Forty Years On: Memory and Reconstruction in Postdictatorship Argentina

In post-traumatic political situations — the years following a genocide, a violent coup, or state-sponsored repression and torture — people have to find ways to come to terms with the horrors they endured, witnessed, or took part in. In Argentina, a seven-year military dictatorship and ‘Process of National Reorganization’ spanning almost a decade left 20,000 to 30,000 people dead or ‘disappeared’, depending on your sources.  Argentina has coped with this trauma in a number of ways since the formal end of military rule in 1983. That year, Raúl Alfonsín, who ran on a platform of human rights and promised to bring military leaders of the past regime to justice, was democratically elected. He created the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas (CONADEP), which produced Nunca Más Report, a 50,000 page account of individual descriptions of those kidnapped, tortured, and killed. There was a public and thorough series of trials in which nine members of the militaries junta were tried and charged. However, after the threat of another coup loomed on the horizon, Alfonsín enacted the Full Stop Law in 1986 and the Due Obedience Law in 1987, dictating that the human rights trials would end on a certain date, and that legal responsibility was to stop at a high-level point in the chain of military command. This absolutely restricted the ability of prosecutors, victims, and victims’ families to pursue justice after a certain point in time, as well as prosecute those junior military officers who may have been directly responsible for the torture and death of their loved ones, although following orders from their commanders.

Outside of a more formal legal framework, a number of civil society, support, and activism organizations have emerged in Argentina. La Comisión Provincial por la Memoria, or Provincial Commission for Memory (PCM), an organisation created by law by the Buenos Aires Province legislative branch in 2000, is tasked with reconstructing and preserving the historical memory of Argentina’s state terror during the ‘Dirty War’, or period of the military junta’s dictatorship. In order to take on this task, PCM meticulously tabulates and records documents, interviews, and forensic evidence of the state-sponsored terror. It runs programs, like “Young People and Memory,” to ensure the military’s systemic horrors are studied thoroughly in schools. This program includes special courses for teachers designed to instruct them on how best to make sure this historical memory is preserved in young students.

Delegates to Genocide Scholars / Adam Jones, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Delegates_to_Genocide_Scholars-IAGS_Conference_at_Olimpo_Detention_and_Torture_Center_-_Buenos_Aires_-_Argentina.jpg
Delegates to Genocide Scholars / Adam Jones, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Delegates_to_Genocide_Scholars-IAGS_Conference_at_Olimpo_Detention_and_Torture_Center_-_Buenos_Aires_-_Argentina.jpg

The Museum of Art and Memory (mAm), founded in 2002, was created by the Comisión as a space to reflect, utilising the power of art to enhance collective memory and awareness. All across Latin America and the world, ‘museums of memory’ have been used to achieve similar purposes. Unlike, for example, Holocaust museums and the Museum of African American History and Culture, erected long after those involved had grown old or died, the perpetrators of the military junta’s crimes and their victims are ‘still walking in our midst’. This makes the existence of mAm, and la Comisión, particularly visceral.

There are also activism organizations dedicated to ensuring that justice is delivered to those affected by the ‘Dirty War’, and that those atrocities never occur in Argentina again. HIJOS, an acronym that in English means ‘Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence’, was founded in 1995. The organisation pushes to put military leaders on trial and bring them to justice.
In addition to preserving memory, these organisations together serve to promote and normalise the denouncement and criminal prosecution of human rights crimes, not always a norm in Argentina. A government campaign in 1978 utilised the slogan ‘Los argentinos somos derechos y humanos’ (Argentinians are right and human) as a reaction against international condemnation of the dictatorship’s repressive tactics, belittling the notion of ‘human rights’ altogether. The slogan became a part of Argentina’s anti-‘human rights’ culture. When Alfonsín was elected on a platform of bringing the military to justice for its atrocities, this began what academic Kathryn Sikkink dubs a ‘justice cascade’, making a robust return to democratic government more likely, and internationalising the norm of bringing even high-ranking violators to trial. Though Alfonsín’s government limited the scope and breadth of its trials, Argentinian civil society was strengthened and produced such institutions as the Comisión, museums of memory, and HIJOS. Argentina’s willingness to pursue justice for these crimes also inspired others in the region, notably Guatemala and Peru, to do the same. In short, Argentina has come a long way since 1976, but these organisations still have much work on their hands in bringing to justice those who committed state-sponsored atrocities, as well as ensuring the recollection of this historical period.

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