Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Argentina: Different Ways of Commemoration

A email dropped into my in-box this morning which reminded me, if I needed it, that there is little consensus about the public remembrance of the Argentine dictatorship. It was a message from the Asociacion de ex-detenidos-desaparecidos (Association of ex-detained-disappeared people, AEDD) via their Yahoo group and here's a rough translation:


Today is 24 March, today we march from Congress to the Plaza de Mayo. Today we sing, we shout, we reject, we demand.

Meanwhile, in the ESMA - concentration camp and symbol of impunity - the close of the Festival of the Social Song will be taking place. We oppose any sort of festival happening in the ESMA, because there one can still hear the screams of our comrades tortured by murderers who continue unpunished, but we oppose it even more on 24 March. On that day, in the ESMA and in all the concentration camps, it is more necessary than ever that there is silence, so that the screams can be heard, can echo, can make a great noise, and to remind us that the genocide continues in the flesh, because 95% of the murderers are free to walk the streets, because 400 young people are still appropriated [ie the disappeared children], because Julio Lopez is still disappeared after two and a half years, because there have been over 4,000 people arrested for protesting, because the crisis is punishing the people with high prices, job cuts and suspensions, because 25 children in this country die of malnutrition every day...

Don't shut yourself away in the ESMA. Don't disappear from the streets. Come, we invite you to sing with us on the March for Memory, Truth and Justice at 15.30 from Congress to the Plaza de Mayo.

It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to guess why, of all the human rights organisations, the small band of survivors themselves feels distaste for returning to the actual site of their torture, for some, and to the greatest symbol of dictatorship and torture, for all. There is in general something of a split among the various Argentine groups in how they deal with the legacy of state terror. The more 'radical'*, and these would include the Asociacion Madres de Plaza de Mayo led by Hebe Bonafini, HIJ@S - the children of the disappeared - and the AEDD, reject purely commemorative acts as inappropriate given the incomplete state of justice in Argentina. In other words, while there are perpetrators in freedom and questions still unanswered regarding the precise fate of the disappeared, it is a distraction to create memorials, monuments, etc. These groups focus on different sorts of commemoration - educational programs for example (emphasising the leftist ideals of the disappeared), calls for justice, and open alignment with political groups such as the piqueteros. The upside of this is that groups such as Bonafini's Madres remain relevant, develop according to the contemporary situation, and retain influence. On the other hand, accusations that they are too politicised and have lost their original focus (they were, after all, always a one-topic group; where are the disappeared, we want them back) can dissipate support for the mothers.

More 'moderate'* groups are prepared to lay the disappeared to rest, in one sense - not by giving up the struggle for justice, but by accepting and participating in memorial acts. They also collaborate with government agencies, believing that they should try to influence state actions rather than cut themselves off from them. They also tend to define their human rights activities rather more narrowly, concentrating on their original purposes. Such organisations include the Madres de Plaza de Mayo - Linea Fundadora (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo - Founding Line), the Abuelas (Grandmothers), and non-relatives groups such as CELS (Centre for Legal and Social Studies). Disputes of this type were one reason (not the only one) why the mothers' group split into its current two factions.

On the one hand it's rather sad that there are disputes among the human rights community; the split of the Madres quite obviously involved a lot of pain for those concerned (this is described in detail elsewhere, anyone who has trouble finding sources feel free to contact me). In the statement I translated above, the AEDD present the commemoration of 24 March as a stark choice; are you with us or against us, in the street or in the ESMA. Perhaps though, there is room for museums and street protests, for singing, and for silence.

* I use both these words cautiously, and am painting with a broad brush throughout this post, but to avoid great length won't go into more detail here.

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