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.
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