Book Review: The Power of Memory and Violence in Central America

The Power of Memory and Violence in Central America. Rachel Hatcher. Australia: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

A couple of years ago, as I travelled through Central America, a man named Hugo – a former member of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front– offered to take me from Guatemala to the city of San Salvador. There are three things I remember most from that ride. First, he said: “this country loves to be fertilized with blood”; second, “you need to love to forget”; and, third, he recited a poem by Claribel Alegría, “Querencias”[1], dedicated to Juan Gelman–an exiled Argentine poet who lost his son and his pregnant daughter-in-law during the last Argentine dictatorship, two of the estimated 30,000 people who “disappeared” without a trace.

Hatcher’s book explores the ways traumatic and post-conflict memories emerge, in the form of public expressions and the use of “words” for constructing memory discourses in El Salvador and Guatemala–contexts dominated by institutional silence. Both countries experienced revolutionary movements and violent state repression and both established truth commissions as transitional justice tools to (try to) understand the roots and consequences of their civil wars. However, even if both commissions uncovered a common pattern of human rights violations, the operation of death squads and genocidal practices towards indigenous populations, the truth “produced” has been fiercely contested by conservative sectors. Conservative voices are against not only the commissions themselves, but also against the institutional support of the narratives proposed: no hubo genocidio (there was not genocide).

In the first two chapters, Hatcher presents her theoretical framework and the scope of her investigation. From the several possible approaches to exploring the post-conflict scenario and its relationship with Memory Studies, the author puts a particular focus on “words”. For her, words are not working here merely as idiomatic expressions, but as communicative tools. In that sense, words, in the form of media, opinions, political speeches and street art, among other things, become a powerful tool for the search for justice, liberation and relief. The author is especially concerned about the roles that different narrative strategies play in the construction of dominant and emblematic memories.

How do elites decide to create and transmit an official or para-official narrative regarding the past, the truth and forgetting? Hatcher situates both the conservative respondents and human rights actors as elites, since both have influence over, and a wide understanding of, how the state operates.

The attempt on the part of conservative elites to whitewash the past is clearly documented in chapter 3, when the author explores the link between political power and collective forgetting expressed in the election of former general (and alleged genocide perpetrator) Otto Pérez Molina as President of Guatemala. Since 1996, Guatemala has a law of national reconciliation, which is understood by several human rights organisations as a law for “forgetting and forgiving.”

Chapter 4 reflects on how conservative leaders, human rights actors and victims, use words to spread their voices and understandings regarding remembering and oblivion. The author analyses the memory discourse implemented by the conservative actors, in this case, these actors appropriate words such as “forgiveness”, “peace” and “reconciliation”, which are technical terms traditionally used by human rights groups. In response, the latter are forced to create a new language to establish a clear differentiation with the conservative sectors: nunca más (never again).  Finally, Hatcher emphasises the “testimonial truth” given by the victims and considers how victims’ must use a particular kind of words in order to be understood and represented—which she represents as a form of domination.

Chapters 5 and 6 are dedicated to El Salvador. Here, the author demonstrates how human rights violations during the civil war connect with present-day conversations about social inequality, gender inequality, femicide and unequal access to social and economic rights such as housing, health and education. It is truly fascinating when a historian can find clear connections between past and present and enrich the analysis with philosophical and political perspectives.

The lesson given by this book is that truth commissions are not enough. What is most original in Hatcher’s study is its multidisciplinary approach. The author used ethnographic tools, art history and visual art theory, critical theory, media studies and hermeneutics to “peel” layers of memory and demonstrate the ways in which human rights organisations’ discourses interplay with institutional-conservative ones.  

The relationship between truth and forgetting is dramatically demonstrated in the continuity of at least three of those features associated with socio-political violence: ethnic discrimination, deep socioeconomic inequalities and commodity dependence. This relationship deeply affects how Salvadoran society is dealing with its past as well as the shape of its symbolic representations. “Remembering to prevent repetition” is a widely spread motto among them who place history as a moral teacher for the forthcoming generations, but usually avoid following its material recommendations for transforming the present. This is what, according to the author, happened in El Salvador since the signing of the Peace Agreements in 1996. In short, Salvadorian politicians and society disagree about the “truth” that deserves to be remembered, and how should it be memorialised (public spaces, monuments, etc.).

Chapter 7 recounts the political responses offered by the executive branch (El Salvador) and the judicial branch (Guatemala) to the claims for memory and justice. In El Salvador a memory policy transformation occurred when the right-wing party (ARENA) lost the presidential election in 2009 against the FMLN (representing former guerrilla members) and when President Mauricio Funes accepted in 2012 that the armed forces murdered more than 1000 people –most of them boys and girls- in several indigenous villages.

In Guatemala, General Ríos Montt was prosecuted for crimes against humanity in 2013. The Attorney-General, Claudia Paz y Paz, had a background in human rights and was supported by UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala. Far from unifying public opinion in relation to the genocidal practices employed during the dirty war, the trial activated emblematic memories that expressed dissatisfaction with the prosecution of a man who “prevented” the country from falling into communism. Rather than arguing that Guatemalans must forget, Ríos Montt supporters argued that there was no genocide in Guatemala. The focus of the discussion was not put on State responsibility but on the role that the guerrillas played during the conflict, allowing some conservative sectors to assert that the guerrillas “also committed genocide” [200]. As happened in the Salvadoran case, truth was contested, but also critiqued for traicionar la paz y dividir a Guatemala (betraying the peace and dividing Guatemala) [206]. The human rights community argued that sí hubo genocidio (there was a genocide) and along with the victims’ association, created their own slogan: La verdadera paz nace de la justicia (true peace is born from justice) [218].

In her conclusions, the author suggests that remembering, forgetting and forgiving are elements that promote a wide discussion about a given society, and that these elements are at the same time a vehicle for thinking about what kind of society people want, and the means for achieving it. In that regard, forgetting is an affront to the idea of peace. Peace is not only a political condition for celebrating free and open elections, peace is a social condition for improving the quality of life of Central Americans that are daily exposed to urban, economic and social violence. 

The University of Auckland

[1] In Spanish: Porque aprendí a quererme / puedo sangrar / con tus heridas. Roughly translated it reads as: Because I learned to love myself / i can bleed/ through your wounds