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  • Many Guatemalans have managed to create consensus around the idea that the past contains important lessons for the future.

    Many Guatemalans have managed to create consensus around the idea that the past contains important lessons for the future. | Photo: The Center for Justice & Accountability

Published 15 March 2016
In post-war El Salvador, the will to erase historical memory has dominated, while in Guatemala a consensus around transitional justice has emerged.

As Guatemalans and Salvadorans left their past civil conflicts behind in the 1990s, they began to wonder about how the past should be remembered and what lessons should be taken from it. In Guatemala, a common discursive framework has emerged that insists that the repressive past be remembered as a way to prevent its repetition in the future. Guatemalan human rights organizations have been able to establish the idea that the past has an important role to play in the future. Even the Guatemalan military and, more importantly, their conservative civilian allies, such as former president Álvaro Arzú, publicly promote remembering, even when they harbor the hope that forgetting will prevail.

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The situation is different in El Salvador; no common discursive framework exists that promotes remembering as a way to avoid a repetition of the past. Rather, key sectors of society, especially the military and conservative civilian leaders like former President Alfredo Cristiani openly insist on amnesty and amnesia as the best recipe for the future. This is despite the fact that, as in Guatemala, human rights organizations in El Salvador reject this idea and insist on memory.

Support for memory in Guatemala can be seen in Arzu’s speech the day the final Peace Accords were signed, Dec. 29, 1996, and in Prensa Libre’s reporting on the speech the next day. In his speech, Arzu insisted that remembering was essential: “We cannot forget, we should not forget,” he said, because “a people who wish for reconciliation need historical memory.”

He stated that, “The Accords were signed quickly, but they contain a vision of what happened to us, of who are are, and of what we want to achieve … Above all else, this moment should be understood as a moment for forgiveness. Every Guatemalan has loved ones who are are no longer here in mind … [each Guatemalan] has someone in mind … It is one thing to forgive so as to continue along the road to the reconstruction of our wounded society with a positive and brotherly spirit, and it something else to forget. We cannot forget, we should not forget … a people who wish for reconciliation need historical memory …  Memory is not about settling accounts, revenge, or vengeance. Nor is it about denying the individual’s right to justice … There is a collective need to turn the page and overcome our recent conflict, but with a full awareness and knowledge of what happened to us, of what we were capable of.”

Arzu’s comments are in sharp contrast to conservative Salvadorans’ very open and explicit demands for forgetting. This call for amnesia can be seen in the following excerpt from Alfredo Cristiani’s following the publication the Salvadoran Truth Commission’s final report, published in La Prensa Gráfica on March 19, 1993. According to Cristiani, the report was partial, leading him to support “erasing, eliminating and forgetting” the “entirety of the past.” Complete oblivion would be achieved through a sweeping and unconditional amnesty law, which he called on the Salvadoran people — who he knew only wanted to forgive and forget — to support.

He declared that, “Reconciliation is important so that our country can move forward. Let us turn a painful page of our history and dedicate all of our energies to creating this future of well-being, peace, and progress that all Salvadorans wish for. Regarding promoting reconciliation, we believe that the report of the Truth Commission does not correspond with the desire of the majority of Salvadorans for forgiving and forgetting everything that happened in our painful past and that has made the Salvadoran family suffer so much.

On the other hand, it is also necessary to [point out that], from everything that happened in the years of violence, the Truth Report has extracted a sample of the violence and so has analyzed only a portion of what happened, not the totality of it. In this regard, given that the Report only talks about certain cases and mentions certain people, we believe that it is important to discuss what path we should follow. It is thus important to see what we are going to do about erasing, eliminating, and forgetting the entirety of the past. For this reason, we do not believe that it is just to apply certain measures, whether legal or administrative, to some people while others, for the simple fact that they did not form part of the sample that was included in the Truth Commission report, [go untouched]. We are considering this, not with a wish to make declarations about the guilt of anyone in particular, but as a fact. We do not believe it is advisable to act against a part of the problem; it is preferable to find a global solution.”

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In Arzu’s and Cristiani’s statements, the different roles assigned to the past in the public sphere in Guatemala and El Salvador are clear. This is not to say that Arzu actually hoped Guatemalans would remember the conflict and that doing so would foster reconciliation. Subsequent statements and actions show that this is far from true. Nevertheless, and quite unlike El Salvador, where openly calling for forgetting is commonplace, Guatemala’s dominant discursive framework dictates that Arzu praise the work memory does to promote reconciliation.  

What explains the enormous difference between public discourse in El Salvador and Guatemala? This is a question for another investigation; the purpose of my research was simply to show that this difference does indeed exist. However, if I were to speculate on the reasons for this difference, the state of civil society emerges as an important explanatory factor. Guatemalan organizations were more independent from the guerrilla during the conflict, participated in the peace process to a much larger extent, and, though they are by no means wealthy, have received more funding and other support from foreign donors than their Salvadoran counterparts. Guatemala’s strong and vibrant civil society has a greater presence and voice in the public sphere and so has been able to insist more effectively on the importance of memory in the present and future.  

This article was originally published in Spanish in the online publication El Faro.  

Rachel Hatcher is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice at the University of the Free State, South Africa. This article is based on her doctoral dissertation, titled, “On the Calle del Olvido: Memory and Forgetting in Post-Peace Public Discourse in Guatemala and El Salvador” (University of Saskatchewan, Canada, 2015).

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