bothering the pen-pushers or marble-scratchers? How does history fit into and alongside our daily lives?

 [photo of tourists learning about the history of La Moneda presidential palace, bombed on 11.9.1973, taken 10.9.2013]

This week I have been in Santiago de Chile for five days of workshops, meetings and conferences to discuss the significance of the decade of the 1820s in Chilean history (funded by CONACYT, gratefully acknowledged). We have spoken of Chilean exceptionalism (largely a self-serving myth created by nineteenth-century elites), connections with the rest of the world (fear of being invaded by Simon Bolívar’s armies, the efforts of British and French school-builders and newspaper editors) and the local versions of republicanism and liberalism that sprang up in this period. Also this week, the local and global media and social networks have engaged in similar debates with regard to the 40th anniversary of the coup, led by the Chilean armed forces, which overthrew the democratically-elected government of President Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973, and which began a dictatorship of seventeen years. Commentators have also spoken of Chilean exceptionalism (was Pinochet’s dictatorship worse, more cruel, more violent, than its counterparts in Argentina, Paraguay or Brazil?), of connections with the rest of the world (the role of the CIA, Nixon and Kissinger in provoking and supporting the coup; the fondly remembered British support to Chilean asylum seekers) and the local versions of neo-liberalism and torture strategies enacted by the coup-mongers in the 70s and 80s.

I was last in Santiago in 1993 – 1994, when I worked as an English teacher in Liceo de Aplicación, in the city centre, and lived in the Internado Nacional Barros Arana, placed there by the Scottish charity Project Trust. This week I have returned to some of my old haunts. I caught up with old friends in Renca, where I enjoyed an eighteen-hour lunch/party that ended under the stars with grilled steak at 4am. I chatted with the same grumpy old porters at INBA, which now has as a neighbour the new Museo de la Memoria, which acts as a space for contemplation of the social, cultural, political and psychological impact of the coup, the murders, the disappearances and the social rupture caused by Pinochet’s coup and dictatorship.

Wandering through the city I wondered how I might link the two historical periods that have occupied my thoughts and activities this week. How do certain interpretations become fixed in the memories of a country’s people? How and why are they repeated and interrogated by those whose profession is that of the self-important Historian? [the photo shows me by the statue of Diego Barros Arana, a major Chilean historian of the c.19th]

I decided to walk across Santiago without touching a street, avenue or road that was named after any person, figure or event from the history of Chile in the 1820s. I thought that I might trace a convoluted route, around palaces, museums, shops and squares, that might demonstrate the extent to which public spaces in Santiago have been drenched in the history of the 1820s, the decade in which the country’s independence from Spanish colonial rule was established after three centuries of rule from Europe.

Such a walk is impossible. The grid system road layout makes it difficult to skirt round inconveniently-named thoroughfares. As I scratched out road after road on my map I saw that I was setting myself up for a walk around the Ring Road, rather like Iain Sinclair’s trek around the M25 in London Orbital. I am not made of such stern stuff as Sinclair, and have work to do, books to read, in the National Library: I can’t take a week to walk however much I’d like to. And in any case, following Santiago’s Ring Road, the Avenida Américo Vespucci, would have had me crossing over intersecting roads named after many historians of independence, numerous veterans of the independence struggle, as well as the Avenida Libertadores and the Avenida Independencia itself. No. It is impossible to walk across or round Santiago and avoid commemorations of independence. This in itself tells us the great extent to which independence has been inscribed upon the city’s landscape by subsequent generations of nation-building authorities.

(It is, of course, extremely easy to walk across Santiago without finding a road named after a victim of the dictatorship. Many of the roads had their names changed by Pinochet’s regime, with a marked preference for the names of military heroes of independence such as Bernardo O’Higgins, whose Avenida streaks across the city centre).

So: a new walk was needed if I was to explore these issues on foot rather than in the library. I had to get my boots dirty, get stuck into the tarmac of independence, the pavements of the past.

The plan is this: to walk between the statues of Simón Bolívar and José San Martín, walking only on streets named after figures linked to independence. Bolívar (1783-1830), the great protagonist of the independence of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Bolivia, to whom great feats and failures are ascribed, never came to Chile. He stopped in Peru, where he designed a constitution for Bolivia. His proposal for a life presidency, where the president would choose his successor, catalysed waves of anxiety across the newly-republican continent that this would mean the return of monarchy in disguise. San Martín (1778-1850) , in contrast, crossed the Andes from his native Argentina into Chile, led the defeat of the royalist forces, and journeyed to Peru where he tried to lead a relatively peaceful transition from colonial to republican rule. Bolívar and San Martín met in Guayaquil (now Ecuador) in 1822, where their famously mysterious ‘interview’ resulted in San Martín retiring from public life, and Bolívar leading the eventually victorious campaign that resulted in the Battle of Ayacucho in 1824.

A walk from San Martín to Bolívar, along the figures and places of Chilean independence. What will I find? What will I see?What will I learn?

I’ll report back in a further blog at the weekend.

[A note on methodology. According to my newly-purchased but now thoroughly-scribbled upon Plano del Gran Santiago Con Indice de Calles 2013-2014 there are three streets named after José de San Martín in Santiago, and eleven called Simón Bolívar. Bolívar also has a metro station (next to Prince of Wales metro station) which would have been convenient, but San Martín doesn’t. So statues it had to be. There is a statue to, but not of, Bolívar in the Plaza de Armas, the city’s central square. It dates from 1836, apparently the earliest stone monument to Bolívar in the continent. 

(Caracas’ equestrian statue dates from 1842). Both statues, in fact, turn out to be only a few blocks apart, both of them towards the western end of the Avenida del Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins, the Alameda, rather tucked away from the more prominent Chilean heroes. So I imposed a rule upon my walk: I won’t take the easy route, walking along Bernardo O’Higgins to get from Bolívar to San Martín (this was pretty tempting, given that many Chileans in the 1820s felt that O’Higgins was a potential agent for imposing Bolívar’s power upon Chile after San Martín’s departure from the scene). Instead, I’ll take the long route from B to S, via Jose Miguel Carrera, Lord Cochrane, Sargento Aldea, Vicuna Mackenna, Sucre, Bolívar, Francisco Bilbao, Amunategui and all the rest].

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