Bello —Memory is not history

Sep 13th 2014 Economist

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 7.59.29 AMDirty war memorials should not be used to rewrite the past

IT IS lunchtime and the Museum of Memory in Santiago has a sprinkling of visitors. They contemplate the exhibits in silence. There is grainy footage of Hawker jets bombing the Moneda palace during General Augusto Pinochet’s coup against Salvador Allende, an elected Socialist president, on September 11th 1973. A map of Chile shows the 1,132 detention centres set up after the coup, each marked with a flashing light. In videotaped testimony, victims matter-of-factly describe the torture and sexual violence to which they were subjected. There are heartbreaking letters to imprisoned parents from their children and to families from prisoners unaware of their imminent execution.

No democrat can fail to be moved by the museum. Opened in 2010 at the initiative of Michelle Bachelet, then and now again Chile’s president, its job is to act as a memorial to the victims of the Pinochet dictatorship and to ensure that the suffering imposed on Chile is not forgotten, says María José Bunster, its acting director.

It is one of several “museums of memory” that have sprouted up across South America. In Argentina the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has opened a “Space of Memory and Human Rights” in what was the Navy Mechanical Institute, the most notorious of the torture centres under the 1976-83 dictatorship. In Peru and Colombia new museums are grappling with the complexities of memorialising continuing armed conflicts.

There can be no doubting the importance of recalling the crimes of the past. But there are dangers, too, in the region’s intellectual fashion for “historical memory”. Memory is by its nature subjective and selective. It cannot substitute for history, as Tony Judt, a European historian who died in 2010, pointed out. The history of political violence in Latin America is more complicated than some of the museums and monuments suggest.

On the bank of the River Plate sits the Memory Park, another memorial to victims of the Argentine junta. It houses a zig-zagging wall of grey stone with the names of “30,000 victims of state terrorism”, in the manner of the Vietnam veterans’ memorial in Washington, DC. Except that most of the name-plaques are blank. Memory—in the form of human-rights groups—repeats the figure of 30,000 victims. History—in the shape of an independent commission—could identify only 8,960.

They died “fighting for the ideals of justice and equity”, the park proclaims. But not, in many cases, for democracy or human rights. The historical truth silenced by “memory” is that the cold war in Latin America was fought by two equally authoritarian sides. Argentina’s coup in 1976 was triggered in part by the violence of the Montoneros, a leftist-nationalist guerrilla group of which several of Ms Fernández’s officials were members.

In Chile, too, memories of history can be incomplete. The museum in Santiago is not trying to impose an interpretation of history, just recounting facts, Ms Bachelet told Bello in July. Yet the only clue that Allende’s government, through its attempt to impose a Marxist programme, had itself contributed to the breakdown of democracy and “the destruction or weakening of many points of consensus” is contained in a quote from a Truth Commission of 1991, which is inscribed on a wall tucked away by the toilets. Allende will be commemorated on this week’s anniversary of the coup as a fallen hero of democracy, with no mention of his own mistakes—even Zhou Enlai, then China’s leader, warned him that he was moving too fast towards communism.

None of this mitigates the inexcusable barbarity of Pinochet or of the Argentine junta. They killed or tortured thousands of innocent civilians on a scale that was wildly disproportionate to the violence of the left. It is merely to point out that although the right may bloodily have won the cold war in Latin America, the left has won the peace. And it is busy rewriting history.

Ms Fernández has set up an official “Institute of Historical Revisionism” to encourage the teaching of “anti-colonial” history. Most young Uruguayans mistakenly believe that the Tupamaro urban guerrillas (whose survivors are now in office) fought a military dictatorship rather than helped to topple a civilian democracy, says Julio María Sanguinetti, a former president who opposed the guerrillas.

This rewriting of history has a practical consequence. The region is quick to condemn anything that smacks of a coup, but is complacent in the face of abuses of power and of human rights by governments of the left, who appeal to “anti-imperialism” and “the people”—the banners of a past that is only partially remembered and understood.