Latin America in the 1970’s and 80’s was an area battling political instability, extreme violence, and an overall lack of basic human rights. But, what role did the United States play in these problems? The United States is one of the most powerful and wealthy countries in the world, but how have they used that standpoint to better the Americas? The brutal injustices that occurred in El Salvador in the early 1980’s were funded in part by the United States government in an effort to combat communism.
El Salvador was in a period of chaotic government turmoil, with civilians living in fear. Priests and nuns were killed throughout the country for speaking out in support of liberation theology, and for supporting change to the government. A fact that strikes a nerve through the community I was raised in, as one of the victims of this massacre was a nun who previously attended the same high school that I attended. This information was made prevalent to us throughout our high school careers as both a warning and a point of personal interest into the concept of Latin American government.
At this time, guerrilla groups in the area used liberation theology to their advantage, to gain support for the left. At the time, the country was “ruled” by a small population of very powerful, right-wing, wealthy government officials. The government protected their power by seeking out anyone they felt was in opposition to their political beliefs, and ultimately killing them. This included the guerrilla groups who violently demanded change allowing for more equal rights. The ideas of democracy and fair treatment are two of the founding components of the United States, but we have proven ourselves unable to show that same compassion for other countries. Given this moral standpoint, it is important to question the role of the United States in this massacre of human lives, and human rights.
It was clear to those present in El Mozote, that a matanza had taken place. Despite firsthand accounts of the attacks that took place in El Mozote, the United States chose to ignore them, claiming they were unfounded. Witnesses such as Rufina Amaya Marquez spoke out to reporters and military officials, detailing what she saw happen to her friends and neighbors. When newspaper articles were released in January of 1982, Reagan chose to claim it was propaganda, and reassured the country that:
“the government of El Salvador was ‘making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights’”. (Danner, 102)
This saved Reagan from admitting that their funding had supported acts of serious violence. Major Azmitia, a high-ranking military official who led the massacre, admitted that:
“The unit that had fought at El Mozote had had a tough time of it… because of the intensity and duration of the battle… there were undoubtedly casualties among non-combatants.” (Danner, 120)
Azmitia, as Danner notes, was trying to create a reasonable theory of what happened, that would still allow White to continue funding the army. They needed to continue to receive American support if their war could continue. An admission of responsibility from the man in charge, was still not proof enough that something seriously tragic had happened. White, it seems, had an understanding of the injustices that had taken place, and even attempted to tell the United States government what had really happened. In his telegraphs to the White House, he explained that there was a revolution underway, but it was not inherently communist.
“Above all we must rid ourselves of the notion that the Cubans are playing an important role here. I do not doubt the reality of Cuban training for guerrillas plus weapons and other material via Honduras and Costa Rica. It exists. But it is marginal. El Salvador will be won or lost by the interplay of forces and actors previously described.” (White, 3)
The argument that they were fighting communism was the main reason America supported the violence there. After the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua, they were afraid of similar things happening in El Salvador. White seemed to be in support of stopping everything that was happening, and discussed the severity of the violence, while explaining that communism was not the real threat. As the Ambassador to El Salvador, there was no reason to doubt his motives.
Human rights violations were an all-encompassing issue throughout the country. As a result of the small minority that maintained power, the majority of people had no voice in the government, as well as no basic rights. “In El Salvador, the rich and powerful have systematically defrauded the poor and denied eighty percent of the people any voice in the affairs of their country.” (White, 1)
This majority lived in countrysides, like El Mozote, and their main concern was surviving on a daily basis. Sharecroppers were constantly concerned that they would not produce enough food to pay their rent and feed their families. They were not helped by the government, nor were they treated with the same respect that those in power were granted. They were not even afforded the ability to safely vote for change.There was little they could do without getting directly involved in guerrilla groups, but these people needed change immediately if there was any hope of creating a safe and healthy society in the future.
The military promised Marcos Diaz and all his neighbors safety if they remained in the village and did not leave. Diaz then invited people from the surrounding area to come to El Mozote for safety from the guerrillas. But, by the time the soldiers entered El Mozote, their promise of safety vanished. They showed no sympathy for their civilians, and cared only for capturing the guerrillas:
“Who were the guerrillas? Where were they? Where did they hide their guns? The men and women of El Mozote insisted that there were no guerrillas there, that they knew nothing of guerrillas or weapons. ‘If you want to find guerrillas,’ one woman shouted tearfully,raising her head from the ground, ‘go out there’- she waved toward the hills- ‘outside town. But here, here were not guerrillas.’ That only made the soldiers angrier. ‘All you sons of bitches are collaborators,’ an officer said. ‘You’re going to have to pay for those bastards.’” (Danner, 63)
In calling the civilians “collaborators”, they made them out to be involved in the brutal warfare that was taking place. The citizens of El Mozote attempted to remain neutral, simply in an effort to provide safety to the town. When guerrilla groups came, they gave them food, and they quickly moved along. The Catholic liberation theology that converted many other people to follow guerrilla groups did not work on El Mozote’s devout Evangelical population. This is what makes this massacre even more startling. The hundreds of people who were gunned down and murdered, were in no way affiliated with guerrilla groups. They showed no threat of violence to the army, and they cooperated as much as was possible, even when their faces were pushed down in the dirt.
The American government was well-aware of what was happening in the country. They chose to do nothing, and allowed a perceived threat of communism trump the human rights of an entire country. It is important to mention that the United States supported similar government initiatives in other Latin American countries. From 1976- 1983, Argentinians fought with their own government and militia over subversive ideas, in what became known as “The Dirty War”. The United States supported this, as they feared the threat of communism. The fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua was also met with United States support. Both stemmed from extremely repressive governments that led to a revolt. This shows a pattern of ignorance, a lack of empathy for Latin American citizens, and an overwhelming fear of communism, which is important to consider when questioning the role of why our country’s government chose to participate in these brutal attacks.
Between 1976 and 1983, thirty thousand of Argentina’s “subversive” citizens and their supporters were disappeared. While they each had an individual story, all thirty thousand intertwined at several key points. All suffered torture, kidnapping, deplorable conditions, losing loved ones, and fear, to name a few. With that being said, one person’s story could collectively tell what happened to anyone in that same situation. During this time, an overwhelming majority of the thirty thousand disappeared were killed. Few survivors were left to tell the stories of those who were no longer with them.
Such storytellers, Alicia Partnoy and Alicia Kozameh told their stories, and the stories of their loved ones, in a poetic way. Their novels are filled with literary devices that do not explicitly detail torture or daily life in clandestine jails. These novels were created with a therapeutic value to their authors, serving as an autobiographical testimony. Parallel to this is the legal testimony of Nunca Mas. This testimony serves legal purposes, exposing the world to the truth of what occurred. These three writings serve to explain Argentina’s state terrorism, in varying ways.
These texts were each created under different circumstances. Nunca Mas tells bits and pieces of multiple victims’ stories. While it does detail some of them, the majority of the text is compiled testimony from hundreds of those involved. These testimonies were given in court during CONADEP, making them, according to Jelin, judicial testimony (63). Judicial testimony is created out of a need for information. It works to piece together the facts of the story, and is consequently very specific and fact-based. Strejilevich points out that “memories of horror are not accurate, and witnesses who testify in front of a jury have to reshape their traumatic recollections to fit the requirements of the law…” (704) This means that while the testimony is still truth-based, it changes from the pressure of the law. While it is slightly changed, it is not invalid.
The idea of a truth-based story, falls more in line with the novels penned by both Partnoy and Kozameh. Both of these works are motivated by their individual experiences in clandestine centers during the last dictatorship, but through the collective memory of several people. Both were a form of autobiographical testimony, created as a therapeutic method for sharing their stories. In Steps Under Water, Kozameh shares events that are similar to the events of her own life, and those of her closest compañeros. Given the fact that she was able to write the book at her own pace, her testimony is much impassive than the legal testimony heard in CONADEP.
There is also a significant amount of stylized writing, showing the real emotion behind her recount of the events, ensuring it is more of a novel than a factual text. There is never a clear narrator, instead switching from character to character. This must have also been therapeutic to Kozameh, helping to give identity to the hundreds of prisoners she met in her time at the Little School and other clandestine centers.The same is true for her novel, The Little School. In The Little School, Partnoy creates a work that could have been her own, or that of any other disappeared person. This text, like Steps Under Water, compiles what she saw, heard, and felt, into the personal story of her protagonist, Sara.
Sharing these events, be it in pure truth or exaggerated truth, can be considered therapeutic. The idea of “getting it off your chest” when it is a topic that affects your life significantly, can help the healing process. This autobiographical form of testimony can be seen in the novels, while a legal form of testimony is held in Nunca Mas. Partnoy, throughout the introduction to her novel, states that she does not know why her life was spared, something she holds in her heart. “As a survivor, I felt my duty was to help those suffering injustice.” (17) “By publishing these stories I feel those voices will not pass unheard.” (Partnoy, 18) To her, The Little School paid tribute to those who did not remain to tell their own tale. Nunca Mas served a similar function, as it shared as much information as each individual remembered. Aside from its therapeutic value, it also served a legal purpose, helping to punish and castigate the war criminals involved.
All three pieces of writing interpellate multiple voices and stories. They give an identity to prisoners; who for an extended period of their life, were referred to only by their number. Nunca Mas shares the testimonies of victims- both dead and alive. It gives factual, accurate, portrayal out of the aforementioned writings,which is what makes it so important. By sharing the stories of as multiple people, those taking part in CONADEP were able to give peace of mind to family members of the disappeared. “The typical sequence was: abduction – disappearance – torture. Each of the testimonies included in this report is representative of the thousands of cases which tell a similar story.” (Nunca Mas, Part I) While Partnoy and Kozameh had similar messages to share, spreading the truth of what happened, their stories did not tell the life of any specific person or persons, instead working to create a more fictionalized, collective testimony of all those around them.
During the CONADEP trials, those on the stand had no way of knowing that their testimony would one day be turned into a book, read around the world by curious readers and human rights activists alike. Given the fact that the Nunca Mas testimony is so startling and straightforward, the ideal reader would need to be someone who was genuinely interested in the topic and the profound effects it had on Argentina.The novels, on the other hand, are more ambiguous in their descriptions of events. For example, “Sara’s Diary” in Steps Under Water uses several metaphors to describe the torture inflicted upon Sara:
“They’re about to cut the lights. Nothing to say. Just one thing: ugh. I don’t feel like getting into this. The investigations, the references to the mechanisms we rely on immobilize me. They force me to face the whole picture. They drown me in details. They dump the whole abyss on me all at once. But that’s okay. Just this: that routine, unbearable to live by human days, in here keeps you clear of death. Novelty is a danger. Always.” (Kozameh, 113)
The testimony of Nunca Mas describes torture more directly:
“When I arrived, they left me dumped in a yard and after a while they took me to the ’machine’, a name given to the electric prod, where they continued to torture me, I don’t recall for how long since I was in such a sorry condition. Once again, they threw me down in the yard. leaving me there for a while until they took me to a small room, where a torturer known as ’Julián the Turk’ began to hit and beat me with chains and then with a whip, swearing and shouting at me. Then they dumped me back in the yard again… I could feel my whole body stinging and hurting, made worse by the salt water they threw over me …” (Nunca Mas, Part I, Torture).
Despite these literary differences, these writings all conjure up feelings of pity and empathy. While most of society cannot feel sympathy towards the situation, it is such a scary, desperate circumstance that you cannot help but feel empathetic towards the disappeared. In this regard, Nunca Mas brings into the light the fact that this is much more than just a book, as Partnoy and Kozameh leave it to be. Without a backstory, the tales of both Sara and Alicia present them simply as characters in a story. Their stories shape a fictional character to suffer through the plight of what many of the disappeared went through. Nunca Mas has the same effect, but to a greater extent. Given its location in a courtroom, and the fact that it is direct testimony, the reader can be connected on a deeper, more factual level to the same plight.
These types of deeply emotional writing can arouse strong reactions in readers that can be both positive and negative. Positively, readers can be launched into learning more about the topic and the social change that is happening in Argentina today. It could create the motivation for the next great human rights activist to begin their mission. Negatively, these can evoke feelings of hatred towards the government and a more militant approach to social justice. These can be said for both types of testimony, and all three writings, in one way or another.
These three works all help to spread awareness to what happened in Argentina during this time. Many people are not fully aware of the circumstances of these events, and creating English literature on the topic can help to spread that awareness. By spreading awareness, these authors are all creating a channel on which the ideas of testimony, torture and the “truth”, can be discussed.
- Danner, Mark. The Massacre at El Mozote. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.
- White, Robert. Embassy Reports. N.p.: United States Department of State, 1980. Print.