This is a remarkable story of a bygone era:
The Cuban Missile Crisis was over in 1962. But the militarization of Florida and its national parks had only just begun. Nike Hercules Missile Site — also called Alpha Battery or HM-69 — was completed in 1964. “Nike,” like the Greek goddess of victory, was the name the United States’ government gave to a widely deployed, guided surface-to-air missile system installed to protect the country from any missile attack — threatened or real. From the mid-20th century, Nike Missile defense sites were built all over the United States in rings around cities and major industrial sites — around 260 all told. But no other state was as physically close to an “enemy” nation as Florida. Though the Cuban Missile Crisis ended with an uneasy détente, it was only after 1962 that the U.S. government realized how especially vulnerable south Florida was. HM-69 — and all south Florida — became the frontline defense against enemy attack.
146 U.S. Army soldiers and technicians made HM-69 their home. Their main task was to operate the site’s three aboveground launchers and, ostensibly, protect south Florida from Cuban air strikes. Flight time for a supersonic jet bomber launched from Cuba to Miami was very short. This meant that the people manning HM-69 were on perpetual high alert. They lived daily with the knowledge that they would receive little or no warning if there was an attack, and that they would not live to tell the story. “We were the first line of defense the Russians would have had to take out before they could attack the rest of the country,” Charles Carter, a veteran who served on the base for three years, told theSouth Dade News Leader last year. The highly restricted HM-69 was also a training ground for CIA-sponsored Cuban exile espionage teams, and a research lab for advanced Cold War-related military sensor technology.
Though the story seems quaint, it’s actually a rather powerful reminder of the daily lived experiences and mindsets of the Cold War. Likewise, the story is a powerful reminder how often the mechanisms of nuclear war and militarization were (and are) right next to civilians, and they remain completely unaware of it. No doubt, this applies not only to Florida, but to most of the US – those Cold War relics can often be glimpsed tucked in in landscapes throughout the country, providing a powerful reminder that, while the Cold War antagonisms have transformed and faded, the tools of destruction, including nuclear weapons, remain very much a part of the landscape today.
Greg Weeks points to this incredible, if harrowing, collection of photos from Operation Condor. The photos were found in Paraguay’s “Archives of Terror,” which documented the deaths of tens of thousands of South Americans at the hands of military regimes and the collaboration between dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Peru. We can and do talk about the horrors of human rights violations, the injustices of regimes that extrajudicially murdered their own citizens, and the sheer numbers of those who died under such regimes, but there is something about the photographs like those from Operation Condor that convey in a unique way exactly what that violence looked like on a daily basis for many.
Recently, an image had been making its way around on social media. The image showed Chief Raoni, an indigenous leader in traditional dress, crying, purportedly weeping at the Brazilian government’s decision to proceed with the Belo Monte dam. However, that simplistic narrative, while employed for the causes of indigenous rights and environmentalism does a disservice to the actual culture, life, and story of the indigenous man and his people, as Angela Kristin Vandenbroek reported:
The picture is not of Chief Raoni crying and grieving about the Belo Monte Dam. The picture is not a picture of grief at all. His tears were tears of joy after being reunited with a family member, behavior which is customary among the Kayapó. Chief Raoni is not a powerless man fighting an impossible battle. In the fight to protect the Amazon and its people, he is a leader who has been working with local, national and international communities since 1978, when he appeared in a documentary named Raoni on the deforestation of the Amazon. Since then, he has befriended Sting and the President of France, has written a memoir, has traveled around the world, has facebook, twitterand a website, and although he has not yet stopped the building of the dam he and those he has collaborated with have managed to delay, hold up and tie up the project with court battles, controversy and petitions for thirty-eight years. He has also managed to rally the support of 438,707 (and counting) people worldwide using an online petition.
As Vendenbroek points out, the image alone suggests a powerless indigenous man overcome by an all-powerful state; as his actual biography reveals, he is anything but powerless.
Nor is that the only problem. Though Vandenbroek does not extend the analysis this far, the image also reinforces stereotypes that are ensconced in Latin American history dating back to the first colonial contacts with Europeans. The early decades of contact spurred a whole series of narratives and portrayals of indigenous peoples as backwards, uncivilized, and uncouth. Sometimes, these narratives were “positive,” viewing indigenous peoples as living in virtually Edenic existence; more often, they were derogatory, used to cast an “uncivilized” other that stood in contrast to the “civilized” European (a status not all Europeans were convinced applied to Europe). In these narratives, the indigenous peoples were destined (or doomed) to surrender to European notions of civilization and “progress,” be it through extermination or through conversion. Certainly, such tasks were easier said than done, but early in the colonial era, at least, Europeans imagined a world in which the “noble” or “uncivilized” native gave way to European domination of the Americas.
Though the contexts and centuries have changed, the image of Chief Raoni accomplishes a similar task; instead of colonialism or Europeanness, however, “modernity” and technology are the new unstoppable forces, but the indigenous culture defeated and forced to surrender to these new understandings of “progress” is still present. Yes, the tale is now cast as tragic, but the portrayal still draws on stereotypical notions of indigenous cultures as less technological or more “traditional,” and thus, noble, but doomed to fail in the face of “progress” (now defined in terms of “modernity” and technology, but once upon a time defined in terms of “civilization” and Europeanness). Indeed, it is fair to ask: would the image have resonated quite as strongly with people on social media had Raoni dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, or even a business suit? Perhaps it’s cynical, but it doesn’t seem unfair to suggest the answer very well could be “no.”
To be clear, the impacts of the Belo Monte dam will be devastating to indigenous groups and environment alike, and it seems likely that tears have already been shed over its impact on indigenous communities and others who are already being direclty affected by its construction. But that is not what this meme is ultimately about – it’s about a mis-representation of indigenous cultures in order to advance a cause. One can agree with the cause, but it would be better if it did not rely on such stereotypical memes and narratives to bring home its point.
IPS recently ran Fabiola Ortiz’s powerful story of violence in the Amazon that in many ways perfectly taps into the issues at the heart of inequalities, environment, and power in Brazil’s North, Northeast, and the Amazonian basin.
A fresh outbreak of violence between large landowners and landless peasants is looming in the Amazonian state of Pará, in northern Brazil.
The large estate of Itacaiúnas, in the southeast of Pará, in the municipality of Marabá, 684 kilometres from the state capital, Belém, is owned by Agro Santa Bárbara (AGRO-SB), a company that possesses at least 600,000 hectares of land in the state of Pará.
Since 2002 the Federation of Agricultural Workers of Pará (FETAGRI) has demanded that the property be confiscated and the land redistributed under Brazil’s land reform laws. More than 300 families are living on the land, in an encampment.
In late April, the landless rural workers announced that they would carry out “definitive occupation” of the estate and on Monday Apr. 29 they started dividing it into lots in order to “build the settlement themselves,” according to a FETAGRI communiqué.
AGRO-SB regards the landless farmers as criminals and says it has reported their actions to the military police, in order to keep the peace and avoid conflict.
“This group of land invaders is planning to divide the property into lots. Its goal is to expand the illegal occupation. This is a new criminal action by the invaders, who have the estate under their control and are blocking access by other people,” AGRO-SB said in a communiqué.
There is a real possibility of imminent violent conflict, because heavily armed groups hired by the estate owners have been reported in the area.
There are several historical processes to unpack here. First, there is the basic issue of inequality of land. For centuries now, dating back to the colonial era, land in Brazil’s Northeast (and later North) has been concentrated in the hands of the very few, while the overwhelming majority of the population found itself either completely landless, or barely able to eke out a living on tiny plots of land. As agroinustry expanded in the 20th century, many of those small-holders (as well as indigenous peoples) found themselves forced off their land, which in turn played no small part in Brazil’s urban explosion in the 20th century: between 1930 and the 1970s, Brazil’s population completely switched from 70% rural/30% urban to 30% rural/70% urban (and of course, rather than resolving inequalities, the glut in the cities just relocated the socioeconomic inequalities of the countryside into urban environments). By the 1980s, rural citizens had enough, forming the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) and demanding action to address these inequalities. The MST has become a powerful social and political movement, and its paradigms for occupying land (often not in use) and forcing the issue of redistribution and reform has been a powerful model not just in Brazil, but elsewhere in the world. This style of occupying and defending the newly-occupied land are exactly what is playing out in the story.
Connected to this socioeconomic inequality is the question of political power and force in the region. As Ortiz mentions, the landless arm themselves not out of any sense of revolutionary violence, but out of the need for protection. Again for centuries, landed elites often formed what amounted to their own private armies, paying other peasants off (or ensnaring them in debt) and then deploying them to fight on behalf of the elites, be it against indigenous peoples, other landowners, or rebellious peasants. Though these “armies” have effectively disappeared, the private and personal use of outsourcing violence to the poor has not. Murders of peasant leaders like Chico Mendes and activists like Dorothy Stang have been all too commonplace in Brazil in recent decades. Usually, poorer workers for the elites commit the murders, operating as killers-for-hire; the elites are able to eliminate those who challenge their power without facing trial, while the poor contracted to kill the activists get paid and rarely face prosecution. Even when trials are brought forth, as in the Stang case, it often leads to the poor killers facing jail time while the elites who contracted the murders remain free, thereby reinforcing the socioeconomic inequalities in a legal system where there are effectively two structures: one that punishes the poor, and another that ensures the elites remain free.
And that ties into a third issue – often the police are complicit in this process themselves. Landed elites exercise enough regional control that they generally dominate politics, either directly or through personal and business connections. Such a structure means that they can effectively mold the institutions of the state to their desires, pressuring police departments to look the other way or even work directly in their interests, with police evicting, abusing, and even killing the activists and landless peasants, again oftentimes with impunity.
Thus you have on the one hand a large number of peasants and activists who have not been intimidated into silence and whose numbers are to great to completely wipe out; on the other hand, you have the elites and those from the lower classes and state institutions willing to work with them to target and try to terrorize activists in order to prevent any challenge to their economic and political power, power that often has its roots in social structures that date back centuries. Neither group is able to completely destroy the other: the peasants are too numerous, and the elites too entrenched. And so the violence continues, as is the case in Ortiz’s story. Though the outcome at Itacaiúnas is uncertain, the story itself is sadly all too familiar, and rarely does the outcome lead to greater political, economic, or social equality in the Brazilian countrysides.
Last week ushered in a new era at the World Trade Organization, as Brazilian Roberto Azevedo won the post as the WTO’s next director-general. With the election, Azevedo became the first Latin American to serve in that post [though no matter the outcome of the election, a Latin American would have held that distinction: Azevedo won out over Mexican Hermínio Blanco, who had the support of the US and the European Union]. As Boz points out, the selection of Azevedo is generally controversy-free among member nations.
That said, that does not mean the selection of Azevedo has not raised the ire of some free-trade disciples:
Are you kidding me? A Brazilian to lead the body ostensibly responsible for fostering freer trade? In the real world, this would be a cruel joke. But in the Wonderland of the WTO, this isn’t really all that surprising. Now, I like Brazil. I have traveled there many times and the people, food, and culture are wonderful. But in terms of being a beacon of free trade it is not.
Hudson proceeds to damn the move based on Brazil’s objections to unfettered free trade in the past, its regulatory government, and its willingness to stand up to the US on cotton subsidies that the WTO itself ultimately ruled were unfair. Even beyond the patronizing “I like Brazil’s food, and they’re nice people and all” tenor there, there are several problems with the criticisms Hudson raises. First, the presumption that free trade is the only path to economic development is enormously flawed. As Latin America in the latter half of the 20th century repeatedly demonstrated, free trade and neoliberalism replicate the exploitative structures of international trade that date back to the colonial era, concentrating wealth in the hands of the few and overseas without creating actual development for the citizens more broadly. Indeed, Latin America has been a textbook laboratory case in demonstrating the negative impacts of increasingly-unfettered liberalization. Philosophically, the system Hudson is advocating here has a long track record of opening up Latin American countries to exploitation of resources and the extraction of wealth to other countries.
A second problem here is the presumption that free trade is the only commercial system worth pursuing. This mindset is not surprising; the neoliberalism of Friedman has come to dominate economics schools in the US to a dangerous degree. Though the crisis of 2008-2009 has led to a mild resurgence in considering alternatives to neoliberalism, it has not destroyed the hegemony of neoliberal discourse. Hudson seems upset that an individual from a country that has not uncritically embraced free trade at every opportunity spells doom. Yet he fails to explain why this is so horrible; he just takes it as a given. Nonetheless, it is not clear that Brazilian at WTO or a reduction in free trade is automatically mean a bad thing. If one takes the WTO as a useful institution or the spurring of international capital trade (and to be clear, that’s not really the purpose of this post), then perhaps innovating in global trade beyond highly exploitative free trade agreements and seeking alternatives that create greater opportunities for all is not a bad approach. Again, drawing on the lessons of 2008-2009, finding alternatives (like more bilateral and regional trade agreements) to the system and economic ideologies and models that created greater international stability than the deregulation that led to the events of 2008-2009 does not seem like such a terrible idea.
This is not to say the WTO’s agenda is appropriate or good, but it’s hard to argue against diversifying trade models and economic relations in ways that prevent the domination of a single neoliberal system that has repeatedly demonstrated how it relies on repression and creates greater inequalities both within individual countries and within the global economy more generally. Indeed, that Hudson thinks a Brazilian in charge of WTO equals no free trade agreements that open up other countries to US/European/multinational exploitation says far more about his own neoliberal agenda than it does about the actual quality of new head of WTO.
-Though the higher-profile case, the conviction of Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt was not the only triumph for human rights and justice last week. In Uruguay, General Miguel Dalmao was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the murder of a professor during Uruguay’s military dictatorship (1973-1985).
-Brazilian indigenous peoples have once again occupied the site of the Belo Monte Dam to protest the impact it would have on their lands and on the environment, even while government officials accused the indigenous people of being tied to illegal gold-mining. Though failing to provide any actual evidence of mining among indigenous peoples, the government’s charge is discursively not-insignificant; illegal gold mining takes a significant toll on the environment, while arguments against the dam are often predicated upon the negative impact it will have on the environment. By leveling such accusations, the government seems to be trying to delegitimize indigenous claims by portraying them (again, without offering any actual evidence) as hypocrites who protest environmental damage even while enriching themselves through other forms of environmental degradation.
-In another reminder of the detrimental impacts of liberalization of markets and free trade agreements on local economies, over one hundred thousand Colombian farmers have gone on strike in protest over the weakening of the Colombian agricultural sector, as cheaper products from North America and elsewhere flood the Colombian market, destroying the livelihoods and jobs of Colombian farmers.
-In a powerful reminder that in military dictatorships, members of the military can and do also suffer repression, sixteen Brazilian soldiers spoke before the Brazilian Truth Commission, testifying about the persecution and torture they suffered when they remained loyal to the government of João Goulart, whom the military overthrew in a coup in 1964.
-Pope Francis proclaimed sainthood status for hundreds this past weekend. Included on the list were Mexican María Guadalupe García Zavala and Colombian Laura Montoya, the first saint from Colombia. However, not all popular saints (those whom people praise as saints but who lack official canonization from the Church) received the Pope’s endorsement, as the Vatican recently declared Mexico’s Santa Muerte, or “Holy Death,” to be “blasphemous.”
-Hundreds of Cubans, led by Mariela Castro, marched against homophobia in Cuba, seeking to further equal rights and treatment for members of the LGBT who have faced cultural, social, and political repression over the years.
-Speaking of homophobia and hatred, homophobic Brazilian congressman Marco Feliciano (who is currently the head of Congress’s human rights commission, offering a sad commentary on the nature of Brazilian congressional politics), cancelled a hearing on a homophobic project to find a “cure” for homosexuality after having earlier taken to Twitter to defend his project.
-After months of relative silence, former Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide has recently begun speaking out about the challenges facing Haiti and offering some criticisms of the current government of Michel Martelly.
-Finally, Brazil has announced a plan to bring thousands of Cuban doctors to Brazil to help in Brazil’s underserved areas. Greg Weeks does a great job unpacking the various aspects of the story, including how the plan reflects ongoing inequalities in Brazil (a sample take-away point: “When asked if any doctor was better than no doctor, CFM President Carlos Vital responded in the negative. “Pseudo treatment is worse than no treatment,” he said. “If you don’t have a doctor in your city, you can go to the next city and have a quality doctor.” Sure, just go 100 miles to the next city if you don’t have a doctor. Nothing to see here!”)
This ongoing series has recently looked at the political activism of women who mobilized against the military dictatorship and fought for democracy. However, it did not take military repression for women to mobilize, and women’s struggles significantly predated the dictatorship. This week, we look at a feminist and key figure in the history of Brazil, a woman who played a vital role in fighting for women’s equality for nearly fifty years: Bertha Lutz.
Bertha Lutz was born in 1894 in São Paulo in 1894 to Amy Fowler, a nurse from England, and Adolpho Lutz, a Swiss-Brazilian who specialized in tropical medicines. Given her parents’ international backgrounds and professions, Bertha had opportunities both in travel and in education that only wealthier Brazilians could enjoy. Indeed, she first attended college at the Sorbonne in Paris, finishing with a degree in biology in 1918. She returned to Brazil, and in the 1930s, she enrolled in the National Law School in Rio de Janeiro (today a part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), earning her law degree.
In both of these professions, Lutz was an anomaly. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Brazilian politics and the professions connected to politics were overwhelmingly male-dominated. When Mirthes de Campos served as a defense lawyer in 1899, she became the first woman ever to work in a courtroom in Brazil. Though it was an important symbolic movement, it did not exactly destroy the barriers of women in white-collar professions, and there were only fourteen women lawyers total in Rio de Janeiro (9 women) and São Paulo (5 women) combined. Such gender-inequalities spread to other white-collar professions, like medicine and accounting.
It was in this context that Lutz began to push for feminist causes. While studying in Europe, she had been exposed to feminist movements and writings from European women, especially from the suffrage movement in England. She brought these concerns back to Brazil with her, writing feminist tracts in Portuguese by 1918. She had a vision of feminism that maintained that women should have equal access to educational opportunities and to professions beyond the home. Indeed, she insisted that women had important contributions they could make to society, and that they should not be bound to the home, “taking advantage of animal instincts of man.”* In 1919, Bertha became the head of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, the first woman appointed to that position. That same year, she also formed the Liga para a Emancipação Intelectual da Mulher (League for the Intellectual Emancipation of Woman). Her position at the National Museum allowed Bertha to have contacts with a variety of politicians and elites, to whom she could express her ideas on women’s equality. In 1922, Bertha officially formed the Federação Brasileira pelo Progresso Femenino (Brazilian Federation for Feminine Progress), which affiliated with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, a clear marker on the impact of Bertha’s experiences and time in Europe. As for her own organization, the name change alone signified how Bertha and the Liga’s members were broadening their struggles beyond mere “intellectual” pursuits to the broader pursuit of “progress.”
The Federação met with some successes early on. Pressure and lobbying led the government to allow women to enroll in the Colégio Pedro II. The federally-run public school was one of the best institutions of primary and secondary education in Brazil, and had often trained those who would attend the few public or private universities in Rio de Janeiro (then the national capital) or elsewhere in the country. Previously male-dominated, the Colégio had played no small role in perpetuating the domination of men in politics and white-collar professions; in that regard, the opening of the school to women marked a subtle but important shift.
Lutz continued to work both nationally and internationally in women’s movements. She attended a number of international conferences and meetings regarding women’s suffrage and feminism, representing Brazil in organizations such as the League of Women Voters in the US and the International Conference of Women in Berlin in 1929, and even being elected Vice President in the Pan-American Society of the League.
However, as was often the case with the “first-wave” feminism that was erupting in much of the Western world at this time, Lutz’s vision of feminism was not inclusive of all women, nor did it demand full equality everywhere. Lutz’s views on women’s labor were still gendered; she believed women were best-suited to work in fields like social welfare, which was an appropriate arena for their feminine morality and their natural caring abilities. Additionally, the appeal her demands and her tactics were limited to middle- and upper-middle class women living in urban centers. There was little applicability or attention to women in rural areas, or to women from lower social classes in the cities. With its emphasis on issues like access to higher education and white-collar professions, Lutz’s Federação and the issues it adopted often had little relevance to the majority of working women who were usually illiterate (after all, when the Federação formed, slavery had only been abolished 34 years earlier). Even Lutz’s ideas on “appropriate” contributions and jobs for women and their status as moral beacons drew on middle-class ideals that had few parallels with the lives of the poor in the cities and the countryside alike. Though fighting for women’s equality, Lutz’s vision was still an inherently class-based feminism that drew from and built upon her own upper-middle class background.
That is not to take away from Lutz’s accomplishments and her sheer force of personality in pushing for women’s rights. Indeed, the 1930s saw rapid transformations taking place. Shortly after the Constitutionalist Revolt in São Paulo that challenged the presidency of Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s government began work on a new constitution. Though Lutz was not elected to the assembly, she drew on her years of activism and her connections that she’d made with Brazilian politicians to push the issue of suffrage. Her efforts won out, and the 1934 constitution granted women the right to vote, making Brazil only the third Latin American country to grant women’s suffrage.
With these new rights, Lutz herself ran for office, but was unable to win election. However, in 1936, she became one of several women to serve in Congress. Though this was an important step, politics nonetheless continued to be a male-dominated world. Indeed, as a congresswoman, she was elected president of the congressional Special Commission on the Status of Women, but she was the only woman on the committee, reflecting the ongoing inequalities and struggles women faced. Adding to the challenges, in 1937, Vargas closed Congress, indefinitely banned elections, and ushered in the Estado Novo; now, Brazilian women had the right to vote, but no significant national elections in which they could exercise the franchise.
Although shut out of electoral politics in 1937, Lutz continued to work both in women’s rights and in the sciences. She became the head of the Botanical Sector of the National Museum, and continued to make a name for herself as an accomplished botanist and herpetologist in the academic community. She also remained politically engaged, resigning her post at the National Museum in 1964, just as the military came into power. Although she continued to fight for women’s rights, she was also often isolated from her constituents, due both to her professional life and to her own personality and background. Nonetheless, Lutz remained an important figure, both politically and symbolically, coming to be seen as one of the “founders” of Brazilian feminism. Indeed, when the United Nations declared 1975 to be the “International Year of the Woman,” Brazil’s government invited Lutz to be the Brazilian representative to the International Conference on Women in Mexico City. It ended up being her last major public act in her nearly fifty-year struggle for feminism; in 1976, she passed away at the age of 84.
Though Lutz’s feminist visions had limits for women in other classes, her central role in Brazil’s feminist movement cannot be denied. Certainly, she was far from the only feminist, and hundreds and thousands of other women were involved in fighting for equality for women in Brazil throughout the twentieth century. Still, Lutz’s importance absolutely cannot be overstated, and her status as one of the “founders” of Brazilian feminism and the equal rights movement is well-deserved.
For those who missed it yesterday, after a long and curious trial that saw plenty of twists and turns, a Guatemalan court found former general and military ruler Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and human rights violations. Ríos Montt, who governed Guatemala from 1982-1983, oversaw some of the worst human rights abuses in a thirty-six year civil war full of them. Indeed, in 1982, alone, violence and scorched earth tactics that the Guatemalan military employed killed around 75,000 people, with an overwhelming number of them Guatemala’s indigenous peoples. In its ruling, the court found Ríos Montt guilty of ordering the murders of 1771 Ixil Mayans during his time in office. Given the targeting of a particular ethnic group for extermination, Ríos Montt faced charges not only of human rights violations, but also of genocide, a first in Latin American history. With his conviction, the court sentenced Ríos Montt to a total of 80 years in prison – 50 for genocide, and 30 for human rights violations.
Of course, while the conviction marks the end of the trial, it is only the beginning of the legal processes. Ríos Montt’s defense has already begun to mount its challenges to the ruling, appealing to the Constitutional Court. Expect future appeals to refer to Ríos Montt’s age or his health (an appeal Peru’s Alberto Fujimori also recently made, albeit unsuccessfully and based on false evidence). And of course, Judge Carol Patricia Flores’s efforts to annul the trial and return it to where it stood in November 2011 (efforts that Judge Yasmín Barrios overruled) provides a legal opening for the prosecution to demand Ríos Montt be released. And even if neither Barrios or Flores ever have anything to do with the case again, there are still legal openings for Ríos Montt. Other judges can still get involved in the case, and unfortunately, as important as this conviction is, the fact remains that the elite and powerful still often benefit from their connections to judges, be it through personal connections, financial connections, or even intimidation. And there certainly was evidence of the potential for intimidation in the courtroom yesterday. Such intimidation could be used not just against the Ixil who were there commemorating the triumph of justice, but also against judges in the country. And even if intimidation is unnecessary, it’s entirely reasonable to believe the appeals process could drag on for some time. All of this is to say that the conviction is not the end of the matter, and Ríos Montt can quite possibly die outside of a prison cell.
And then there’s the question of prosecuting others involved in the human rights violations and genocide that took place in Guatemala. Though Ríos Montt is ultimately responsible for the murders of tens of thousands of people during his rule, there were still those officers and soldiers who carried out the extermination of the Ixil and others. Among those linked to what the courts have now ruled was genocide is none other than current president Otto Perez Molina, who was an officer in the “Ixil Triangle” where many of the murders took place. Though currently enjoying presidential immunity, will prosecutors eventually investigate Perez Molina himself? Or other officers who enforced Ríos Montt’s orders on the ground? This remains to be seen. Ríos Montt’s conviction should not be the last, but the first of many convictions for human rights violations and genocide; yet it is far from certain that that will end up being the case.
Yet even all of these complications cannot erase what happened yesterday. The appeals process is not limited to Ríos Montt; should any ruling come that favors him, prosecutors, victims, rights groups, and others can likewise appeal, meaning the legal proceedings can continue. Like Augusto Pincohet, who faced indictment and house arrest but died before he could be convicted, Ríos Montt, who is 86, will spend the rest of his life in legal battles. His name, his reputation, and his legal standing have fallen beyond repair; in simple (but not-unfair) terms, he’s become a “villain” in history, something that the narrative history of Guatemala has long demonstrated but that the court system itself has now upheld. Any potential legal technicalities going forward cannot undo the legal and symbolic fact that Ríos Montt became the first Latin American military leader convicted for genocide, and the first leader in the world to be found guilty of genocide in his home country’s own court system. From now on, histories of Guatemala can refer to Ríos Montt as a man convicted of genocide. The conviction provides some small (if still incomplete) sense of closure to his victims and their families. And that in and of itself is a profoundly important thing.
After much legal wrangling, the trial of former Guatemalan general Efraín Ríos Montt has resumed and is entering its final stages. Yesterday, Ríos Montt himself finally spoke before the court, in general proclaiming his innocence. The slightly longer version – he saved the country and that, even if there were genocide (which he insisted there wasn’t, in spite of very strong arguments otherwise), the head of state can’t be responsible for the actions of the armed forces under his administration and that the chain of command only goes so high (in other words, “the buck stops somewhere below me”). Suffice to say, the arguments were full of logical fallacies, both individually and collectively, and a rich history of human rights prosecutions dating back to the Nuremberg trials and up through human rights trials in South America have created legal and philosophical frameworks through which leaders can be (and have been) found guilty. Indeed, in terms of discourse and structure, Ríos Montt’s arguments were not dissimilar to those that Alberto Fujimori’s defense team made (denying responsibility, passing the buck to his subordinates, saying heads of state can’t be guilty of governing) – and that defense did not work in Fujimori’s case, either. That’s not to say that the Guatemalan court is going to find Ríos Montt guilty, but his defense certainly did little to demonstrate his innocence or exculpate him for genocide or human rights violations.