Archive for the ‘Memory Struggles’ Category

Argentina’s Largest Human Rights Trial Commences

November 29, 2012 Comments off

The ongoing prosecution of human rights violations from Argentina’s military dictatorship of 1976-1983 has been a subject of some interest here before. Thus, it’s worth noting that the biggest human rights trial has begun, as 68 people stand the possibility of being convicted for their roles in torture, “disappearances,” and other human rights violations during the military regime. As the article mentions, among the 68 are six pilots facing charges for their roles in so-called “death flights” in which Argnetina’s air force would fly victims (who were usually still alive) out over the Atlantic ocean and dump them into the ocean in an attempt to simultaneously murder them and dispose of any evidence of the murder, a tactic the Argentines learned from the French (who employed similar measures in the Algerian War of 1954-1962). This is another major step towards addressing justice in Argentina. Immediately after the regime’s collapse in 1983 in the wake of the Malvinas/Falklands War, civilian president Raul Alfonsin managed to obtain convictions for the highest-ranking military officials of the junta, but by the 1990s, neoliberal president Carlos Menem declared a general amnesty for human rights violators. Fortunately, the past several years have seen the undoing of that amnesty, and those military members who either ordered the use of torture and disappearance or who actually committed such human rights violations are continuing to face justice nearly 30 years after the regime fell from power. Though the fact that this is the largest trial yet is noteworthy, what is probably just as important for victims and their families is the fact that Argentina continues to acknowledge the need to confront its past in order to address the injustices of military rule.

Argentine-Iranian Relations and the Concerns of Argentine Jews

November 23, 2012 Comments off

The New York Times has a good piece up on Argentinian-Iranian relations and the Jewish response in Argentina. The two countries have recently and slowly begun improving diplomatic ties through both informal and formal talks, as Argentina seeks to turn to new trade partners to try to improve its own slowing economy, while Iran seeks diplomatic ties in Latin America as an attempt to counter some of the broader international isolation it faces. However, Argentina’s Jewish population, which numbers over 250,000, is distressed by the growing ties for a very simple reason – there is evidence that Iran sponsored the 1994 bombing of Buenos Aires’ Associación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) that left 85 dead and hundreds wounded. Some Jewish peoples are outraged, seeing the prospects of prosecutions and convictions for those tied to the bombing fading away in improved ties. Others, however, are more circumspect, and not without reason: Cristina Kirchner (and her late husband before her) have supported investigations into the bombing and the re-opening of cases after ex-president (and current senator) Carlos Menem’s incompetence in handling the case in the 1990s; thus, while she may be seeking new diplomatic and economic ties, it is not as though she has disregarded the case in the recent past. Additionally, while ties may be improving, currently, Argentina and Iran are currently just in the phase of initiating talks, a rare event in the 18 years since the bombing. And among the items to be discussed on the agenda in the talks? The 1994 bombing (and Iran’s role in it) itself. All of this makes the situation more nuanced than a simple question of Kirchner disregarding Argentina’s Jewish community while forging ties to a relative pariah in much of the international community. However, as the Times piece shows, the impact of anti-Semitic terrorism in Buenos Aires continues to play an important role in public memory and national political debate in Argentina more than 18 years after the attack.

Alberto Fujimori’s Lived Experiences in Prison

November 9, 2012 Comments off

A few weeks ago, family members and supporters of Peruvian ex-president Alberto Fujimori, in prison for human rights violations during his 1990-2000 administration, posted a photo of the allegedly-ailing ex-president and lobbying for his pardon from a 25-year prison sentence on humanitarian grounds (a pardon that was initially denied, though Fujimori continues to pursue a pardon). The argument is that the president, suffering from tongue cancer, cannot possibly live in the conditions demanded of him in prison.

However, Lillie Langtry points us to these sets of photos showing Fujimori’s prison “cell.” Suffice to say, these photos portray a far different picture of Fujimori’s prison existence than his family and supporters painted. Among other things, he has his own (well-supplied) kitchen, a reclining hospital-style bed, a television, books, a sofa, a chest of drawers, an easel and painting supplies, and even a heated toilet seat (which apparently is a thing that exists). As one of the stories says, it appears Fujimori “lives with luxuries that no prisoner in Peru has.” The photos appear legitimate and have a much broader scope than the up-close photo of a suffering Fujimori that gave no indicator as to the conditions in which he lived. Certainly, while these photos are probably not the final say in the matter, they certainly at least puncture somewhat the story of Fujimori-as-victim. Indeed, when one considers the number of victims, both those murdered and those who survived, of military death squads that served at Fujimori’s behest, it’s hard to see him as a victim in any fashion here.

More Thoughts on False Equivalency and Brazil’s Truth Commission

September 20, 2012 Comments off

Greg Weeks has a post up suggesting that, by not investigating the crimes of the opposition, Brazil’s Truth Commission may actually be reinforcing the false equivalency of “both sides committed crimes” reasoning:

Actually, including opposition abuses helps the opposition because there are so few in comparison. In the case of Guatemala, for example, you get the following:

  • “State forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the violations documented” (Final Report, English Version, para. 15).
  • “Insurgent actions produced 3% of the human rights violations and acts of violence” (Final Report, English Version, para. 21).

In other words, this emphasizes the overwhelming state role and prevents the military from falsely claiming that both sides were relatively equal.

I don’t disagree with this, actually, but I’m not certain one can’t still get at these numbers even with a focus solely on the military, at least in the case of  Brazil. As I mentioned in my previous post, the numbers of crimes the opposition committed during the military dictatorship is well-known by this point. Collections in the National Archives and in state archives provide primary sources that detail in great depth the oppositions’ actions, often in its own words. Additionally, since the end of military rule, those involved in the opposition who survived the dictatorship have openly spoken about their actions, including violent actions, in their own diaries, memoirs, public interviews, documentaries, and other sources. Indeed, even during the regime, news stories of opposition crimes regularly appeared in newspapers and magazines, making their way through military censorship because the stories could help reinforce military narratives of a violent and dangerous opposition, narratives that the military could rely upon to justify its own (greater) use of force and repression. Combining these military-era public, high-profile accounts with archival materials and the subsequent flow of personal testimonies both written and spoken has given us a detailed understanding of opposition violence in Brazil.

The same cannot be said, however, for the military. While the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo was able secretly get military documents that allowed it to create and publish a report that detailed just how thorough and institutionalized the use of torture and repression was during the dictatorship (the publication of which made for its own incredible story), it only directly addressed the actual methods of torture the military employed. While some secret police documents have been made public, the most substantial collections that detail the ways in which the regime targeted individuals, outline the particular policies towards the opposition, and explain the use of torture, murder, and “disappearances” against subversives, remain concealed to this day, with the military either denying the documents’ existence or refusing to turn them over to the public (and sometimes doing both simultaneously!).

In focusing on the military’s crimes, the Truth Commission may be able to finally get access to these archives. Should that be the case, they would be able to detail both the military’s crimes and those of the opposition, without ever actually investigating the opposition. I speak from some familiarity on this topic, because I’ve worked with some of the secret police archives that have been made available to the public. In them, the secret police and military authorities not only specify their own view on threats to the country; they also do a great job providing annexes, attachments, and other forms that also let scholars have an insight into opposition activity. Thus, for example, in a secret police report that is commenting on the “subversive” nature of some pamphlets found on a university campus, the military institutions went to great pains to annex and include all of the pamphlets analyzed, so that a researcher can simultaneously see both how the military perceives threats and “subversion” and see what the opposition itself was actually saying. While documenting campus activity is perhaps different from chronicling murders in terms of content, there’s no reason to think the overall methodical approach in documenting military policies and actions varies in form. Indeed, there’s a reason Brazil’s regime (and others like it) is often referred to as “bureaucratic authoritarianism.” Not only is evil banal, as Hannah Arendt suggested; it’s also remarkably detail-oriented and bureaucratized, and police archives in general are some of the clearest examples of that bureaucratization.

For this reason, should the Truth Commission have access to the archives at last as it conducts its investigations, it would be able to detail both the state’s crimes and the opposition’s crimes. If that were to take place, the percentages that Greg provides for Guatemala would still be attainable; we could still get a firm sense of what percentage of the overall human rights violations and crimes that took place during military rule in Brazil were the state’s responsibility, without the Truth Commission ever investigating the (again, already very-public) opposition’s crimes.

Of course, it is going to be dependent on the Truth Commission to actually come up with that data itself, and it may not do that. However, even if it can simply publish total numbers on state crimes during the dictatorship, historians and human rights scholars should have enough materials to provide their own percentages on how many crimes the state committed during military rule compared to how many the opposition did. In that way, the false equivalency of “both sides did it” could be (hopefully) put to rest once and for all in Brazil. Time will tell, but, at least in the case of Brazil, I’m certainly not willing to give up hope that the Truth Commission will finally help us better understand the nature and extent of human rights violations during military rule.

Thoughts on Brazil’s Truth Commission and the Investigation of State Crimes Only

September 20, 2012 Comments off

Brazil’s Truth Commission, which is finally looking into (but not prosecuting) human rights crimes and violations committed during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, has announced that it will only investigate crimes and human rights violations that the state under military rule committed, specifically the use of torture, murder, and disappearances. As a result, any alleged crimes or abuses the regime’s opponents committed fall outside of the Truth Commission’s jurisdiction. Although the government says it does not have the authority to investigate crimes of private citizens, some military members are demanding the government also investigate the acts of the opposition movements as well, with the standard line that “both sides committed crimes” (an observation that also played an important rhetorical role in the Truth Commissions and/or human rights prosecutions in Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere).

The government only investigating the crimes of the military dictatorship is reasonable in this case, though, for several reasons. First, there is the fact that the “both sides did it” argument attempts to obscure the sheer disproportionate use of force and violence on the part of the state under military rule. From the very beginning of the dictatorship in 1964, the military regime relied on torture and the suspension of political rights in an attempt to eliminate any opposition from leftists, workers, or others. By 1969, the regime had entered its most repressive phase, and for the next five years, it relied heavily on torture, as well as the murder of political opponents in urban centers as well as the murder and “disappearing” of guerrillas in the Araguaia River Basin. While radical leftists in the cities did commit their own political murders, including the assassination of a US Air Force official in 1968, the sheer number of murders that state agents committed far outnumbered those of urban guerrillas. Additionally, the state often captured, tortured, and even murdered those connected to such political crimes; those who were not killed were sentenced to many years in prison. So in that regard, the civilians who committed political acts often already faced a (skewed) justice system, even while their torturers remained free.

This in turn leads into another important difference between leftist opponents of the regime and the military itself: institutional power. Simply put, even if the guerrillas and opposition movements resorted to violence, they never had the institutional or infrastructural capabilities for violence that the state had. The “biggest” guerrilla threat came from the Araguaia Basin, where perhaps 70 leftists in total had gathered to try to overthrow the government. By contrast, the dictatorship could and did count on the Army, Navy, and Air Force, as well as multiple branches of police forces (public and secret), to employ torture, imprison any suspected opponents, deny the rights of habeas corpus, and even murder and “disappear” suspected “subversives.” The sheer institutional authority and power of the dictatorship overwhelmingly outweighed any threat of violence that the regime’s most radical opponents ever had at their disposal. To say that “both sides committed crimes” is to blithely overlook just how more institutional, widespread, and methodical the regime’s use of violence was.

Additionally, while guerrillas did commit a handful of assassinations, as well as bank robberies, the very nature of their violence differed from that of the state. Guerrillas wanted to overthrow the repressive government that itself had overthrown a democratic government in 1964. Their agenda was regime change, plain and simple (and whether one thinks regime change is a legitimate agenda here is irrelevant to the broader point).  This stands in marked contrast to the military dictatorship, which used torture, repression, and violence in no small part to terrorize the population and prevent significant opposition to its rule. There is no record anywhere of guerrillas relying on the systematic use of torture against state agents or supporters of the regime. Likewise, what few political assassinations did take place happened in public, meaning the victims’ bodies could be and were recovered and buried; thus, while they may have been political murders, they were not part of what are generally considered to be “human rights violations.” By contrast, the regime “disappeared” at least several dozen of its opponents (most likely after using torture and/or summary executions), and the location of their remains are still unknown today, leaving their families and friends with no knowledge of their loved ones’ fates and denying them a sense of closure.

This is not to deny, or even downplay, the opposition’s use of violence. However, the regime itself not only prosecuted many of those acts (sometimes extrajudicially); it also pardoned them. In 1979, the military issued a general amnesty that in part pardoned all those convicted of political crimes between 1964 and 1979. As a result, many were set free, with their records cleared. However, the amnesty also pardoned any state agents connected to torture and/or state-sponsored murder between 1964 and 1979. As a result, while opponents were finally released from prison or cleared of charges, state agents who had committed crimes and human rights violations were preemptively forgiven and excused from ever facing trial for their own violent acts.

Finally, since the end of the dictatorship in 1985, the military regime’s opponents have been more than willing to be open about their actions, peaceful or violent, during military rule. Indeed, the return of democracy created a new context and political narrative in which those who had been persecuted during the military regime were finally able to begin to discuss life under military rule openly. This included both acknowledgments of the opposition’s own shortcomings, as well as detailed accounts of torture and other human  rights violations they and their colleagues suffered at the hands of the state. And the 1979 amnesty allowed them to be candid about their own actions, including criminal activities, in ways that were impossible under military rule. As a result, in the last thirty years, there has been a flourishing of scholarship and material on opposition to military rule, thanks in no small part to the numerous and publicly-recorded experiences of the opposition, be it in archival collections, interviews, oral history projects, books, documentaries, and even (problematic) films. Meanwhile, the military has continued to refuse to release its own archives that detail the extent of state repression and violence. While we know plenty about the opposition’s experiences and actions during military rule, the internal workings of the military dictatorship are still largely obscured. Consequently, there’s only one “secret” history here, and it’s that of the military, not the opposition, during the dictatorship. And given that the Truth Commission’s duty is in no small part to uncover the hidden history of the military dictatorship, it is pretty clear that its focus would by necessity fall more on the military regime than on opposition movements whose actions, ideologies, experiences, and thoughts are public knowledge by this point.

All of these differences show just how weak and problematic the “both sides committed crimes” argument is. Of course they did. But to equate state-sponsored violence to civilian violence is to create a false equivalency that implies that both are equally guilty. Did leftist guerrillas commit crimes? Sure. But the military outstripped them in sheer number of murders, and that says nothing about the Brazilian dictatorship’s use of torture against thousands of Brazilians. Even at their most violent, the guerrillas who opposed military rule in the late-1960s and early-1970s did not employ torture, nor did they have the mechanisms and institutions to commit systematic torture at their disposal. And again, the military imprisoned or murdered many of those guerrillas (who at the most numbered perhaps several hundred total throughout the entire military regime) after “investigating” their crimes. Did both sides commit crimes? Sure. But did the military regime commit broader human rights violations and crimes at a rate that far outnumbers those of the regime’s opponents? Absolutely. And for those reasons, the decision of the Truth Commission (which, again, cannot punish human rights violators, a pardon the regime’s opponents did not enjoy) to investigate only the dictatorship’s crimes is a reasonable one.

Two September 11ths

September 11, 2012 Comments off

Being in Chile for September 11th, especially this year, is moving.

On a personal note, I am conducting research for my dissertation, which investigates how political prisoners and their families rebuilt their lives in the aftermath of the political violence that began thirty-nine years ago today when a military coup overthrew the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende. It saddens me to think of the participation of my country—the United States—in that attack on democracy, especially when the memory of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001, while undoubtedly tragic in its own right, has long become a battle cry for supposedly defending freedom.

Like Ariel Dorfman in his essays “The Other 9/11” and “Epitaph for another September 11th,” I grieve for both tragedies while finding it unsettling that Chileans fought peacefully (as Dorfman pointed out, with a few exceptions, but non-armed movements far outweighed the armed) for the return of the civil rights and democratic institutions that were ripped from them, yet the U.S. government happily championed war abroad and the destruction of civil liberties both abroad and at home.

Over the past few years, Chile has witnessed an effervescence collective struggle that fueled the protests in the 1980s that eventually led to Pinochet’s downfall in a 1988 plebiscite. This is largely seen in the student movement. Students have continuously demonstrated for affordable, equal, and quality education. They are fighting the privatized education system that Pinochet re-organized under his military rule as he began the systematic destruction of the welfare state and implementation of neoliberal economic policies.  And the police are still reactionary and violent, just as they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

In fact, as I watched the protests at the Universidad de Chile’s main building a couple of weeks ago, I could not help but think that I had stepped back in time. Students yelled from the windows of the building, which they had taken over (peacefully), and banners flew, featuring Allende’s face and slogans such as “The economy at the service of humans, not humans at the service of the economy.” A large crowd of demonstrators blocked the main thoroughfare, and they were soon sprayed with either water or tear gas. Yet I doubt the students will give up anytime soon. The memory of collective struggle is living on through them.

So this September 11th, I have both Chile and the United States in my thoughts. With demonstrators pushing for reform in Chile and an upcoming presidential election in the U.S., I hope that both countries truly reflect on the meaning of democracy today, rather than whisk around patriotic thoughts with the wave of a flag.

Truth Commissions in the Age of the Internet

July 28, 2012 Comments off

Although Brazil is one of the last  South American countries to establish some type of truth commission to confront the legacies of its own late-20th century authoritarian regime, the tardiness also means that the truth commission is taking place at a time where, information on the commission’s proceedings and findings can be made immediately available via the internet. The Commission is taking advantage of this fact, creating a website that provides its latest news, as well as a Twitter account that provides updates on the Commission and points other Twitter users to useful sites to answer their questions about the Brazilian dictatorship and human rights struggles. And for those looking for resources in English, the   Transitional Justice in Brazil site is an excellent resource as well.

H/t to Lillie Langtry.

Argentine Human Rights Violations in the Malvinas War

July 25, 2012 Comments off

The thirtieth anniversary of the Malvinas/Falklands War may have come and gone, but the attention given to it helped to remind many of just how deeply the reliance on repression and torture in Argentina’s military ran during the years of the “Dirty War” dictatorship of 1976-1983. Scholars of the period and of authoritarianism in Latin America have known for some time that many soldiers themselves were tortured while serving in the Malvinas/Falklands War. Additionally, some of the “heroes” of the war were themselves brutal torturers in the security apparatuses, responsible for torturing and even murdering and disappearing Argentine citizens during the military regime. The recent focus on the Malvinas has provided an important way to remember just how deeply-ingrained repression and human rights were within the military dictatorship, and that soldiers as well as civilians suffered at the hands of military officers and security apparatuses.

Around Latin America

July 18, 2012 Comments off

-In an issue that could shape the presidential election in the US, a new poll suggests that Florida voters overwhelmingly support President Barack Obama’s announced immigration reform policy.

-Workers at Brazil’s GM plant went on a 24-hour strike over reduced output and growing fears their jobs are at stake.

-A bill that would repeal bans on sodomy and cross-dressing and would abolish the death penalty is set for debate on the floor of Guyana’s Congress.

-In Uruguay, the private University of Montevideo accepted the resignation of dean Dr. Mercedes Rovira after she made homophobic comments, including describing homosexuals as an “anomaly” and who said the school takes an individual’s sexuality into account when hiring staff.

-Although there are real limits to Brazil’s Truth Commission, it appears it will at least investigate Brazil’s role in the infamous Operation Condor, hopefully shedding light on an oft-overlooked part of the Brazilian military dictatorship.

-Guatemala has released Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, a military officer who assassinated Guatemalan Bishop Juan José Gerardi in 1998. Gerardi, who had been an important figure in fighting for human rights in Guatemala, was beaten to death just two days after he issued a report that cited the military’s constant violation of human rights and use of violence against civilians during the country’s 36-year civil war.

-Will Brazil become the next country to decriminalize drug use?

-In mixed news from Mexico, outgoing President Felipe Calderón has said that, compared to the first half of 2011, drug murders have dropped 15-20% during January to June of 2012, including a drop by 42% in Ciudad Juárez. However, another report shows that violence against women increased by 20% in the state of Mexico, which incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto governed until last fall and which surrounds the Federal District on its north, west, and east.

-Speaking of Peña Nieto, he has vowed to imprison any and all individuals who bought the votes of the Mexican electorate in the recent election. It remains to be seen if he will be sincere in this pledge, though it seems dubious at best, given that it was Peña Nieto himself that benefited from his party’s practice of vote-buying.

-In one last story on the outcomes from Mexico’s election, one-third of the incoming members of Mexico’s Congress will be women.

-Human Rights Watch has issued a new report that suggests that the political contexts have led to increased intimidation and censorship in Venezuela.

-Brazil’s police have begun to arrest and remove illegal gold miners who had illegally begun squatting and mining on the lands of the Yanomani, one of Brazil’s indigenous peoples.

-A few weeks after Chile ruled that General Alberto Bachelet, whose daughter Michelle governed as President from 2006-2010, died under torture during the Pinochet regime, authorities have charged two military officials with his death. After the coup of September 11, Pinochet’s regime purged the military of officers who were loyal to constitutional president Salvador Allende, including Bachelet.

-Over 1 million Brazilian evangelicals gathered in São Paulo in the annual  “March for Jesus” last weekend. Although one million people is a lot of people, the total who showed up fell far short of the six million evangelicals that organizers predicted would attend. Still, the number of evangelicals is only growing, and at least fifteen evangelical ministers are running for public office in the state of São Paulo in another sign of evangelicals’ growing importance not just in society or culture but in politics as well.

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.


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