Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies

"The Axel Blumberg Crusade for the Lives of Our Children": The Cultural Politics of Fear and the Moral Authority of Grief in Argentina

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies

"The Axel Blumberg Crusade for the Lives of Our Children": The Cultural Politics of Fear and the Moral Authority of Grief in Argentina

Article excerpt

Introduction: From Communist Guerrillas to Common Criminals

For the military dictatorships that swept Latin America during the Cold War, enemies were defined ideologically. Dictatorships justified their human rights abuses using a doctrine of national security exported from the United States in the context of a global struggle against communism. In Argentina, site of some of the worst atrocities in the region, up to 30,000 civilians disappeared, kidnapped by security forces and taken to clandestine detention centres where they were tortured and eventually killed. According to the military, those who disappeared were "subversives" attempting to overthrow the government and undermine traditional Christian morality. (1) The military junta saw Argentina as the final battleground of World War III, the decisive site in a global clash between Christian civilization and Marxist subversion (Verbitsky 1986). Inspired by counter-insurgency doctrine, they employed the concept of a "dirty war" to wage battle against an invisible enemy in the body politic.

With the end of the Cold War, popular commentators saw the end of ideological conflict. Literary theorist Walter Benn Michaels terms this belief "posthistoricism." However, a new threat soon erupted into the global order: the terrorist. According to Michaels, terrorists, as opposed to communists, "must be understood as a kind of criminal, as someone who represents a threat not to a political system or a nation but to the law" (2004, 171). Communism was an ideology; communists were defined by their goals and beliefs. Terrorism is a method--a means, not an end. Terrorists are defined by their actions rather than their goals, by what they do rather than what they believe. Yet as Michaels argues, with the onset of the War on Terror, "terrorists" are labelled terrorists without even committing terrorist acts. Once classified into a nebulous category, terrorists cease to even be defined by their actions. The issue is not what they do or even what they believe but who they are. Michaels argues that this is a product of the current historical moment in which ontology has replaced ideology. Michaels situates this as part of a broader intellectual trend that privileges identity over ideology and difference over class.

During the Cold War, the United States and Latin American military regimes considered communist guerrilla insurgency groups as the enemy. Today in the Americas, guerrilla groups are no longer a threat. However, following Michaels' analysis of the terrorist, a new non-ideological enemy has emerged: the criminal. Crime is now considered one of the biggest problems facing Latin America. Just like the communist guerrillas of the past, criminals are seen to destabilize governments, impede economic development, and create public insecurity. (2) Marxists like James Petras even argue for a causal link between rising crime and the decline of revolutionary politics in Latin America.

As the renovated leftists turn to political pacts with the neoliberal political class, as socialist ideology is emptied of content and practice, as NGOs fragment the social movement and foment depoliticization and individual careerism, the popular classes turn away from collective action and class struggle toward individual violence and personal gain. Crime replaces rebellion. (Petras 1999, 104)

The human rights movement in Latin America emerged as a consequence of the atrocities committed by military dictatorships in the name of combatting so-called subversion. In Argentina, organizations formed by family members of the disappeared, such as the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, were the most prominent. In the lengthy post-dictatorship pursuit of justice--which is still ongoing--family-member human rights groups have been at the forefront in demanding accountability for the dictatorship's abuses. They have also been active in protesting social and economic issues, making conscious links between the violence in the past and the social, economic, and political exclusion in the present. …

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