Friday, August 28, 2015

Museum Serves as a Reminder of Dirty War in Chile

By Jake Sandler
The death earlier this month of Gen. Manuel Contreras, a notorious secret-police boss and unrepentant human rights abuser, coupled with legal developments in a number of decades-old criminal cases, have shed new light on the dark and still haunting legacy of the dictatorship of Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). On Aug. 7, nearly nine years after Pinochet passed away at age 91, Contreras, 86, followed his former boss to the grave. Both men died of natural causes, and, in both cases, the deaths prompted spontaneous street celebrations. Outside the Santiago hospital where Contreras had been treated since September 2014 for kidney problems and other serious health issues, critics of the 17-year military regime poured sparkling wine and waved flags. -from NotiSur, August 28, 2015
The date of September 11th has its own infamous meaning in Chile. The US-backed coup that toppled the Allende government and launched Chile into a seventeen-year military dictatorship headed by General Pinochet occurred on September 11th, 1973, a day when the presidential palace was under violent siege and Salvador Allende allegedly committed suicide in his chambers. The years that followed were marked by grave violations of human rights committed by the Pinochet regime.

Although that period ended with the transition to democracy in 1990, the wounds have not healed into healthy scars, but remain fresh and open in so many ways. The trials of crimes against humanity, with their failings and achievements, have been a centerpiece of that public healing process. However, outside of law and government, a prominent place where this process of collective healing and construction of historical memory has taken place is within Chile’s vibrant cultural sector. Hence, El Mueso de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (MMDH), “Museum of Memory and Human Rights”.

Bachelet and the Bicentennial Foundation 
The MMDH was founded in 2010 as a part of the cultural initiatives carried out during the Chilean Bicentennial. Obviously, the national celebrations of Chile’s independence caused many questions of Chile’s recent past to surface anew. Then President Michelle Bachelet headed the effort herself, as she and her family had a publicly-known connection as victims of the crimes against humanity; Bachelet’s father died in detention following the coup, while she and her mother were detained, tortured and later exiled. Bachelet has reported that she was interrogated in detention by Manuel Contreras himself, in the infamous detention center Villa Grimaldi. The board of directors includes Bachelet and many academics, artists and intellectuals linked with La Concertación political movement.

Contemporary Architecture and Center of Santiago’s Cultural Eastside The MMDH is located in Santiago’s cultural heartland – the eastside. The architecture of the museum itself is contemporary and encourages a dynamic, interactive relationship between the indoors and the outdoors, and between the public and the space. MMDH not only supports artists and archives collections of important historical documents relating to the 1973-1990 period, but also hold educational initiatives, community performances and art contests to promote awareness and production of art that discusses themes of the dictatorship, such as kidnappings, detention, torture, memory and exile.

“Bad Memory”: A Musical Tribute
In 2013, the MMDH held a music contest called “Mala memoria”, or ‘bad memory’, which encouraged musicians to pay tribute to various themes of the dictatorship and of collective memory. The artist Vilú wrote her song “Gloria” in homage to Gloria Lagos Nilsson, who was kidnapped and killed in detention in 1974. Almost two years after Vilú was awarded by the MMDH for her song, Manuel Cantreras was convicted in court for Gloria’s disappearance, torture and murder. This video of the beautiful song "Gloria" was subitted to the MMDH.

Museums of Memory – A Larger Picture
MMDH was not the first such institution in Chile, although it has come to hold a certain importance especially within the arts community of Santiago. The Catholic Church’s Fundación Vicaria de la Solidaridad , Villa Grimaldi: Corporación Parque por la Paz  and la Casa de la Memoria all played a part in supporting the founding of the MMDH in 2010.  The MMDH is among five places in Santiago cited by the organization Global Voices where  one can remember the Pinochet dictatorship and say “Never Again”

Given that Chile’s history is unique, but not alone in Latin America, cultural institutions and organizations that focus on collective memory and human rights have emerged elsewhere. Such institutions exist in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and elsewhere. Earlier this year we featured a piece on Paraguay’s Museo de la Corrupción any of these institutions follow in the footsteps of museums, such as the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., which have marked a new era of responses to state violence. In this context, we are seeing museums transforming their traditional roles in society.

Traditionally, museums were about collections and exhibition. Today, as we see with the MMDH, the museum’s societal purpose is found not just in the collections themselves, but the very act of collecting. Through this act, the community engages in archiving of their own memories. And as we see with Vilú, younger generations have a physical place to express their connection to their cultural and political past.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A View of Government Impunity in the Community of Nahualá in Rural Guatemala

By Jake Sandler
(The author, a graduate student at the University of  New Mexico, spent several weeks in Guatemala in June and July of 2015)

In one of the articles in NotiCen this week, Thomas Shannon, a top-level US State Department advisor suggested to reporters that El Salvador and Honduras would do well to follow Guatemala’s lead and set up anti-impunity commissions of their own, similar to Guatemala’s Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad (CICIG), a powerful judicial instrument established nearly a decade ago in collaboration with the UN. "Each country would have to determine what the structure would be, but the CICIG has worked well," said Shannon.  The Salvadoran government rejected the proposal .  Read more

The CICIG seems to have found some level of acceptance in Guatemala, and the reason is because the commission is international in nature.  Very few Guatemalans would actually trust an anti-impunity commission that was comprised with government officials that linked to the impunity that had prevailed in the country for decades. Many Guatemalans remain fearful of what their government does to its own people when the world is not watching.  

This extremely widespread, popular distrust is rooted in the countless massacres and assassinations, the hundreds of thousands of innocents killed at the hands of the government during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960  1996).  Although the peace accords in ’96 ended the internal armed conflict on paper, the Guatemalan people have continued to watch as the brutally repressive actions of illegal or clandestine security groups with direct or indirect links to state officials and judicial institutions go unpunished.   

Government mistrusted
Many communities throughout the nation, particularly indigenous villages in rural areas that were most affected during the war, have become accustomed to expecting very little of their government officials, and at times having to take matters of local security and justice into their own hands. One such community is in the city of Nahualá, where I spent five weeks this summer living with a family in the center of town while attending a linguistics field school for the K’iche Maya language.

Nahualá, Sololá, Guatemala  (Jake Sandler)
Nahualá is a K’iche Maya town, which means that essentially everyone there identifies with the K’iche Maya ethnicity and almost everyone speaks K’iche Maya as their first language, not Spanish.  My host father, Tat Mash (in Spanish, Don Tomás), was born in the late 1950s and has for most of his life lived through the internal armed conflict.   

If you ask an elder in Nahualá what it was like during the infamous year of 1982, the year of many massacres of indigenous communities, they will respond with a comment like “the army never entered Nahualá, because we didn’t let them.  So nothing too terrible happened here, thank God.”  But what do they mean by that, ‘we didn’t let them enter the town,?'

 It is extremely rare that people will talk about such topics at all; in fact, it seems the culture of fear and silence permeates even the most fiercely independent of communities.  However, one evening the topic was brought up over dinner. 

The Discovery Channel Effect
That night over dinner, they asked me where my family came from and said that I looked Arab.  I told them "sort of" and explained the complicated story of the wandering Jew.  Little Diego said "You mean the ones that killed Jesus!"  I laughed to lighten the worried looks of the adults sitting around the stove fire, looking on intently.  I told them that most of my family had immigrated to the United States before the Holocaust.  Victor, the 30 year-old son of Ta Mash and Al Talin, said he had seen a few documentaries about World War II on the Discovery Channel and he saw how millions had died in the gas chambers and the firing squads.  He said something like "but I believe one must have a better understanding of history before watching a documentary like that".  The room agreed.  

The humility with which they treat highly complicated information impacted me, considering we consume very serious material on the Discovery Channel in the United States as casually as the way one might eat an ice pop or cheese crackers. I said I didn't know much, because acting as an authority of information here, where education about the genocide of past generations is so fraught, is a bit like taking out dollar bills and throwing them on the floor. And, anyway, how much do I really know about my grandparents and their experience?   

How much does our historical memory actually serve us?  At other times, in other places I may have been ready to blabber on about a few stories I had heard.  But, becoming accustomed to the silence, humility and sacredness with which the Nahualeños treated the massacres of ’82, I decided not say more.  And then, as if feeding the unknowable silence, Ta Mash began talking a bit about the Guatemalan Civil War, a very delicate subject you don’t hear much about here. 

Two Nahualeñas visiting a cemetery with unmarked graved seen behind to the right
Revisiting the massacres of 1982
 He talked about the massacres in 1982, when so many were also killed in front of firing squads and other awful techniques of state-sponsored ethnocide.  He said here in Nahualá, the people set up self-defense watches and had rifles and alarmed the town when the army was coming.  He said the army only entered a few times, and they kidnapped a couple people suspected of cooperating with guerillas, but they never massacred like they did out in the rural areas.  Out in the rural areas!!! I suppose everything is relative.  

Outside in the patio, pine wood smoke was wavering in the wind above dozens of corrugated tin rooves.  Ta Mash finished by saying "I suppose every place in the word has their wars, their massacres, their terrible sadnesses, just like every place has their own beautiful customs, hairdos, and dresses." We all took sips from our hot drink, a sweet milk with cinnamon and Nescafe served in clay bowls.  The room fell silent, but somehow comfortable.  

Over in the corner was a stack of garments ready to be sold at tomorrow’s market. Then Al Talin asked me what type of huipiles they wear in Nuevo Mexico, and the middle generation laughed, knowing that we wear Lakers t-shirts and blue jeans.  Al Talin's face got red and scrunched as she laughed, and I wished I could say more about the Navajo and Apache traditional garments we have up there in El Norte, where the desert serves as a grave for unidentified bones of migrants who can't follow their coyotes any longer.
"My host family in Nahualá may not be willing to say that they know what happened or how to change things, but they certainly know that not enough people have been brought to justice for it."
Nahualá is 22 km east of Quetzaltenango in Southwest Guaemala (Wikimedia Commons)
And just like that, we moved on to another topic.  Why waste any more time discussing tragic topics that are anyway so inevitable and uncontrollable. You get the sense here that such systematic and structural forms of state violence appear natural. I suppose lowering one’s expectations of the government and of respect for human rights is an organic reaction to so many unending years of repression and violence without justice.  Although the crimes themselves may not be seen, nor the faces of their perpetrators, the impunity never goes unseen.  Impunity never goes unseen because it is precisely the not happening – the lack of trials, the absence of convictions – in the face of so many unmarked graves and clandestine mass burial sites.  My host family in Nahualá may not be willing to say that they know what happened or how to change things, but they certainly know that not enough people have been brought to justice for it.

To kill with impunity; to rob, extort and exploit with no fear of punishment; to do wrong without having to contend with justice and the forces of righteousness – for those who have ever occupied themselves with the binding together of social order, the prospect of judicial impunity is both frightening and ancient.  Indeed, the construction of political mechanisms that prevent instances of impunity is absolutely central to the construction of the modern, democratic nation-state itself.  In Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers No. 27 on Restraining the Legislative Authority, he writes:
The hope of impunity is a strong incitement to sedition; the dread of punishment, a proportionably strong discouragement to it. 

Interestingly, what Hamilton was writing about is that the federal state or nation will have the ability to crush impunity through the watchful eyes of the states’ union.  This is in stark juxtaposition to the present-day context of fighting against impunity in the Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where impunity is a problem that emanates directly from within the state itself.  In fact, the context of impunity in the Northern Triangle nations today takes on almost exactly what Hamilton describes in the absence of a federal union: “A turbulent faction in a State may easily suppose itself able to contend with the friends to the government in that State”.  
"It is not a state of resistance, not a state of anger nor action – it is a state of being accustomed to hearing politicians speak of peace and justice and witnessing the very opposite."   
Back around the kitchen stove in Nahualá, loudspeakers are heard from the streets outside, where megaphones are lashed to the top of pickup trucks blaring out the slogans of political parties in K’iche.  The two major parties, Patriota and Líder, are battling for the upcoming elections not only at the municipal level but at the national level.  Regardless, the people here are paying attention to the mayoral race, and it is as if the national election does not exist.  Everyone is interested in the immediate local system, the one they can feel, taste and touch day in and day out. Caring about the federal government, so far off in the capital, so uncontrollable and untrustworthy, seems a futile act.   

No one mentions the CICIG here, nor the trials and the cases it fights for.  It is not that the people are not happy to have an institution like that working on behalf of justice; it is simply that no one, not here at least, is ready to put their trust into anything that bears the government seal.  It is not a state of resistance, not a state of anger nor action – it is a state of being accustomed to hearing politicians speak of peace and justice and witnessing the very opposite.