Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Historical Memory and Revisionism in Latin America

A recent column in The Economist magazine on historical memory initiatives in Latin America accuses the region of largely “rewriting” history, asserting that efforts to raise awareness of the abuses of the Cold War have led to the promotion of a biased version of events. The argument has triggered an outpouring of criticism online from historians and Latin American analysts pointing out the various holes in the article’s logic.

The main thrust of the column is that the emergence of post-conflict museums and historical memory centers in the Latin America has been accompanied by a kind of historical revisionism, in which the anti-democratic leanings of leftist dissidents and guerrilla groups are overlooked. “[A]lthough the right may bloodily have won the cold war in Latin America, the left has won the peace,” the piece asserts. And the forgotten truth, “is that the cold war in Latin America was fought by two equally authoritarian sides.”  

While The Economist insists that this in no way “mitigates the inexcusable barbarity” of Cold War-era dictatorships, the assertion of equal authoritarianism nevertheless sets up a false equivalency that is simply inaccurate.

As Colin Snider writes at Americas South and North, to be authoritarian one must have control of the tools of power: “Even if armed lefts had taken power, we’ll never know if they would have committed violence on the level of the right-wing dictatorships, because the armed and revolutionary lefts did not take power. The right did.” Mike Allison of Central American Politics points to several examples of widespread abuses by Guatemala’s URNG, El Salvador’s FMLN and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, but also argues that the authoritarian right’s human rights violations throughout the region dwarfed abuses of the authoritarian left in places like Cuba and Nicaragua.

Snider also makes an excellent point regarding the magazine’s tacit acceptance of a totally “objective” history. As he notes, using -- as The Economist does -- initial estimates that “just” 8,960 people were disappeared in Argentina to discredit the current figure of roughly  30,000 ignores the fact that the earlier estimate is a product of a fragile period, in which the military still held significant influence.

Lillie at Memory in Latin America makes a similar point, and argues that this version of what is commonly referred to as the “dos demonios” theory (in which both sides were equally violent and flawed) amounts to endorsing a “means of obscuring human rights abuses and seeking to paper over the crimes of the past.”

Researcher and freelance reporter Steven Bodzin also offers a valuable take on The Economist piece, publishing a transcript of a 2013 interview he conducted with Ricardo Brodsky, executive director of Chile’s Museo de la Memoria, just before the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup. In it, Brodsky responds to criticisms like those made in the magazine article, which insinuates that the museum’s interpretation of history lacks context. According to Brodsky: “This context is the installation of the dictatorship, the elimination of political parties, Congress, the free press, the creation of security apparatus and control above all, the end of the rule of law, is the context of the human rights violations. This context is very close to this museum. So the criticism of context lacks a basis.”

There’s little more to add on this that hasn’t already been said, but for this author it seems appropriate to make one other point regarding The Economist’s evidence for its argument. One of the few concrete examples of historical revisionism given in the piece is the allegation that “most young Uruguayans mistakenly believe that the Tupamaro urban guerrillas (whose survivors are now in office) fought a military dictatorship rather than helped to topple a civilian democracy.”

The source for this claim, according to the magazine, is former President Julio María Sanguinetti. While the Colorado Party figure is absolutely correct in asserting that Uruguay’s MLN carried out most of its armed activity against a democratic regime in the 1960s and early ‘70s, the group cannot reasonably be said to have helped “topple” the government. The insurgency was militarily defeated by late 1972, and most of its main leaders -- including MLN founder Raul Sendic, current President Jose Mujica and current Defense Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro --  were imprisoned by then.

Uruguay’s democracy was only “toppled” by President Juan Maria Bordaberry of the Colorado Party, under whom Sanguinetti initially served as Minister of Education. In June 1973, Bordaberry dissolved Congress after steadily increasing the military’s role in internal security matters and in response to intensifying labor conflicts. He began ruling by decree with the support of the military, thus laying the foundation for the “civic-military” dictatorship that ruled Uruguay until 1985.

It would seem, then, that The Economist itself is guilty of engaging in the kind of historical revisionism it claims to condemn.

News Briefs
  • The White House has once again identified Bolivia and Venezuela, along with Myanmar, as the three countries that have “failed demonstrably” to make significant efforts to adhere to their international counterdrug obligations. In a memo issued to the State Department and published on Monday, the president also named a list of 22 drug-producing or drug transit countries.
  • Lorent Saleh and Gabriel Valles, the two Venezuelan opposition activists who made international headlines after Colombia deported them back to Venezuela for allegedly violating the terms of their visas, have been accused of inciting violent rebellion in their home country. Semana magazine reports on a recording released yesterday on a Chavista program in which the two appear to confirm plans to receive military training in Colombia, which comes after the emergence of photos of the two holding what seemed to be automatic weapons.
  • The Miami Herald reports on the growing political conflict in Haiti surrounding the court-ordered house arrest of ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is being investigated on corruption charges that his supporters say amount to political persecution. While a judge has ruled that Aristide cannot receive visitors without authorization, a group of opposition lawmakers and Aristide allies are planning on visiting the former leader in his home today in a show of defiance.
  • Today’s New York Times features a profile of Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva, describing how her anti-establishment image, humble origins and promise of “new politics” have resonated with many Brazilians who are tired of entrenched corruption and faulty public services.
  • The AP has a report on the struggles of indigenous Brazilians to maintain their identities even as increasing deforestation and the promise of employment have drawn them to the slums of major cities. According to the news agency roughly one in four indigenous people are believed to be living in urban areas, where they face fierce discrimination.
  • Pope Francis yesterday met with an Argentine judge to assist in an investigation into the 1976 death of Bishop Enrique Angelelli, a left-leaning bishop who is suspected of being killed by the junta. While the Vatican has not provided any details of the meeting, last year Francis provided information showing that Angelilli had informed Rome of his problems with military authorities.
  • IPS has an analysis of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s endorsement of a bill that would overturn the country’s amnesty law, which could open up a new chapter in the country’s post-dictatorship era. The news agency also has some good coverage of last week’s Fifth Latin American Conference on Drug Policy in Costa Rica, noting the manner in which repressive drug policy regimes throughout the hemisphere have disproportionately hurt the poor.
  • In Venezuela news, two stories in today’s press offer a glance at the extent and impact of good shortages in the country. Reuters has a look at the increasingly inventive ways that Venezuelans with the means to travel are turning to purchase tickets out of the country, now that most major airlines have cut back service there. Venezuela’s status as the nation with one of the highest levels of plastic surgery rates has taken a hit as a result of the difficulty of procuring foreign currency and imported items there, leaving many plastic surgeons unable to get standard brand name breast implants, the AP reports.
  • The New Republic looks at the work of Salvadoran photographer Fred Ramos, who has taken a series of photos of the outfits worn by unidentified individuals found in anonymous graves in the country in recent years. In addition to providing a haunting reminder of the prevalence of violence in the country, Ramos’ work offers relatives of the missing a potential way to identify them by their clothing.
  • Yesterday, Hurricane Odile hit Mexico’s Baja California, forcing the evacuation of thousands, leaving many without power and wreaking havoc on infrastructure and tourist areas alike. The Washington Post reports that it is the most powerful hurricane to hit Mexico’s Baja Peninsula on record.