Movements Sustain Historical Memory in Latin America (disponible en español)

From Mexico to Chile, the pandemic has not stopped social movements from demanding justice for human rights abuses.

August 18, 2020

An embroidery shared under the #PañuelosConMemoria hashtag in Argentina, with the call for "Never Again" (Courtesy of Movimiento No Matarás)

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To speak of memory is imperative in a pandemic. It is in memories that we recover our humanity and remember our vulnerability, as the actions of some states recall the darkest moments of our recent social conflicts. The roll-out of authoritarianism and militarism in Latin America bring back historical memories we do not wish to repeat, but that we cannot forget. We build the society we wish to live in on the grounds of collective memory.

La Red de Sitios de Memoria Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (The Network of Latin American and Caribbean Memory Sites, RESLAC) warned at the start of the pandemic in a press release that the current moment, “is being used as a platform for the advance of authoritarian and denialist tendencies that have been developing in our region, and calls our attention to the risk of growing inequality, and repressive social surveillance in our countries during the public health crisis.”

In several Latin American countries, social movements have remained active during the pandemic, coming up with ways to maintain their demands for memory and justice. “We don’t march, but we don’t forget,” was one of the slogans of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. The decision not to mobilize was not an impediment for collectives to demonstrate as they have every year. Social networks, and balconies, were filled with pañuelos (handkerchiefs) on March 24, the National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice in Argentina. Images went viral on social media with hashtags like #PañuelosConMemoria (Bandanas with Memory), #24M, #44AñosDelGolpe (44 years since the coup), #Son30000, and #MemoriaVerdadYJusticia (Memory, Truth and Justice).

In Buenos Aires, El Espacio Memoria (The Memory Space), the former mechanic school of the navy (ESMA), in the capital, organized a “proyectazo” with projections in windows, terraces, and balconies that were later shared online. El Museo de la Memoria (the Museum of Memory) in Rosario used the hashtag #ConLaMemoriaDespierta (Awake with Memory). “To prevent contagion, we cannot go to the public square, but we want the hope for ‘never again’ to be contagious,” the organizations wrote in a communiqué. In the final march of 2019, more than 150,000 people participated.

The film “Todos son mis hijos” (All are my children,) a project of the organization, was released on social networks. And along with the CEL and Memoria Abierta, the website was launched, where secret files about state terrorism, declassified by the United States, can be accessed. With #NosQuedamosEnCasa and #VuelvanACasa the Abuelas continue, online, the active search for grandchildren who were taken by the dictatorship.

The Museum of Memory in Rosario, Argentina commemorated the National Day for Memory, Truth, and Justice with white handkerchiefs (Museo de la Memoria).

March 24 is the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims, as recognized by the United Nations. It commemorates the memory and struggle of Monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador. The names of 25,000 victims of the Civil War are engraved on the Monument to Memory and Truth in the Salvadoran capital. The name of Romero is one of them. Plaques and memorials to the dead have been placed in other parts of the country marked by the violence. Last year the current president, as one of his first acts in office, removed the name of Domingo Monterrosa from a military base, who the U.N. Truth Commission has implicated in the massacre at El Mozote, where more than 1,000 people died.

“A fraternal, physical encounter is impossible at this time, but historic memory is not in quarantine,” said José Lazo, representative of the Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos (Association for the Search of Disappeared Children), during an event to commemorate victims of the Guinda de Mayo massacre, which was transmitted over community radio. The organization released a communiqué, saying that the measures taken against Covid-19, “appear to seek to kill democracy, not the virus.” The disappearances continue. El Salvador recorded 3,093 disappeared people during 2019.

This February, on the eve of the pandemic, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly passed the National Reconciliation Law, for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the armed conflict, which critics worry will lead to an amnesty for the perpetrators. All of this goes against securing reparations and justice for victims. The law is now awaiting the president’s signature.

On April 9, Colombia recognizes the National Day of Memory and Solidarity for the Victims of the Armed Conflict, on the day of the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán. Victims organizations called for people to light a candle of “solidarity and memory for those who never came home,” in honor of the nearly 9 million victims of the armed conflict. Six decades of conflict have left more than 262,000 dead. El Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica (The National Center for Historic Memory) promoted the hashtag #9AUnaSolaVoz to share photos and videos on social media in solidarity with victims and their families. El Museo Nacional de Memoria (the National Museum of Memory) also created a digital micro-site. El Centro de Memoria, Paz y Reconciliación (The Center for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation), in Bogotá, joined the events.

The Attorney General of Colombia ordered at the start of the pandemic that district and local authorities could exhume cadavers that have been stored at municipal morgues without being identified, or identified without being claimed, or abandoned due to poverty. In Colombia, and around the region, the murders, disappearances, and persecution of social leaders continue to increase, despite the pandemic.

The virus and the quarantine announcements reactivated debates about the sentences of people convicted of crimes against humanity. In Chile, discussion has resumed around a “Humanitarian Law” that would regulate carceral punishments, allowing people over 75 years old or who suffer from terminal diseases to be released to house arrest. The Appeals Court of Santiago de Chile decided on April 9 to reduce the sentences of 17 members of the military who were convicted of human rights abuses, allowing them to serve out their sentences under house arrest. The decision is still pending the decision of the Supreme Court. Members of the military in other countries are echoing similar requests.

We remember because we cling to memories. Amid the pandemic, the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Chile, alongside their followers, has built a virtual #ÁlbumdelaMemoria, filled with stories and recollections. They encourage uploading family photos taken between 1973 and 1990 to Instagram using the hashtag #ÁlbumdelaMemoria. On the new website, the public can access historical archives, talks, workshops, and activities, in addition to an educational section for students on the rights of children and youth. At the start of June, the Network of Memory Sites in Chile announced budget cuts for six memory sites under the National Directorate of Patrimony. “The memory sites are fundamental for the reconstruction of historical memory and the right to truth in countries and communities that have suffered serious and systemic human rights violations,” they wrote in a statement. We are what we remember.

An embroidery, known as an arpillera, made in Chile with the slogan "Where are the detained and disappeared?” Marijke Oudgeest. (Museo de la Memoria)

Mother’s Day in Mexico is celebrated on May 10. On this day, for the past nine years, family groups and NGOs in the country have organized marches calling for the return of their loved ones. “In the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic, we have stayed organized, and on such an important day, we mobilized to reiterate our demands,” read a statement from the Movement for Our Disappeared in Mexico that included more than 60 collectives of family members of missing persons, representing 22 Mexican states and three Central American countries. The heart of the struggle has been the demand for the search of missing persons dating back to the 1960s in Mexico and Central America.

In Mexico, a 75 percent reduction in operating expenses for the Comisión Ejecutiva de Atención a Víctimas (Executive Commission for Attention to Victims, CEAV) was announced during the pandemic. Due to budget cuts, 60 percent of staff will be laid off and CEAV will not be able to cover rent for their building. One-hundred employees were told they would be without work. Besides the assistance, the safekeeping of personal data in the National Register of Victims is also threatened, since not enough funding has been allocated for data systems. In front of the National Palace in the Mexican capital, relatives of the disappeared and other victims have organized a sit-in protest for over a month to stop the budget cut, among other demands. They demand the state stop re-victimizing them. “We aren’t going to allow ourselves to not be heard, that’s why we’re here. So we’re going to stay here until we’re heard,” they affirmed, while drawing an immense ¿Dónde están? (Where are they?) in large, bright white letters by the front door to the National Palace.

According to official figures, there are 61,637 disappeared persons in Mexico. The country endures this reality while also facing another crisis going back many years: there are more than 37,000 unidentified bodies. A feeling of desperation that continues with each day.

In Uruguay, the Silent March takes place every May 20. This year’s tagline was, “Son memoria. Son presente. ¿Dónde están”? (They are memory. They are present. Where are they?). Mothers and Relatives of Detained and Disappeared Uruguayans and other human rights organizations extended an invitation to connect to any of the different social media platforms “so that together, wherever we may find ourselves, across the country, we can shout, ¡Presente! after each of the names.” The instructions were to put your radio on a balcony, by a window, at the entrance of your home, and say “Presente” after each name, as they do at each event. It was encouraged to upload videos and speeches to social media using #MarchaDelSilencio, #MarchadelSilencio2020 and #MarchadelSilencioPresente. That morning, photos of the disappeared were seen on the Avenida 18 de Julio in Montevideo, where the march usually passes. They were there, their images, their memories: Presentes.

In the past few months, comments and hints of “turning the page” were heard, mostly from the military party, Cabildo Abierto, looking for amnesty for those who committed crimes against humanity during the civic-military dictatorship in Uruguay.

“Tertuliadero de la memoria: juntando los fuegos” was the name of the meeting between H.I.J.O.S. Guatemala, Peru, and Mexico, moderated by Hijos e Hijas por la memoria y contra la impunidad de Colombia (Sons and Daughters For Memory and Against Impunity in Colombia), which was held virtually this past June. Quarantine has only strengthened the desire to be together, to unite ourselves. Organizations and grassroots collectives that work with memory in the region have deployed countless creative appeals to be able to heal these wounds—working toward healing processes, reconciliation, and social dialogue, while at the same time exposing what governments owe. Serious violations of human rights, persecution, disappearances, and torture continue. Achieving peace requires justice, the ability to continue searching, and, in legal terms, moving forward with every measure needed to continue in order to achieve the restoration of stolen dignity, as well as prevent recurrences, a key element for true justice to exist.

“Hablarte, Y escucharte. Construir con palabras, Un puente indestructible. Mi táctica es, quedarme en tu recuerdo. No sé cómo ni sé, con qué pretexto. Pero quedarme en vos,” wrote Mario Benedetti in his poem, “Táctica y estrategia” (Tactic and Strategy). “To speak to you and listen to you. To build with words. An indestructible bridge. My tactic is to remain in your memory. I don’t know how, I don’t know why. But to stay with you.”

In the meantime, and through every available mechanism, whether material or symbolic, demanding the guarantee of human rights continues from the collective until truth, justice, and restitution have been achieved.

El afecto tiene memoria. Affect has memory.

Diana Ramos Gutiérrez is a journalist and arts administrator, and a Master’s candidate in Communications and Human Rights at la Universidad Nacional de La Plata.

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