Chile's Estadio Nacional Gate 8 sector a reminder of past and future

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Tune in to Saturday's Copa America final, and you might see it, probably during a wide shot. It's the empty sector of the Estadio Nacional, Gate 8, bathed in a dirty yellow glow and sticking out like the missing piece in a puzzle amidst the raucous Chile fans.

Painted on the back wall is the warning this nation has chosen to heed.

"Un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro" -- A people without memory are a people without a future.

If the home crowd behind Gate 8 unfurls the same giant bleacher-covering flag displayed in previous games, the metaphor will be inescapable. Patriotism and the haunting memory of what was done in the name of that flag, past and present, co-existing side-by-side.

The empty sector is a memorial to the estimated 20,000 people held in this very stadium following the Sept. 11, 1973, coup that overthrew the president, Salvador Allende, and installed a military junta. Within hours of General Augusto Pinochet's taking power, Allende supporters were rounded up and interrogated up and down the country. Many were held here at the Estadio Nacional. Some were taken next door, to the bowels of the Velodrome, where they were tortured.

Thus began a 17-year regime that split the nation. Pinochet presided over a repressive de facto dictatorship. More than 40,000 Chileans were tortured. Tens of thousands, fearing for their safety, were forced into exile. Thousands more were killed or simply disappeared.

The nightmare only ended when, under pressure from abroad, Pinochet legalized political parties in 1987, and a year later, the country held a referendum to determine whether he would continue in power until 1997 or there would be free elections. Chile voted "no" to Pinochet, and in 1989, Patricio Aylwin became the first democratically elected leader since Allende nearly two decades earlier.

What strikes you is that these weren't events that happened long ago, buried by the passage of time. Folks who lived through this are still with us today. As brutal as the Pinochet Era had been -- when he died in 2006, he was facing charges of murder and human rights violations, as well as embezzlement and tax evasion -- there are those who remind you things aren't black and white.

I was at university in the 1990s having lunch with a classmate and his father, a Chilean businessman.

"What happened in those years was horrible," he said. "But I think many of us are also a bit hypocritical. It was the Cold War. The developing world was just a series of pawns for the United States and the Soviet Union. Allende received just over a third of the vote, and yet he became president. And he implemented a series of reforms that were disastrous. There's a reason more than 40 percent of us voted to keep Pinochet in power in the referendum. Those who supported him weren't all Fascists or stupid or rich. The reality is that without Pinochet, we would have become Cuba, only with worse weather."

This was a nation deeply -- and violently -- divided just a few decades ago. The empty sector at the Estadio Nacional is part of the healing. So too is the stunning Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago.

Spend a few hours there, and meticulously recorded, you'll find footage of the "other" Sept. 11, the day the Chilean Army bombed La Moneda, Chile's White House, with Allende barricaded inside. You'll see contemporary press reports and note just how quickly the media turned with the regime change. You'll hear graphic eyewitness testimony from those who were tortured and beaten. Perhaps most touchingly, at least for me, you'll find letters from the children of the disappeared and imprisoned to their mothers and fathers.

"Dear Daddy. They tell me that one day I'll understand why you were taken away. I hope that day comes soon because I miss you so much."

Like other nations that suffered self-inflicted atrocities, such as Germany and South Africa, Chile held its own "Truth and Reconciliation" exercises. As much as you can judge from talking to people, doing some reading and spending 10 days in the country, which, admittedly, isn't much, you feel that at the very least, they've embarked on the road to closure, if not healing.

Relative to that, the importance of winning the first Copa America obviously pales by comparison. But it would be a further affirmation of unity and normality, steps away from that empty sector reminding them of the past and the fact that, by remembering, they have a path to a better future.

Editors' Note: ESPN's documentary film series 30 for 30 did a piece called "The Opposition," which chronicles the 1973 Chilean national team's World Cup qualifying win in the Estadio Nacional. The match was played against no opponent as the Soviet Union boycotted the game.