Cover story -- Latin America
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Issue Date:  September 10, 2004

Beyond bloodshed

Truth: an essential ingredient for reconciliation

Part Five: Reconciliation

Reconciliation is a big word, loaded with expectations and demands. In Latin America, where so much bloodshed has given way to tenuous peace, reconciliation is an especially demanding project. In some cases, countries have attempted truth and reconciliation without consequences; in other cases, governments have squarely confronted the ugly past and apologized. And sometimes, reconciliation simply means finding a new, mutually beneficial common cause.


In 1990, when Chile’s newly elected president wanted to help his country move beyond the 17-year nightmare of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, he called for the creation of a “truth and reconciliation commission.” The commission’s mandate would be to speak the truth, but without consequences. The amnesty decree issued by Pinochet in 1978 would be respected, and those responsible for years of torture and murder would go unpunished.

A similar deal was brokered as part of the 1992 peace accords in El Salvador. A U.N.-sponsored truth commission investigated who was responsible for the massacres and death squads, but the names of those implicated were kept secret. Half-truths about the past yielded little change in the future. No justice meant no reconciliation.

Yet times are changing. Throughout Latin America, government officials have joined human rights activists and church leaders in recognizing that reconciliation without justice is a cheap bargain that leaves the future subject to the same insanity that reigned in the past.

When Nestor Kirchner became president of Argentina in May 2003 after an unprecedented period of social and economic turmoil, he focused not only on restoring international credit and boosting employment. Kirchner also quickly repealed two amnesties for lower-ranking officers that were passed in the ’80s, and undid pardons granted to rights-violating generals. While the amnesty and pardons had played a significant role at the time in preventing barracks rebellions and allowing the country’s nascent democracy to solidify, Kirchner’s moves last year signaled that the pragmatic deal struck with militaries throughout the region was no longer in force. Democracy, it seems, had matured enough to take on its enemies.

Encouraged by Kirchner, Argentina has taken dramatic steps to confront its past. In March, the former Naval Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, where as many as 5,000 political prisoners were tortured to death, became the official Museum of Memory. Nearly 100 military officials are in jail or under house arrest, among them a retired general who ruled the killing fields near Córdoba where a mass grave containing more than 120 skeletons was dug up last year. France, Sweden, Spain and Germany all have requested the extradition of some of the worst violators.

The country’s Catholic leadership has refused to join the party, however. Carmelo Giaquinta, the archbishop of Resistencia, criticized the Museum of Memory, claiming it was “created out of a morbid need to return to the past because of an inability to deal with the future.” Archbishop Domingo Castagna of Corrientes chastised Kirchner’s “unwillingness to show forgiveness or be forgiven,” claiming the president’s historical quest was “dividing society up into the pure and the impure.” Kirchner lashed back, arguing the country had suffered “because anything can be forgiven by the bishops. It doesn’t matter what one did, the bishops were willing to forgive in the name of reconciliation.”

May 14 Part 1 Introduction: Power or credibility?
June 4 Part 2 Economics: Little relief in sight for poverty, debt and unemployment
July 16 Part 3 Development: Lasting change by helping the poor without paternalism
Aug. 13 Part 4 Immigration: Opportunity and challenge for Latin America's poor
Sept. 10 Part 5a
Part 5b
Truth: an essential ingredient for reconciliation
Reconciliation from the grass roots up
 Part 6 Indigenous people: Fighting for rights after centuries of discrimination
 Part 7 Women In Latin America: The gender gap kills
 Part 8 Children: Poverty cuts children’s chances for a future; interview with the Bishop of the Gangs
 Part 9 Church: Despite crisis, Latin America's grass-roots communities remain strong model for effective church
 Part 10 Solidarity: Church groups find countless ways to put faith into action

The debate on the church’s role moved to the courtroom in February when Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, a Catholic who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent activism, accused Cardinal Raúl Primatesta, the archbishop emeritus of Córdoba, of complicity in the 1976 detention of five priests. The five, including one U.S. citizen, were saved from execution only by the intervention of U.S. embassy officials. Pérez Esquivel made the charge before a Córdoba court “to offer evidence of the ethical and moral responsibility of Primatesta and other bishops who did not defend progressive priests.”

Not all U.S. officials were dedicated to saving lives in Argentina, however. At the height of the dirty war in the ’70s, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the Argentine foreign minister that the U.S. government supported the murder of innocent civilians, according to a recently declassified document.

“Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed,” Kissinger reassured Admiral César Augusto Guzzetti in a 1976 meeting, according to the notes of a State Department secretary contained in a seven-page cable obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Washington-based National Security Archive. “I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported. What is not understood in the United States is that you have a civil war. We read about human rights problems but not the context. The quicker you succeed, the better.”

Earlier in the conversation, Guzzetti had assured Kissinger that the counterinsurgency campaign would be finished by the end of that year. Yet Guzzetti, according to another State Department cable, returned home from the Kissinger meeting “in a state of jubilation.” The killings continued for the next two years; between 9,000 and 30,000 people were executed or disappeared.

Kissinger has long refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, despite the fact that he was a principle architect of Operation Condor, a U.S.-sponsored network of repression in Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil.

Kissinger isn’t alone in his denial. No one in the current U.S. administration is likely to engage in any soul-searching about past behavior in the region. And few outside the government are pushing the issue. In March, when the National Security Archive released a declassified recording from 1964 of President Lyndon Johnson telling Undersecretary of State George Ball “to do everything that we need to do” to overthrow Brazilian President Joao Goulart, the revelation didn’t create more than a blip on the radar of major news organizations.

This atmosphere of studied neglect results in part from the Bush administration’s reincarnation of Cold War hawks for top positions, people like John Negroponte, Bush’s new point man in Iraq who, while ambassador to Honduras, couldn’t seem to notice the death squads going in and out of the embassy. It signals a clear lack of interest in human rights as a central plank in U.S. foreign policy.

A major lapse in this historical pattern of denial came when President Bill Clinton, during a 1999 visit to Guatemala just after that country’s U.N.-supervised Commission for Historical Clarification had issued its report, declared: “For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for the military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.”

While short of a confession, Clinton’s comments were well received by church leaders, rights activists and indigenous groups in Guatemala, and condemned as treason by conservatives in the United States.

Apology can be good politics

Good politics can mean saying you’re sorry, as Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo is learning. After being criticized for a slow response to a report by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in November Toledo declared: “In the name of the state, I apologize to all who suffered from the deaths, the disappearances … to all the victims of violence and terror.”

Three months earlier, the commission had issued a nine-volume report stating that 70,000 people had died during the Peruvian military’s dirty war on insurgent groups. Although it attributed most of the deaths to the Maoist Shining Path insurgency, the commission said that military officers committed massive human rights violations and urged prosecutors to send the killers to prison.

The report didn’t spare the church. While praising the work of Catholic and evangelical church workers who defended human rights, the report chastised Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, the archbishop of Lima who was archbishop of Ayacucho during most of the conflict, for his failure to take a stand against military repression there.

Despite a declaration by the Peruvian bishops’ conference that the commission should make the extent of the violence known, “in order to purify the collective memory of our past history, something that requires our repentance and forgiveness,” Cipriani had resisted the commission’s work from the start and criticized its final report during a Mass attended by Toledo. “I do not accept it because it is not true,” he declared.

“It’s been difficult for the cardinal to want to know the whole truth. He’s someone who has always thought of human rights as stupid. There’s a small sector of the church that lifted up its voice for human rights, but at the moment they’ve decided to keep their head down,” Rolando Perez, director of the Institute for Communications Studies in Lima, told NCR.

Toledo also promised to incorporate the commission’s key findings into school textbooks and declared Dec. 10 “National Reconciliation Day.” He said the attorney general’s office and the judiciary will bring to justice those members of the security forces who committed “painful excesses.” He also announced the government would spend more than $800 million in affected communities as a form of reparation, despite insistence from rights activists and victims that some of the money directly go to the families of those affected.

Others argue that it’s more important to see the killers in court. “If the Peruvian judicial system does not respond to people’s demands for justice, the so-called reconciliation process will not be possible,” said Francisco Soberón, executive secretary of the National Human Rights Coordinating Group. “Many of the people who have testified before the commission have said they want justice even more than reparations.”

It would be a mistake to assume that seeking justice in the region is merely recovering forensic evidence, a sort of “C.S.I. Latin America.” Digging into the past is a dangerous business, precisely because the bad guys are still around. Three years ago in Mexico, President Vicente Fox appointed a special prosecutor to look into the dirty war that the government carried out from the late 1960s to the early 1980s against students and other opponents. Yet in November when Ignacio Carrillo handed down his first indictment in a 30-year-old disappearance case, within days the key witness in the case was murdered and the indicted former police official became a fugitive, turning up dead in early January. Another former police official was successfully arrested in February, charged with the disappearance of two men, one a Catholic seminarian.

Carrillo’s efforts to go after bigger fish have been thwarted. When he filed charges in July against former President Luis Echeverria for ordering the massacre of as many as 40 students during a 1971 protest march, the courts ruled that the statue of limitations had run out. Carrillo is appealing.

Of the 535 cases of disappearances from the 1960s and 1970s chronicled by the Mexican Human Rights Commission, two-thirds took place in western state of Guerrero, where rights groups -- including Amnesty International -- today suggest that little has changed. More than 60 activists are in jail in Guerrero, and 11 people have disappeared in the past two years, some after they were arrested, according to the state’s Human Rights Commission. At least 20 judicial police officials remain at large, even though they’ve been charged with homicide, rape, abduction or kidnapping.

Standing up against such violations is a risky business in Guerrero, as elsewhere. Irene Khan, Amnesty International’s secretary general, warned last November that the persecution of human rights defenders in the Americas is reaching emergency proportions. More killings of human rights defenders are documented in the Americas than in any other region in the world, Kahn said.

One of the worst places to be a human rights worker is Colombia, where at least 15 human rights workers and scores of union activists were killed in the 15 months before Kahn’s report.

Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. aid, and Bush administration officials are quick to claim their investment is paying off. Cocaine production is finally down, as are kidnappings and murders. In November, 855 right-wing paramilitaries turned themselves in under a government amnesty program. Yet critics claim it was the wrong message to send to a country with more than its share of killers; the disarmed paramilitary unit had close links to drug traffickers, and by one account its members were responsible for an average of three murders each. Little truth, nothing of consequences.

Consequences for activists

Besides hundreds of pastoral agents, priests, and one bishop killed by the government or its armed opponents, church workers have also encountered reprisals from the church they represent.

According to Alma Montoya, a Colombian community radio specialist expelled in 1999 from the Daughters of St. Paul after Rome pressured her superiors, the Vatican and Bogotá’s conservative archbishop, Cardinal Pedro Rubiano, “have made it clear to religious orders that pastoral agents don’t belong in dangerous settings, which means accompanying the poor, who are the ones who have suffered during these years of violence.” Yet rather than real concern for the safety of pastoral workers, Montoya claimed the demand to stay in “safe” areas is really a shortening of the leash.

Pressure has grown in the last three years on the church’s Intercongregational Peace and Justice Commission, as well as the Jesuit-run Center for Investigation and Popular Education, to be more “prudent” in their activism on behalf of the war’s victims, including more than 2 million internally displaced people. Montoya said the internal repression in the church has worked, hindering the church’s social outreach and prophetic role in Colombian society.

In several countries in the region, the church has supported demands to punish those responsible for past killings. In Guatemala and El Salvador, for example, church-sponsored exhumation teams continue to dig up massacre sites so that relatives can rebury their loved ones and the evidence gathered can be used against those responsible.

Yet some Guatemalans are still afraid. Although they know the locations of mass graves, they’re not telling, according to Alvaro Ramazzini, the bishop of San Marcos. He said the church has a wide array of reconciliation work going on, including accompaniment of affected communities by a group of Franciscan sisters who provide psychological services to victims of violence, and help make the link between the violence of war and the daily violence of economic exploitation and domestic abuse. The diocese is also finishing a popular version of Guatemala: Never Again!, the landmark 1998 report of the Historic Memory Recovery Project, known in Guatemala as REMHI. The guide will help communities analyze their particular suffering within the historical framework of the war. It’s a process Guatemalan church activists call “returning REMHI to the communities.”

Ramazzini said the diocese is annually observing April 26, the anniversary of the killing of REMHI’s architect, Bishop Juan Gerardi, just 55 hours after he released the report, which was the church’s own truth and reconciliation project. The project was motivated in part by the weakness of the U.N. commission’s mandate.

“Bishop Gerardi had the insight to conceive the idea and the courage to present it to all the bishops, pushing to make it happen. We’re now seeing the results of that vision, in people who find out, for example, that General So-and-so was responsible for the violence in their area in a certain year. Without REMHI, this would have stayed hidden, and in a few years the violence would have emerged again. We want the younger generations not to forget this history. It’s important to remember,” Ramazzini told NCR.

In El Salvador, where Archbishop Fernando Sáenz Lecalle has shown little interest in rooting around in the past, it’s the human rights office of the archdiocese of San Salvador, Tutela Legal, that struggles to remember an uncomfortable history.

Tutela Legal has helped several communities dig up mass graves. “It’s a form of beginning to repair the damage they caused, as well as being a way to combat impunity because we will eventually begin trials against those intellectual and material authors of these crimes against humanity,” said María Julia Hernández, director of the human rights office of the San Salvador archdiocese. Hernández, who tends to make her strongest statements when Sáenz is out of the country, has already filed charges against a group of military officers for a 1982 massacre.

Digging up the past is essential to constructing a better future, church activists believe. “The truth is revealed and restores dignity to the victims, contributes to the historical memory, something that in this country has been forgotten,” Jon Cortina, a Spanish Jesuit working in El Salvador, told the Mexican news agency APRO. “We don’t uncover these things because of masochism, but so that things like this won’t happen again.”

In December, human rights groups dedicated a memorial wall in a San Salvador park. Twenty-five thousand names are inscribed in the marble surface, all civilian noncombatants killed between 1970 and 1991. The project was spurned by political groups; it was a coalition of civil society groups that raised the funds and pressured to have the memorial built. It was but one of many points in the 1992 accords which no one in power seemed interested in honoring.

“We’re trying to rescue the oft-delayed process of reconciliation by at least recognizing in a formal way the victims who died during the war. These are people who didn’t participate in the conflict but their families want them to be recognized. Many of them were disappeared, their bodies never found. What we’re doing is constructing a small part of our country’s historic memory,” Ana Cecilia Durán, an educator with Yek Ineme, a peace education group, told NCR.

The communications media are a critical factor in encouraging or denying historical memory. According to Leonel Yañez, a programmer with Education and Communication, a coalition of church- and community-based radio stations in Chile, radio plays a key role in building reconciliation.

“We focus a lot on human rights education, and on helping people remember. Especially through interviews with older people, we help young people understand what the years of dictatorship were like. The young need to learn from the experiences of the old. A country without memory is a country where those disastrous events can be repeated. A country without memory allows assassins to get away with it, to continue their labor of killing. A country without memory doesn’t know the difference between good and bad. By embracing our memory, new generations can be healthier, can have respect for each other,” Yañez said.

Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary journalist who lived for two decades in Central America. He now lives in Eugene, Ore. Barbara Fraser worked in Peru for 14 years as a Maryknoll lay missioner. She now lives in Peru as a freelance writer.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 2004

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