Archive for the ‘The Cold War in Latin America’ Category

The Cold War in Central America – To What Extent Was the US Responsible?

May 24, 2013 Comments off

I was on the Burt Cohen Show yesterday, discussing the nature of the Cold War in Central America, the annulment of the Rios Montt trial, human rights and justice for ex-dictators, and the complex roles of the US in Latin America in the 1980s. You can hear the whole thing here.


History vs. Fiction? Gael vs. Chile? Memory Struggles over the Film “No”

February 10, 2013 Comments off

As an historian, I’m never all that surprised when fictional films don’t live up to historical reality. So I wasn’t shocked when the film No, which tells a story about the media side of the No campaign in the 1988 plebiscite in Chile, did not give credit to the social movements of the 1980s, but instead practically argued that the media shifted dictator Augusto Pinochet out of power.

Needless to say, many human rights activists and the left in Chile range on a scale from disgruntled to outrage regarding the movie. And yet some people who are active in leftist politics have recommended the film to me. It came out in Chilean theaters last September, near the anniversary of the golpe de estado. Now that it has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, discussion has started again over the film’s significance and its validity as part of Chile’s collective memory of the dictatorship.

I would argue that, at root, rather than the issue of blockbuster films distorting history, the struggle for space in collective memory is the fire that has been ignited here. The two problems are intertwined: whose version of history is more important, which narrative takes precedence, which story is the one people will remember—that is what is being debated.

Many people who have taken offense to the film participated in the social and political movements in the 1980s that led to Pinochet’s loss in the 1988 plebiscite. Afterward, during the transition to democracy, the catchphrase from the campaign, which is the feature of the movie—“la alegría ya viene (happiness is coming)—did not come true for activists. Pinochet and the military oversaw the transition, he made himself senator for life, his constitution remains in effect today (albeit with some amendments), most torturers and killers did not receive punishment, and neoliberal policies remained. State socialism did not return full-force as the left had hoped.

In that context, the activists and sympathizers who have spoken against the film feel as though, with this successful movie starring heartthrob Gael García Bernal, they are once again being marginalized from the narrative. They’re frustrated. And that’s understandable, considering that we live in an age in which the general public relies far too much on movies and television for their education, rather than cracking open a real history book.

But if you really want to watch films that don’t mess up the history of the Pinochet dictatorship, check out any of Patricio Guzman’s documentaries. If you want to see Gael García Bernal’s face for a couple of hours, and watch an entertaining work of historical fiction, check out No. But do remember that it’s historical fiction, and its purpose isn’t to tell the story of the social movements that actually did bring down Pinochet. For that story, you’ll actually need some bona-fide history.

On This Date in Latin America – July 14, 1969: The El Salvador-Honduras War (A.K.A., the “Football War”) Begins

July 14, 2012 Comments off

Forty-three years ago today, El Salvador and Honduras began a war that lasted 100 hours and would come to be known as the “Football War.” Although the war’s name comes from the nationalist conflicts between the two countries as embodied on the football [soccer] field, the war had its roots not in sports, but in broader social issues like land reform, migration, and regional economics.

A headline couching the athletic rivalry between Honduras and El Salvador in military terms. Though the war was named after competition on the pitch, the origins of the war rested in tensions arising from land distribution and migration patterns.

Throughout the mid-20th century, El Salvador had seen considerable industrial growth in comparison to its neighbors, including Honduras, which was on the negative end of a trade deficit with El Salvador and even had Salvadoran industrialists constructing factories in Honduras. While this could provide industrial jobs to Hondurans, it also meant most of the profits were not staying in the country. Meanwhile, industrialization of  agriculture in El Salvador had left thousands of peasants without access to land, and in search of plots on which they could eke out a living via subsistence farming, many entered Honduras, ultimately becoming squatters on government-owned land. As Héctor Lindo-Fuentes and Erik Ching  demonstrate, this meant that “By 1969, Salvadoran authorities estimated that between two hundred thousand and three hundred thousand migrants were in Honduras, a country of only 2.5 million people.” [1]

In 1969, Honduras proposed a new land reform bill that would have ejected the Salvadoran squatters from Honduran land, and many Salvadorans faced increasing persecution and removal. El Salvador took its case to the Organization of American States, but that did not stop the migration of thousands of Salvadorans back across the country. The image of these peasants, kicked out of Honduras, led to an up-swell in nationalism in El Salvador, with politicians of all stripes ratcheting up the rhetoric and nationalist sentiment. In this context, El Salvador and Honduras were scheduled to play a soccer game as part of the qualifiers for the 1970 World Cup, to be held in Mexico.

The official logo for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

In the midst of increasing nationalism in both countries, the matches between the two came to take on titanic symbolic importance, in which the pitch served as a microcosm of each country’s assertion of superiority over the other. In June of 1969, Honduras hosted the first game in Tegucigalpa, winning 1-0 even as Salvadoran and Honduran fans in the stands, in a harbinger of things to come, got into fistfights. A week later, at a game in San Salvador, El Salvador defeated Honduras 3-0; just as the magnitude of the victory was more intense, so too was the violence between fans of the two teams during and after the game.  The two countries then held a third and final playoff match on neutral soil in Mexico City, with El Salvador ultimately winning 3-2 in extra time. On the same day that El Salvador’s national team won, the government broke off all diplomatic ties with Honduras. Over two weeks later, on 14 July 1969, El Salvador declared war on Honduras, and the Salvadoran military invaded Honduras.

The war itself was brief. While Honduras’s air force successfully defend its airspace from El Salvador’s air attack, the Salvadoran troops on the ground quickly overwhelmed the Honduran armed forces. Fearing being completely overrun, Honduras called on the Organization of American States to meet, which it did, ultimately demanding an immediate ceasefire; the two countries agreed on July 18, and just over four days after the war began, it came to a halt. By the end of August, facing economic reprisals and diplomatic isolation, El Salvador withdrew from Honduras; meanwhile, Honduras pledged to respect Salvadoran nationals in Honduras. However, the two countries continued their diplomatic border disputes over the Gulf of Fonseca for over ten years, and it was only in 1980 that the two countries finally signed a peace treaty that officially ended a war that had only lasted about 100 hours. However, despite the war’s brevity, its impact was quite real, as anywhere between 2,000 and 6,000 civilians and troops died, and another 15,000 were wounded in the struggle.

Salvadoran and Honduran officers officially mark the end of the 1969 “Football War.” An official peace treaty would not arrive until 1980, more than eleven  years after a war that itself only lasted roughly 100 hours.

The economic and diplomatic fallout of the war led to the eventual disintegration of the Mercado Común Centroamericano (Central American Common Market; MCCA), and the region would not form a similar entity until the early-1990s. As for the aftereffects of the war in El Salvador and Honduras, the role of both the Salvadoran and Honduran militaries in national politics greatly increased in the wake of the war. Indeed, in El Salvador, the brief unity that the surge in nationalist sentiment had created soon fell apart. Opposition politicians and intellectuals questioned the direction of the country and the very real problems facing it, leding to growing discontent with military rule and its accomplishments (or lack thereof). Teachers, workers, and others increasingly turned further left as well, demanding greater reforms and social justice through their unionis and through other forms of public demonstration. Meanwhile, although the Salvadoran military government, with close (though not ironclad) ties to the landowning elites of El Salvador, attempted to administer some degree of reform, it was not far enough for those clamoring for reforms but too far for the country’s conservatives and agricultural elites. Throughout the 1970s, politics would further polarize, and by 1980, El Salvador was entering what would end up being a twelve-year civil war that saw systematic human rights violations and the deaths of over 75,000 people.

As for the 1970 World Cup, El Salvador’s joy over its national team making its first ever appearance in the World Cup was fleeting (though it would qualify again in 1982). The national team lost all three of its group games to the Soviet Union, Belgium, and host Mexico, with a goal differential of -9, and never scored a goal in any of the games. Brazil would go on to become the 1970 World Cup champion, the first-ever three-time champion, in a victory that Brazil’s military regime would use to drum up its own nationalist sentiment even while in the midst of the most brutal phase of military rule. But that is for another post some day.

[1] Héctor Lindo-Fuentes and Erik Ching, Modernizing Minds in El Salvador: Education Reform and the Cold War, 1960-1980, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012), p. 192.

For those interested in the connections between politics and soccer in Latin America, in addition to Lindo-Fuentes and Ching’s book, which is cited above and touches briefly on the Soccer War, see also Brenda Elsey’s excellent Citizens and Sportsmen: Fútbol and Politics in Twentieth-Century Chile.

Around Latin America

June 29, 2012 Comments off

-The latest polls suggest that on Sunday, barring some extreme occurrence, Enrique Peña Nieto will indeed become the next president of Mexico, marking the return of the PRI to power 12 years after Vicente Fox broke the party’s 70+ year hold on the government.

-China Premier Wen Jibao wrapped up his trip to South America with a bang, pledging $15 billion in investments and loans in order to boost development and infrastructure in the region.

-Questions on the US’s presence in Honduras again boiled to the surface after a DEA agent killed a Honduran man this week. While the US said the victim was tied to the drug trade and that the agent acted in “self-defense,” the fact that it was a US agent has again raised questions over sovereignty and the US’s role in Honduras specifically and in combating the drug trade in the region more generally.

-Bolivia’s police force ended their strike, agreeing to a pay raise of 20%. The strike had led to the government deploying the military to patrol the streets and raised the specter of a possible violent clash between police and military similar to that in 2003 that left 19 people dead. However, the end of the strike did not bring an end to social unrest, as the first action the police had to do was to contain another indigenous protest against the planned road through the Amazon that President Evo Morales supports but that has met indigenous opposition since last year.

-A series of attacks on buses and on police in São Paulo has left authorities suggesting that the criminal group Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital), a group originally formed in the early1990s and made up of prison inmates and associates, has made a return.

-Based on rates up through the first six months of this year, 2012 is heading towards being one of the worst years for the murder of journalists worldwide, with Latin America tragically contributing plenty to the attacks on journalists.

-Ecuador has announced that it will no longer send military officers to the former School of the Americas in Georgia. As I wrote at my old haunt, the School of the Americas is one of the more infamous examples of US policies during the Cold War, providing training to such infamous figures as Efraín Ríos Montt, Manuel Noriega, and numerous other officials involved with military coups, dictatorships, and human rights violations throughout the region in latter half of the twentieth century.

-Tens of thousands of Chilean high school and college students again took to the streets, continuing to demand broad reforms to the education system. Students have periodically demonstrated since last year, gaining broad support, challenging the neoliberal policies of President Sebastián Piñera and leading to declining popularity for Chile’s right-wing president.

-Speaking of Piñera, he walked out of an interview after a journalist brought up the controversial pro-Pinochet documentary that has recently aired in Chile.

-Former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla denied that the military regime of 1976-1983 ever kidnapped any children, in spite of at least 500 documented cases that continue to galvanize and unearth traumas and pain (past and present) in Argentina.

-And speaking of military regimes, in Brazil, a court has ordered former colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra to pay $25,000 to both the wife and the sister of late journalist Luiz Eduardo da Rocha Merlino, who died after being tortured in a prison run by Ustra in 1971.

-Although it has been nearly two and a half years since an earthquake devastated Haiti, there are still more than 300,000 people who remain displaced from the disaster.

-An Argentine bishop has resigned after it became clear he had “amorous ties” with a woman. I genuinely feel bad for the man, and his case serves as yet another reminder of how absurd and archaic the Catholic Church’s ongoing insistence on celibacy in the 21st century is.

On Human Rights, Memory, and Finding a Disappeared Prime Minister in Grenada

June 27, 2012 Comments off

The 1983 US invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada has to be considered one of the most quixotic examples of imperialism and global politics during the Cold War. While the invasion was brief, hundreds were wounded or killed in the fighting. Although the country has seen relative political stability since the internationally-condemned US invasion, reminders of the invasion and its long-term impacts on national identity and public memory are still visible. In the early 2000s, Grenada formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and in 2006, the commission submitted its report, recommending retrials for the so-called “Grenada-17″ who were convicted for the assassination of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, whose murder sparked the invasion. The report also called on Grenada to find the bodies of those murdered or disappeared, including Bishop’s body, whose remains were never found after his assassination.

That issue has come to the surface again, as Grenada has begun another attempt to locate Bishop’s remains:

Grenada’s government wants the mystery solved as a way of healing the national psyche [...] “It’s important for all concerned to bring some closure to this chapter in Grenada’s history,” Finance Minister Nazim Burke said in his office, just down a winding road from the 17th century fort where the 39-year-old Bishop and the others, including his pregnant mistress, were executed by Grenadian soldiers following a coup by a radical faction of Bishop’s Cuba-backed party.

The story is a fascinating one, and gets at the heart of how the violations of human rights, political murders, and forced “disappearances” of bodies can still resonate within societies and national politics (which is allegedly exactly what the US had hoped to prevent by hiding Bishop’s remains) decades after the actual events themselves.

On the United Fruit Company in Central America (and Terrible Book Reviews)

May 30, 2012 Comments off

Non-fiction writer Rich Cohen has a new book coming out on Samuel Zemurray, the man who made the United Fruit Company, the previous incarnation of what we today call Chiquita. Under Zemurray’s watch, United Fruit, or “UFCO,” wound up supporting Central American dictators, employed mercenaries, supported rebellions against governments that didn’t give UFCO what it wanted, did not pay taxes that it owed to foreign and US governments alike, used bribery and corruption to acquire land and businesses, formed vertical monopolies that controlled the production and distribution of bananas from the plantations to the railroad and shipping companies that sent the fruit to the US, and disregarded laws in both the United States and in Central American countries that it felt harmed its own business interests, even while intense monocrop banana production wreaked havoc on Central American lands. UFCO’s practices and its ties to repressive governments that were in its pocket gave rise to the term “Banana Republics.” And of course, through these methods, UFCO ended up owning hundreds of thousands of acres of land that it did not even use in Central America and the Caribbean, even while the majority of these populations were landless and suffered from extreme poverty and socioeconomic inequalities.

Suffice to say, Zemurray, as the head of UFCO, is the type of character whose acts were as horrible as they were mundane, and whose legacies negatively impacted millions of people throughout Central America. In short, Zemurray is a perfect figure for a biography. And while there have been previous works on United Fruit’s (and other banana producers’)  impact on Central America and the Caribbean region (including its role in the 1954 Guatemalan coup that sent the country into a 36-year civil war that left 250,000 people dead), Cohen’s is the first recent work to focus not on the company or its impact in Latin America, but to provide a biography of Zemurray. Given the subject matter and depending on how cohen approaches his subject matter, a biography of Zemurray could end up being good or bad.

What definitely is bad, however, is Ira Stoll’s review of the book. Stoll, who is no fan of regulation of business and who (as his review makes clear) he is an unbridled supporter of unfettered capitalism, has nothing but praise for Zemurray’s “efficiency,” “bias-free marketing creativity,” “innovation,” and “egalitarianism.”

No, seriously – egalitarianism.

According to Stoll, UFCO’s appropriation of land on the cheap and use of exploitative labor mechanisms against Central Americans was “egalitarian” because “the banana companies figured out they could make more money by lowering prices and making bananas a fruit for mass consumption rather than a scarce and expensive luxury.” Absent from this narrative? Any of the hundreds of thousands of people who were denied access to land, who died as a result of UFCO’s brutal labor regimes or of the political instability that UFCO actively fostered. Or, put another way: anybody who wasn’t a resident of the United States. Indeed, Stoll’s review is painfully blind to the actual real impacts of UFCO’s (and, as its main leader, Zemurray’s) practices in Central America, the environmental degradation of monocrop agriculture that still threatens the future of banana production today, the political instability that UFCO caused, the socioeconomic devastation UFCO played no small part in perpetuating for a majority of people in Central America. Stoll is so blinded to the actual real legacies of UFCO in Central America that he even sees Zemurray as a “philanthropic” character because he “used his money and power to fund both Tulane university and the effort to help World War II-era Jewish refugees get to what became Israel.” Those who didn’t benefit from Zemurray’s philanthropy? The Guatemalans, Hondurans, and other Central American and Caribbean workers on whose back-breaking labor and political turmoil Zemurray built his economic empire.

Cohen’s book may or may not address the actual devastation that UFCO under Zemurray’s watch wreaked in Central America – we’ll get to find out next week, when the book comes out. Regardless of what stance Cohen’s book ends up taking, though, Stoll’s review is about as hackish and one-sided as a review could be. I hope Cohen’s book is good, but Stoll’s review has already entered the realm of one of the most blindingly stupid and limited book reviews ever written.

(h/t to Erik)

On Human Rights Violations and Memory Struggles in Peru

May 29, 2012 Comments off

The New York Times recently ran an excellent story discussing the challenges facing Peruvian society, culture, and politics as the country continues to try to confront the past of a civil war that tore the world’s 20th-largest country apart in the 1980s and 1990s as leftist guerrilla movements and the Peruvian government entered into an increasingly escalating civil war that left civilian populations caught in the middle. As is the case with other South American countries that faced civil conflict and human rights violations in the latter half of the twentieth century, the issues confronting Peru provide a powerful reminder of the ways in which memory struggles continue to impact and affect society even decades after the violence “officially” ends.

Peru’s civil war began in 1980. That year, the country held presidential elections for the first time after twelve years during which the Peruvian military governed. The day before elections, five members of the Partido Comunista del Perú-Sendero Luminoso (the Communist Party of Peru-Shining Path, later known simply as Shining Path) burned ballots in a public display of protest. The Shining Path, a Maoist group founded by Abimael Guzmán with roots in the Andean highlands region surrounding Ayacucho, called for an open war against “imperialism” and the “bourgeois” democracy of Peru (hence the destruction of ballots on the eve of the 1980s election). Leaders and intellectuals in Shining Path sought cultural revolution and a dictatorship of the proletariat that they argued (or hoped) would lead to a worldwide revolution and the emergence of new, forms and understandings of democratic societies. While the movement proclaimed its goal to incorporate and fight for the Peruvian masses along class lines (even actively encouraging women to join its forces, a rare policy among guerrilla movements in the region at the time), although this broad support never materialized, and the movement counted upon only several thousand supporters in a country of more than 17 million citizens at the start of the conflict.

Periodic skirmishes took place from 1980 until the end of 1982, when the “Manchay Tiempo,” or “Time of Fear” (in Quechua and Spanish) began. Bewteen 1982 and the end of the 1980s, the Shining Path and other guerrilla movements targeted any and all individuals it associated with the Peruvian state, including police officers, mayors, teachers, and civil servants, many of whom were far from economic or political elites. In response, the government, then headed by president Fernando Belaúnde, opted for military intervention, leading to an escalation in violence from both the guerrillas and the military, with the Peruvian population caught in the middle. By 1985, 27 provinces were in a state of emergency, and over 5,000 people had died or been murdered in political violence that often targeted citizens who were not associated with either the government or the Shining Path. In a militarized state of exception, Peruvian armed forces arrested, murdered, and “disappeared” more than 1,000 peasants it suspected of having ties to the Shining Path and other emergent guerrilla movements (like the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru, named after the leader of a 1780 uprising in colonial Peru). The military destroyed any village that aided or even showed the slightest sympathy for the guerilla movements; in response, the Shining Path’s guerrillas murdered any who disagreed with it or whom it suspected of aiding the Peruvian government. As a result, by the end of the 1980s, tens of thousands of people had died at the hands of the guerrillas or the military, and entire regions were emptied as people tried to flee the violence. Although the Peruvian government captured Guzmán in 1992, the administration of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) continued to go after guerrillas and any it suspected of supporting it, thereby perpetuating human rights violations that ultimately landed Fujimori in prison for his role in state-sanctioned violence just as Guzmán was imprisoned for his role in guerilla-violence. By the end of the 1990s, the violence had noticeably wound down, with Fujimori’s exit from office (amidst evidence of electoral fraud and corruption) marking the end of the conflict for many (though isolated instances of violence continued, albeit not nearly on the scale as during the 1980s and early-1990s). Ultimately, Peru formed a truth commission that interviewed over 15,000 victims of political violence, finding that over 69,000 people had died in the civil strife between 1980 and 2000.

Although the truth commission completed its work, the legacies of the war continue to make themselves felt in society far beyond the ongoing periodic instances of small-scale guerrilla violence (though that violence is certainly not small to the victims). There continues to be significant support for Fujimori, whose daughter Keiko was nearly elected president in 2011. Additionally, a new generation of youth that has no memory of the “Time of Fear” is supportive of and seeing the Shining Path as a legitimate political party. And while Guzmán and Fujimori both serve time for their roles in the murder of Peruvian civilians, the question of justice for human rights abuses has not faded with time; indeed, new evidence continuously emerges that shows the extent of state violence and the military’s own use of summary executions in what had previously been seen as “heroic” acts, undermining and complicating narratives and understandings of the Civil War that framed the Shining Path as the group primarily responsible for violence. Thus, more than twelve years after the Truth Commission’s final report, Peru continues to struggle with memory and narrative as it deals with the  impact of violence and human rights violations on society and politics, confront the issue of if and how to assign culpability and/or prosecute past violators, and how to commemorate the recent past.

Of course, as several of us have discussed here, memory struggles are an important ongoing issue throughout Latin America. More than twenty years after the last military dictatorship in South America collapsed, the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay are still facing the challenges and struggles over if and how society and the state should remember, commemorate, ignore, or move on from the legacies of systematic human rights violations. Their own experiences in confronting the past may provide some important lessons and examples for Peru. However, Peru’s case from its Southern Cone neighbors is significantly different in three regards.

First, the political contexts were markedly different. Peru’s civil war took place during a comparatively open democratic system. By contrast,  the human rights violations in the Southern Cone in the 1960s-1980s took place in the context of  bureaucratic authoritarian dictatorships that did not hesitate to employ brutal forms of torture (including administering electric shocks to prisoners’ ears, mouths, and genitals; committing rape on both women and men; using simulated executions; sleep deprivation; random incidents of assault; and other mechanisms of torture) against anybody they considered to be threats to the state or society as “subversives.” Within these repressive dictatorships, military officials and soldiers tortured tens of thousands of individuals and murdered and “disappeared” tens of thousands more between 1954 and 1990. The governments even collaborated together to ensure that perceived “enemies” of one country who resided in another were arrested, tortured, and even killed. ] Certainly, these actions in some regards resemble those committed in Peru, and the use of states of exception and increased militarization in Peru and the facade of elections at the local level in the Southern cone make the differences between the two cases blurrier than a simple “democracy/dictatorship” dichotomy allows for. Nonetheless, these institutional differences matter, for they shaped the ways in which leaders of the respective countries could and did act against what they perceived as threats against the state (and the defenses of those actions). While Peru’s government did employ terror, murder, and “disappearances” like its southern neighbors, the existence of a democratically-elected civilian government there made it more difficult (though not impossible) for Peruvian presidents to employ the types of repression that the Southern Cone utilized.

The second difference rests in the nature of guerrilla movements in Peru and in the Southern Cone. As mentioned above, the Shining Path ultimately was able to mobilize several thousand troops in its war against the Peruvian state. By contrast, the openly repressive nature of the Southern Cone’s military regimes, combined with internal divisions and factions within leftist groups that split over how to fight and for what to fight, ultimately stunted the ability for large-scale guerrilla movements like the Shining Path to form.  As a result, the Southern Cone generally confronted a situation in which the more centralized, coherent, and larger forces of military regimes were able to use broad information networks, repression, and the sheer size of the national military to stamp out much smaller guerrilla movements. Indeed, Brazil’s largest rural guerrilla movement in Araguaia never counted on more than seventy or so members (and, in this regard, the experiences of radical leftists in Brazil did not differ much from their counterparts in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay), a far cry from the thousands of guerrillas in the Shining Path.

The third difference flows directly from the second one, and involves the impact of guerrilla violence on local populations. Because the guerrilla movements of the Southern Cone were much smaller than the Shining Path or MRTA in Peru, and because they were resisting repressive authoritarian regimes, the violence of these guerrilla movements generally did not target civilians. Certainly, many groups (including the guerrillas in Araguaia) tried to “educate” civilians and recruit local support from civilian populations, but specific acts against non-military populations were extremely rare throughout the Southern Cone. By contrast, the Shining Path, the MRTA, and other offshoots were sizeable enough and controlled enough territory not only to directly challenge the Peruvian state, but to inflict a much broader and deeper level of violence against civilian populations that it deemed “unsupportive” of the guerillas’ demands. Thus it was that thousands of civilians unaffiliated either with the guerrillas or with the government died at the hands of the Shining Path, an experience that civilian populations of the Southern Cone by and large were spared from.

If one wants to find a useful point of comparison for the types of violence Peruvian peoples confronted during the civil war, the place to look is not to Peru’s south, but to its north. In terms of violence and the context of human rights violations, Peru much more closely resembles Colombia than it does the bureaucratic dictatorships of the Southern Cone. Since 1964, Colombia (like Peru) has faced a protracted civil war between guerrilla movements (in this case, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, and other offshoots) and Colombian armed forces,as well as right-wing paramilitary groups. Like Peru, Colombia has been engaged in an open armed civil struggle for decades even while successfully maintaining continuity in relatively open democratic processes and institutions; like Peru, the guerrillas in Colombia could count on a larger memebership than guerrilla movements in the Southern Cone, and thus could more directly impact the lives of civilians not directly involved in the struggle (especially in the countryside); and like Peru, Colombian civilians allied neither with leftists nor with the government have nonetheless witnessed basic human rights violations at the hands of the opposing forces, with tens of thousands of civilians dead in the armed struggle. Certainly, there are significant differences between the two, including Colombian guerrilla movements and paramilitary groups alike having direct ties to the drug trade and the role of US corporations, most notably Chiquita, that provided financial support to right-wing death squads. Yet in terms of increased militarization in a (relatively) democratic context, in terms of the types of guerrilla institutions and mobilization, and the impact on society (including death tolls), and in terms of the impact on a variety of social sectors throughout the country, Peru’s recent past more closely resembles that of Colombia than of the military regimes of the Southern Cone.

That is not to say that the memory struggles of the Southern Cone have nothing to offer in terms of understanding the issues Peru is confronting or how the country confronts its past. Indeed, in broad strokes, the recent memory struggles and quests for justice in the Southern Cone point us towards some of the issues that Peru confronts today. Like their counterparts in the Southern Cone did (and continue to do), Peruvian citizens still face difficult questions over issues of human rights violations, memory, and public commemoration and/or memorialization. Like their counterparts in the Southern Cone did (and continue to do), Peruvian citizens still face difficult questions over issues of human rights violations, memory, and public commemoration and/or memorialization, questions on how they should mark the past and remember it, and why.These are not meaningless, esoteric issues, either; as numerous scholars across a variety of fields have suggested, questions of memory cut to the heart of issues of nation and historical narrative in Latin America in the twenty-first century. They tell us what countries value in their national narrative; they tell us who is included or excluded from shaping that narrative; they tell us what potential counter-narratives exist or may emerge, and from whom; they establish new hierarchies and networks of power within national politics and society; they shape and define national political processes not just in the past, but in the present sand future as well.

For these reasons, it is worth paying attention to Peru as it continues to confront its past. Because while the historical contexts and the legacies of violence in Peru may be unique, the way it faces that past and constructs society going forward can tell us much more about memory struggles and the legacies of violence (state and guerrilla) on societies decades after the last shots are fired.

The Malvinas/Falklands War, Brazilian Aid, and Complicating the Cold War

May 17, 2012 Comments off

The thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of the Malvinas/Falklands War was last month, and there were a slew of stories about the Islands and Argentina in 1982 and today that accompanied that anniversary. And while most general narratives/discussions of the war have focused strictly on the Argentine-English dynamics (something for which I’m as guilty as any others), it’s important to remember that the war took place in and was shaped by the particular geopolitical context of the late-Cold War era.  A recent reminder of that fact became apparent in new documents recently uncovered that revealed Brazil’s involvement with the war.

In April 1982, Argentina attempted to seize the islands, which it claimed rightfully belonged to it, suspecting that England would not interfere. However, conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was facing political opposition at home, decided to use the invasion to drum up nationalism and reduce domestic criticisms of her government.  Argentina had not expected such a swift response from England, nor had it expected Reagan to take sides in the dispute. Given that both England and Argentina were allies in the US’s global ideological struggle against leftism in the world, Argentina (erroneously) imagined the US would stay out of a dispute between two allies. When it became clear that that would not be the case and that England would not take the seizure lightly, the Argentine military regime found itself in a diplomatic and geopolitical situation it had not planned for.

It was into this context that the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Brazil entered into the equation. While both Argentina and England used the war to try to drum up nationalist support and reduce criticisms of the military regime and Thatcher government, respectively, they were not the only ones who saw the war as serving national and global geopolitical interests. With the US supporting England, the Soviet Union saw an opportunity. Throughout the Cold War, both the USSR and the US had supported causes that represented their interests and fought against groups representing the other’s interests (though it should be stressed that this was not a case of these countries serving as “pawns” for the super-powers; Latin America alone is rife with examples of countries and factions using these struggles for their own political and economic interests, and having Cold War politics really just be a peripheral part of domestic struggles between different social and political groups). Continuing this practice, the USSR saw an opportunity to supply Argentina with materiel against England, whom the US supported. Thus it was that, in a particularly ironic twist, the Soviet Union sent weapons and other goods to Cuba to transfer them to the fiercely-anti-Communist Argentine military government, a government that over the previous five years had murdered tens of thousands of “subversives” and tortured tens of thousands more.

Brazil, which by this point was in the final years of its own anti-leftist military regime (the final military leader left office in 1985), had officially remained neutral in the Malvinas/Falklands War. However, clandestinely, new documents reveal that Brazil had played a role in the war after all. The Brazilian and Argentine military regimes had collaborated via Operation Condor, and were sometimes-allies in the continental fight of authoritarian regimes against anything that smelled of “leftism.” Additionally, trade relations between the two countries were important, so while Brazil may have maintained an official stance of neutrality in the Malvinas/Falklands War, it did have its own regional diplomatic interests to protect.

And that is where its clandestine support comes into play. With no easy way to get weapons directly from the Soviet Union to Argentina without attracting a lot of attention, the USSR ended up receiving aid from Peru, Cuba, and Angola to ship weapons. In yet another twist of irony, the right-wing Brazilian dictatorship allowed these countries to use the cities of Recife in the northeastern Brazil  and Rio de Janeiro in southeastern Brazil to serve as “land bridges” to Argentina. Thus it was, that, while officially neutral, a right-wing bureaucratic authoritarian regime allowed Soviet weapons to pass through Brazil on their way towards another fiercely right-wing authoritarian regime.

Ultimately, of course, Argentina handily lost the war; indeed, the defeat was so total that it completely discredited the military, which by 1983 had fallen and been replaced by Raul Alfonsin’s civilian government, which opened investigations into and prosecutions of military leaders for torture and “disappearances.” To the day, diplomatic tensions over the Malvinas/Falklands continue, as do prosecutions of Argentine military officials and torturers.

However, Brazil’s clandestine involvement in the Malvinas/Falklands War is important in helping us understand the war itself and the Cold War more generally in a number of ways. First of all, as mentioned above, the “Cold War” was not some simple chess game with the US and USSR using other countries as “pawns” in a global game; local, domestic, and regional politics could and did play a very direct role in individual countries’ decision-making processes in the global context. In other words, the war (and other wars, be they “direct” as in Vietnam or Afghanistan, or “indirect” as in Nicaragua or the Congo) meant one thing from the US’s or USSR’s vision of a global ideological and political struggle, but that did not mean local politics and the national interests of other countries were absent from the scene. Brazil’s role in the USSR’s aid to Argentina only reinforces that fact; if one were to look at the Cold War in a strictly-ideological US/USSR struggle, Argentina’s right-wing anti-communist government accepting weapons from the socialist USSR via aid from Brazil’s right-wing government would make no sense. It’s only by moving beyond simple ideological narratives to consider domestic politics and societies and regional struggles that were not so strictly dogmatic do the complexities of the Malvinas/Falklands War specifically, and the geopolitics of the Cold War more generally, become fully apparent.

Student Protests and Pinochet’s Will: Public and Private Memory of Neoliberalism

May 15, 2012 Comments off

On Wednesday, April 25, two important and interrelated events occurred in Chile: the former dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte’s revised last will and testament was opened, and around 60,000 students marched in protest of the economical and social disadvantages ingrained in the neoliberal educational system that Pinochet put in place. Both events point to Chile’s ongoing memory struggles over the dictatorship’s neoliberal legacies, now in the context of Sebastian Piñera’s right-wing government and the upcoming presidential election.  And if we trace these big events to how they affect ordinary people, we find that the memory of neoliberalism is present in the everyday lives of Chileans, and suddenly the mundane gains greater importance.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Pinochet’s revised will did not reveal where his embezzled funds are hidden, let alone who inherited them nor how they could be accessed.  Pinochet privatized state industries and pocketed large chunks of the money, taking advantage of neoliberalism’s hallmark at the expense of working-and middle-class Chileans (and not to mention doing what dictators do best—whatever they want). Thanks to that and many other neoliberal reforms (drastic implementation of a free-market economy and dismantling of the welfare state, tariff slashing, union busting, privatization of state industries, etc.), the middle class was impoverished, and the working class was even worse off than before. And then there’s the education issue.

Pinochet privatized the university system, and he also divided the primary educational system into three groups: public, particulares (partially state-funded, partially funded by outside sources, mainly other countries), and private schools. Although Piñera’s government has made steps (if baby ones) toward meeting the left in the middle on the issue of education by beginning to implement reforms, and also by cooperating in the opening of the will, it is perhaps difficult for those who have been saddled with the negative effects of neoliberal reforms for their entire lives—even the student protesters, who never experienced the dictatorship—to forget Pinochet’s legacy and what little has been done to change it since the transition to democracy.

Perhaps that is why, in spite of the fact that Piñera’s government has introduced reforms into Congress that have conceded to the main demand of the student protesters, the movement and its supporters remain cautious. The reforms would put the state, not the banks, in charge of financing higher education through loans at low interest rates to be paid when students begin working.  They would also lower the points that students must score on entrance exams, supposedly giving students coming from disadvantaged educational backgrounds a fairer chance at getting into as good a school as their private-school peers.

Yet that is really putting a band-aid on a much larger problem.  In 2008, I volunteered teaching English a couple of days a week in two public schools, a high school and an elementary school. In both, the teachers were overworked and under-paid (many taught both day and night to cover the day students and the night students of an overenrolled school).  The children were rowdy, disinterested, and extremely distracted. I talked with the teachers under whom I worked, and the situation was as I suspected: the students came to school hungry, and many of them with problems at home, so of course they found it hard to concentrate and behave at school, and they didn’t see the point.

Not all of them were like that: some of them decided to buckle down so they could get out of their current situation, go to college, and end the cycle of poverty or relative poverty. I am facebook friends with some of those students, and it pleases me to see that one is now doing his clinicals in dentistry; another is studying sound technology, another social work, another medicine, and another English literature. A couple of months ago on the metro I heard a voice say, “Brandi, is that you?”  It was my former student Felipe—the one who studies English. I was so happy to see him. Life is going really well for him, and he is very happy. In addition to studying, he teaches English to other undergraduates at the Universidad de Concepción. But education reform needs to be real, at the university and primary levels, for more kids like them to be able go to college. They feel neoliberalism on a daily basis.

So to get back to the main point, memory struggles over neoliberalism are sometimes very evident and very public, such as the opening of Pinochet’s will or the massive student protests.  But they are also very quiet and private, seen in the everyday movements that people make as they go forward (like my former students who are now pursuing higher education), or to just get through the day (like my other former students, as well as their teachers, who do the best they can). And in the end, the huge, public spectacles that everyone will remember years from now are composed, at their very core, of these very ordinary experiences, because that is what gives them their worth.

For more on memory, neoliberalism, and the everyday, see Clara Han, Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile, forthcoming in June.

Around Latin America

January 27, 2012 2 comments

-While the United States tries to address its deficit by cutting military spending, a new study suggests that defense spending in Latin American countries is on the rise, with the main expenses being arms sales from China. Meanwhile, Adam Isacson points us to this useful map that shows bases in Latin America that received U.S. aid in 2010 (though Isacson makes clear that “aid” does not actually determine whether or not U.S. forces and officials were actually on the ground at any of these sites).

-Boz has the summary of Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night regarding Latin America, with the president mentioning the region in terms of trade, immigration, and foreign policy. Overall, Obama mentioned the region five times, the most it’s been mentioned since Bush’s 2008 address (6 times) and the second-most times since 2004.

-A Guatemalan court ruled yesterday that ex-general Efraín Ríos Montt will face trial for genocide for his role in the human rights violations and murders of thousands of Guatemalans during the Guatemalan civil war, which lasted more than 30 years. In court, Ríos Montt, who has opted for what some consider a high-risk defense strategy, remained silent in the face of testimonies and questions, telling the judge he “prefer[red] to remain silent” when asked if he had a response to the charges. Ríos Montt was president from 1982-1983, during which some of the worst human rights abuses of the war occurred. Ríos Montt famously had the support of Ronald Reagan, who declared that Ríos Montt was “totally dedicated to democracy” and that he got “a bum rap” even while armed forces were razing indigenous villages and murdering Guatemalan civilians.

-In a move for basic human rights, Ecuador’s government has vowed to crack down on clinics that try to “cure” gays and lesbians.

-An ex-U.S. diplomat testified that American officials were aware that the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983 kidnapped babies from dead or imprisoned “subversives”. Elliott Abrams testified in the trial of ex-dictators Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone that the U.S. was aware that the practice of taking children from “subversives” and giving them to other families was “systematic” in a practice that is still having very real repercussions on the lives of individuals and Argentine society more generally even today. Bignone and Videla have already been convicted of other human rights violations for their role in leading the military dictatorship, during which the military regime murdered upwards of 30,000 civilians.  (h/t Lillie Langtry).

-Environmentalists estimate that it could take eighty years for the Torres del Paine national park to recover from a wildfire that broke out in  December 2011 and that continues to rage through parts of the forest.

-Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez has been granted a tourist visa to travel to Brazil to view the premier of a documentary on the crackdown on freedom of expression in the Honduras coup of 2009 that overthrew democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya.

-Over at Tim’s El Salvador Blog, there is a guest post that reveals the very real threats environmentalists in El Salvador continue to face on a daily basis as they work for environmental improvements and conservation.

-A debate has emerged in El Salvador over just how responsible for the country’s high murder rate gangs actually are. While many blame gangs for the murder rate of 70/100,000 people (4,374 in absolute numbers in 2011), others point to the role of drug traffickers, death squads, state security agents, and common criminals.

-In Rio de Janeiro, rescuers are searching the rubble of two buildings that collapsed in the downtown area on Wedesday night, renewing calls to reform Rio’s antiquated building codes.  Early reports blame unapproved construction for the collapse, which was captured on CCTV and which has already killed six people, with another sixteen still missing.

-In a move that shouldn’t surprise anybody, Chevron has appealed Ecuador’s $18 billion judgement against the oil company for its role in dumping pollutants into the environment, including into water supplies that humans used, between 1964 and 1990. Meanwhile, Brazil is planning to find criminal charges against Chevron and its local managers for an oil spill off the coast of Brazil in November 2011.

-In a turn for the worse, the international agency Reporters Without Borders issued its 2011 report, which found (among other things) that most countries in Latin America dropped in the “press freedom index,” with Chile alone dropping an astonishing 47 spots due primarily to crackdowns in the wake of the student movement’s protests and demands for reform that brought the country to a halt last year.

-For the first time ever, Brazilian national oil company Petrobras has appointed a woman to head the state-owned corporation. Maria das Graças Foster, 58, will take over the company in February.


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