Book Review: Legacies of State Violence and Transitional Justice in Latin America: A Janus-faced paradigm

Legacies of State Violence and Transitional Justice in Latin America: A Janus-faced paradigm. Eds. Nina Schneider and Marcia Esparza. Lexington Books, 2015.

This volume edited by Nina Schneider and Marcia Esparza provides a source-based critical analysis of transitional justice’s (TJ) resonance on the ground in Latin America. A large scholarly and non-academic literature has embraced the TJ paradigm, even though the daily practice of TJ is often contested or even rejected. The aim of the book is to explore contradictions between TJ’s normative discourse and historical experience by bringing together a team of authors involved in TJ enactment. The editors attempt to improve both the discourse and implementation of TJ in the process of peace-building and/or reconciliation in post-conflict or gross human rights violation contexts, while offering more accurate information about the paradigm’s uneven path.
The hypothesis of the book is that TJ paradigm is a Janus-faced one. This is to say that in the aftermath of authoritarian regimes TJ’s political vocabulary can both be translated by victims’ political groups, local communities and even pro-accountability sectors of the state into a language of struggle for justice and empowerment, and be appropriated in order to silence those same political actors. The book’s eight chapters encompass Argentinean, Brazilian, El Salvadorian, Peruvian, and Uruguayan experiences, with a concluding chapter that summarizes the Latin American experience.
Ruti Teitel attempted to stabilize the definition of TJ as a set of mechanisms of justice employed in times of transition. Teitel’s narrow definition of “justice”, along with haziness in the meaning of “transition”, spurred major critiques of the traditional concept and contributed to instability within the TJ paradigm. A significant standpoint for observing paradigmatic change over time is the erratic movement of the Uruguay case in TJ studies, as presented by Debbie Sharnak in the seventh chapter. The Uruguayans’ negotiated end to dictatorship emerged in the 1980s as a standard case of TJ in its first historiographical phase, which defined justice as overcoming authoritarian rule. By the 1990s, a more comprehensive concept of justice was developed, resulting in a mismatch between theory and the Uruguayan experience that led to the dismissal of the case as a TJ example. Now, a third historiographic phase challenges the second-wave assumptions of TJ and has restored the Uruguayan case to the field. Similarly, the anthropologist Laura Tejero Tabernero demonstrates in chapter five that senses of TJ have been modified over the Peruvian historical experience. From her ethnographic fieldwork among victims’ organizations conducted from 2010 to 2013, she argues that the gap between the recommendations of measures for reparation proposed by the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the failure to appropriately fund and implement those recommendations, has transformed the TJ vocabulary from an important tool of empowerment instrumentalized by victims groups into one of frustration and disillusion.
The mismatch between TJ’s scholarly and practical knowledge can create serious problems as revealed by Rosario Figari Layus in the first chapter. By exploring the role played by the human right trials in post-dictatorship Argentina, Rosario argues that although the Argentinean case became an exemplar for confronting its violent past in scholarly TJ literature, the trials were not conducted using exceptional legal provisions as TJ theory might assume, but under the ordinary law. It is noteworthy that most of the local actors that she interviewed in her fieldwork did not even know what TJ meant. Debbie Sharnak also argues that the restoration of the struggle for memory and truth in Uruguay managed to avoid the TJ frame.
The El Salvadorian experience introduced by Steve Dobransky in the fourth chapter demonstrates how neglecting the structural causes of inequalities leads to the persistence of violence after transition. As a paradigm, TJ mechanisms and measures fail to consider the root causes of violence, which in El Salvador includes long-term financial dependence (especially upon the United States of America). As an example, Dobransky shows how local communities in El Salvador continue to protest against international corporations of mining claiming for environmental concerns. Augmenting the El Salvadorian data, José P. Baraybar, Jesús Peña Romero, and Percy Rojas argue that violence in Peru did not become a matter of the past after the adoption of TJ paradigm. That fact reveals two complementary issues: the TJ paradigm may generate expectations in confronting and overcome the violence of the past, but the paradigm cannot guarantee delivery. The limitations of the law’s capacity to do justice and prevent mass violence are contradicted by the triumphal logical operative in its self-discourse.
Roberto Gargarella, in the concluding chapter, discusses relations between justice and punishment by noting the general failure of punitive justice in TJ history. Therefore, he advocates other possible measures of justice that aim to uncover neglected truths. Perhaps we should never expect general statements to fit every case, however, I would argue that Gargarella’s statement does not match the Brazilian case. As Renan Quinalha and Edson Teles show (in chapter two), TJ discourse concerning “truth” is ambivalent: it can offer a strategic vocabulary to the social struggle for justice or be appropriated as a tool to sustain impunity. Since the Brazilian state’s adoption of TJ discourse in the 1990s, the word “memory” has been gradually substituted for the word “justice” on the state’s reports, which ended up pacifying non-state political actors by denying their historical struggle for justice, as Cecilia MacDowell shows in chapter three. In its turn, “justice” remained central in the political vocabulary of those social actors, despite being expelled from the official discourse.
In sum, the book shows how taking seriously the voices “from below” shows how TJ discourse was appropriated, challenged or refused, thereby revealing its Janus-face. Not committed to the most normative and abstract concepts of transitional justice, with a team of authors whom are also practitioners, the book indicates how the TJ paradigm could be stabilized and, by evaluating the practical experience from the margins, can contribute more accurate data, which could drive the strategic rethinking of TJ practice.

Ana Carolina Monay.
Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto, Brazil