Unearthing Memory: The Present Struggle Over The Past

September 25, 2007

For the past three years, tens of thousands of Uruguayans have participated in the May 20 "March for the Truth" to demand that the Uruguayan state investigate the fate of those who were disappeared during that country's military dictatorship (1973-85). The Uruguayan armed forces and the political elites who granted them impunity by passing an amnesty law in 1986 believed that this chapter of the country's recent history had been closed, particularly after the referendum to overturn the amnesty law was defeated in 1989. Nearly a decade later, however, these issues am as palpable as they were in the years immediately following the end of the military regime.

These demands have been kept alive over the past 15 years by family members of the victims and human rights activists who have persisted in their search for the truth, despite the coup mongering on the part of the military and the bullying of successive civilian presidents. Theirs is but one of many ongoing struggles over the past in Latin American countries which have experienced repressive military regimes or internal wars. In spite of efforts to bury these conflicts about the past in the past, it is clear that the torture, disappearances and killings that took place during the dictatorships and internal wafs are still very much a part of the present. Examining some of these struggles over the past is the objective of this NACLA report.

In Latin America, the struggles over memory are clearly uneven: they take place on a terrain which is itself a product of the violence and the widespread fear it generated. Amnesty laws have been imposed either by the military regimes themselves or by transitional governments who believed that they were necessary to keep restive militaries in check- In either case, the result has been the institutionalization of impunity throughout the region. But the fact that the demands for truth and justice continue and are, in fact, growing is testimony not only to the need to remember and to honor the dead, but also to the depth of the societal ruptures produced by the violence and repression.

Latin America’s tenuous transitions and peace processes have made it difficult for civilian regimes to resolve the political struggles generated by memories in conflict, much less heal the wounds of state terror. In this context, the struggle against oblivion has been taken up in a variety of ways throughout the region. There are openly political struggles like that in Uruguay. There are efforts to establish memorial sites and battles over the meaning of specific dates, like as those in Argentina and Chile detailed by Elizabeth Jelin. Films, literature and other cultural forms have also been part of the struggle to remember the recent past. And efforts to engage in critical memory-such as those of writers like Tonnis Moulian-are attempting to challenge forgetting on its own terms by opening the past to reinterpretations in order to expose the distortions and anmesias of Latin America today.

The neoliberalization of Latin America has aided and abetted the oblivion which ruling elites have sought to impose. Neoliberalism is predicated upon forgetting the ideals of social solidarity, equality and justice that were at the root of progressive projects in the Latin America of the 1970s and 1980s, and replacing them with extreme individualism, amnesia and the atornization of the marketplace. Indeed, this atomization, imposed by military violence and propped up by local administrators of global capitalism, is emblematic of postdictatorship/postwar Latin America. The transformation of the Punta Carretas prison in Uruguay—once a site for the systematic torture of political prisoners by that country's military regime—into a modern, shiny shopping mall filled with the trinkets of the global marketplace stands as eloquent testimony to the intimate links between the repressive past and the neoliberal present.


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