Rescuing the memory of Latin America

The Rios Montt trial helps rescue memories to construct alternative histories of Latin America.

Efrain Rios Montt was indicted for massacres that resulted in the killing of over 1,700 people in the early 1980s [AFP]

It took 10 days for Guatemala’s Constitutional Court to annul the historic conviction of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt. In Brazil, despite testimonials that brought the room to tears, the government insists the Truth Commission will not lead to judicial prosecutions. In both cases, justice remains uncertain, but the rescuing of memory has been unleashed.

The Rios Montt trial is not only about bringing justice to victims, just like Brazil’s Truth Commission is not only about unveiling the truth of human rights violations. It is also about rescuing memories to construct alternative histories of Latin America.

Unlike the verdict, this rewriting of history cannot be annulled. It is uncertain whether Rios Montt will end his life behind bars, but it is now clear to all that he is the perpetrator of a brutal genocide.

The torturers under Brazil’s military regime may not be prosecuted, but society knows who they are and what horrendous crimes they committed. As the violence of military dictatorships is officially spoken and recognised, it ineluctably changes the way Latin America tells its history.

Calling genocide by its name in Guatemala

On May 10, a Guatemalan court sentenced former President Rios Montt to 80 years in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide. Immediately after losing his immunity as Congressman in January 2012, Rios Montt was indicted for massacres that resulted in the killing of over 1,700 people in the early 1980s.

Judge Yasmin Barrios determined that the mass murders, forced displacement, rapes and torture committed against the Ixil indigenous population under his rule were designed to exterminate them as a people. 

The court trial succeeded against all odds. Not that there was not enough proof. About 100 witnesses testified about the atrocities committed during his brief presidency. Yet the defence pulled out all the stops in its efforts to annul the trial. Defence lawyers filed over 100 legal appeals to derail the proceedings, prompting the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to denounce these transparent attempts at obstructing the prosecution.

Threats against Judge Barrios were so intense that she never left the courtroom without a bulletproof vest. Now Rios Montt’s defence is trying to resurrect an old amnesty law passed in 1986 by another dictator (even though it was legally repealed during the peace accords) to escape trial. 

What are the odds that a country as unequal as Guatemala can succeed in putting one of its own political elite behind bars? It is hard even to courts to jail a dictator because, in effect, it is the entire political apparatus of the state supporting the accused on trial.

Take for instance, General Jorge Rafael Videla, the architect of Argentina’s “Dirty War”. He was first convicted in 1985, later pardoned by President Carlos Menem in 1990, spent time under house arrest until another court sent him back to jail in 2010. When he died in jail last month, another trial regarding his role in Operation Condor was taking place. He was sentenced to life various times, but spent only a few years in jail.

As Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel points out, what was at stake in Videla’s trials was Operation Condor, a coordinated effort supported by the US under which Latin American dictatorships shared information in the 1970s to exterminate their political opposition. Similarly, what is at stake in Guatemala also goes well beyond Rios Montt.

Brazil’s dormant truth

Brazil’s Truth Commission confronts the difficult challenge to expose the truth about the violence that took place under the military dictatorship some 40 years ago. The Commission was created last year to restore memory, but not to bring justice. In contrast to transitional justice efforts elsewhere, the Brazilian government has repeatedly assured its military that this Commission would not result in prosecutions. As survivors testify to the atrocities committed in military and police torture cells, however, things may change.

Brazilian society is aware that crimes of torture and assassinations were committed during the military regime. Victims and their families have been actively demanding justice for years, and Brazilian Popular Music has generated many protests songs about the violence. 

Former Guatemala leader convicted of genocide

Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso finally recognised the responsibility of the Brazilian state and offered an official apology and compensation. Yet none of that revealed the sadistic violence that had become a state policy during those years.

Brazilians did not know that their military was bringing alligators from the Amazon to walk over the naked bodies of prisoners or that they were inserting cockroaches inside their vaginas.

Last week, filmmaker Lucia Murat tried to describe what she calls indescribable. Her testimony about years of torture that almost killed her at age 22 included intense beatings followed by sessions of electroshocks while hanging naked and wet from a metal bar. Her naked body was covered with cockroaches, and for months, she spent nights tied up enduring what her interrogators called “sexual scientific torture”.

Historian Dulce Pandolfi explained how her body was used for a torture class for trainees, how bruised from so much beating she was laid naked on the floor and walked over by her interrogator, then by alligators.

After such gruesome testimonials, torture ceases to be an abstract legal concept, and it becomes impossible to take the Brazilian dictatorship lightly. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, coordinator of the seven-member commission, supports punishing those responsible for such crimes.

As in the cases of Rios Montt and Videla, however, it will be a fierce political struggle for the cause of justice to win against the resistance of still powerful elites – even though President Dilma Rousseff herself is a survivor of military torture.

Rewriting history

The processes under way in Guatemala and Brazil are both of monumental significance. It is the first time Brazil holds public hearings about the violence committed during the dictatorship, revealing how torture was institutionalised as a state policy.

In Guatemala, Judge Barrios became the first magistrate to ever convict a former head of state in a national tribunal for crimes of genocide. It may not be news that hundreds of thousands of people, mostly among the non-combatant indigenous population, were brutally murdered during Guatemala’s so-called civil war in the 1980s.

Rigoberta Menchu, the 1992 Nobel Peace Laureate, wrote extensively about it in her biography. Even current Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina – next on the prosecution list once he loses his political immunity – admitted of atrocities occurred under his watch. The difference now is that crimes are being denounced in court and punished as genocide and crimes against humanity.

In addition to delivering at least retrospective justice to victims, the process of rescuing memory forces a rewriting of national history. The Rios Montt trial complements and amends Guatemala’s history of “civil war” with a history of genocide. The recovery of memory in Brazil fundamentally challenges the 1979 amnesty law that was passed by the military to secure impunity in the transition to democracy.

As Brazil revises the myth of a relatively benign dictatorship, civil society will demand a reconsideration of the validity of amnesty laws promulgated in very different historical contexts.

Last but not the least, the search for truth and memory in Brazil and Guatemala are denouncing much more than individual crimes – they are denouncing crimes of the state. Guatemala’s court charged Rios Montt as well as the state of Guatemala with the crime of genocide.

The Truth Commission declared the Brazilian state responsible for institutionalising a policy of torture. In both instances, memory is rescued to denounce the violence of states and military regimes that committed genocide and egregious crimes against humanity. As these processes of transitional justice accuse the state, they challenge its historical impunity.

In that sense, their impact goes well beyond national borders and histories. The search for truth and the recovery of memory also challenges the other states implicated in Condor Operation, including Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay and strengthen calls for the opening of US government archives. They demand limits to the state monopoly on violence, which is marked by impunity rather than legitimacy. It is a call that echoes the hunger strikes in the cells of Guantanamo to the Turkish protesters of Taksim Square.

Once memory is recovered, justice is only a matter of time. It remains uncertain whether national judicial systems will be able to put those who committed crimes against humanity behind bars. Justice is a complex process that comes in many forms. Punishing the perpetrators is one of them. Rewriting history and dismantling the impunity of states is equally if not more important. Rescuing memory in Guatemala and Brazil is shaping the future of all of us. 

Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.