Sunday 30 October 2011

Uruguay: Congress votes to overturn amnesty law

Uruguay's Congress has voted to lift an amnesty law that protected officers from prosecution for crimes committed during military rule from 1975 to 1983, paving the way for possible future trials.

The vote was 50-40 and the bill is now expected to be signed by President Jose Mujica in the nick of time - the statute of limitations would have kicked in on 1 November.

Human rights activists, naturally, have welcomed the move. It was still a difficult decision in Uruguay, as illustrated by the fact that the congressional debate lasted 12 hours. While Luis Puig, a deputy with the ruling Broad Front coalition, called the measure an end to impunity, opponents have presented it as ignoring the will of the people since the amnesty law has been upheld in two referendums. It's a little more complicated than that though; for a start, the country's supreme court had ruled the law unconstitutional. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights had also insisted that Uruguay must remove the law. The referendum result had also been close, around 48%, narrowly missing the required 50%.

We will have to see what the end to the amnesty brings. The military is attempting a pre-emptive strike and already calling for prosecutions for former guerrillas.

Uruguay overturns amnesty for military-era crimes
Uruguay Lawmakers Revoke Dirty War Amnesty (Time)
Uruguay scraps 'dirty war' amnesty (Aljazeera)

Saturday 29 October 2011

Peru: Forced sterilisation investigation to be reopened

Peru has informed the Inter-American Human Rights Commission that it will reopen the investigation into cases of forced sterilisation which took place in the country in the 1990s. This is a rather unexpected piece of good news; the forced sterilisation of mostly poor and indigenous women is an element of Peru's conflict which was not examined in the truth commission. There is therefore a real need to look into this.

There is often mention of one specific case, Maria Mamerita Mestanza, who died following a tubal ligation in 1998. Important though her case is, it is merely emblematic of a much wider scandal involving many thousands of women, the majority of whom were poorly literate or illiterate, rural, and Quechua-speaking, and were either pressured, coerced or deceived into undergoing sterilisation procedures.

Just in case this problem doesn't seem particularly severe in the context of the violence that Peru was experiencing at the time, it's worth remembering that the UN Genocide Convention (1948) classes imposing measures intended to prevent births within a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as genocide.

Good background information is provided by Jocelyn E. Getgen in Untold Truths: The exclusion of forced sterilisations from the Peruvian truth commission's final report, full text available here in PDF form.

Peru to reopen probe into forced sterilization of women (LA Times blog)
Peruvian prosecutors reopen investigation of forced sterilizations during Fujimori government (Washington Post)

Brazil: Senate approves truth commission

The proposal for a truth commission, which I discussed here, has passed another hurdle, winning a vote in the Senate, and is now just waiting for president Dilma Rousseff's signature. Considering Rousseff herself was jailed by the military and she has been outspoken in favour of the commission, I think it's safe to assume she will sign! However, Senator Randolfe Rodrigues described the planned commission as "timid". The amnesty law will remain untouched, so ultimately the perpetrators are safe from legal consequences. Disappointing.

Brazilian Senate approve investigation of human rights abuses during military dictatorship (Washington Post)
Brazil will look into its harsh political past but the military are safe (Mercopress)
Brazil creates truth commission to probe rights abuses (BBC)

Argentina: JUSTICE for the ESMA victims

Well, it feels like I've been waiting a long time to write this post - but of course, not nearly as long as the Argentine relatives have been waiting for justice. It's almost two years since the ESMA megatrial started, and it's finally over, and some of the worst perpetrators of human rights abuses of the dictatorship have received lengthy jail sentences. They include Alfredo Astiz, responsible for the infiltration of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in the very early days of the group's existence and for the murder of two French nuns. Congratulations Argentina for taking a massive step towards justice for the disappeared and their relatives.

Here is a small selection of coverage of the issue:

Astiz, el Tigre y el grupo de tareas de Massera (Pagina/12)
Quiénes son los enjuiciados (Pagina/12) - recommended as a "who's who" of the accused
Primera condena por los crímenes de lesa humanidad cometidos en la ESMA (CELS via Proyecto Desaparecidos)

Life sentence for Argentine "Blond Angel of Death"
Argentina's 'Angel of Death' jailed for crimes against humanity (Guardian, includes video embedded below)
Argentine Navy captain ‘Angel Face’ Astiz sentenced to life imprisonment (Mercopress)
France praises Argentina justice system over the sentencing of Astiz (Mercopress)
Argentina: 12 Given Life Sentences for Crimes During Dictatorship (New York Times)

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Latin America Round-up

Here's some interesting stuff I've been reading over the past few days:

Latin America
Hey, it's an iconicity piece, so I'm going to link to it. Of course I agree that the region has icons (and I can't believe there's no mention of Che!) but I'm unconvinced that Latin America is obsessed with the past or indeed that this is a negative thing. In other circumstances we are always pointing out that countries are in a hurry to "move on" and sweep their pasts under the carpet. See also Greg's far more considered comments on the article.
In Latin America, dead leaders become icons (Washington Post)

The Argentine election was so predictable that I've found nothing new to say about it. Here is just a tiny quirk from crooked ex-president Carlos Menem, himself just re-elected as a senator, stating that all he needs now is to be named pope. Shame about that whole arms-trafficking thing.
Menem re-elected senator says the only post he's missing is 'Pope' (Mercopress)

Two pieces on Robert Funk's blog about political pressure on judges and voter registration. The key stat as far I'm concerned:
In the 21 years since democracy, more than 90% of people aged over 45 vote, but just 20% of those aged under 30 do.
A judge in Manhattan has sentenced two Colombian men involved in the kidnapping of an American citizen in Latin America, but the pair claimed to have been themselves abducted by the FARC as minors. The judge apparently believed them and criticised rigid sentencing guidelines.
LinkFARC members convicted in American's kidnapping (NY Times)

El Salvador
In the new gangland of El Salvador (New York Review of Books)
Alma Guillermoprieto's piece is fantastically well-written.

You know, one of the reasons that it's the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and not the parents is because the relatives in Argentina made a conscious decision to keep the group women-only in the hope that the State would respect the sanctity of motherhood (supposedly held in high esteem by the Catholic, ultraconservative junta) and not dare to attack the members. You only need to read about the infiltration of Alfredo Astiz and the murder of the original leader of the Madres, Azucena Villaflor, to realise that that was wishful thinking. Yet decades later, in Mexico, women continue to battle for human rights in the face of considerable risk.
Ninety percent of the non-governmental organisations in Mexico are founded and run by women, says journalist and women's rights activist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro
Women reject normalisation of gender violence (IPS)

Uruguay finds bones of possible dirty war victim (CBS)

Saturday 22 October 2011

Argentina: Sentence in ESMA trial

Spain's Stolen Babies

I just watched the episode of BBC2's This World: Spain's Stolen Babies, and it was pretty amazing, especially viewed through the lens of my interest in Argentina.

In short, it seems that many babies were taken from new mothers during the Franco regime and sold. The women were told their babies were stillborn or had died shortly after birth. Although they were not disappeared people as in Argentina, there are a number of startling parallels, such as:

- The involvement of the Catholic church. Several witnesses said that they had bought babies from priests or were told of their child's "death" by nuns working in the hospitals.
- An ideological aspect in which children were taken from "unsuitable" (left-wing, unmarried) parents and placed with more "appropriate" (pro-regime) parents.
- A fear of/respect for authority which made it difficult to question what was said by doctors and other professionals, coupled with a certain amount of turning-a-blind-eye from certain sectors. In Spain, the situation has been complicated by the fact that mothers did not have to enter their names on the birth certificate - this was supposed to "protect" unmarried mothers - and that adoptive parents could be entered as biological parents. That makes DNA testing the only hope for a clear answer, and as I'll note below, that's not so easy either.

There was some mention that the number of children taken from their biological parents could run into the hundreds of thousands. That is a truly huge figure and there was little indication of how it was arrived at, so I'll reserve my judgement until I see some proof on that, but really, it doesn't matter. The stolen children of Argentina are a huge issue and there are "only" around 400-500 of them. Even if there was only a handful, it would still be a big scandal.

Unfortunately, as yet the Spanish government has resisted opening a full investigation into the stolen children. As the BBC points out, data protection laws prohibit DNA banks from sharing or cross-referencing data and the Spanish government has yet to fulfil its promise to set up a national DNA database. It sounds like the Spaniards affected need to take a leaf out of Argentina's book and protest very, very loudly to get this situation changed.

Spain's stolen babies and the families who lived a lie

Friday 21 October 2011

Brazil: A truth commission, but a weak one

There have been a few stories floating around about Brazil's truth commission proposal, which is still awaiting a vote in the Senate, but most of them in the English media have been pretty perfunctory. However, this one from IPS is really worth reading. It opens by pointing out that,
For some the commission, or CNV, that was approved by a Senate committee on Wednesday Oct. 19 is a watered-down or weak version of what is really needed, while others see it as the best that can be achieved at this time.

The CNV will not have the power to punish those responsible for human rights violations committed during the 1964-1985 de facto regime, and its conclusions will not give rise to court cases.
Another important point is that
the CNV will cover the period from 1946 to 1988, despite pressure from human rights groups and the families of victims of the dictatorship, who want it to merely apply to the 21-year dictatorial regime, in order to avoid a dispersion of efforts. This huge length of time for a commission that does not even have its own budget is a lot to ask. The proceedings may also not be fully open. Some human rights activists have strongly criticised the plans.

I'm usually a "it's better than nothing" type person, and Brazil has been notable as one of the few countries on the subcontinent that has not had a TRC; nevertheless, this proposal as it stands does sound very weak.

Brazilians Get Ready to Dig Up the Truth (IPS)

Guatemala: President Colom apologises

Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom has apologised to the family of former President Jacobo Arbenz who was ousted in a 1954 coup backed by the United States. Arbenz died in exile in 1971.

Colom announced on Thursday that he will name a federal highway after Arbenz, notes the Associated Press. Not to make light of an absolutely serious issue, but that does seem a slightly odd tribute.

The New York Times, which calls the ceremony "muted", takes the opportunity to remind readers of a little of the history surrounding the Guatemalan coup.
The Eisenhower Administration painted the coup as an uprising that rid the hemisphere of a Communist government backed by Moscow. But Mr. Arbenz’s real offense was to confiscate unused land owned by the United Fruit Company to redistribute under a land reform plan and to pay compensation for the vastly understated value the company had claimed for its tax payments.

Arbenz's grandson also said that the family would like an apology from the US for its role in the coup.

Guatemala apologizes to ex-president's family (AP)
An Apology for a Guatemalan Coup, 57 Years Later (New York Times)

Mike from Central American Politics has also blogged on the issue and rightly points out that such state apologies are no replacement for real responsibility-taking by the perpetrators. Of course, I agree, and a "sorry" in itself is not justice. However, I always like to note these steps taken and I find the public engagement with memory issues interesting - even further afield, if you think of examples like the NY Times.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Peru: Humain Remains Found at La Cantuta

There have been fresh reports of discoveries of possible victims of Peru's internal conflict recently. At the weekend, workmen at the university of La Cantuta discovered human remains when digging on a building site. There are said to be at least eight bodies. Of course, the very name of "La Cantuta" is emblematic of memory issues in Peru, as one of the most notorious crimes of the conflict was the murder of nine students and a professor from the university by the paramilitary group Colina. Their remains were found at Cieneguilla.

Another body, this time of a middle-aged woman, was found some days ago at the beach known as La Tiza which is known to have been a training ground of the Grupo Colina.

Frecuencia Latina is reporting that the university authorities have so far not commented officially on the latest discovery, but that they will have the final word on determining the age of the remains and what to do with them. I don't honestly understand why this isn't a matter for the police to decide, but perhaps this will be cleared up soon.

Restos óseos encontrados en La Cantuta reviven el fantasma del Grupo Colina (El Comercio)

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Peru: EU donates money to memory museum

The European Union has pledged two million euros to finance the construction of Peru's place of memory (Lugar de la Memoria), which is being built in Lima to commemorate the internal conflict of 1980-2000. The agreement was signed on 13 October in the foreign ministry. Present were Peruvian foreign minister Rafael Roncagliolo, head of the high-level commission for the memory museum, Fernando de Szyszlo, head of the delegation of the European Union in Peru, Hans Alldén, and representative of the UN Development Programme Rebeca Arias.

Alldén said that experience had shown the European countries that "without memory, a country has no future". Roncagliolo expressed regret at de Szyszlo's intention to resign from the museum commission for personal reasons but said that the museum's loss would be art's gain. 86-year-old de Szyszlo has said he wishes to concentrate on painting.

La UE donará dos millones de euros para el Lugar de la Memoria de Perú (EFE)

Unión Europea apoya Lugar de la Memoria para consolidar reconciliación en Perú (Andina)

Cancillería evaluará a comisión del Lugar de la Memoria (El Comercio)

Peru, EU & UN Sign Agreement for Memory Museum (Peruvian Times)

Sunday 16 October 2011

Argentina: Is it possible he didn't know?

One of the major trials currently taking place in Argentina is the so-called "Circuito Camps". This encompasses the cases from the detention centres under the control of general Ramón Camps (who died in 1994). It includes some of the emblematic cases of the dictatorship: the students taken during the Night of the Pencil (Noche de las lapices); the stealing of the grandchild of María Isabel “Chicha” Chorobik de Mariani; the abduction of Jacobo Timerman; the disappearance of Adriana Calvo, later a key figure in the human rights movement.

There are 26 people on trial - and one of them was never a member of the armed forces. Jaime Smart was a civilian member of the military government of Buenos Aires between 1976 and 1979. His defence is that he claims that he knew nothing of the repression that took place during this period. In fact, all he knew was "what was reported in the papers" - which was, of course, almost nothing at all. He is facing charges of illegal deprivation of liberty and aggravated torture against 61 people in eight detention centres. The court will have to decide whether it is reasonable to believe him that he could have known nothing.

Circuito Camps: el dilema judicial por el único civil acusado
Los crímenes del Circuito Camps (Pagina/12)

Saturday 15 October 2011

Peru: The Huayno Murders

This is a little different to my typical interests, but I'm adding because it's so unusual to see something like this in English and it does link to some interesting memory aspects. It's an examination of the intrigues of the popular huayno music scene in Peru and a notorious murder which took place within it. Right at the end, it suddenly brings up the issue of Bagua and whether the scandal was conveniently timed to distract attention from wider subjects of police brutality and repression.

Part 1:


Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

From Vice, via Guardian

Argentina: Astiz claims "persecution"

Alfredo Astiz, given the opportunity to make a statement in the closing stages of his current trial, has claimed that he is the victim of "political persecution".
According to Astiz,
Esto no es justicia, esto es un linchamiento. (...) No nos perdonan que hayamos intervenido y derrotado al terrorismo",
This isn't justice, this is a lynching. (...) [The government] won't forgive us for having intervened and defeated terrorism."
Yes, this murderer of nuns and betrayer of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo believes that he is a martyr. Unfortunately I suspect that his attitude is quite typical of those involved with the military regime, and I don't suppose there's any way of persuading them differently. Which really matters little if they are behind bars; the problem is the section of Argentine society in general which agrees with them.

Symbol of Argentine repression claims persecution (AP)
El criminal Astiz ahora dice que es víctima de una persecución política (

Update: Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo say that Astiz is "insulting the memory" of their children.

Taty Almeida: Astiz "insulta la memoria de nuestros hijos" (Pagina/12)

Update 2: Pagina/12 is running this cartoon.

Translation: Reporter: Astiz... You said your trial is a lynching.
Astiz: Yes, and I mean, I'm not against lynching.

Update 3: It actually gets more brazen: Adolfo Miguel Donda (uncle of congresswoman and found grandchild Victoria Donda) says he feels like "a persecuted Jew". Nice.

Donda: “Me siento un judío perseguido” (Clarin)

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Argentina: La mujer del Eternauta

La mujer del Eternauta (Dir. Adán Aliaga, Spain, 2011):

Thanks to the Memoria Documental blog for drawing my attention to this trailer; as it rightly points out, the trailer is quite mysterious and you don't get much information from it. Nevertheless, I can add a few words about its subject, Elsa Sánchez de Oesterheld. She was the wife of Argentine journalist Héctor Germán Oesterheld, whose most famous work was El Eternauta. Her husband and all four children were disappeared by the military regime.

In Antonius C. G. M. Robben's "Political violence and trauma in Argentina", he quotes her as saying,
"I believe that disappearance is one of the most brutal things that can exist in today's war. It is the inhumane of the inhumane. I don't know how to express it. It's one of the most horrendous things because from one moment to the next a child disappears, a loved one, son, father, brother, whatever, husband and this person has vanished into thin air without ever knowing what happened to him. It's very difficult to come to terms with. That's the anxiety, the despair, that in my personal case will obviously die with me."
Yet she did not give in to this despair, but got involved with the Grandmothers and last week was named a Distinguished Person of the City of Buenos Aires in recognition of her work for human rights.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Argentina: Angela Urondo

Pagina/12 runs an extensive interview with Angela Urondo, another child of disappeared parents. It's unfortunately too long for me to translate, but for Spanish speakers interested in these issues, it's worth reading in full.

Angela Urondo is the daughter of Argentine writer Francisco “Paco” Urondo and Alicia Raboy. Her father was killed in 1976 and her mother remains disappeared. Last week, five former members of the military received lengthy prison sentences for their part in crimes including the murder of Paco Urondo: Juan Agustín Oyarzábal, Eduardo Smaha Borzuk, Alberto Rodríguez Vázquez, Celustiano Lucero and Dardo Migno.

Angela herself was kept in detention centres as a small child for around a year after the disappearance of her parents, an experience she says she remembers in recurring dreams. She notes, "There's plenty of talk about appropriated children, but no one mentions detained-disappeared children".
“Todos me preguntan cómo me siento después del juicio y siento alivio --dice Angela-- Pero también me pasa... hasta ahora el Estado siempre me había quitado: asesinó a mis padres, me quitó mi nombre y me quitó la posibilidad del resarcimiento porque había sido adoptada. [...] Siento que el Estado me está devolviendo algo y eso de alguna forma desvictimiza. Si hubo dos crímenes, los asesinatos y las desapariciones y la impunidad, el primero no tiene forma de ser resuelto, el segundo sí, no por los 35 años que pasaron pero sí para el futuro”.

Everyone asks me how I feel after the trial, and I feel relieved," says Angela, "But also I think... until now, the State has always taken away from me: it murdered my parents, it took away my name and it took away the chance of compensation because I had been adopted. [...] I feel like the State is giving me something back and in some way stopping me from being a victim. If there were two crimes, the murders and the disappearances on the one hand and the impunity on the other, there is no way of resolving the first of those but the second, there is - not for the 35 years which have already passed, but for the future."

Angela Urondo is currently in the process of having her formal adoption dissolved and officially taking the name of her father: this is the other side of the coin to the disappeared child who wants to keep his name.

"Por primera vez el Estado me esta devolviendo algo" (Pagina/12)

Argentina: Victoria Montenegro

The online edition of the New York Times yesterday published a detailed article on Victoria Montenegro, a disappeared child (now adult, of course), which discusses very well the complexities and emotional turmoil of such cases.

Brought up by a military father who recounted his involvement in "battles" against "subversives", Montenegro eventually had to learn that he had been involved in the killing of her biological parents and she ultimately testified against him in court.
“I grew up thinking that in Argentina there had been a war, and that our soldiers had gone to war to guarantee the democracy,” she said. “And that there were no disappeared people, that it was all a lie.” [...]
By 2000, Ms. Montenegro still believed her mission was to keep Colonel Tetzlaff out of prison. But she relented and gave a DNA sample. A judge then delivered jarring news: the test confirmed that she was the biological child of Hilda and Roque Montenegro, who had been active in the resistance.
This is a good illustration of why the Grandmothers support compulsory DNA testing, I would say. It's all very well for us to say that adults should have the right to choose; but people who have been indoctrinated their entire lives by people they believe to be their parents cannot very easily just turn around and change that point of view. Obviously, they are likely to see DNA testing as a betrayal of their "parents".
Slowly, she got to know her biological parents’ family.
“This was a process; it wasn’t one moment or one day when you erase everything and begin again,” she said. “You are not a machine that can be reset and restarted.”

Daughter of Argentina's "Dirty War", raised by the man who killed her parents (New York Times)

Saturday 8 October 2011

Argentina: Duret expelled from Chile

Progress was made on another case in Argentina this week. Alejandro Duret had fled to Chile in an attempt to avoid a lengthy jail sentence - and Chile sent him back. Duret, a retired Argentine colonel, is linked with the kidnapping, torture and ultimate disappearance of political opponent Carlos Labolita in 1976.
"He simply came into the country and was expelled," a Chilean foreign ministry spokeswoman told CNN.
Well, that's admirably efficient - it doesn't always work like that. Pagina/12 reported yesterday that he is already in prison.

Chile expels Argentine military involved in crimes against humanity (Mercopress)
Argentine presses forward with human rights trials (CNN)
Chile entrego al represor Duret en el Cristo Redentor (Pagina/12 via Projecto Desaparecidos)
Chile entrego al ex coronel (Clarin, also photo source)
Duret ya esta preso en Marcos Paz (Pagina/12)Link

Argentina: Astiz extradition denied

France had an extradition request for Alfredo Astiz denied this week. The murder of the French nuns Leonie Duquet and Alice Domon for which he was wanted is one of the most notorious of the dictatorship.

The extradition petition was judged "inadmissible" on the perfectly reasonable grounds that Astiz is already on trial in Argentina for crimes involving the same victims. This is as it should be: if Argentina is unable or unwilling to deliver justice, then it's the next-best option that other countries including France, Germany and Spain step in - but the priority must be for trials to take place in Argentina itself. Incidentally, the once "blond angel" makes a pretty miserable impression these days.

Argentina highest court rejects French request to extradite the "blond angel of death"
Argentina nixes extradition in 1970s French nun case (Reuters)
La Corte rechazo la extradicion de Astiz (Pagina/12)

Tuesday 4 October 2011