“State repression and the struggles for memory,” Elizabeth Jelin

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
10 September 2006


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"State repression and the struggles for memory"

by Elizabeth Jelin

Latin American Bureau | December 2003 | ISBN 1899365656

Extract from the introduction to "State repression and the struggles for memory"

"One cannot want Auschwitz to return for eternity, since in truth it has never ceased to take place; it is always already repeating itself."

- Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz

Reading the newspapers in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, and Peru at the turn of the millennium may sometimes resemble travelling through a time tunnel. In addition to the obvious economic, political, and police problems of the moment, the news headlines include a number of stories that reflect the persistence of a past that is everlasting and does not wish to pass: the comings and goings of Pinochet's detention in London and Santiago, and his subsequent indictment (and acquittal on the basis of senility and mental health deficiencies) for crimes committed in Chile in 1973; the "truth trials" to clarify the truth about forced disappearances during the second half of the 1970s and the trials to establish the identity of children (now in their early twenties) kidnapped during the military dictatorship in Argentina; the commission investigating the circumstances of the death of former president Goulart (in 1976), and the official procedures to establish who is entitled to economic reparations for victims of the Brazilian dictatorship; the first official recognition that repression and disappearances took place during dictatorship, and the establishment of a Peace Commission in Uruguay; the coming to light of information contained in documents found in the Archive of Terror in Paraguay; the establishment of a Truth Commission in Peru. The list can be supplemented by the new information about the regional-level workings of Operation Condor being persistently released.

These issues about the past are emerging across the institutional landscape and in the various branches and levels of the state: the executive, the judiciary, national and provincial legislatures, special commissions, the armed forces, the police. The heart of republican institutionality is being pushed to face issues that entail coming to terms with a past that goes back several decades. These new items are returning to the front pages after several years of institutional silence and (apparently unsuccessful) efforts to construct a democratic future without looking at the past. This is so because, as conveyed by the very appropriate title of Patricio Guzman's film, memory is obstinate, it does not resign itself to remain in the past, insisting on its presence.

In fact, at the level of state institutions, the first half of the 1990s was a low point in actions and initiatives related to human rights violations during a dictatorship in South America. It seemed as if a kind of equilibrium between various political and social forces had been reached. In Argentina, the trials and convictions of the members of the military juntas were followed by legal moves to limit liabilities and by presidential pardon in 1990. In Uruguay, amnesty laws implemented by the civilian government were followed by an attempt to reverse these laws in a plebiscite, a move that was defeated by popular vote in 1987. In Chile, the instalment of the constitutional government in 1990 came hand in hand with a continuing strong position of the military and especially of the commander in chief, General Pinochet. There was only limited debate in Brazil concerning that country's protracted military government. In Paraguay, by contrast, in spite of the continuities in real power and personalised politics, some trials did take place, and soon after the discovery of the Archivos del terror opened up the regional dimension of the issues involved. And Peru was at the height of political violence when President Fujimori took office in 1990. Nobody could have predicted that things were going to change so much in a few years.

At the societal and cultural level, however, there were fewer silences. Human rights movements in these countries have maintained a significant presence, linking the demands to settle accounts with the past (demands for justice) with the founding principles of democratic institutions. Those directly affected by repression bear their suffering and pain, which they translate into various types of public action. Artistic expressions in film, narrative, fine arts, theatre, dance and music often incorporate that past and its legacies.

This book seeks to contribute some tools to think about and analyse the presences, silences, and meanings of the past. I will do this on different planes and levels - the political and the cultural ones, the symbolic and the personal, historical understandings and social spheres - building on three central premises or guiding principles.

First, memories are to be understood as subjective processes anchored in experiences and in symbolic and material markers. Second, memories are the object of disputes, conflicts and struggles. This premise involves the need to focus attention on the active and productive role of participants in these struggles. It is they who generate meanings of the past, framed by the power relations in which their actions are embedded in the present. Third, memories must be looked at historically; that is, there is a need to "historicize" memories, which is to say that the meanings attached to the past change over time and are part of larger, complex social and political scenarios. There are also variations in the place assigned to memories in different societies and cultural settings and across the distinct spaces in which political and ideological struggles take place.

The analytical challenges that memory poses cannot be addressed successfully through an itinerary that is linear, coherent and univocal. Thus, the text explores different perspectives and approaches to the subject. Some approaches are conceptual and aim to develop analytical frameworks, while others engage in more concrete perspectives that cut across studies and reflection about memory. I hope that these multiple approaches converge and shed light on the very elusive subject of the societal construction of memories and meanings of the past. The text may appear decentred. In fact, such is the nature of memory itself. The reader will have to travel through a winding path that touches on the core issues related to memories, with many side trails and detours. Furthermore, the goal is not to offer definitive text or a definitive clarification of the field; rather the book is intended to offer reflections that stimulate further studies and dialogues. This approach necessarily means that there will be gaps and undeveloped or underdeveloped themes. To mention just one, the book does not offer an analysis of ethnicity, with respect either to the role of memories in the construction of ethnic communities, or to interethnic or intercultural differences in the conceptualisation of time, and the symbolic location of the past. Nor is there a presentation of the centrality of ethnicity in specific historic processes of violence and repression (such as in Peru and Guatemala).

Discussion of contemporary memories can rarely be done from outside the scenario where struggles are taking place. The researcher cannot avoid being involved, incorporating his or her subjectivity, experience, beliefs, and emotions, and incorporating as well his or her political and civic commitments, in my case, this includes a strong belief that human conviviality - even among diverse and conflicting groups - is possible and desirable, although difficult. Also, I strongly believe that critical analysis and reflection are tools that, as committed researchers, we can and should offer, especially to the weakest and most excluded members of society, as resources for their process pf reflection and empowerment.

The anchors of "Our" memories

The urgency to work on understanding memory does not exist outside specific political and cultural contexts. Although this book seeks to present some general reflections, they are offered from a specific vantage point, namely that of unveiling the traces of the dictatorships that governed the countries of the southern Cone of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, and in understanding how these traces unfolded during post-dictatorial 1990s.

In fact, democratisation processes that follow military dictatorships are neither simple or easy. Once formal democratic mechanisms are instituted, the challenge becomes how best to develop and deepen them. Confrontations inevitably arise over the content of democracy, and this is all the more to be expected in a region such as Latin America, faced as it is with enormous difficulties in virtually all arenas of collective affairs: economic and social rights are increasingly constrained by the prevailing commitment to the market and to neoliberal policies and programs; police violence is ongoing, systematic and reiterative; the most elementary of civil rights are threatened daily; and minorities face systematic institutional discrimination. All types of obstacles to a true "rule of law" are in evidence. Such realities pose the question as to the continuities and ruptures between the dictatorial regimes and the fragile, incipient, and incomplete constitutional regimes that have followed them. These continuities and ruptures can be analysed both in terms of everyday lives of different social groups and in terms of the social and political struggles that unfold in the present.

Today, some social and political actors believe that repression and abuses are phenomena of the dictatorial past. Others emphasise the ways that inequality and the mechanisms of domination in the present both reproduce and evoke the past. The recent dictatorial past is, nonetheless, a central part of the present. Social and political conflicts over how to understand and work through the recent repressive past remain active in the present and often are even intensified or deepened. For those who fight for justice for violations of human rights, achievements have been very limited or null. Despite the protests of the victims and their defenders, laws granting amnesty to the perpetrators of human rights violations were enacted throughout the region. For human rights activists, "never again" involves a complete accounting of violations under dictatorship, as well as the corresponding punishment of the perpetrators. Other observers and actors, concerned primarily with the stability of democratic institutions, are less inclined to reopen the painful experiences of authoritarian repression. They emphasize the need to concentrate their efforts in building a better future, rather than continuously revisiting the past. Consequently, they promote the policies of oblivion or "reconciliation."

Finally, there are those who visit the past to applaud and glorify the "order and progress" brought about, in their view, by the dictatorships. All of these positions reflect the ongoing struggles and are ties to current political situations. Some actors may cast them as a continuation of the same political fights they waged in the past, but, in fact, under changed circumstances and faced with new actors, the meaning of the past is inevitably transformed. Even actors keeping the same banners have to assign new meanings to the past that they want to "preserve."

In any given moment and place, it is impossible to find one memory, or a single vision and interpretation of the past shared throughout society, there may be moments or historical periods when a consensus is more pervasive, when a single script of the past is widely accepted, or even hegemonic. Normally, the dominant story will be the one told by the winners of historical conflicts and battles. Yet there will always be other stories, other memories, and alterative interpretations. These endure in spaces of resistance, in the private sphere, in the "catacombs" of history. There is an active political struggle not only over the meaning of what took place in the past but over the meaning of memory itself. The space of memory is thus an arena of political struggle that is frequently conceived in terms of struggle "against oblivion": remember so as not to repeat. These slogans, however, can be tricky. Slogans such as "memory against oblivion" or "against silence" hide an opposition between distinct and rival memories (each one with its own forgetfulness). In truth, what is at stake is an opposition of "memory against memory."

* * *

About the author: Elizabeth Jelin is a sociologist and researcher at CONICET (National Council for Science and Technology, Argentina), a lecturer at the university of Buenos Aires and academic director of the programme "Collective Memory and Repression". Her many publications include Constructing Democracy: Human Rights, Citizenship, and Scoiety in Latin America (1996) and Family, Household and Gender in Latin America (2000).

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