Sunday 28 September 2014

Chilean exiles in East Germany

I was really interested by this half-hour documentary on Chileans behind the Berlin Wall which I found via Memoria documental.

Monday 15 September 2014

Response to "Memory is not history"

The Economist's Bello column this week has a column entitled "Memory is not history", which argues that "there are dangers [in South America’s] intellectual fashion for “historical memory”." It goes on to accuse "the left" of "rewriting history" - in fact, of imposing "memory" over an accurate "history".

I would argue that the piece contains several important distortions, aside from trying to lump together a region from Colombia down to the Southern Cone.
The historical truth silenced by “memory” is that the cold war in Latin America was fought by two equally authoritarian sides.

But it was not. To take the example of Argentina, yes, there were Montoneros and there were incidences of left-wing violence before the 1976 coup. But to suggest that the small leftist group, which was largely destroyed before the military took power, was in any way equivalent to the forces of the State is very far off the mark.

The Economist points out that some human rights groups in Argentina tend to use the figure of 30,000 disappeared and it contrasts this with the nearly 9,000 victims recorded by the CONADEP commission. It is inaccurate and unfair to use the CONADEP list to undermine estimates of the disappeared, and I explained why in detail years ago. See also here for more on the numbers.
None of this mitigates the inexcusable barbarity of Pinochet or of the Argentine junta. 

The problem is that it does. You can't equate State terrorists with their victims, suggest that calculations of the disappeared are deliberately inflated, and then claim that you're not weakening the accounts of the dictatorships' crimes.

Memorials are a shorthand, yes. You can't include the whole complexities of a country's experiences on a plaque. Memory, in its wider sense, tends to include the testimonies of victims and relatives and it encompasses a whole range of commemorative acts, both formal and informal. Pulling out the memory/history dichotomy and reiterating the dos demonios theory ("each side was as bad as the other") is a means of obscuring human rights abuses and seeking to paper over the crimes of the past.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Chile: Andrés Cruzat's photomontages of Santiago coup

Photomontages of old and new images which remind us "how things were" have become a bit of a fad recently.

See, for example, this photo slideshow of Cologne, Germany, on Youtube. The clip was extremely popular, but some people, including in the Youtube comments, express concern that it is somehow an overly patriotic view of history - something which is, from the German point of view, highly problematic. There are all sorts of questions surrounding the appropriateness of mourning Germany's loss of architectural heritage and nostalgia for "what could have been".

See also these images of the Second World War in Google Street View. The "montage" in this case is not subtle - it's just a photo pasted on top of the Google image - but the idea of the continuity of place and memory is there.

Now we come to Chile.

Andrés Cruzat's images of modern-day Santiago combined with original photos of the September 11 coup do not to me seem "suspect" in the same way that some Germans felt the Cologne ones did. Rather, they take the contemporary environment, where it is often easy to forget the past, and say "Look what happened here!". One comparison which often comes up in these montages is that of ghosts - but despite the colour, it seems to me that the modern figures here as just as "ghost-like" as the 1973 ones. You can't really decide which side is more "real", it's just a layering of memory and history - the urban palimpsest in an image, as it were.

Lots more photos to see at the link below, or look at Twitter account  @fotomemoria.

"La Persistencia de la Memoria" el fotomontaje de Andrés Cruzat (

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Peru: Exhibition of victims' clothing

Forensic investigators in Peru have set up an exhibition of items of clothing in the hope that victims' relatives may be able to recognise them and thus identify some of the disappeared.

The exhumations at Los Cabitos army base in Ayacucho took place years ago (see here and here) but the majority of those disinterred have not been identified. Not a single former soldier is in prison for any of the killings that presumably took place at Los Cabitos, notes AP.

The exhibition will be shown in Lima (because many displaced people moved there), Ayacucho and Huancavelica. If people believe they recognise items, DNA tests can be then be used for confirmation.

Clothing of 53 victims exhumed at Peru base shown (AP)
Buscan identificar a 50 personas exhumadas de Los Cabitos (La Republica)

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Argentina: Revenge is a dish best served cold

Here's a fantastic radio documentary about Victor Basterra, who worked as a photographer while detained in the ESMA (Spanish only). "Revenge is a dish best served cold", he comments as he explains how he smuggled images of military personnel out of the detention centre, which were later used to convict human rights abusers in court.

El fotógrafo (Radio Ambulante)

Thanks to Steven for drawing my attention to it.

Saturday 6 September 2014

Argentina: Photos of 1930 coup

When I write about a coup in Argentina, it's almost invariably the 1976 one - but in fact, this was the sixth coup of the 20th century in the country. Infojus Noticias has some amazing photos from the national archive of the one that kicked them all off, in 1930.

See more here:
Quince fotos inéditas del primer golpe de Estado argentino (Infojus Noticias)

Friday 5 September 2014

Brazil: Volkswagen spied on workers in 1980s

Reuters is reporting that German carmaker Volkswagen spied on union activists and passed sensitive information to Brazil's dictatorship in the 1980s.

VW covertly monitored workers and other unionists including former president Lula.

The news agency reports that the country's truth commission has uncovered documents Volkswagen gave to the military in 1983 and 1984.
In the documents, Volkswagen provided extensive accounts of more than a dozen union meetings in Greater São Paulo. The company relayed workers' plans for strikes as well as their demands for better salaries and working conditions. The company reported the names of Volkswagen workers who attended union events and, in at least two cases, noted the make and license plate numbers of vehicles present.
It's long been known that big companies - not just Volkswagen - were in cahoots with South America's military regimes, but there hasn't been much legal redress so some firm evidence on this would be really good.

This story is being covered in Spanish-language, Brazilian and German press, but all media are just referring to the Reuters report:

Exclusive: Volkswagen spied on Lula, other Brazilian workers in 1980s (Reuters)