Rethinking the Past

Here’s the thing about dictators: as sticky as they are when they’re in power, it’s even harder to deal with them once they’re gone. It’s an issue that is still being grappled with in Latin America. How do we create democratic institutions from scratch? How do we view the dictatorial era itself? Is political and economic stability worth a suspension of human rights? Perhaps one of the most difficult and pertinent questions for modern Latin America is the question of war crimes. Who can be charged with  a 'war crime’? It seems that, in this debate, time does not heal all wounds. This past week, after hours of heated deliberation, Uruguay’s Chamber of Deputies voted to overturn an amnesty on war crimes committed during the brief military junta that ruled from 1975 to 1983. This follows two ballot questions on the issue, one in 1989 and the other in 2009, which showed support for a general amnesty.

This has sparked a larger debate about the legacies of right-wing military dictatorships in Latin America. Why is this a debate? Living in a country that has thus far avoided a military coup, it is easy for us to adopt a hard-line stance against any and all perceived crimes committed during military rule.

However, Latin America complicates this position. Many of these regimes are recent history; a democratic constitution in Brazil was only re-instituted in 1988. Furthermore, opening up any debate about the military era necessarily stirs a larger debate in the national consciousness. Although Latin American dictators often took and held power by brutal means, right-wing dictators instituted right-wing economic reforms, opening up markets to foreign investment and insuring the stability necessary to economic growth. Was the economic gain worth it? The regime of Alberto Fujimori in Peru is a good example of this predicament. Although his brutal repression of dissent ultimately landed him a lengthy prison sentence, many Peruvians still view his rule in the 1990s as a time of prosperity and progress. Peru’s most recent presidential election, between Ollanta Humala and Alberto’s daughter Keiko Fujimori (also is a Columbia alum), was seen by some as a referendum on the elder Fujimori’s legacy in the ascendant Andean republic.

Keiko lost, but barely.

Clearly, the issue is a hotly debated one. Are economic expansion and its accompanying reduction of poverty worth widespread human rights violations? Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 was infamous for the ‘disappearances’ of its most outspoken critics, but it also created the ‘Brazilian Miracle’— the liberalization of South America’s largest economy. The same characterization can be made about Pinochet’s mandate in Chile. Is capitalism at the end of a sword justifiable?

Longstanding American foreign policy in the region says yes. The United States has a long history of backing right-wing capitalist dictators as part of its Cold War containment strategy: the Somozas in Nicaragua and the military government in El Salvador.

However, the recent debate in Uruguay shows us that the issue is far from settled. From my window in Rio, I can spot a colossal monument to Getúlio Vargas, the leader of Brazil’s first military coup in 1930 who even today remains highly popular.

Dictators are a mixed bag, it would seem.