Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

The Politics of Memory and the Memory of Politics

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

The Politics of Memory and the Memory of Politics

Article excerpt

The Politics of Memory and The Memory of Politics

Reflections on Memory and Democracy, edited by Merilee S. Grindle and Erin E. Goodman (David Rockefeller Center Series on Latin American Studies, Harvard University Press, 2016, 260 pages)

Memory is tricky business. So is democracy. Both are invariably challenged and contested from within and from without. The struggle against the manipulation of memory for purposes of forgetting and erasure, hegemony and domination, has to be waged time and again, just as the abuses of democracy need to be confronted to guarantee its future. A strong civil society and citizens' participation not just in elections, but in associations and public life, will strengthen both memory and democracy. The case of Latin America provides a panoply of examples of how this linkage of memory and democracy has played out in the past few decades, in some cases with more success than in others.

Indeed, there seems to be a consensus that historical memory of traumatic violence perpetrated by state terror and military dictatorships is a sine qua non for the often difficult transitions to democracy. A host of questions and problems is embedded in this consensus: transitional justice as amnesty or prosecution of perpetrators; the creation of democratic institutions and a functioning public sphere; reforms of the security apparatus, of the judiciary, of education; the role of Truth and Reconciliation commissions; creating public spaces for testimony humanizing the past; restitution in its symbolic and its real material dimensions; reconciliation and forgiveness as desirable or as a placebo covering up festering wounds; the role of public memorials and museums as well as the contributions of the arts in a society's coming to terms with violent past. And then there is the question of memory politics in relation to Human Rights as universal or as a tool of political hegemony. I do believe that for historical memory to take hold it must be robustly linked to a developing and increasingly transnational Human Rights regime. But the exclusive focus on Human Rights will be as ineffectual as the dwelling on the horrors of the past unless it is firmly linked to social histories of oppression and inequities of wealth and privilege that far transcend the time frame of recent dictatorships and state terror, both deeper into the past and right into the present. All these issues have generated public debates across the world and filled libraries with studies upon studies of specific histories in local contexts, their transnational connectedness and affinities, their universal meaning within a globalizing culture in which violence, memory and rights have emerged as touchstones for an insecure and menacing present.

The volume here under discussion emerged out of a conference held at Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies in November 2013, shortly after the 40th anniversary of that other 9/11-the military coup in Chile of 1973. For me as an outsider of Latin American Studies, but interested observer of memory politics in Latin America, this collection of essays by journalists, writers and poets; literary critics, political scientists and historians; philosophers, economists and linguists transcends disciplinary boundaries in a felicitous way. It also offers a challenge to comparative studies, in that apart from its binding focus on Chile it includes essays on Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and Colombia. What emerges is a multidirectional view of memory politics across the continent that allows the reader to draw inferences between the different national cases discussed and to recognize fundamental differences between, say, Chile and Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.

As the poetic prologue on the Chilean arpilleras (some of which figure prominently in Santiago's Museo de memoria y derechos humanos) suggests, this volume of reflections is a patchwork stitched together from many histories and many memories, but united in the continuing call for justice and accountability and in the commitment to the democratizing potential of historical memory. …

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