Testimonies and the Preservation of Historical Memory

The politics of memory during the first decades of the post-dictatorship era had three specific aims: to remember, to show and to prove—all imperative for the construction and conservation of a historical truth that aimed to reinforce a weak democratic culture in Argentina. This preliminary approach to the past emerged in a context of the demand to remember, epitomized by slogans such as “Ni olvido, ni perdon” (No forgetting, no forgiveness). These demands were made all the more potent by the 1986 Ley de Punto Final and the 1987 Ley de Obediencia Debida, passed by the democratic government of Raul Alfonsfn, which, together with the official pardons given to military leaders by Carlos Menem in 1990, called for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Within this context, the 1985 Juicio a las Juntas played a key role in the public preservation of historical memory. The testimonies of the survivors offered both in the witness box and in the Nunca mds report (1984) served as the main evidence against the military. As argued by Argentine sociologist Emilio Crenzel in La historiapolitica del Nunca mas: La memo- ria de las desapariciones en la Argentina (2008), focusing on the need for proof, the judges employed a protocol by which they would interrupt testimonies of witnesses whenever they included memories of sensations or personal reflections on their experiences. As sensations and reflections could not be proved, in the eyes of the court they were not facts. The judges considered that, had they allowed the introduction of such unreliable elements of memory, they would have put at risk the preservation of historical truth, since impressions or subjective considerations would have cast doubt on the veracity of the testimonies and threatened their main aim: to denounce.

Likewise, the Comision Nacional para la Desaparicion de Personas (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, CONADEP) edited the testimonies in the Nunca mds report to stress the witnesses’ condition as victims, keeping to a minimum, for example, information about political affiliations. Unsurprisingly, therefore, in his book, Crenzel makes no distinction between the term testimonies and denuncias indicating how the testimonies included in the report were required to prioritize factual and historical evidence over personal opinions or political ideologies.3 Even when the subjective memory of the survivors—tactile impressions, evocation of smells and so on—played an essential role in, for example, identifying the sites where subjects were detained and tortured, this memory was mainly considered by the commission to be “objective” evidence and proof of the systematic and widespread nature of the felonies. The objectivity of the testimonies is, according to Crenzel, reinforced by the references made in the report to the scientific knowledge of the professionals who participated in the investigations and corroborated the words of the witnesses: architects who inspected the clandestine detention and extermination centres, photographers who documented such inspections and lawyers who collected data at the sites. The Nunca mds report was edited in such a way as to “recover the reality and veracity of a crime denied over and over again by its authors.”4 In other words, the document sought testimonies that aimed, following the verbs used by Crenzel, to prove, establish, present, reconstruct, illustrate and explain the facts.

With the twentieth anniversary of the coup, a number of new insti- tutions—notably the Centro de Documentacion e Investigacion de la Cultura de Izquierdas en la Argentina, Memoria Abierta and Comision Provincial de la Memoria—reinforced the practice of conserving the historical memory of the recent past by creating a wealth (patrimonio) of documents and oral testimonies. New voices—such as those of former left-wing militants or of the children of the disappeared, gathered together in the collective group Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia, contra el Olvido y el Silencio (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence, HIJOS)—added fresh perspectives on the debates of the past by discussing, for example, the ideologies and ideas that guided the lives of the disappeared in the years prior to the coup. These debates turned to previously understudied events of the period, including the 1969 popular uprising of students and workers known as the Cordobazo, the assassination of the former dictator Pedro Eugenio Aramburu by the guerrilla group Montoneros (an act considered to be the official origin of the movement), the Trelew massacre and the confrontation in Monte Chingolo (Gran Buenos Aires) between the military and the Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (People’s Revolutionary Army, ERP).

In particular, the debates focused on the actions of the three main urban guerrilla movements—Montoneros, ERP and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (Revolutionary Armed Forces, FAR)—that were active between 1970 and 1979 in Argentina, whose common belief, typified by the 1959 Cuban Revolution, was that radical social change could only be achieved through armed struggle. These events were addressed by several testimonial works of the period, including documentary films, such as Cazadores de utopias (Hunters of Utopias) (Blaustein 1996), and books of testimonies, such as La voluntad: Una historia de la militancia revolucio- naria en la Argentina (Anguita and Caparros 1997-1998).

Like all testimonies, those of the 1980s and 1990s selected certain aspects of the past to put on display and omitted others. However, the framework within which these testimonies were presented and shown (trials, films, books and television programmes) treated them as “objective” accounts, encouraging the viewer/reader/listener to process these accounts as a means of getting closer to reality. In the case of the political testimonies, such as those presented in documentaries or books, sensations and reflections were more “permissible.” Nevertheless, the testimonies were still regarded as factual evidence about what had happened in the past, events in turn legitimized by the presence of the witness. Testimonies given outside the framework of legal processes were thus subject to the same requirements of evidence as those heard in the courts.

Given the destruction of military archives, such control over the historical truth was necessary during the early years of democracy. Yet these historical and judicial testimonies were not problem-free. The detailed memories of torture in the trials, for example, were used by the mass media (television in particular) to create what Claudia Feld has called a “horror show” that fed the morbid desires of many spectators.5 Moreover, the testimonies that emerged in the mid-1990s restored agency to the victims of the dictatorship by portraying them as political militants rather than “innocent” victims. At the same time, however, they failed to critically examine the past and thus constructed the disappeared as heroes in what was an epic reading of history. Finally, these testimonies overshadowed other more private, domestic and unofficial forms of remembering.

But testimonies were not the only narratives of the dictatorial experience available during those first two decades of democracy. While survivors and former militants attended the trials or wrote books about their first-hand experiences of horror, writers, filmmakers and artists created, simultaneously, a corpus of images and accounts that delivered an emotional and affective memory of those years and attempted to “name the unnameable,”6 to use Fernando Reati’s words, through visual and literary representations of the past using the ambiguity of fiction and allegorical narratives of violence.

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