Something to Remember Next Time

A response to the editorial “Memory is not history published” by The Economist on September 13, 2014.  Argentina 172 NOTE: This article is a response to the Bello Editorial “Memory is not history” published by The Economist on September 13, 2014. 

It has been a rough couple weeks for The Economist. In an August book review, the venerable newspaper criticized a book on slavery thusly:

“Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.”


People were rightly outraged. The story was pulled from their webpage, and an apology issued. But was the lesson learned?

The September 13th edition of The Economist featured an editorial on Latin America entitled “Memory is not history: “Dirty war” memorials should not be used to rewrite the past”. The editorial by “Bello” questions the region’s approach to reconciliation—an approach that focuses on memory—following a traumatic period of military dictatorships.

(The Economist’s news articles are not signed by an author. Commentary articles are signed with a pseudonym. In January 2014 The Economist finally added a Latin America editorialist, who writes under the pseudonym Bello.)

Bello’s argument seems to be that in Cold War-era Latin America, both the left and right were equally polarized, obstinate, and, in a word, bad. He continues to argue that because the left is currently in power in countries such as Chile, Argentina and Brazil, we remember the version of history the left wants us to remember.

“Dirty war memorials should not be used to rewrite the past,” the article advises. “The historical truth silenced by “memory” is that the cold war in Latin America was fought by two equally authoritarian sides.”

This is a brutal sentence. It is a violent sentence. It is a rewriting of history such that both sides are equally culpable. And in forwarding this version of history, we once again disappear the thousands of victims.

It is also, simply put, hogwash. With the glaring exception of Cuba, there is no equivalent on the left to match the doctrinaire violence administered by the dictatorships.

Rough Guide to the Dirty Wars

A lots of folks at least tangentially interested in Latin America are aware that the Cold War—so named because the US and USSR never fought openly—was actually a hot and violent affair throughout much of Latin America.

Really the Cold War had nothing directly to do with Latin America. Rather, in the decades following World War II  poorer Latin Americans began to question governmental systems based on strong-men rulers and entrenched elite.

From the Caribbean to Peru to Chile an inchoate awareness began to emerge. For example, in Guatemala, indigenous people probably weren’t reading much Marx, but they got the inkling that their system of forced agricultural labor was probably unfair.

The resultant movements demanded human rights, access to governance, access to opportunity and legal recognition.

To make a long story short, the region became extremely polarized politically from roughly 1950 to 1990. In a number of situations where the “left” seemed to be making political advancements, the militaries—long a bastion of the ruling elite—would stage coups. These coups were often backed by the the United States, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly.

Once in power, the militaries established what academics call “bureaucratic  authoritarianism” which translated to military leaders in capes dictating for years if not decades. It was a dark period of “disappearances”, torture, and rape, not to mention the utter stifling of freedom of expression.

In countries like Chile and Argentina, let’s say the junta wanted to disappear a political activist—maybe a 20-year-old student leader–they wouldn’t just kill her outright. Rather they would kidnap the kid and hold her in isolation—maybe for six months, maybe a year; solitary confinement interrupted only for sessions of torture and contrived interrogation.

And then they would kill her.  I never understood that.

Apparently a lot of mothers in the region never understood it either, and it turns out there were a lot of unhealed wounds that Latin America had to address as the region transitioned towards democracy in the 1990s and 2000s.

Many countries around the world have done a lot of terrible things, and they have tried a lot of different ways to come to terms with their pasts. Some pretend that that stuff never happened. Others obsess over it. One way Latin America has tried to deal with this painful period is by stressing memory, in particular with museums that document the period.

It’s a poignant approach if we consider the particular form of violence used in the dictatorships. People were “disappeared” which means our 20-year-old student leader was not gunned down by the government in the middle of the street in front of everybody.

It means that one day, she just didn’t show up at dinner time. Or breakfast time. Or lunch time…Or ever.

And the police didn’t know anything about it, and the bureaucrats didn’t know anything about it either. She was just gone, her existence erased.

The current museums that focus on memory are a direct response to that particular form of violence. These people existed. And we remember them. Memory, in this case, is an act of defiance on the one hand, and an act of affirmation on the other.

I visited the one in Santiago, Chile and balled my eyes out. I visited one in a former detention site in Buenos Aires and I felt cold and alone. I won’t forget either experience.

It isn’t even political. No one is saying that the 20 year-old student leader had good ideas that society should have adopted. You can argue for or against that. Either way, she should not have been disappeared.

Its her murder that is remembered in the museums. Not her politics.

If Bello wants to argue that ideologically both sides were rigid and polarized during that period, he could do that.

But that is not what this article says. In this case, Bello’s work reminds me of those clunkers you see from time to time that try to explain why the US was justified to back brutal regimes in Central America in the 1980s. Its these kinds of articles, where suddenly both sides have somehow committed equal atrocities, that try to rewrite history.

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3 Responses to Something to Remember Next Time

  1. Yoav says:

    If two people fight, and one of them win and beat the other guy – is he more violent?
    Or simply the fact that he won the fight made him able to better express his cruelty?

    When extreme leftist regimes got to power, such as Cuba, the outcome was no better than in any other dictatorial regime.
    Nor were the Leftist means better in anyway than the right ones.

    The dictators of the right just won more than the dictators of the left – under either people would have probably disappeared.

  2. Jimbo says:

    “It is also, simply put, hogwash. With the glaring exception of Cuba, there is no equivalent on the left to match the doctrinaire violence administered by the dictatorships.”

    Are you referring just to groups that have gained control of the government? Groups like FARC and Shining Path have been extraordinarily violent.

  3. Samuel George says:

    Jimbo – Yes, I was referring to governments. I think that makes a major difference–state controlled / adminsterd violence was much more infrequent in left-leaning governments

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