Thursday, 26 March 2015

German president in Peru

German president Joachim Gauck was visiting Peru, although his visit was cut short by news of the plane crash in France. With that in mind, I've been reading some of the German media coverage. Below is my translation of an article from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on memory of the Peruvian conflict.

An empty place of memory

Peru has set up a place of memory for the victims of terrorism with German help – but powerful people are still struggling with the past. 

There is a memorial at the gate of the presidential palace on the Plaza Mayor in the heart of the Peruvian capital, Lima. It is a marble obelisk about four meters high on a black base. Then-president Alan García inaugurated it in May 2009. It is dedicated to the “4,357 defenders of the fatherland and democracy” who became “victims of terrorist crimes” – members of the armed forces and the police, politicians and officials. Every day around lunchtime, the colourful changing of the guards takes place in the space in front of the neo-baroque state building. 

The obelisk for the victims of terrorism is to a certain extent part of a ceremony which the Republic of Peru uses each day to reiterate its history –from independence won in 1821 from its Spanish colonial masters through to the stable and flourishing democracy of the present. The memorial in front of the presidential palace does, admittedly, not do justice to the painful era of terrorism from 1980 to 2000. In the years of the terror caused by the Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path and the MRTA, it was not just the 4,357 military and state officials who lost their lives. Most of the about 70,000 victims of the bloody conflict between the leftist terror groups and the Peruvian armed forces were civilians, and the mother tongue of three quarters of these civilian victims was the indigenous language Quechua. 

Unlike the 4,357 victims of terror from the security forces and authorities, the much larger number of murdered and disappeared people from the mostly indigenous civilian population do not have a national monument, unless you count the various documentation and memory centres that have been set up in the particularly affected Andean region of the South by victims’ associations. Yet this gap in the national healing process of the now-secure Peruvian democracy could have been closed long ago. 

The impressive building of the “Lugar de la Memoria” (place of memory) has been ready for use in the district of Miraflores for nine months now and is waiting to be filled with content and life. Germany contributed EUR 4.5 million to the construction of the memorial, with Sweden also helping. But the design of the planned permanent exhibition is still politically highly controversial. Concepts developed by independent experts which are supposed to explain the crimes committed and experienced by both sides equally, have become bogged down in the bureaucracy of the ministries. 

There are a lot of indications that president Ollanta Humala, in office since July 2011, wants to have his say in how Peru will present its recent, bloody history in the national place of memory. After all, Humala is a former army office and in 1992 he was stationed at the Madre Mía base near Pacayacu in the Andes, from where soldiers are said to have committed human rights violations during actions against the civilian population, which was supposedly linked to the Shining Path. Former president Alan García, whose first term in office from 1985 to 1990 saw notorious massacres of the indigenous population by the armed forces, is also said to be doing his best to torpedo the exhibition plans. 

The visit of German president Joachim Gauck comes during this sustained phase of sometimes heated national debate. It is the first time a German president has visited Peru since 1964. On Saturday, Gauck opened a temporary exhibition on the history of the conflict from 1980 to 2000 in the presence of Nobel prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa, who has provided considerable support to the Lugar de la Memoria project in his role as intellectual mentor. “Germany has been a role model for overcoming the rule of violence by being open about it instead of hiding it,” said Vargas Llosa with a view to the situation since the reunification of Germany in 1990.

Certainly, the display boards put up for Gauck's visit and the museum opening were not able to fill the exhibition rooms - in terms of space or content. In the museum auditorium, Gauck made an almost imploring speech on the subject of "No future without the past" to the overwhelmingly young audience. As he did during his visit to Colombia in 2013, Gauck offered Peru Germany's help in working through the trauma of a period of history characterized by violence and injustice. The desire to repress the past and "look forward" is understandable, said Gauck, but what is buried will resurface, at the latest in the next generation. "A nation does not lose itself when it admits its guilt," said the German president. 

The leftist terror, as well as the retaliatory terror of the army and police, were primarily directed at the Andean region of Ayacucho in the south of the country. In the capital, Lima, on the Pacific coast, terrorism made itself felt with occasional bomb and other attacks, but it did not come to the “war of liberation” in the cities which the student sympathisers of the guerrillas hoped and worked for. In June and September 1992, the Peruvian security forces achieved two decisive strikes against the terrorists when they captured Abimael Guzmán, leader of the Shining Path, and Víctor Polay Campos, leader of the MRTA. It would take another eight years for the era of terror to come to an end in 2000. Guzmán and Polay Campos are now 80 and 63 years old, respectively. They have been sentenced to long prison terms and are both held in the high-security jail at Callao, in the port region of Lima – incidentally, the same prison where the notorious former secret service chief Vladimiro Montesinos is also held. He was responsible for many massacres committed by the State and ultimately toppled due to his connections to drug cartels and widespread bribing of politicians, military officials and the media. 

The independent truth and reconciliation commission was founded in 2001. Its exemplary work, including listening to about 16,000 witnesses, is regarded as a milestone in Peru’s process of dealing with its past. The commission found that 54% of the victims were killed by the Shining Path, while the Peruvian military and paramilitary groups were responsible for 42%. 

Victims become gracious when perpetrators admit their guilt, said Gauck during his speech at the opening of the museum. He also stressed this belief during his private conversations with president Ollanta Humala. Whether his advice was taken on board remains to be seen, not least in the Lugar de la Memoria. The consensus about dealing with the past in Peru was stable enough to build a place of memory, but so far, it has not been strong enough to fill it. 
Ein leerer Ort der Erinnerung (

Monday, 26 January 2015

Latin American connections with the Holocaust

Tomorrow we commemorate 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. has a fascinating article on the Peruvian victims of Auschwitz - I confess, I had no idea there were any. But apparently, there were 17 of them. Like Héctor David Levy, shot for asking for water during forced labour, and his wife and two young children, who were gassed. The two children became Peru's youngest victims of the Second World War.

Victoria Barouh Avayü was the only Peruvian Auschwitz survivor, having lost her entire family. Many years later, she went back to the concentration camp to see what had become of it and of fellow survivors.

More information about Peruvians in the camps may be found in the book Estación final by Hugo Coya (Aguilar, 2013).

Los peruanos de Auschwitz, por Hugo Coya (

Semana discusses the Auschwitz survivors who came to Colombia: Ana Orgel de Czeizler, Raquel Gedalovich, Jacobo Bron and Max Kirschberg. The article is worth reading and illustrated with beautiful photos by Erika Diettes.

"Most people have heard about what happened. But it wasn't just the Jews who suffered. There were non-Jewish Germans there, because they didn't accept the ideology, or because they argued about something, they ended up there. They took people from other faiths, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholics, and many gypsies", says Kirschberg. When the camp was liberated, Kirschberg had lost his parents, but he recalled that his mother had told him he had an uncle living in Colombia, so he came there. In 1952, he returned to Germany to study, marry and have children, but in 1976 he returned for good with one of his sons.

More information about Colombian survivors may be found in the book Sobrevivientes del Holocausto que rehicieron su vida en Colombia, edited by Hilda Demner and Estela Goldstein

Los sobrevivientes de Auschwitz que hicieron vida en Colombia (Semana)

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Peru: Retablos by Edilberto Jiménez

At the Biblioteca Virtual del Genocidio en Ayacucho, you can now see photographs of the amazing retablo scenes made by Edilberto Jiménez (who I previously wrote about here and here) from his book "Universos de memoria".They really are amazing depictions of the violence in the Ayacuchan region of Peru.

Follow this link to get the list of images and then click on "Detalles" to get to a large image.

Guatemala: A forensic anthropologist who brings closure for the "disappeared"

Thanks to Mike from Central American Politics for drawing my attention to this TED talk by Fredy Peccerelli on his work as a forensic anthropologist in Guatemala, which is so relevant to this blog that I'm reposting it here. I can only echo his admiration for the work of these incredible, dedicated people.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Argentina: Human rights achievements of 2014

Infojus Noticias provides us with a look back at Argentina's year in human rights, so here's a translation of the main points.

Found grandchildren:
The recovery of the identity of Ignacio Guido Montoya Carlotto on August 5 was the biggest media event of the year, but he was not the first grandchild to be found. On February 6, a young woman was confirmed as the daughter of Oscar Rómulo Gutiérrez and Liliana Isabel Acuña. Later, the forensic anthropology team found the remains of three pregnant woman who had been murdered before giving birth. In August, Ana Libertad Baratti de la Cuadra was found, and at the end of the this year grandchild number 116, the child of Ana Rubel and Hugo Castro, regained his true identity.

Trials for appropriations:
There were four trials linked to found grandchildren. On September 9, the appropriators (i.e. the illegal adopters) of Pablo Gaona Miranda (found grandchild no. 106), plus the person accused of handing over the child to them, were sentenced to between six and eight years in jail. Medical personnel linked to the births of disappeared children and the falsification of their documentations also received prison sentences.

Trials for state terrorism:
14 trials relating to clandestine detention centres drew to a close. In October, the trial over crimes in La Cacha concluded. Six human rights abusers were convicted of the murder of Osvaldo Tordo Sigfrido de Benedetti, six more for the Metán case, and ten for crimes in Rosario. 

The number of perpetrators convicted since the return to democracy is, therefore, 559.

Ongoing trials
There are currently 17 oral trials ongoing, 11 of which started this year. In these, 279 people are accused of over 2,220 crimes. These include the mega-trials for the detention centres of La Perla and ESMA, people accused of crimes under Plan Condor, and of the systematic stealing of babies.

Legal investigations
62 new legal investigations were initiated up to October.

49 alleged human rights abusers are currently on the run; this is down from 73 at the end of last year. Three were caught in early December.

Finally, the EAAF managed to identify ten disappeared people this year, in addition to the three pregnant woman mentioned above. This brings the total it has identified in Argentina to 651.

2014: 4 nietos, 17 juicios en marcha y otros 40 represores condenados (Infojus Noticias)

Most-read posts of 2014

2014 is drawing to a close and it's been a mixed one for the blog, with life getting in the way quite frequently. Nevertheless, there have been a few highlights in Latin America and in my posts. There's no question about the stand-out LatAm event of the year for me: it was Estela de Carlotto of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo discovering her own grandchild in August. A truly amazing moment, the kind that you didn't dare think would happen. There was a massive outpouring of emotion from Argentina, and indeed the world, in response.

These are my top five posts of the year:

"Escrache" is word of the year for Fundéu BBVA - 1 January

Book review: Carmen Castillo's Un día de octubre en Santiago - 8 March

Argentina: Grandmothers' president finds her grandson - 6 August

Peru: Exhibition of victims' clothing - 10 September

Response to "Memory is not history"- 15 September

Monday, 15 December 2014

Uruguay: Update on Graf Spee eagle

Despite being a bit of a detour from the main focus of this blog, my 2010 post on the eagle of the Graf Spee pocket battleship is one of the most-read posts I've written.

We're over four years on and not much progress has been made. Now the BBC asks "What should Uruguay do with its Nazi eagle?".

The country's supreme court has ruled that the Uruguayan state is the owner of the artifact, but that the salvage company should also receive half of the profits in the event of a sale. Businessman Alfredo Etchegaray, one of the men who led the operation to recover the eagle, told the BBC that the eagle could be worth up to US$ 15 million."Having the eagle in a box doesn't benefit anybody," he said.

There has been reporting that the eagle is not appropriately stored, but Uruguay denies this.

I'm tempted to agree with Etchegaray that the country could make good use of the cash and possibly display a replica of the eagle instead of the real thing. It's an amazing historical piece and while I certainly understand the concerns of the German government, I think it should be on display somewhere. I was just listening to a piece on the radio this morning about the difficulties of knowing what to do with the house where Hitler was born, in Austria. These are always thorny issues because the last thing you want is a shrine for neo-Nazis, but letting the sites/objects rot hardly seems to be the solution either.

What should Uruguay do with its Nazi eagle? (BBC)