Guide The Struggle for Memory in Latin America: Recent History and Political Violence

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Without these elements, transitional justice processes may bring solace to a handful of survivors in specific cases, but such processes cannot solve the underlying drivers of conflict just because peace accords have been signed or the truth has been unearthed. Given these limitations, memory studies has grown as a new kind of postconflict scholarship that allows for more measured expectations as to how contested memories will be addressed at the state level and what we can expect from these efforts.

But this usage is admittedly problematic for describing the post—civil war or internal conflict period, which frequently does not resemble peace in either positive protection of rights or negative absence of violence form. As the transitional justice literature continues to grow and change, terms to describe the post—peace accord epoch need continual revision to most accurately distinguish the characteristics of the violent past from the violent present.

So how do postconflict cases illustrate the relationships between memory, democracy, and justice? Each of the six books considered here makes broader contributions to the memory and democratization literatures as well as to their disciplinary and case-specific arenas.

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The group of books, taken together, constitutes a tour de force in how memory, politics, and culture interact. Taken separately, most offer nuanced insight into how human rights can be addressed in the aftermath of major violence. Transitional justice may not have delivered in the optimistic ways once envisioned, but memory persists. The four subsections below represent both thematic and geographical grouping of the books to most clearly address their contributions. Reflections on Memory and Democracy , edited by Merilee S.

Sergio Bitar, a former high-level government official in Chile who spent many years in exile, resolves that while coexistence with past human rights violators is possible, reconciliation is not Grindle and Goodman, In this way, the subjectivity of memory can be seen as a liability for democracy. Without accurate representation of forensic truth in the national consciousness, she argues, there is little hope for a robust social contract that will ensure the benefits of democracy for all citizens.

In countries such as Guatemala, the truth of targeted persecution of indigenous citizens goes hand in hand with the struggle for special protections in the postwar period, points out Ava Berinstein in her contribution to the volume Grindle and Goodman, — June Erlick documents the struggle for truth in Guatemala through the case of Irma Flaquer, a disappeared journalist, and shows how impunity curbs freedom of expression and ultimately thwarts democratic aspirations Grindle and Goodman, In their own ways and with illustrations from a range of cases, each of the authors in this edited volume acknowledge the inherently political nature of memory and its implications for democracy.

Within multiple disciplines, academics are firmly inserting the necessity of theorizing memory not just as a thing on which history is founded but rather as a political battleground to be navigated in the process of reweaving social connections and institutional politics after periods of violence. Kirsten Weld paints a picture of forsaken government papers holding clues to civil war violence in her book, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala.

In a little more than a decade, the AHPN has become a prime site for truth and justice seekers as well as a new political battleground in the memory wars of Latin America. With more than eighty million pages of documents being processed after its somewhat miraculous and accidental discovery 2 , surely there must be some answers in the AHPN. Weld describes the paths being charted through these numerous roles for the archive, and the many pitfalls encountered along the way.

Weld discusses the tension between two vernacular definitions of history: history as physical truth that is written about, and history as a collection of numerous narratives 6. Not only what historians write about is controversial, but what they actually write is, too 6.


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For example, was there a genocide in Guatemala, or is it just a narrative of genocide that has been produced 6? How do historical narratives interact with documentary evidence? Indeed, Weld characterizes the archive as another incarnation of a war tactic, with index cards and filing cabinets as weapons, not just guns and international aid In addition, arguments about the necessity of keeping state secrets to ensure state security are sometimes deployed to further deflect demands for information access.

There are numerous reasons why the AHPN, and the police themselves, have largely been overlooked in the wider memory and politics literatures. Weld joined the team of project workers trying to salvage documents at AHPN in and performed much inglorious grunt work as she gained trust there.

Because of this, like all good ethnographers, she has insight into challenges for the project across a range of issues, both tangible and theoretical. This different focus, on the process rather than archival objects themselves, sets this work apart from other books by historians, and also makes it more widely useful to a range of disciplines. Control over archives is control over official agendas. Control over agendas translates into political power. One of the disturbing theories concerning political power put forth in Paper Cadavers is the claim that procedural democracy, meaning free elections and the institutions that support them, was embraced in Guatemala not as part of a well-meaning democratizing turn, but as a calculated counterinsurgency strategy In recent years there has been attention in Global North social science research for researchers to be self-reflective 6 and aware of their potential impact beyond academia.

Weld demonstrates these attributes in meaningful ways by writing about her own experience in becoming involved in the archive restoration. She also discusses the impact of the archives on both young and older Guatemalans working there, and goes deeper into the personal stories of numerous youth to illustrate the social and political dynamics at play.

Several interesting case pairings bring comparative leverage to the volume. The political and cultural implications of displaying human remains in Cambodia and Rwanda constitutes one such chapter, while in another chapter renowned Argentine forensics expert Luis Fondebrider addresses the intersection of forensic anthropology and political violence in Latin America and the Balkans.

In this way, the volume situates exhumations as a material manifestation of nationalist politics. States and civil society vie for control over narratives of the violent past, and bodies are the currency that determines truth from fiction. In other words, exhumations challenge the state-as-victor-writing-history paradigm, as the reburial with dignity process enables communities and families to regain agency not just in deciding what to do with their deceased loved ones but by calling attention to their legitimacy as political and social actors.

The notion of dignity is central in this volume.

Surviving family members yearn for it. States and their associated militaries and paramilitary forces have done their most to deny it both to victims and to surviving relatives. Exhumations serve as sites for redignification, giving dignity back to the body. Because reinscribing dignity in this way fundamentally challenges past decisions by state actors, it is politically contested terrain, both literally, in the cases of grave sites, and figuratively, regarding what the body and the reburial process represent to all involved.

An overall contribution this volume makes is to scale up the role of memory in politics.


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  4. This transpires by documenting how individual mourning rituals operate as elements of political transformation first locally, but then more broadly as states navigate the aftermath of mass atrocity. Exhumations, and the legal, spiritual, social, political frameworks they entail, are a means to wrestle with not just the violent past, as represented by physical bodies, but the future social contract. How will divisions between state actors and their opposition be managed moving ahead? With mass human rights violations, or through democratic deliberations?

    Two of the books in this review focus on corporal terrain, specifically on sexual violence, as a human rights violation with major implications for postconflict justice in Peru. The civil war in Peru took place from to and resulted in the deaths of more than seventy thousand people, as well as the forced displacement of nearly half a million Peruvians.

    She defines sexual violence as one type of gender-based violence, which more broadly refers to any violence towards any subgroup, including men, women, and children, because of gendered behaviors or gender identity It is painful in that the vignettes she shares cut to the core and remind those of us who theorize about, but do not live violence in its overt forms, how truly devastating violence is.

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    The book is necessary in its central contribution, that sexual violence, rather than operating solely on a rape-is-a-weapon-of-war premise, in fact reflects the normal structures of race, gender, and class hierarchies in a society and therefore cannot be excused as an aberration of violent conflict. Instead, Boesten confronts us with the theory that sexual violence in war is an exaggerated demonstration of sexual violence during peacetime This argument moves us away from dealing with rape as a political tool uniquely deployed in specific, historically bound moments, and toward the systematic analysis that rape is culturally sanctioned within certain guidelines.

    Therefore, addressing sexual violence in postconflict reconstruction actually necessitates addressing sexual violence as a culturally embedded phenomenon all the time. In this way, her claim that sexual violence during the conflict reflects, produces, and normalizes inequalities across gender, race, and economic lines calls for a deep structural analysis that the rape-as-weapon-of-war thesis does not necessarily require. There are clearly similarities between sexual violence during war and peace, including rape as an act of male domination of women, domination of indigenous women by mestizo men, and domination of the peasant class by the working and middle to upper classes Boesten, 43— However, Boesten identifies two ways in which wartime sexual violence is different from that occurring in peacetime: prevalence and impunity The varied process of collective remembering that has gained strength in Peru after the investigation made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reflects this contentiousness of memory in a variety of ways.

    Arguably, the most interesting struggles over memory are those that take place between the supporters and practitioners of memory. Many others had existed before the Commission was created and some of them are still alive. They all constitute an interesting social dynamic of remembering and commemoration which both follows the master narrative laid out by the Truth Commission and contends with some particular aspects of its Final Report.

    That was the work done by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from to The Peruvian TRC was a state-based, official, although independent, body that was created to investigate the serious crimes and human rights abuses perpetrated during the period both by the guerrilla and by state actors. Its existence was made possible in the context of the negotiations that were carried out after the demise of the authoritarian regime of Alberto Fujimori. The task was to build a narrative that would provide the widest-ranging context for the facts, one that would be authoritative and compelling enough to inaugurate a new dialogue about the past.

    The Peruvian Commission was able to listen to 17, testimonies.

    Historicizing the Living Past in Latin America

    These direct utterances of suffering were put in dialogue with social analysis in order to convey a sense of violence as a historic process. This was an interpretation that did not replace the key factual findings that are at the core of any truth-telling exercise, namely, number of victims and the patterns of criminality that characterized the process.

    Some dominant aspects of the interpretation thus elaborated by the Commission include:. Upon these interpretations and findings, the Commission made a set of recommendations aimed at bringing perpetrators to trial, making amends with victims through an ample reparations program and making institutional reforms that, through a much needed transformation of state-society relations, would prevent collective violence from resurfacing again.

    Many trials have been initiated by criminal courts; however, they are mostly low-profile trials dealing with crimes committed by low-rank troops. The reparations program is not functioning yet, although an act that creates it does already exist. Institutional reforms of any kind have never reached the government agenda which means that the flaws of the State that permitted the massive abuse of human rights have not been corrected. Nevertheless, it might be still too soon to draw conclusions about the results of truth-telling in Peru. The achievements of truth and justice used to be a matter of long-run processes.

    In the meantime, the workings of memory are the best opportunity for an agenda of peace with justice to gain strength.

    Military History

    In Peru, below the current of anxiety over economic growth and the world crisis of these days, memory is the battle-field where the possibility of some important transformations will be decided in the years to come. The TRC was created during a specific political context, that of political transition. However, when the TRC released its report many things had changed. The military had to some degree regained its influence in Peruvian political life. And the country was starting a cycle of economic prosperity that completely captured the imagination of the political elite.