Memory Offensives Where Impunity Reigns

Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala

Kirsten Weld

Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Memory’s Turn: Reckoning with Dictatorship in Brazil

Rebecca Atencio

Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.

The physical site, the material object, matters insofar as it represents an embodiment of a given meaning and a certain historical message. Yet what matters about such places goes beyond the physical location—it is the symbolic and subjective location of those who charge it with their own memory and their own meaning . . . The markers are not memory itself, but vehicles and material supports for the subjective labors of memory.

—Elizabeth Jelin1

Cold War–era dictatorships that determined daily lives and deaths in Guatemala and Brazil at last relinquished direct governmental rule in the mid-1980s, but very much on their own terms and with their power intact. The Brazilian military that governed since the 1964 overthrow of João Goulart orchestrated a long and carefully calibrated period of “relaxation” and then “opening” of the political system, steps that allowed for a civilian to occupy the presidency in 1985, but in a tense context where the new government and Brazilians in general could not be sure the military had permanently left the stage. In Guatemala, army generals who controlled the country almost without interruption since the 1954 coup ousting Jacobo Arbenz opted to walk down “constitutional corridors” in the mid-1980s as well, but allowing for a civilian president in a country still driven by a murderous counterinsurgency was largely a public relations move, what one Guatemalan army strategist famously described as war by other means.2 It is unsurprising that even with the return to civilian rule in the 1980s and eventual “peace” accords ending the civil war in Guatemala in the 1990s, powerful sectors in both countries have impeded struggles to investigate state terror and prosecute war criminals. The Cold Warriors who overwhelmingly won the anti-”subversion” wars in these countries have continued in the twenty-first century to cast themselves as heroic saviors of the nation, and impunity lingers on in the form of ongoing abuses of authority and extrajudicial violence. While truth commissions and human rights advocates elsewhere in Latin America have managed to achieve varied degrees of transparency and steps toward justice in recent decades—in Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, for instance—such efforts have been more effectively stymied in Guatemala and Brazil.

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