The Minefields of Memory

September 25, 2007

Processes of democratization after military dictatorships are not easy or smooth.[1] With democratic mechanisms more or less in place in most Latin American countries—at least at a procedural level—the challenge now is to develop "deep" modes of democracy. Confrontations arise as to the content of democracy itself, while persistent social and economic inequality, continuing instances of police brutality, weak judicial institutions, and attempts to twist and bend the interpretation of constitutional principles to suit the economic and political interests of the powerful make democracy in the region fragile at best. At the same time, however, life in these weak democracies is quite different than it was during the years of military rule. For the most part, citizens no longer live in fear of systematic state repression, and disappearances and torture have become part of the authoritarian past.

That recent past, however, is still very much part of the present. Throughout the region, efforts to bring human rights violators to trial have had little success.

Amnesty laws established by the military or negotiated as part of transitions to democracy institutionalized impunity for those who violated human rights. Where constitutional governments repealed such laws—the most well-known case being Argentina—trials were held and punishment was meted out, but only for a few of the top military officials.[2] In spite of amnesty laws and impunity, however, social activists continue pushing for new trials, both domestically and internationally. Investigations into human rights crimes committed during military rule are ongoing in Spain and other European nations, for example, and the head of the Argentine junta, former General Jorge Rafael Videla, was jailed this past June on charges of aiding in the kidnapping of children during that country's dirty War. The persistence of such cases after more than 20 years is undoubtedly linked to the enduring nature of human rights movements and to the resilience of memory itself.

Many of the victims and their advocates demand a complete accounting of what took place under dictatorial regimes and the corresponding punishment of the perpetrators of abuses, a demand evoked by the phrase "Nunca Más" ("Never Again"), which has become a continent-wide slogan for the struggle against impunity. Others, claiming they are concerned above all with the functioning of democratic institutions, emphasize the need to focus on the future rather than on the past. They are less inclined to revisit the painful experiences of the authoritarian repression and may seek to implement policies of oblivion, usually through a discourse of "reconciliation." Still others are ready to look at the past in order to glorify the "order and progress" that dictatorship presumably secured. Thus, there are competing and conflicting interpretations of the past in societies emerging from periods of violence and trauma, fostering intense social, cultural and political struggles about the place and content of memory in democratization processes.

This inquiry centers on how memory and oblivion are produced and constructed and the ways in which societies incorporate (or exclude) their conflictive and painful past into the present. While my first-hand research is on Argentina, this paper raises broader questions about the study of the historical memory of repression in the process of democratization. [3] The premise is that memory and oblivion, or remembering and social amnesia—and its institutionalized manifestation as amnesty—are an integral part of the process of building identities, both at the individual and the collective levels. They are also an integral part of democratic institution-building.

Analyzing the processes of reconstructing and making diverse and multiple pasts, meaningful requires an examination of the various layers and levels of memory. Such an analysis will not give rise to a new interpretation of what happened in the past, nor will it provide elements or materials for the process of constructing historical memories. The task of analyzing memory is not to render a narrative of the past. Rather, it involves analyzing the process of societal remembering (and forgetting) and examining the various levels and layers in which it operates. The analysis focuses on the relationship between some extremely painful "hard facts'—physical violence, encounters and confrontations in lived experience—and the current and ongoing processes of searching for meaning. The construction of meaning and understanding is part of a cultural process that takes place at the symbolic and subjective levels. Yet this process does not take place in a vacuum—it is rooted in the "hard facts" of the recent past.

In any time and place, it is unthinkable to find a single vision or interpretation of the past that is shared by an entire society, whatever its scope and size. There may be historical moments in which there are greater levels of consensus, when a single narrative is more pervasive or dominant. That narrative will usually be the story of the winners of historical conflicts and battles, but there will always be other stories, other interpretations, other memories.[4] There are, therefore, active and ongoing political struggles about meaning—about the meaning of what went on in the past and also about the meaning of memory itself.

When dealing with the recent past in Latin America, the ways in which memory and oblivion are incorporated in the present varies from country to country, and different groups and institutions within each society hold different opinions on the need to remember or to forget. For many social activists in Argentina, the struggle for memory is taken for granted and has become an unquestionable premise of their lives. Their motto is "Remember! So as not to repeat!" Yet any meaningful discussion of the subject must begin from the premise that there is no single interpretation of the past but rather a conflict about its very nature. Such discussions must also recognize that there are multiple versions of what happened and why, and that there are various ways to name the past and to portray the "truth." The researcher must start from the premise that memory is always selective, and that total memory is impossible and deadening, as Jorge Luis Borges' story of Funes the Memorious, who has lost the ability to forget and is condemned to remember everything, so vividly conveys.[5]

Below I will discuss some of the possible approaches to the study of remembering and forgetting. One approach is to study societal efforts to establish timerelated markers of memory, such as commemoration dates and anniversaries. The second is to look at the spatial dimensions of memory, expressed through sites and monuments. Another possible approach will be highlighted in a brief and preliminary discussion of legitimacy" struggles over memory—who has what rights to determine what should be remembered and how. This refers to the "ownership" of historical memory or, from an actor's perspective, how the collective "we" that remembers the past is constituted—who belongs, who is left out, and how to incorporate new generations. The question of the interrelation between the various layers of individual and collective memory permeates the following discussion but will not be systematically addressed. What should become evident is that there are multiple layers and levels of memories—overlapping and interrelated, individual and collective, subjective and institutionalized—and intense struggles and confrontations are embedded within each of these layers.

The first approach is to examine the struggles over dates, commemorations and anniversaries. Some dates may have very broad significance—such as September 11 in Chile or March 24 in Argentina, the dates of the coups that ushered in military dictatorships in both countries in 1973 and 1976 respectively. Others may be significant at a regional or local level. Recently, for example, local organizers in Ledesma, in the Argentine province of Jujuy, organized a Workshop on Human Rights and Culture in commemoration of the July 1976 "blackout of terror," when sugar workers were brutally repressed by the military. Other dates may have more personal or private significance, such as the anniversary of an abduction or the birthday of someone who was killed during the dictatorship.

Insofar as there are different interpretations of the past, public dates are likely to be the object of dispute or conflict. Particularly in societies emerging from dictatorship, there is seldom consensus on which dates are to be commemorated and for what purpose. For those social actors who frame their current struggles around the very events commemorated by the date in question, the same date may have different meanings ' In Chile, September 11—the date of the 1973 coup and the suicide of Socialist President Salvador Allende—is such a contested date. Established as a national holiday by the military dictatorship, the date continues to generate political confrontation. Now, 25 years after the coup and several years after the transition, Congress is discussing whether or not the date should remain a holiday. Year after year, on such dates, the political struggles of the past and of the present unfold simultaneously. The same event—the military coup, in this instance—is remembered and commemorated in different ways by right and left, by those who support the military and by those linked to the struggle for truth and justice. The meaning of dates, moreover, changes over time as the different visions of the past crystallize and as new generations and new actors give them new meanings.

Dates and anniversaries are critical junctures in which memory is activated. In Argentina, 1996 marked the twentieth anniversary of the military coup. Throughout the year, and particularly during the month of March, commemorations permeated the public sphere. Testimonies and personalized narratives were made public, giving victims and family members an opportunity to speak about events that had been silenced or forgotten. The telling of stories previously unknown and the public recognition of events that had been partially or totally negated or removed from consciousness had an intense emotional impact on large sectors of society, not only those who had personal memories of repression, but also those who, for a variety of reasons, had not been previously exposed to these issues. Faced with the "reality" of reliving fears and disturbing feelings, many people began to ask themselves how the violence, the disappearances, the torture were possible, while everyday life seemed to go on, retaining an appearance of normality.

During such moments, the labors of memory become more inclusive and shared, invading everyday life. Facts are reorganized, existing perspectives and schemes of interpretation are shaken and unsettled, voices of new and old generations ask questions, tell stories, create spaces for interaction and share what they experienced, what they heard, what they once silenced.

Commemorations of this sort are often highly conflictual. In Argentina in 1995, for example, a group of city councilmen in Buenos Aires introduced a proposal which called for turning the building that was one of the dictatorship's clandestine concentration camps, known as El Olimpo, into a Museum of Memory. This camp operated during 1978 and 1979 in a building that now houses an automobile registration office of the Federal Police. After languishing for several months, the project was taken up again in early 1996, when the council members who introduced the project called for the inauguration of the museum on March 22, two days before the twentieth anniversary of the 1976 military coup. To show their support for the initiative, human rights groups called for a gathering on March 22 at El Olimpo to paint a mural that would mark the symbolic inauguration of the Nunca Más Museum of Memory. The proposal prompted heated debates in the City Council. Its sponsors argued that if the project were not approved during the commemorations of the coup, it would never materialize. Other council members effectively boycotted the vote, and the Council was only able to vote to recommend rather than mandate the implementation of the proposal. More than 300 activists went to El Olimpo on March 22, where they were greeted by a wall of policemen encircling the entire block and several anti-riot trucks—a clear sign that painting the walls of El Olimpo would not be tolerated.[6]

Such moments of contestation over commemorations and memorials are markers which provide clues to the processes of remembrance at the subjective and the symbolic levels, where the memories of different social actors are enacted and become "the present," making it easier to analyze the construction of collective, social and public memories. Yet even at such moments, memories are multiple and at times in conflict. Inter-cohort differences among those who lived through repression at different times in their lives, and between them and younger people who have no personal memories of repression, produce distinct social dynamics vis-à-vis the memory issue. Experiences such as having to vacate a school building because of a bomb threat or being stopped by a mili-tary patrol on a highway will have very different meanings according to the age of the person who experienced them. For a young person who was raised during dictatorship, such events may be remembered as part of "normal" life, while for an adult, they may evoke the memory of fear and panic.

Another arena of societal struggles over memory centers on the physical markers of past violence and repression. Monuments and museums, plaques and other markets are some of the ways in which governments as well as social actors try to embody memories. Other social forces, meanwhile, try to erase and transform these physical markers, as if by changing the shape and function of a place one can banish it from memory. Those who call for commemoration often find themselves pitted against those who act "as if nothing has happened here" and who, in some cases, demand recognition of the "heroism" and "patriotism" displayed by the agents of state terrorism. There are also those who "did not know," who did not see—the bystanders of horror.

Controversies and political conflict around monuments, museums and memorials are plentiful everywhere, from Bariloche to Berlin.[7] Spatial markers of memory are attempts to make statements and affirmations, they are facts and gestures, material spaces with a political, collective and public meaning.[8] These are political in at least two senses; first, because their installation is always the result of political struggles and conflicts, and second, because their existence is a physical reminder of a past conflict, which may spark new rounds of conflict in each new historical period or generation. They are public and collective, insofar as they convey and affirm a feeling of belonging to a community, sharing an identity rooted in a tragic and traumatic history. They may also function as a key to the intergenerational transmission of historical memory, though that transmission and its meaning cannot be guaranteed a priori.

Such struggles over monuments and reminders of repression can be seen in several Latin American countries that have recently emerged from periods of violence and repression. These initiatives are usually spearheaded by human rights organizations with the support of a wide array of social organizations, including labor unions, professional organizations, student and parent school associations, some churches, and progressive political parties. They involve a variety of activities. Relatives and friends of victims publish remembrance ads in newspapers, authors publish books analyzing the politics of remembering and forgetting, and local groups propose that streets and parks be renamed after victims of repression or well-known human rights activists.[9] Governments at both the local and national levels have rarely approved initiatives to preserve sites to commemorate or remember repression, yet social actors keep insisting.

By way of illustration, let me take up the fate of the actual sites where dictatorial repression took place. The proposals to turn them into memorials seek to transform these places into bearers of collective and public memory. In a few instances, physical memorial sites have been established, as in the case of the Parque de la Paz—formerly the torture and detention center of Villa Grimaldi—in Santiago. There are also attempts to erase whatever is left of that period, to destroy the buildings and not allow for the materialization of memory. Such was the case with the Punta Carretas prison in Montevideo—the site of years of systematic torture of political prisoners during that Country's military dictatorship—that was transformed into a modern shopping mall.

In fact, many attempts to transform sites of repression into memory sites face opposition, often leading to the physical destruction of monuments. This was the case of the memorials erected at the building known as El Atlético, another clandestine detention center in downtown Buenos Aires.[10] In August 1997, human rights activists organized a "Day of Memory" at the site of El Atlético. They placed a plaque remembering the disappeared and engraved the names of repressors on the wall. During the commemoration event, which included music and theater, a monument made of wire and covered with photographs of the disappeared was constructed on one of the pillars of the highway. But during the night, the plaques were destroyed, the engraved names were painted over, and the monument was torn down. Something similar had happened the year before, when a papier maché tree covered with photographs of the victims built in front of El Atlético by activists was later burned to the ground by molotov cocktails.

In general, monuments and memorials carry a multiplicity of meanings. Some are made explicit by their proponents, while others remain hidden, unconscious or unintended. For example, groups may seek to build a memorial or monument as a form of public censure. Engraving the names of the victims is a way to denounce the crimes that were committed against them, just as engraving the names of the torturers and other agents of state repression is a way of inculpating them for their deeds. Another goal of building such monuments is for the sake of identification and identity, a way of sharing with others who experienced repression either directly or indirectly. They may also serve as a vehicle for the intergenerational transmission so that memory does not die with those who experienced it "in their own flesh and blood." Finally, monuments are historical documents. The physical remembrance becomes memory as well as the substance and material for future memory.

What happens when a proposal to physically situate the act of remembering in a memorial or a monument is unsuccessful, or when memory cannot be materialized in a specific site? Force or administrative measures to obstruct the establishment of such physical markers cannot erase personalized memories, but they often drive the bearers of those memories to seek out alternative channels of expression. When efforts of those who seek to materialize memory are blocked by other social forces, the desire and the will of these actors come into public view. Often, the opposition they encounter stiffens their resolve to achieve their objectives. This is probably one element to explain the persistence and insistence of the human rights movement in Argentina, as well as the incorporation of new generations into the movement via the organization of the children of the disappeared in the newly created group HIJOS. There is no rest for such men and women because memory has not been "deposited" anywhere; it remains only in the minds and hearts of the people. The issue of turning unique, personal and nontransferable feelings into public and collective meanings is then left open and active. The oblivion that certain sectors seek to impose can have the paradoxical effect of multiplying memory, making the questions and the debates about the past more salient.[11]

Both in commemorations around historically significant dates and in the establishment of memory sites, there is usually a political struggle whose main contenders are the societal forces calling for remembrance and those calling for oblivion and erasure. A different kind of struggle takes place within the "memory camp" over the "appropriate" forms or means of remembering and over the legitimacy of actions on behalf of the victims of repression. There is a struggle over the "ownership" of memory, over who has the power to decide what the content of memory should be.

One layer is the confrontation about proper and improper ways to express memory. In Argentina, for example, Carlos Jiménez, a pop singer who wrote a song about a friend who was disappeared, was sharply criticized by some members of the human rights movement. The style of music he plays—the cuarteto cordobés—is not a genre that is fit to commemorate the disappeared, they complained, because it is too light, festive and frivolous. "This is my way of expressing what I feel," responded Jiménez. "I do not know how to do otherwise."

The issue here is whether there are standards of remembrances and memorials. But there is more to this matter: Who has the authority to decide what the "proper" ways to remember are? Who embodies true memory? Can those who did not have the personal experience of repression also participate in the historical process of constructing collective memory? Insofar as there are no official channels that recognize the recent experience of violence and repression, the struggle over the "truth" and "proper" ways of remembering is played out in the societal arena. In that arena, there are continuing conflicts about who can claim and say what.

In the cultural context of postdictatorship Argentina, for instance, there are indications that the claim to truth has been essentialized in biology and in the body. Personal suffering—especially when suffered in one's own body or in close kin connections—is for many the basic determinant of legitimacy and the claim to truth. Yet paradoxically, if social legitimacy to express collective memory is assigned to those who had a personal experience of suffering, that same symbolic authority can derive, consciously or unconsciously, into claims that monopolize the meaning and the content of memory and truth." If the relatives of victims have special claims to the truth, this authority may obstruct the mechanisms of social involvement and the intergenerational transmission of memory—the enlargement of the "we"—by not allowing for the reinterpretation of the meaning of the passed-on experiences. Herein lies a double historical danger: on the one hand, oblivion and institutional void, and on the other, the ritualized repetition of the horrifying and tragic events of the past, which effectively forecloses the possibility of creating new meanings and of incorporating new subjects.

Memory is always an intersubjective relationship based on the act of transmitting and reinterpreting. Even personal memory requires the participation of others: it is group support that gives memory cohesion and structure.[13] When given the opportunity to reminisce, as in an interview situation, people speak as if their memories were always present, just waiting for an opportunity to be expressed in words. Public memories and struggles over memory express and reinforce its social character.

What, then, are forgetting and reminiscing? Reminiscence implies that there was a previous process of engraving or fixing something in memory. To reminisce is to forge a new pact between past and present, taking the remnants of a memory and incorporating them into the present.[14] To forget, on the other hand, does not imply a void or a vacuum. It is the presence of the absence, the representation of what was once there and no longer is, the representation of something that has been erased, silenced or denied. Both are intersubjective experiences. In the words of Luisa Passerini, we are actually dealing with a memory of a memory, a memory that is possible because it evokes another memory. We can remember because someone has remembered before us, challenging death and terror on the basis of their memory.[15]

Societal forgetting is also a collective, intersubjective affair. It implies a social cleavage, a rupture between individual memory and public and/or collective practices that may become ritualized and repetitive, or a fault line in the intergenerational process of transmission. Interpretations and explanations of the past cannot be automatically conveyed from one generation to the next, from one period to another, from those who experienced the events to others who did not. As Yosef Yerushalmi notes, the past has to be actively transmitted to the next generation, and that generation has to accept that past as meaningful. Thus, an active transmission of memory requires fostering a process of identification, so that it produces an intergenerational broadening of the "we," the active subjects of reminiscing. Yet this requires leaving open the door for processes of reinterpretation and resignification on the part of the young-as well as those who claim they did not know what was happening. There is no a priori guarantee that a given meaning will result. There is no way to close off new readings of old stories, because the "same" story and the "same" truth gain diverse meanings in different contexts and circumstances. And the succession of generations involves, unavoidably, the creation of new readings of the past. History is, in fact, part of the symbolic and political struggle of each era, of each present.

When analyzing memory, we are dealing with multiple intersubjectivities, multiple transmissions and receptions of memories that are fragmented and contradictory, made up of pieces, shreds and patches of one layer on top of another, of traces, monuments and amnesias. When historical memory is seen in a collective light—as a process of searching for the roots of identity—the space of memory becomes a space of political struggle. It alludes to the capacity of preserving the past, but that capacity necessarily implies participation in the struggle for giving meaning and exercising power. Collective remembrances then become politically relevant, as an instrument for legitimizing discourse, as tools for establishing collective identities and communities of belonging, and as justification for the activities of social movements in their struggles for greater democratization.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Elizabeth Jelin is a sociologist and a researcher at the University of Buenos Aires and the National Council of Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET).

NOTES 1. This article is based on ongoing research and reflection with Susana G. Kaufman. 2. Carlos H. Acuña and Catalina Smulovitz, "Adjusting the Armed Forces to Democracy: Successes, Faiures, and Ambiguities in the Southern Cone," in Elizabeth Jelin and Eric Hershberg, eds., Constructing Democracy: Human Rights, Citizenship, and Society in Latin America (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), pp. 13-38; and Carlos H. Acuña and Catalina Smulovitz, "Militares en la transicon argentina: Del gobierno a la subordinación conslitucional," in Carlos Acuña et. al., Juicio, castigos y memorias: Derechos humanos y justicia en la política argentina (Buenos Aires: Nueva Visión, 1995), pp. 19-99. 3. Elizabeth Jelin, "La política de la memoria: El movimiento de derechos humanos y la construcción democrática en Argentina," in Carlos Acuña et. al., Juicio, castigos y memorias, pp. 101-146; and Elizabeth Jelin and Susana G. Kaufman, Layers of Memories: Twenty Years After in Argentina (Forthcoming, 1998). 4. The debates about the appropriate forms of commemoration of the 500 years of 1492 illustrated that the interpretation of the past is a matter of social controversy even after a long period of time has elapsed. 5. Jorge Luis Borges, "Tunes el memorioso," in La muerte y la brújula (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1951), pp. 53-68. 6. Página 12 (Buenos Aires), March 23, 1996, p. S. 7. Nicholas Howe, "Berlin Monuments and Memory," Dissent (Winter, 1998), pp. 71-81. 8. There are intercultural variations in the ways societies deal with history, memory, monuments, sites and commemorations. See Yoselph Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989); Pierre Nora, ed., Les Lieux de la Memoire (Paris: Ed. Gallimard, 1987); and Joseph R. Gillis, "Memory and Identity: The History of a Relationship," in Joseph R. Gillis, Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). 9. The editors of one volume on collective memory and the policies of oblivion portray their book as both a "homage to all those who carry out daily acts of resitance against oblivion" and "a symbolic monument to the victims of state terrorism in Argentina and Uruguay." Adriana Bergero and Fernando Reati, eds., Memoria colectiva y politicas de olvido: Argentina y Uruguay, 1970-1990 (Buenos Aires: Beatriz Viterbo Editora, 1997), p. 27. 10. Elizabeth Jelin and Susana G. Kaufman, Layers of Memories. 11. Claudia Koonz discusses the current debate about memorials in concentration camps in Germany and Eastern Europe, showing that struggles over memory grow more, rather than less, intense as time passes. Koonz, "Between Memory and Oblivion Concetration Camps in German Memory," in Joseph R. Gillis, ed., Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, pp. 258-280. 12. On the significance of the gender-related dimension of memory struggles, see Judith File, Entre el parentesco y la política: Familia y dictadura, 1976-1983 (Buenos Aires: Editorial Bilbos, 1997) 13. Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992 [1941, 1952]). 14. Micheline Enríquez, "La envoltura de memoria y sus huecos," in Didier Anzier, ed., Las envolturas psíquicas(Buenos Aires: Amorrorlu, 1990). 15. Luisa Passerini, "Introduction," in Luisa Passerini, ed., Memory and Totalitarianism (Oxford. Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 1-19,

Tags: memory, democratization, amnesty, human rights, politics

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