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Around Latin America

March 18, 2013 Comments off

-While many in the Americas celebrated the announcement of the first American pope last year, not all citizens (including Catholic clergy) in Francis I’s home country are pleased with Bergoglio or the Catholic hierarchy in Argentina.

-It appears the long national mourning of Hugo Chávez may have hindered plans to embalm the late Venezuelan president.

– José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, the first economics minister of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, has died at 87. In a pattern that was not uncommon throughout the region, Martínez de Hoz garnered praise in the international community at the time for his imposition of neoliberal policies (policies that ultimately led to deindustrialization and privatization in Argentina), but whose imposition of such policies was accompanied by crackdowns on labor, repression, and human rights violations.

-In Brazil, former soccer player and current politician Romário is calling on Brazil’s Truth Commission to investigate Brazilian Football Confederation official Jose Maria Marin for his possible role in the murder of journalist Vladimir Herzog in 1977 during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Meanwhile, in another reminder of how broken Brazil’s legislative branch is, evangelical minister and congressman Marco Feliciano, who has openly made racist and homophobic comments in the past, was chosen to head Congress’s Human Rights Commission.

-Several Nobel Peace Prize winners recently wrote in support of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organization that had been under criticism from member countries recently.

-It’s been more than 40 years since the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic for more than 30 years, and activists, scholars, and others are calling on the Dominican government to form a truth commission to fully investigate and officially address the regime’s brutality (including the murder of 25,000 Haitians in 1937 alone).

-Speaking of Truth Commissions, last week marked the 20th anniversary of El Salvador’s Truth Commission; Tim has a nice summary of its findings.

-The US military has acknowledged that prisoners at Guantanmo are on a hunger strike, though it denied that the strike was “widespread.”

-The trial of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier for human rights abuses continues, and the defense seems to be struggling a bit. Duvalier’s attorneys asked one witness if she may have been arrested by mistake, her reply? “If I was arrested by mistake, I was imprisoned by mistake and forced into exile by mistake.”

-Activists in Argentina are pushing for judicial reform to make the system more transparent and “democratic.”-Guyana’s Parliament rejected a law that would have made it illegal to carry disassembled gun parts into the country, a law designed to reduce gun smuggling and gun violence in the country.

-Great Britain’s plan to require Brazilian tourists to acquire travel visas on hold for now.

-Finally, IPS had a fascinating story on how indigenous women in Chile are helping bring solar energy and clean energy into communities in the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on the planet.

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.

Argentina, Israel, and Misguided Hyperbole

January 31, 2013 Comments off

Israel may have legitimate reasons to dislike the agreement between Iran and Argentina to establish a Truth Commission to investigate the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association. However, this is ridiculous:

Israel has strongly criticised Argentina for its decision to work with Iran to investigate a 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires. […] an Israeli spokesman said the move was tantamount to “inviting a murderer to investigate his own killings”.

This kind of hyperbole is useless to the point of being offensive. The bombers themselves are not being appointed to investigate the bombing – five independent judges are. And does Israel really think the investigation will hinder the investigation? On what basis? Has the lack of a Truth Commission helped to lead to the arrest and prosecution of those tied to the murders in the last nineteen years?  The answer is patently “no.” Creating a Truth Commission that can finally have access to and question possible suspects seems far more likely to lead to concrete conclusions on the bombing than anything that has taken place in the last nineteen years.

Again, Israel may have legitimate concerns over the agreement to form a Truth Commission, but these aren’t those objections. Instead, rather than supporting an effort to end impunity for people who murdered Jewish people in other parts of the world, Israel has apparently opted to express anger over a country signing any type of agreement with Iran, even one that seeks to address past injustices.

Argentina and Iran Agree to Investigate 1994 Terrorist Attack

January 28, 2013 1 comment

Last November, Iran and Argentina initiated talks that included discussions on investigating the 1994 bombing of Buenos Aires’ Associación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) that left 85 dead and over 300 wounded. Those talks were apparently serious, as yesterday, the two countries signed an agreement to create a truth commission to fully investigate the bombing, with five independent (non-Argentine, non-Iranian) judges investigating the attack. While Argentine courts have found Iran responsible for the bombing no convictions have resulted, thanks in no small part to investigative incompetence and ex-president (and current senator) Carlos Menem has been charged with obstructing the case while president.

As important as the agreement is, it does not automatically ensure justice. First, legislatures in both countries have to ratify the agreement. Additionally, while the commission (should it be approved) will question suspects in Iran, there’s no indicator if such questioning will be under oath or whether the suspects will be willing to talk. Complicating matters is the fact that the current Iranian Defense Minister has been tied to the bombing in previous accusations, an allegation that could affect Iran’s full participation.

More curious is the use of a truth commission here. Traditionally, such commissions have been internal committees to investigate human rights violations committed during previous governments, such as Argentina’s truth commission after the military regime of 1976-1983; Brazil’s current truth commission investigating its own dictatorship from 1964-1985; South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission that investigated (but did not prosecute) Apartheid-era human rights violations; or even Canada’s truth commission that investigated violations of indigenous rights in the country. That is not to say that truth commissions can only apply to historical situations of civil war or repression; at the same time, though, Argentina’s and Iran’s use of a bilateral truth commission between two countries to investigate just one event committed (possibly) by non-state actors seems to be a unique application of the idea truth commissions. That Argentina is involved is perhaps unsurprising; although South Africa is regularly held up as the example of a truth commission, Argentina’s truth commission into its military regime was among the first in the world, setting the stage for future investigations.

Nonetheless, this is a new arena for a truth commission. Should it go through, it could provide an interesting model on the deployment of truth commissions and investigations beyond domestic politics, expanding the utility, applicability, and even our understanding of truth commissions as institutions. Only time will tell whether this particular Argentine-Iranian truth commission will be able to exercise its authority, provide definitive conclusions (and possibly prosecution), and lead to some sense of closure for the victims’ families nearly 20 years later.

On Brazil’s Involvement in Operation Condor

December 17, 2012 Comments off

Brazil’s Truth Commission continues to conduct hearings and accept testimony from a variety of witnesses as it investigates human rights violations during the military regime of 1964-1985. Much of this testimony has been helpful in further fleshing out details that were previously assumed or generally known, helping to further enrich our understanding of the regime’s repressive measures and their impacts on those who were tortured or suffered political persecution in both the short- and long-terms. However, some of the testimony has been a bit surprising, perhaps most notably the testimony of Jair Krischke, who claimed that Brazil’s military regime was the “mastermind” behind Operation Condor.

Suffice to say, this is a somewhat surprising claim. Thanks to John Dinges’s excellent work, in which he worked in the (at the time) relatively-underutilized “Archives of Terror” in Paraguay, we know a good deal about Operation Condor. At its most basic level, the intelligence services from right-wing military regimes in Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru collaborated in political repression, torture, and “disappearing” alleged “subversives” from the region in an attempt to stamp out what they viewed as the communist threat. Through Operation Condor, which formally (albeit secretly) began in 1975, these countries would trace exiles’ movement throughout the region, and assist one another either by arresting and extraditing political targets to their home countries, or by torturing, murdering, and disappearing exiles from other countries (e.g., Argentina’s repressive forces would arrest and torture a Chilean exile). Operation Condor took the repressive violence of these regimes into the international arena, including not just the torture and disappearances of political opponents in the region, but even the attempted assassination on Chilean Bernardo Leighton in Rome in 1976 or the successful assassination of Orlando Letelier in a car bomb in Washington D.C. in 1976. Though the military regimes of South America collaborated, scholarship suggests that Augusto Pinochet’s government played the central role in Operation Condor’s operation, from its creation in 1975 onward, something Dinges’s work compellingly argues.

Which is why Krischke’s recent claims about Brazil’s role as a “mastermind” in Operation Condor are intriguing. Krischke points to Brazil’s use of torture and political repression in the immediate aftermath of the 1964 coup and in the increasing repression of the “years of lead” under Artur Costa e Silva (1967-1969) and Emílio Garrastazu Médici (1969-1974) as setting the stage for broader international collaboration between the new right-wing dictatorships in Bolivia (1971), Chile (1973), Uruguay (1973), Argentina (1976), and Peru (which joined Condor in 1980).  Admittedly, Brazil did set the stage for many of the military regimes that followed (only Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship, begun in 1954, preceded Brazil’s), something that scholarship tends to overlook (too often, one sees phrases along the line of “the South American dictatorships of the 1970s”). Likewise, Brazil (and Paraguay) were among the first to use the types of repression and terror that would come to define the right-wing dictatorships throughout the region, albeit to varying degrees. But Krischke’s claim that Brazil “created” Operation Condor seems to stretch Brazil’s role to somewhat incredible degree. The mechanisms of repression and torture may have appeared in Brazil before in Chile and elsewhere, but Dinges’s work again does a very good job of showing just how involved Pinochet was, and how much the establishment of Operation Condor was a Chilean initiative. Indeed, by 1975, when these countries formed the secretive pact, Brazilian president Ernesto Geisel had already begun the process of “distensão,” or a gradual move away from the most repressive phase of the Brazilian dictatorship. Though Brazil was involved with Operation Condor, it was not nearly as dominant as Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, or Paraguay. That’s not to deny culpability or responsibility to Brazil’s regime, but it is to contextualize what we know about Operation Condor, and different member countries’ involvement in it. Either Krischke’s claims are overstated, or we will be forced to completely reevaluate Condor’s origins and history; given the detailed research from people like Dinges and Peter Kornbluh and the political context of Brazilian military politics at the time of Operation Condor, it seems likely that Krischke’s claims, while perhaps not-incorrect in some regards, are an overstatement of Brazil’s involvement in Condor.

 

Florida’s Role in Argentina’s Largest Human Rights Trial

December 10, 2012 Comments off

Last week, Argentina began trying 68 people from the infamous Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (Navy School of Mechanics, ESMA) who are charged with torture, murder, and “disappearances” (including via the so-called “death flights”)  during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983. It turns out, without some key evidence in Florida, the trial may not have taken place:

A plane discovered in 2009 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, allegedly used by Argentina’s military dictatorship to drop suspected leftists to their death into the Rio de la Plata, is now providing key evidence in the country’s biggest human rights case ever.

The trial – which began last week – is the third involving the Naval Mechanics School, or ESMA, the era’s largest clandestine prison. Former officials are being charged in hundreds of instances of kidnapping, torture, and murder, and proceedings are expected to last two years, with as many as 900 witnesses testifying.

Along with the plane, crucial documents revealing the airplane’s whereabouts during Argentina’s bloody Dirty War, which took place from 1976 to 1983, were also recovered. Two other planes used by the military of the same model – a boxy Irish-built aircraft called a Skyvan – were found in Luxembourg and Great Britain.

An investigation by Argentine journalist Miriam Lewin led to the discovery of the plane, which is currently being used to transport goods from south Florida to the Bahamas, the current owner said in a report broadcast on Argentine television. It is unclear whether the owner was aware of the plane’s history prior to being interviewed by Ms. Lewin.

“[The investigation] allowed us to find not only the planes but documents that identify the pilots that participated in those flights,” Lewin said in radio comments.

The path to trials for those who committed human rights violations during military dictatorships have often been winding and unique, but this particular case stands out. Scholars and rights organizations often embark upon methodical and time-consuming efforts to detail and report the methods of torture and repression used against people; sites of torture often become the scenes of important social debates over the importance of commemorating or forgetting the past; yet we rarely consider the fate of the actual instruments of torture themselves. Yet as this case reminds us, those mechanisms of repression, be they airplanes, weapons, or other instruments, also have a life that lasts beyond the military regimes that employ them, and in this case at least, those instruments of repression have found not only a second, post-military life, but a third life as powerful tools to help pursue prosecutions of human rights violators.

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.

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