Around Latin America [Human Rights Edition]

There has been a recent wave of stories regarding human rights in Latin America in both the past and present worth covering.


-With the ongoing issue of the disappeared in Mexico in the 21st century, and, after a tortuous path that saw initial rejection before Enrique Peña Nieto signed it into law, there is now a Victims’ Law that seeks to provide compensation and closure for families whose loved ones have gone missing. While the law has some issues to work out, and while it’s not clear how it will be institutionalized, it’s an important step in dealing with the issue of violence and memory in Mexico.


-In Uruguay, hundreds gathered to protest a Supreme Court ruling that effectively restores an amnesty that exempts military members who committed human rights violations during the Uruguayan dictatorship of 1973-1985. Congress had initially overturned the amnesty in 2011.

-The recent death of former New York mayor and congressman Ed Koch brought a reminder of his human rights efforts. In the 1970s, Koch sponsored legislation to cut off funding to Uruguay after reports of human rights violations under its dictatorship. The legislation was ultimately successful, and, as detailed in John Dinges’ excellent The Condor Years,  two Uruguayan officials threatened to assassinate Koch. Although the CIA discovered the death threat in July 1976, it was only in October that CIA Director George H.W. Bush told Koch of the threat.


-Families of victims of the Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989) used the 24th anniversary of his downfall to demand justice for the more than 400 people murdered and disappeared and the 20,000 detained and often tortured during his regime.


-In a disturbing trend, the number of attacks on and murders of human rights defenders and activists has increased, with a murder every five days on average, and an attack once every 20 hours on average. Suffice to say, the attacks undermine efforts to ensure human rights in Colombia are respected.


-Mike Allison recently put the degree of human rights violations during Guatemala’s Civil War in succinct but devastating terms that shows the common flaw of the “both sides committed atrocities” arguments in Guatemala: “Of the 1,112 massacres (more than four people but usually much more than four), government forces were responsible for 1,046 (94.06%). Government forces include the army, military commissions, PACs, death squads, and police. […] The guerrillas were responsible for 46 (4.14%).” It’s hard to imagine a more disproportionate use of state force and terror than that.


-While former human rights violators in Argentina have been sentenced to house arrest, it turns out that the “punishment” is in many ways nominal, as rights violators continue to move freely about in public, pointing to real loopholes and problems in enforcing more lenient “punishments” for older rights violators.

-Authorities in Brazil arrested 61-year-old Gonzalo Sánchez, a fugitive Argentine officer charged with participating in the torture, murder, and disappearance of dozens during the military dictatorship.

-With Dutch monarch Queen Beatrix recently stepping down, her son Prince Willem-Alexander is set to assume the (symbolic) throne, creating the first ever “Argentine Princess.” For Prince Willem-Alexander’s wife is Argentine Máxima Zorreguieta. However, while Argentina has celebrated at the rise of one of its own citizens, it turns out her past is not without its own dark roots, as her father was Minister of Justice under General Jorge Videla, when the government tortured, murdered, and disappeared tens of thousands, during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983.

-A couple of years ago, I posted a series of photos (hereherehereherehere, and here) on ways in which the Argentine dictatorship continued to be criticized and memorialized in public spaces. Lillie Langtry points us to this article (in Spanish) with more examples of how Argentines continue to remember the regime and its victims, thirty years after it finally collapsed.


-Speaking of public space and memory, many of the prisons and sites where torture took place during Brazil’s dictatorship are disappearing from public space in São Paulo. The destruction of these buildings is significant, as they served as physical memory-sites that served to remind people of the deeds and impact of the military dictatorship; as scholarship on memory, human rights, and space has repeatedly demonstrated, the removal of such buildings can and does accelerate the receding of memorialization of human rights violations in public memory itself.

-It’s not just the physical landscapes of cities where the dictatorship is disappearing. Brazil’s military schools sadly, if unsurprisingly, are using textbooks that gloss over or ignore the military dictatorship and its deeds (original in Portuguese here), prompting scholars and members of the Truth Commission to suggest the need to overhaul military educational materials so as to better address Brazil’s past for future soldiers and officers.

-Even while markers of the dictatorship disappear both from public spaces and textbooks, however, the deeds of the dictatorship are being recorded in other ways. Brazil’s Truth Commission, which has been drawing on interviews, documentary evidence, testimony, and other materials to investigate the regime’s deeds, recently reopened an investigation into the death of former president Juscelino Kubitschek. Kubitschek, who was one of the regime’s highest-profile critics after 1965, died in a car crash in 1976, and rumors swirled around his death, including the possibility that the regime forced the crash (rumors aided by the fact that another high profile critic, fashion designer Zuzu Angel, whose son the regime “disappeared,” died in similar circumstances that the state ultimately acknowledged responsibility for).

-Not all are happy with the Truth Commission, however. Marcelo Rubens Paiva, the son of a politician who the regime arrested and disappeared, criticized the commission for being “timid” and needed to be firmer and stronger in its investigations.

-While the Truth Commission investigates the deaths of people the regime killed, the Organization of American States has announced it will launch its own investigation into the death of Vladimir Herzog, a journalist who died under torture during the administration of Ernesto Geisel.

-Meanwhile, a former torturer was recently discovered as having worked as a teacher for 24 years before his death in 2009. Under a false name, Cleber de Souza Rocha taught geography classes in São Paulo, often showing up to class drunk.

The recent execution-style killing of Cícero Guedes, a leader for land reform and peasants’ rights in Brazil, provided another tragic reminder of the dictatorship, as his murder took place in a region where the  dictatorship killed and disappeared land activists during its most repressive years.


-While Chile has had several official investigations into the Pinochet regime’s rights violations, some mysteries remain unsolved. One of those mysteries is how Pablo Neruda died. Officials are exhuming the Nobel laureate’s body to see if he may have been poisoned when he died just twelve days after the Pinochet regime overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende.

-Neruda isn’t the only high-profile cultural figure who died in the Pinochet era. The regime infamously arrested and cut off the hands of folk singer Victor Jara before ultimately murdering him. In the wake of the arrest of several officers connected to his death, J. Patrice McSherry has this great report on the case, its history, where it stands, and the impact of his widow Joan’s efforts to keep the case and his memory alive.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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