Friday, 2 October 2015
The Amazing Race 27, Episode 2
Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) - Buenos Aires (Argentina)
Sites of memory of state terrorism in Argentina
["2 km ahead: Pilar Highway Patrol station, former clandestine center of detention and torture"]
Both The Amazing Race and my partner and I returned to Argentina this June after an absence of several years. The reality-TV show last visited Argentina during Season 20 in 2012, and my partner and I were last there in 2007 during our most recent trip around the world.
Much has changed in Argentina since the start of the ongoing financial crisis in 2001, and much remains unstable. (For more lessons and advice from my latest trip, see my FAQ: Bicycle touring in Argentina.) One of the ways people displaced from traditional employment have found to survive during the crisis is as "cartoneros": scavengers who collect cardboard cartons and other discarded but recyclable materials on the streets.
In this episode, each team in The Amazing Race 27 had to collect 100 kg. of cardboard in a handcart. But the most visible and emblematic symbol of the cartonero might be a horse and cart. There are still gaucho cowboys working livestock with horses in rural areas across Argentina, and a tethered or ridden horse isn't a rare sight in a small town. But if you see a horse on the street in Buenos Aires or another big Argentine city these days, odds are it's pulling a cart with a load of scavenged recycling. A horse and cart are major income-enhancing assets for a family of cartoneros. Typically, these horses are grazed on unbuilt, unpaved, unplanted ground on the periphery or in the interstices of the city, often on or near the same plots of "waste" land where many cartoneros live in self-built homes in "villas miseria".
Despite efforts to "normalize" the work of the cartoneros as part of the recycling industry, and despite widespread sympathy for their plight ("There but for the grace of God go I..."), my impression is that most Argentines see the fact that 10,000 people in the "Paris of the South" are surviving by dump-picking as an embarrassingly conspicuous reminder of Argentina's fall from wealth. Many people who want to know whether Argentina has become a Third World country (it hasn't) look no further than the omnipresence of cartoneros in every Argentine city since the start of the crisis. Porteños are proud that the wealth of their city and country comes from the "campo" (as celebrated at the annual Exposición Rural in the heart of the Federal Capital), but that doesn't mean they want to step in horseshit in city streets, or think of their civilized cities as invaded by peasant horse-carts and sinking back down into the ordure.
One of the most interesting changes since our lengthy visit in 2007 that was visible this year across Argentina has been the creation of the Red Federal de Sitios de Memoria del Terrorismo de Estado ("National Network of Sites of Memory of State Terrorism") including both museums and other "Spaces of Memory" and official signs along highways and at other locations of facilities that were formerly used as clandestine centers for detention, torture, and extermination ("ex-CCDTyE" in Spanish acronym).
In 2007, we saw significantly more (although still very limited and mostly marginal) official acknowledgment of the legacy of dictatorship and state terrorism in Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil than in Argentina. Not long ago, what's generally referred to in English as the "Dirty War" was still commonly referred to in Argentina by the Orwellian euphemism coined by the "represores" themselves: "El Proceso" (the Process of National Reorganization).
It's not clear how much popular attitudes have changed, but there is official acknowledgment of the history of Argentine state terrorism, official sanction for talking about it, and official support and some level of funding to mark the "ex-CCDTyE" sites and reclaim them as sites of memory.
The finish line for this leg of The Amazing Race 27 was at the Polo Grounds in Buenos Aires, part of a large cluster of parks and athletic facilities separated from the northern riverfront by the domestic airport and the "autopista".
Nearby are two of the major Sitios de Memoria, although neither shows up in most references for tourists.
About a mile north of the Campo de Polo, on the riverfront at the north end of the Costanera (an excellent route for an excursion if you've rented or borrowed a bike for a day) between the Aeroparque and the Estadio Monumental, is the Park of Memory that includes, among other art and installations, the National Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism.
[One of the walls of names at the National Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism in Buenos Aires]
The form of the monument is obviously inspired in part by that of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, but with an irregular array of walls of names rather than just one. What most impressed me about these walls were the numbers: There are only half as many names on these walls as on the Vietnam Memorial, but during the period of most intense state terrorism the population of Argentina was only about one-seventh that of the USA at the height of the US war in Vietnam. The impact on Argentine individuals, families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities was pervasive. Even today, most Argentines we talked with about this history know someone with a hole in their family tree or that of a friend.
["The names on this monument comprise those of the victims of state terrorism, detained, disappeared, and assassinated, and those who died fighting for the same ideals of justice and equity."]
Another mile north past the Monumental, just inside the city limits, is the formal Naval training complex cum-torture center universally known by its Spanish acronym ESMA. It was the first and remains the best-known of the "Spaces of Memory", and the de facto national museum of the modern history of state terrorism in Argentina. Normal tours were suspended for special school-vacation events the week we were in Buenos Aires this year, but Wayne Bernhardson, one of whose Argentine in-laws was "disappeared" and killed during the period of state terror, has written about taking a tour of ESMA a few years ago shortly after it was reclaimed as a space of memory. More of ESMA is now open to visitors, but my impression is that a visit to ESMA today is a more "museum-like" and perhaps less participatory and immersive experience.
Memories of the disappeared, and sites at which they are remembered, are by no means limited to museums or to the Federal Capital (Buenos Aires). The essential goal of state terrorism is to instill fear within its subjects, so that internalized fear acts as an instrument of self-censorship and control that obviates the need for further external or overtly violent mechanisms of coercion. State terrorism was, by nature and by design, present throughout the country and imposed on and into every life. So too today is its memory, and the memorialization of its victims and survivors.
In Mendoza, missing neighbors are remembered on the wall of a warehouse alongside a bike path:
[Mural of faces of the disappeared in Mendoza]
In downtown Rosario, a militant labor activist and worker for a cheese company is remembered by his union comrades:
[Wall of a commercial building in Rosario: "This is the living history of our union."]
Outside the entrance to a college-preparatory high school in Buenos Aires, a teacher and several dozen students are remembered in a mosaic in the sidewalk:
["Here taught... Here studied..." The list of students' names and years continued for several more panels.]
These students were my age, and disappeared during the years that I was an activist for high school students' rights in the USA. If I had been born in Argentina, would one of these names be mine? It's a question I've been asking myself since my first visit to Argentina, as I wrote about when The Amazing Race 5 was in Argentina more than a decade ago. Holly Near's song about the killing of students by the US military a few years earlier at Kent State University, "It could have been me", was never far from my mind on this trip.
Some of the remembrances are messages of life and love, such as the "Trees of Life" at many of the sites of memory:
[Marker next to one of the "Trees of life" planted in memory of the disappeared in a park in Córdoba]
Others are calls for justice and reparation. Not everyone seeks "reconciliation":
["We don't forget, we don't forgive, we aren't reconciled."]
Some of the most moving, and implicitly significant, of the sites of memory were those in small towns and along country roads, in places of no special significance and where there had been no particular locus of opposition to the dictatorship or its practices. Highway and road signs like the one at the top of this article -- which we encountered unexpectedly on a minor country road -- aren't rare. State terrorism was everywhere the state was, and had to be to achieve its intended effect.
In Córdoba, prisoners were confined in underground pits and tortured in open-air courtyards in a small building in the "Pasaje Santa Catalina" (pedestrian arcade) just off the central Plaza San Martin between the city hall and the main cathedral. I struggled to imagine what passers-by, on their way to or from mass (in Argentina, unlike some Latin American centers of liberation theology, the Catholic Church and priests like the one who is now the Pope largely accommodated themselves to the dictatorship) or dealings with city bureaucrats at the Cabildo, thought when they heard the screams. Today the building houses the provincial Archives of Memory and a must-see little museum of the memory of state terrorism in the province. It's particularly interesting for putting the "Proceso" in longer-term context: the building housed the provincial police "Red Squad", where "subversives" were detained and tortured, long before the military dictatorship of 1976-1983. It also includes several rooms of artifacts and images of the people killed and disappeared, vaguely reminiscent of Mexican "Day of the Dead" altars but with their own Argentine flavor.
State terrorism in Argentina was endorsed by the government, but wasn't an overt government project like the "Final Solution" of the Third Reich. Argentine state terrorism was more like the state terrorism against African-Americans in the USA, in which the Ku Klux Klan worked closely with the police (and often included police officers in its membership) but the government didn't normally issue written orders directing lynchings, pogroms, or cross-burnings.
There's an inherent contradiction between keeping human rights abuses "clandestine" and the project of state terrorism. The "represores" feared being later held accountable for kidnapping, torture, and assassination, as at least some Nazis had been. So they put considerable effort into trying to stay anonymous and to avoid leaving records of what they had done. But the internalization of fear through which state terrorism functions depends on the threat of repression being felt always and everywhere by all its subjects -- so that they focus their attention and resources on avoiding being stepped on by Big Brother rather than on resistance or rebellion. Anonymous screams of suffering audible in public places served to instill fear without identifying who was responsible for it.
If you have time, one of the most educational of the Sites of Memory is the ex-CCDTyE "Olimpo", a former streetcar barn in an outer barrio of Buenos Aires, an hour from downtown by bus, that was acquired by the police as parking for their motor pool and later used as the site for a purpose-built torture center for newly-kidnapped detainees. A false wall was built to separate part of the space while keeping it hidden from the street behind the rows of parked police cars.
In 2007, when we rented an apartment in the Palermo neighborhood, we went past Olimpo on the bus two or three times a week on our way to and from English House in Villa Lugano, where we volunteered as native speakers of English in classes for adults and children. I had read about the history of Olimpo, but in 2007 it was closed and abandoned, with nothing to mark it it as an ex-CCDTyE.
Since then, Olimpo has been "reclaimed" by the government and, like the other Sites of Memory, handed over to a collective formed by survivors and the families, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and comrades of the dead and "disappeared". It's as though not only the brutalist J. Edgar Hoover Building but FBI field offices throughout the USA had been handed over to survivors and associates of the victims of Red Scares, McCarthyism, Cointelpro, and other episodes of state terrorism. It's hard for me to put a finger on just what's different, but the ways that groups of survivors and communities of victims in Argentina have chosen to use the spaces they now control, and the goals they are pursuing, are subtly but significantly different than those of Holocaust museums under closer "official" government control that I have visited in other parts of the world.
You can't be a detached observer at Olimpo. You should only go there if you are prepared to engage fully with the experience and the effort to understand it. Visits to Olimpo are permitted only in guided groups, and each tour begins with an encounter-group style conversation among the visitors and the facilitator/guides about their memories and feelings about state terrorism in Argentina, its legacy, and its lessons. The group we joined (call or e-mail ahead to schedule a visit) consisted mostly of college students but also included older neighbors, friends of families of victims, and others. I was disappointed that my Spanish is such that I could follow only fragments of the discussion. Some of the docents speak fluent English, and tours in English are sometimes offered, especially if there's a group of foreign visitors you can join, but if your Spanish is up to it you'll get much more out of a tour in Spanish with Argentine visitors.
The docent leading our tour at Olimpo, a recent university graduate, said that state terrorism hadn't been part of the official curriculum in any of her school or college classes. But at least it's now officially permissible for those who to do so to study, teach, and learn about it.Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 2 October 2015, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)