2011 - Panel 15 - Testimonies of Political Oppression and the Struggle to Preserve Them
Panel 15, June 1, 2011, 9:00 am-10:30 am
Moderator: Marisol Ramos, University of Connecticut
Presenters: Jared Marchildon, Libros Latinos; Gustavo Castaner, International Monetary Fund, Archivists without Borders, Spain; Irene Münster, University of Maryland; Mark Grover, Brigham Young University
Rapporteur: Barbara Alvarez, University of Michigan
The presentations on this panel documented the struggle against political oppression in Mexico, Spain, Argentina and Chile, and described efforts to preserve memories of that oppression.
"ASARO" , the opening talk by Jared Marchildon gave an account of the presenter's trips to Oaxaca in January and May 2011, where he went to meet the Asemblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca (ASARO) artists and purchase their prints. Delivered in English and Spanish, with strokes of vivid, visual language, the presentation painted the picture of the life of the ASARO collective, its members Lalo, Yeska, Baltasar, Pacheco, Mario Guzmán, and the creative process that happens in their studios and on the streets of Oaxaca, where they use stencils and graffiti art to express their political resistance. As Marchildon explained, the group formed itself in 2006 when a teachers' protest turned into a general uprising involving one third of the Oaxacan population. A Japanese artist working at the Instituto de Bellas Artes taught the founding members of ASARO techniques of art protest he had learned in Japan and other countries. ASARO prints and graffiti painfully depict the social and political oppression, the poverty, the submissive state of women, the government's abuse of power, and promote revolutionary ideals and human solidarity. Yeska and his fellow artists descend from the surrounding hills upon the city to imprint their political message upon the walls. They disguise, hide their spray cans and stencils, and evade police to aid la rebellion through unnerving and denouncing images. The other favorite medium of the ASARO collective are woodcut prints. Many of them are exhibited in Mexico and abroad and many are purchased by collectors and art vendors. The ASARO Blogspot page (http://asar-oaxaca.blogspot.com) features exhibits and works of individual artists, as well as publications and videos about the collective.
The following presentation, "Breaking Down the Wall of Silence: The Archives in the Battle for Retrieving Spain's Historical Memory," delivered by Gustavo Castaner, addressed the difficulties of recovering the historical memory of Franco's regime. According to Castaner, Spain is often referred to as a model transition from dictatorship to democracy. In fact, this transition was achieved through an agreement with the dictator's followers that guaranteed impunity for them and their crimes. The price of this agreement was silence. A look back after 30 years reveals that Franco's regime, which was sustained for nearly 40 years, was much more dire than other dictatorships. Thousands of victims of Franco's brutal repression still lie in forgotten mass graves without any recognition.
In 2007, the Law of Historical Memory was passed in Spain. This law condemns Franco's regime and prescribes the removal of its symbols from public spaces. It recognizes the victims of violence on both sides of the conflict and ensures the assistance of the government in discovery, identification and exhumation of the bodies buried in mass graves. Archives are a crucial tool for the retrieval of the forgotten memory. Franco's government kept exhaustive records that are vital to the research of this historical period.
Franquistas practiced a total war and dehumanization of the enemy, the same tactics that were used in the Spanish-Moroccan War (1909-26), such as the use of poison gas, mass executions and rape, and attacks on the civil population. The best known case was Badajoz, where Franco's troops shot some 2,000-4,000 people in the bull-fight ring after taking the city. Francisco Espinosa Maestre documented in his book the bloody advance of ¨the column of death¨ that executed 10% of inhabitants of each village they had entered. The gang rapes were common, and the franquistas promised white women to the Moors fighting on their side.
Franco's regime used war edicts as legal instruments in the first year of the war. The deaths of victims were recorded in civil registries as "application of the war edict." In the following years, court martials took over the legal procedures of the repression. Ironically, people were condemned for aiding the rebellion where, in fact, the military were those who rebelled by organizing a coup d’état. The Law of Political Responsibilities, passed in February 1939, allowed the imposition of penalties such as total disqualification, banishment, exile, total or partial loss of assets and loss of nationality. By September of 1941, the regional tribunals initiated 229,549 such cases.
The violence on the Republican side mainly happened because the government lost control. In Madrid and Barcelona, the anarchists and union members got weapons and started their own revenge. It was estimated that the leftists killed some 85,000 people, but it turns out that a lot of victims were counted more than once. The latest studies account for some 130,000 victims of Franco's regime.
Franco had an obsession about freemasonry and communism. Special military units searched for documents and collected them in a center in Salamanca. In Barcelona they collected 165 tons of records during five-month search. In Salamanca, 400 tons of records of institutions and organizations were gathered and members of the tribunal produced 3 million index cards with information on specific individuals. Many civil servants lost their jobs, and half a million people were in prison at the end of the war.
In conclusion, Castaner noted that since 2000, the Association for Historical Memory fights to recover the historical records and to exhume mass graves. However, the process is difficult because information is very fragmented and dispersed across the country and it is also difficult to manage and understand for non-experts. The Law of Historical Memory is not applied to its full extent. Resources are not there and the government is not very helpful. Amnesty International Spain published a report called Disaster of Archives and the Privatization of Truth. The latest scandal is the publication of the new Diccionario Biográfico Español in which the entry on Franco is written by his past supporter, and calls him "authoritarian," without any allusion to the fact that he was a repressive dictator.
Irene Münster's presentation, "Memorializing Memories," took the audience to Argentina under the rule of the military junta of 1976-1983. Based on personal memories, her paper gave an account of the fate of some publishers, bookstores, libraries and community organizers that were active during those turbulent times. When the junta took power, Münster was 20 years old and worked at the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano under the leadership of Marshall Meyer, a young American rabbi.
With absolute impunity, the junta organized a systematic plan to persecute and repress thousands of people in more than 300 clandestine detention centers around the country. Fifteen thousand to thirty thousand people disappeared and 70% of the victims were under the age of 35. Fifteen percent were Jews. The junta aimed to subdue all areas of cultural activity and to impose on the population their moral principles and conservative authoritarian ideology. The Ministerio del Interior enforced censorship, took control of publishing houses and destroyed books. Operación Claridad established in academic centers identified subversive books and teachers who used them. Students and professors alike were pressured to report on each other. Many writers went into exile, others spent time in prison and were tortured, and some disappeared. "Dangerous" books and their authors were registered on a black list. Publishers and bookstores suffered from censorship, books were confiscated and burned, and their owners or vendors were detained or disappeared.
EUDEBA, created in 1958, shortly became the biggest publisher of Spanish language books. In 1974 it was taken over by the Peronist party. In 1976, 15 of its titles were banned and taken to the basement. In February 1977, four military trucks loaded some 80,000-90,000 volumes that subsequently were destroyed. In 1978 the police discovered thousands of books, magazines and encyclopedias of Marxism stored in a warehouse. In August 1980 the police burned 1.5 million books on a vacant lot of land. Witnesses were brought to testify that the books were burned and not stolen. The leftist newspaper La Nueva Presencia was attacked with explosives in 1981.
Marshall Meyer started to fight for human rights against the system, the junta and the Jewish establishment. He spoke to the press and to the community. Soon, he and those who worked with him started to receive death threats almost daily. Every Friday, Meyer went to prisons to provide comfort to Jews and non-Jews alike. He was subjected to the same humiliation as the prisoners. However, he brought back documents and letters to families. The papers needed to be hidden in case of inspection by the authorities. The chosen place was the library, between the huge volumes of Jewish law. This collection, hidden for seven years, is now at the Duke University, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.
Most of the human rights organizations worked to denounce violations committed by the military and offer support to victims and their families. The most prominent were Asemblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos, founded in 1975, and Movimiento Ecuménico por los Derechos Humanos, founded in 1976. Jews were not persecuted because they were Jews; however, a special vicious treatment was given to them while in prison. Their families did not get any support from Jewish organizations or other human rights organization. Therefore, Movimiento Judío por los Derechos Humanos was founded by Meyer.
Community and university libraries received lists of banned authors. The cards were removed from the catalogs, making their works inaccessible. In the province of Córdoba, the police demanded the borrowing records of community library users. Eighty two writers and 27 librarians are among the disappeared. To protect themselves, many people burned their personal libraries. To have a library was already dangerous because you were considered an intellectual which was synonymous with a leftist thinker. Münster concluded that "the memory of terror still lives among us. Argentina is a country living with its ghosts."
The last presentation also focused on Argentina's "Dirty War." Mark Grover's talk "Under Threat: Academics Documenting Human Rights Abuses. The Case of Argentine Professor William Sill" recounted the story of Dr. William Sill, Research Professor and Curator of the Paleontology Museum at the National University of San Juan in western Argentina. Sill is mostly known for the establishment of the Ischigualasto Provincial Park that became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but is also recognized as "a defender of human rights". Sill studied geology at Brigham Young University (BYU) and the National University of Mexico (UNAM). In 1958, he was sent to Argentina by the LDS Church on a religious mission. He returned to the United States in 1961, graduated from BYU in 1963, and entered Harvard to study vertebrate paleontology. Between 1968 and 1970, he held a post-graduate research and teaching position at Yale University. In 1970 he received a National Science Foundation grant to spend a year at the Instituto Miguel Lillo in Tucumán examining and evaluating a collection of fossils from Ischigualasto. In 1971 the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo created a geology department in San Juan and he was offered a full professorship in paleontology. He and his family moved to San Juan in western Argentina. Soon after, Sill became involved in the creation of the Ischigualasto Provincial Park to protect a unique deposit of fossils from the Triassic period.
Grover interviewed Sill in Buenos Aires in 2001 at the time when the later had just received the Argentine Congressional Medal of Honor. During the interview, Sill passed onto Grover a copy of his diary, written between 1976 and 1979, which documented the kidnapping, torture, death or escape of some of his students and friends. As a scientist, Sill kept detailed records of the events, methods of torture, accounts of abuses and affected victims even though writing of such a diary was very risky. He created a special code to encrypt people's names to protect their identity. The other parts of the dairy recount the story of two students Sill helped to escape from Argentina and a brief exposition of his philosophical and religious views on what was going on.
Sill was distressed by the violence, helplessness and the lack of opposition in certain sectors of society. The political situation had also a devastating effect on the university. Numerous faculty members were dismissed and 65 students disappeared. Many students came to tell him stories of their arrest and torture. Soon he realized he and his family were in danger. They secretly moved first to a farm in the country and later on to Buenos Aires. The soldiers who searched for him were told that the family moved back to the US. They lived concealed in Argentina for another two years, but eventually they had to leave the country. They arrived in Austin, TX where they remained for ten years, teaching for the Mormon Church and in the Department of Geological Studies at the University of Texas. In 1992 Sill returned to San Juan to work as Curator of Paleontology at the university's museum. In 2002, seriously affected by muscular dystrophy, Sill moved back to Las Vegas to be near two of his children. His papers were donated to BYU in 2003. He became bedridden in 2004 and passed away at the age of 70 on March 15, 2008.
Questions & Comments:
Pamela Graham (Columbia University) alluded to the point that Spain is considered a model of transition from dictatorship to democracy and to the challenge of moving forward the process of recovery of historical memory. She asked Castaner about the effect that memory recovery movements in other countries may have on Spain. Castaner expressed hope that Spain will learn from the example of other countries, such as truth commissions in South Africa, to address this problem. "As long as we have people abandoned in mass graves […], each closure will be a false one."