Landscapes of Memory: Argentina’s persistent struggles over the past

As memorials for victims of state violence face challenges, the state needs to step in to support them.

Memorials help families of victims of state repression and human rights activists keep memory of the past alive in Argentina [Reuters]

As Argentina welcomed in a new year, it is forced to look back into the past with the latest controversy [Es] surrounding Buenos Aires’ Parque de la Memoria. Located on the Costanera Norte, by the city’s iconic Rio de la Plata, the 14-hectare sculpture park opened in 2007 as a joint initiative between the city government and a number of human rights organisations.

The site also houses the Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism [Es], which names over 8000 of the thousands of people disappeared or murdered at the hands of the Argentine state between the 1960s and 1980s, and most notably during the infamous 1976-83 dictatorship.

It is clear that concern over the Parque de Memoria resonates beyond this one memorial site and has wider repercussions for the uncertain future of such initiatives and the ways in which past state violence is addressed by present and future governments in Argentina.

Closing down the memorial? 

On January 2 staff members at the park were informed by Claudio Avruj, the Undersecretary of Human Rights and Cultural Pluralism for the Buenos Aires City government (a body that falls under the auspices of the city mayor Mauricio Macri) that they would not be receiving a salary increase [Es] this year. This came at a time when inflation rates were rising. Ironically, workers from other departments had been granted an annual rise.

The 27 park workers were also given an ultimatum: If they were unhappy about the situation, they were free to resign from their posts. In response, the press release issued [Es] by the park’s staff accused the local Buenos Aires city government of endangering their job security and likened the move to an internal purge which could lead to the site’s eventual closure.

As the park director, Nora Horshbaum, indicated in an interview to one Argentine news agency, the issue goes beyond the dignified treatment and rights of the workers. It points to the city government’s lack of commitment [Es] to initiatives designed to generate societal conscience and engagement with Argentina’s recent past.

Horshbaum accused the government of “wishing to convert the park into a place devoid of any content [Es]”. Park employees and human rights organisations and supporters began to put together a plan of action to defend the park [Es], as well as launching an online petition [Es] to lobby the Buenos Aires government against the closure of the park.

The origins of Parque de la Memoria

Controversy is nothing new for the park; its short history points to successive post-dictatorship government’s limited interest in addressing the past. Since the proposal to create a park was first introduced in the late 1990s – a time when addressing past state violence was marginalised – its proponents have faced a number of challenges.

The names of victims of state repression in Argentina etched on a monument in Parque de la Memoria [Cara Levey]

Despite the initial optimism in the early and mid-1980s that the perpetrators of gross human rights violations (including forced disappearance and illegal kidnapping of babies) would be held accountable for their actions, by the late 1980s the Argentine government had chosen a path of amnesty and impunity under the guise of reconciliation. The December 1986 Full Stop law [Es] and the June 1987 Due Obedience law [Es] ended the possibility of criminal prosecution in most cases of atrocities committed by the security forces. Two sets of pardons for individuals already convicted or facing prosecution were later issued by President Carlos Menem in October 1989 and December 1990.

The context in which the park was created was rather different to the first decade after the dictatorship ended in 1983. From the mid-1990s in particular, human rights organisations and victims groups were starting to break through the wall of impunity through numerous initiatives such as the escraches [Es]loud festive demonstrations organised and undertaken by the group Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio (HIJOS) to expose the perpetrators of human rights violations benefitting from impunity to society; truth trials – judicial actions expressly limited to the investigation and documentation of disappearances; and the occurrence of some criminal trials of high-ranking junta members for the clandestine birth and illegal adoption of babies born to women prisoners.

The “Impunity Laws”, as they are commonly known, remained in place throughout the 1990s, and the government remained opposed to addressing the past. For example, during Menem’s second amnesiac mandate, the President followed up the pardons of his first administration with his proposed 1998 bill to convert the ESMA – one of Argentina’s most notorious dictatorship-era detention centres – into a green space, demolish the buildings and construct a monument of “national unity” in its place

However, the concerted effort from human rights activists, relatives and victim organisations to bring the past into the public sphere persisted. The initiative for the Parque de la Memoria emerged when a group of former students from the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires inaugurating a sculpture with a list of pupils from the school who had been forcibly disappeared, decided to approach a number of human rights organisations with a proposal for a sculpture park and monument to victims of the dictatorship. Taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the inauguration of a new city government in 1997, 10 human rights organisations and former students presented their proposal, which was duly approved.

Uncertain future?

By the time the park was officially opened in November 2007 at a large and well-attended ceremony featuring the incumbent president Nestor Kirchner and his successor and wife Cristina Fernandez, the national government’s approach to addressing the past stood in marked contrast to the policies of previous post-dictatorship governments. The year 2005 was seminal [Es] in the struggle against impunity.

Park guides had to go on a strike for not receiving their pay for months in 2008 [Cara Levey]

In June 2005, the Supreme Court of Justice – which had the final say – upheld the Congress nullification of the “Impunity Laws” and declared the amnesties unconstitutional. This policy of supporting judicial change that led to hundreds of human rights trials since 2006 went hand in hand with a policy of supporting commemorative initiatives. For example, Kirchner’s intervention was crucial in securing the recuperation of the ESMA in 2004 and its inauguration as a space for memory.

However, once inaugurated, memorials often suffer financial difficulties which are sometimes caused by local government politics.

In May 2008 the Parque de la Memoria had to close for some time, as its guides went on strike for not being paid by the city government for months. This happened shortly after the election of the right-wing mayor Mauricio Macri in 2007, which provoked considerable concern for human rights activists. They feared that under Macri commemorative initiatives would be less of a priority.

Going forward, it is vital that present and future governments not only agree to the construction of memorials, but that they ensure their permanence and accessibility over time. Sites like the Park are not only important as sites of homage or places for those directly affected by the crimes, but are sites that aim to promote wider public engagement with the past as the estimated 500,000 visitors [Es] in 2013 attests.

Cara Levey is a lecturer in Hispanic Studies at University College Cork, Ireland. She is also a Coordinator at the Argentina Research Network in the United Kingdom. 

Dr Francesca Lessa is a postdoctoral researcher at the Latin American Centre and St Anne’s College, University of Oxford, specialising on issues of justice and human rights in Uruguay.