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Memory, Justice and Impunity


Memory, Justice and Impunity

by Mike Gatehouse, for LAB  1 5 February 2012

el_mozoteEl Mozote massacre. A monument to the victims, with their names on the wall in the back. (translation: “They have not died. They are with us and with all of humanity.”) Credit: On Our Own PathMemory is the anchor of all cultures, but in Latin America, memoria has acquired a special and vital significance. Memoria provides vital handholds upon the past, clues to what really happened, what was lost, what destroyed, what and who were ‘disappeared’. When societies have been convulsed by wars, coups d’état and dictatorships, memory is the lifeline for survivors. Some who have lost loved ones, choose to remember and to pursue truth and justice. For others, as they seek to rebuild shattered lives, memories may be unbearable for many years, horror best forgotten. Lost histories must sometimes await the curiosity of children and grandchildren for their recovery (recuperación).

Pablo Neruda’s wonderful epic poem Canto General must be one of the world’s longest and most sustained efforts of memoria. Vaster in scale even than Beowulf or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, it chronicles 500 years of invasion, repression and resistance across the entire Latin American sub-continent. Written partly while he was on the run in Chile in 1948, finished when he reached exile the following year, printed and published clandestinely in Chile, Canto General is Neruda’s answer to the dictator, Gonzalez Videla, and the “traitor’s judges who pursue me, and their incense-bearers who, like trained monkeys, try to drown my memory”.




The poet speaks for all those who have died:

Yo vengo a hablar por vuestra boca muerta.

A través de la tierra juntad todos

Los silenciosos labios derramados

Y desde el fondo habladme toda esta larga noche

como si yo estuviera con vosotros anclado…

(I come to speak through your dead mouth.

Across the earth gather together all

the silenced lips that have been strewn there

and from the depths talk to me this long night through

as though I were anchored there with you…)

Memory must bring to light what has been and continues to be hidden, washed away, covered in silence, denied, lied about:

Pero entonces la sangre fue escondida

detrás de las raíces, fue lavada

y negada

(fue tan lejos), la lluvia del Sur la borró de la tierraMemorial garden next to the church (translation: In this place, you will find the remains of 146 people, 140 less than 12 years old. All of them can now be found buried in this monument. EL MOZOTE NO MORE.) Credit: On Our Own Path

(tan lejos fue), el salitre la devoró en la pampa:

y la muerte del pueblo fue como siempre ha sido:

como si no muriera nadie, nada,

como si fueran piedras las que caen

sobre la tierra, o agua sobre el agua.

(But then the blood was hidden

behind the roots, it was washed away


(it was so far away), the rains of the South erased it from the earth

(so far it was), the nitrate consumed it in the pampa:

and the death of the people was what it has always been:

as though no one died, nothing,

as though they were stones dropped to the ground

or water dripping onto water.)

Not content with reviving memory, Neruda demands punishment of the perpetrators:

No quiero que me den la mano

empapada con nuestra sangre.

Pido castigo.

No los quiero de embajadores,

tampoco en su casa tranquilos,

los quiero ver aquí juzgados,

en esta plaza, en este sitio.

(I don’t want to see them offer me their hands

encrusted with our blood.

I demand punishment.

I don’t want them to become ambassadors

I don’t want them to live peacefully at home,

I want to see them judged, here,

on this square, on this spot.)

Bringing the perpetrators to justice

memorial_nerudaMemorial to Pablo Neruda, Santiago 2010. “And it was at that age that poetry came to find me/I don’t know where it came from,/from winter or the river. Homage to Pablo Neruda, 35 years after his death. Mural Collective BRP (Brigada Ramona Parra)”The first, essential step is the attempt to reveal what happened, ‘los hechos’. Truth Commissions have been essential components of any return to democracy, although Brazil is only now starting to establish one. In Chile, the Rettig Commission, set up by Patricio Aylwin, the first democratically elected President after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, established that 2,279 people had been killed illegally, for political reasons, of whom 957 were disappeared. When it was published in March 1991, leading Santiago dailies reproduced the report in its entirety as a printed supplement running to several hundred pages. Newspaper kiosks throughout the city were half buried under gigantic mounds of newsprint, yet by nightfall every copy had been sold.

All truth commissions are limited in scope, time, resources and, to some extent, in courage. Rettig was rightly criticised for limiting his investigation to cases of death and disappearance, omitting torture and false imprisonment and failing to obtain any evidence (reports, prisoner lists, duty rosters, etc.) from the armed forces and police. Yet in 1991 General Pinochet remained head of the Army and had just recently rattled sabres by a ‘summons to barracks’ (acuartelamiento) of all active duty personnel. It was entirely credible that the ageing ex-dictator would attempt another coup if pushed too hard.

The Salvadorean Truth Commission, headed by the ex-President of Colombia, Belisario Betancourt, made only a brief symbolic visit in 1992 to El Mozote, site of one of the worst massacres of the Salvadorean civil war. Here in 1981 hundreds of villagers and children were killed by the army’s Atlacatl counter-insurgency batallion, which was led by graduates of the US Army School of the Americas in Panama and later of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Only now, in 2012, has President Funes finally issued a government apology for the massacre.

Apology is important, but it is not enough. Chile’s President Aylwin wept on television as he received the report of the Rettig commission. Yet the Chilean Army repudiated it and suffred no consequences.

fotos_de_desaparecidos_cordobaPhotos of disappeared prisoners hang in Córdoba, Argentina, 2010From truth and apology, governments too easily pass on to reconciliation. Amnesty decrees are judged expedient, even necessary, ‘so that the country can move on’. In Argentina, post-dictatorship President Alfonsín passed the Law of Due Obedience (1987), which exonerated middle- and low-ranking officers who were ‘following orders’, and before that the Full Stop Law (1986), which set an arbitrary limit to the number of cases the justice system might pursue. Not until 2003 were these two laws repealed by Congress and in 2005 the Argentine Supreme Court finally declared them unconstitutional.Amnesties necessarily confer impunity. If no-one is punished, then perpetrators and their associates are free to deny. In Europe, after almost 70 years, thousands of investigations, trials and sentences completed, holocaust denial is alive and well.

Disappeared prisoners have played a crucial role in the battle that relatives have waged to achieve justice. In Chile, the relatives were able to argue successfully that amnesty laws and statutes of limitation were inapplicable since, in the absence of bodies and death certificates, the crime of illegal detention was still ongoing. Indeed, not least of the macabre sufferings inflicted on families were the repeated statements or insinuations by army personnel and their apologists that the disappeared prisoners had fled abroad and were living the high life in exile.

Even today it can be dangerous for victims or their relatives to demand justice. Revenge is not confined to sabre rattling. During the 2006 trial of Miguel Etchecolatz, police commissioner of Buenos Aires province during the dictatorship, one of the key witnesses, Jorge López, was disappeared for a second time, this time for ever, almost certainly silenced by friends and former colleagues of the commissioner.


Prosecutions of perpetrators have sometimes included charges of genocide. The term is problematic, because of the narrow definition eventually agreed in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG). In the case of the massacres of indigenous groups in Guatemala the case may be relatively easy to substantiate against former President Efraín Rios Montt, because of the overwhelming evidence of targeting of specific ethnic groups. In Argentina, Judge Daniel Obligado has proposed using the term ‘politicide’ to cover the systematic physical elimination of persons for their political ideas or social involvement, irrespective of whether they had broken any law.

The crusading Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzón has his own problems with the definition of genocide and dictatorship crimes. He caused intense annoyance to fellow jurists and international diplomats when he successfully applied for the arrest in Britain in 1998 of General Pinochet, pending an extradition to Spain eventually defeated on ‘humanitarian’ grounds by British Home Secretary Jack Straw. The ‘ailing’ Pinochet duly did a celebratory dance on the runway in Santiago when he touched down after eluding his Spanish persecutors. Garzón also laid genocide charges against Argentinian naval officers Adolfo Scilingo and Miguel Angel Cavallo. Both were convicted in Spain on other charges. But Garzón’s greatest challenge was when in 2008 he opened a controversial inquiry for crimes against humanity committed by General Franco’s government during and after the Spanish Civil War. For his pains, Garzón has very recently been debarred for 11 years from practising as a judge and lawyer.

The social order behind the repression

Museo-de-la-Memoria-Crdoba-2010-02Entrance to the Museo de la Memoria, Córdoba, 2010Memoria, however, is not only about what was done and by whom, but why it was done and for what purpose. Andrés Jaroslavsky’s father Máximo was a doctor, a cardiologist working in Tucumán, Argentina, who was kidnapped, disappeared and killed by the military in November 1975. In the introduction to his book The Future of Memory (LAB 2004) Jaroslavsky quotes Herbert Marcuse: “to forget past suffering means to forgive the powers that caused the suffering—without overcoming those powers”.

Jaroslavsky insists that the dictatorship was not merely about the persecution and elimination of thousands of Argentinians, but about the neo-liberal economic programme the dictatorship introduced.

“Memory is then fundamental, well beyond its commemorative aspects, to understand the economic and political order inherited in Argentina. Perhaps by searching in our history for the reasons why in our country impunity reigns, and identifying the sectors that encourage that impunity for their own benefit, we might be able to construct a reply. Perhaps the first step towards creating a democracy with substance, with memory and justice, is to discover what reality conceals. This book comes out of the humble desire to collaborate in that project: to a country without impunity.”

This idea is further explored (in relation to Chile, Argentina and Brazil, among other countries) by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine. Klein, who meticulously documents the implementation of draconian economic policies, which would never have been accepted by the populace without the ‘shock’ of dictatorship, describes the atmosphere in Buenos Aires, where she was living in 2001. “Argentina erupted in protest against the IMF-prescribed austerity measures and then proceeded to force out five presidents in only three weeks… people kept exclaiming ‘The dictatorship just ended!’ At the time I didn’t understand the meaning behind the jubilation, since the dictatorship had been over for seventeen years. Now I think I do: the state of shock had finally worn off.”

The Colombian writer Héctor Abad Faciolince wrote a moving memoir of his father El Olvido Que Seremos (The Forgotten We Become), the title taken from a poem of Jorge Luis Borges. The writer’s father, Héctor Abad Gómez, a doctor, lecturer and campaigner for public health, was assassinated by paramilitaries in Medellín in 1987. In the epilogue, his son writes: “Lo que yo buscaba era eso: que mis memorias más hondas despertaran…” (What I sought was that my deepest memories should awaken others).

Mike Gatehouse, 15 February 2012

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