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"Beyond Conflicting Powers' Politics"
Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira, Economics,
Getulio Vargas Foundation, Brazil

"Learning about Terrorism in Colombia"
Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín, Researcher, Universidad de Colombia

"An Overview of the Impact of September 11 on Latin America"
Monica Hirst, Fundación Centro de Estudos Brasileiros, Argentina

"Hemispheric Security After September 11"
Farid Kahhat, Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas, Mexico

"Old Ideas in New Discourses: 'The War Against Terrorism' and Collective Memory in Uruguay and Argentina"
Aldo Marchesi, Centro de Estudios Interdisciplinarios Latinoamericanos, Uruguay

"Terrorism and Freedom: An Outside View"
Luis Rubio, Political Economy, Center for Research for Development, Mexico City

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SSRC After Sept. 11
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Latin America Program
home page for SSRC Program on Latin America and the Caribbean

Old Ideas in New Discourses: "The War Against Terrorism" and Collective Memory in Uruguay and Argentina
Aldo Marchesi, Researcher at Centro de Estudios Interdisciplinarios Latinoamericanos (CEIL)-Faculty of Humanities and Education Sciences, Uruguay

In Uruguay and Argentina as elsewhere in Latin America's Southern Cone, there has been a heated debate on the characteristics of the dictatorships that affected the region during much of the 1970s and 1980s. Controversies persist not only about the factors that caused dictatorships to emerge but also about the nature and enduring significance of human rights violations committed under military rule. Struggles over memory of repression have been a key aspect of re-democratization processes throughout the region, as the military, political parties, social movements, human rights organizations, and various cultural actors have all taken part in the conflicts of "memory against memory."1

At the risk of oversimplifying, we can identify three positions with regard to the dictatorships. First, there are those actors, primarily in the military and on the political right, who defend the dictatorships' actions, and justify them as a consequence of the proliferation of subversive leftist forces in the region during the 1960s and 1970s. A second stance is represented by those political actors in new democracies who propose amnesties and some degree of forgetting as the solutions to the painful conflicts of the recent past. Finally, human rights organizations and leftist political parties demand truth and justice in order to repair the damage done by the dictatorships, and to punish those responsible for violations of human rights. These struggles over what and how to remember have been key constitutive elements for the identities of these actors in recent years, but the memories articulated by each of these sectors should not be conceptualized as static or rigid. On the contrary, our understanding of the past is very much affected by the way we try to solve present problems. As Halbwachs posits, collective memory is the reconstruction of the past in light of the present.2 What each of these groups remembers has a direct correlation to the present political moment in which they live and try to exert influence.

It is in this context that we can understand a series of polemics that have been waged in the Southern Cone following the attacks on the twin towers. September 11th marked a watershed moment in history, one of those rare junctures that immediately is recognized by its contemporaries as an historic event. In the Southern Cone, competing interpretations of the attacks in the United States became a crucial space from which to articulate positions concerning experiences that were far closer to home.

Participants in contemporary societal conflicts deployed categories created with reference to the region's own past in an effort both to explain the new historic moment facing the world and to establish strong continuities between the historic experiences of repression in Latin America and terrorism in the U.S. An examination of the continuing debates highlights the tension between collective memories of the past and present conflicts.

In Uruguay, a military officer known for his involvement in torture and disappearances made public statements for the first time: "What made me accept an interview was the impact of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. The television images reminded me of the pointlessness of the terrorist aggressions experienced in this country (Uruguay) many years ago, and the consequences that are felt even now."3 From his point of view, what had happened in the US was not an isolated and distant incident; it was profoundly connected to the recent past in Uruguay, and the methods employed to combat the terrorism should also be the same:

Journalist: "How do you think state forces should act in confronting these movements that operate, as you say, with "irregular" methods?"

Cordero: "You must be creative in order to succeed. It's a problem of ingenuity. But more than ingenuity, you must use methods that go outside normal war and the legal norms of treaties such as the Geneva Convention (which put limits on states when they go to war). The rest is just playing the game."

Journalist: "Do these methods imply killing, torturing, kidnapping or disappearing people?"

Cordero: "I believe so, yes, because it's the only way. The United States is advocating it with unanimous support from Congress."

It is interesting to note not only the explicit public justification of torture, but also the means and the moment that the officer found to make this assertion. The reappearance of "terrorism" as the ultimate target of President Bush's fight has much in common with the discourse promoted by the military concerning the putative threat of subversion during the 1970s in the Southern Cone. The officer grasped this coincidence and sought to capitalize on the new international environment to further his interests in the contested politics of memory.

This discourse was not limited to the military. Some conservative groups, for example, promoted the reappearance of language very similar to that of the "archaic" cold war. The same Uruguayan magazine that conducted the interview with the military officer published an editorial about some governments' messages of solidarity with the U.S. "It is not possible to accept today, without a justified skepticism, the solidarity of the Husseins, the Qaddafis, or the Fidel Castros, all of whom have helped terrorists, have provided refuge and training for terrorists, or have supported and flattered one another." A Montevideo newspaper with wide circulation (El Observador) drew a comparison between the role that Che Guevara played in Latin America in the 1960s and the influence of Bin Laden in the Arab world.

The same week, the Uruguayan Army called for increased resources to fight terrorism, and the government granted it an important role in the new fight, thus legitimizing military participation in domestic affairs, which generated conflicts with the police, who claim jurisdiction in that area. The recasting of the concept of terrorism was also evident in political discourse: initially, all political parties condemned the attacks, but the most conservative sectors attempted to foster analogies between the practices of some leftist groups in the 1970s and the current fundamentalist terrorism.

Thus, the conflict that appeared on the 11th allowed some actors and institutions to take old language out of the closet and dust it off for new causes. With considerable persuasiveness, they spoke again of the fight against "terrorism" without eliciting significant protest. They rapidly integrated the old and new enemy into the same thing. The "enemy" that has been constructed and expanded appears to have much less coherence than the enemy of the 1970s: the foes range from Fidel Castro and the Frente Amplio,4 to the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, all the way to Bin Laden.

For the moment, all these discourses have been mere fanfare; they have not had any real repercussions. This re-expression of some old concepts seems to be a discursive strategy for certain actors to obtain slight advantages in the post-September 11th political scene. For the military, September 11 has been transformed into an opportunity to justify again their "antisubversive" fight that was so "misunderstood" by many sectors of society, and an opportunity to gain institutional space within the state. In politics, the most conservative sectors have taken advantage of the event to discredit their electoral adversary on the left (Frente Amplio) based on the conduct of some of its members during the 1960s and 1970s.

On the other side of the Rio de la Plata, the debate developed in very different directions, but was also led by people who had played a very important role in the conflicts surrounding Argentina's recent past. In Buenos Aires, a fierce debate emerged within the human rights movement, basically between Hebe de Bonafini, the current leader of one of the factions of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and Horacio Verbitsky, a well known journalist who is director of CELS, an important human rights organization. During a public presentation on the "imperialist war" at the "Popular University of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo," Bonafini declared that she was happy about the September 11th attacks. "I felt that there were many peoples who were pleased at that moment and that the blood of many had been avenged."5 At the same conference, two intellectuals connected to the "University of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo" affirmed that Bin Laden's actions could be understood as another step in the "anti-imperialist class struggle."

Verbitsky refuted these assertions in the Buenos Aires daily, Pagina 12. The central argument of his criticism lay in the negation of the dualism implicit in Bonafini's position. "These new definitions come at a moment when the world is grieving the pernicious provocation of September 11 and the terrible reprisals against people equally as innocent as those assassinated that day. They require a response from those who do not believe it is necessary to choose between Milosevic's ethnic cleansing and the "collateral damage" of NATO, between Bin Laden's explosions and Bush's explosions, between Sharon's fascist colonies and the serial assassins of Hamas..."6

The polemic continued for an entire month with the participation of progressive intellectuals and social and political activists. The debate was rife with mutual accusations, insults and references to old disputes.7 These distinct reactions to September 11th implicitly reflected two different visions of Argentina's recent past. Each perspective interpreted the event within its respective ideological vision, but also within the politics of memory that each of the organizations had promoted in the last decade.

Bonafini attempted to integrate Bin Laden's fight with the guerrilla groups in Argentina in the 1970s:

But the day of the attack I felt that there were very brave men and women. They were courageous, like a mountain of brave men that prepared themselves and donated their lives for us, perhaps not for us, but for our grandchildren. They declared war with their bodies, piloting an airplane to explode and destroy the greatest power in the world. And I was content, why not. To some it will appear bad. Everyone will consider and evaluate. I am not going to be dishonest. I toasted my children, toasted so many dead, against the blockade, everything that came to my head. I toasted the brave ones. I toasted the men that declared war with their bodies.

This text is a clear effort to seek continuity between the struggle of the revolutionary left of the 1970s and that of Al-Qaeda. "I toast my children," she says, suggesting that the disappeared were fighting for the same thing as Bin Laden.

Several aspects of this attempt to establish continuity between past and present merit emphasis. First, it is a defense of certain methods and political practices of the 1970s. In this case, it is not a condemnation of political violence in general, nor the terrorist method in particular. On the contrary, it shares, vindicates and considers just the terrorists acts of September 11th. Second, it is the defense of a notion of anti-imperialism that is strongly linked to the concepts developed by the left in the 1960s and 1970s in experiences like the "tri-continental." In that view, cultural and regional differences would be overcome through unification around a common objective: the fall of "imperialism."

Finally, Bonafini suggests an empathetic relationship with those who would be the new "victims":

But the propaganda is so brutal, they have so much in their hands, that as they themselves and many agencies have said, North Americans in power first lie to their people. The powerful lie so much that the people believe it and then they can do what they want since they have the trust of the people, just like what happened here. Like Vinas said: our children were terrorists, and many people stayed quiet because they believed that it was acceptable to kill terrorists, since if they were terrorists what else could be done? Terrorism. Then, we were the mothers of terrorists. We spoke and spoke but many people said: no, but they make bombs. We suffered many years; we spent much of our lives maintaining that our children were revolutionaries, raising them to the highest level possible, making the people believe that they donated and handed over their lives for a better world, so that we could speak, live, sustain them, defend them, and go on fighting.

Verbitsky's discourse was quite different, but it was also clearly influenced by a reading of what had occurred in Argentina during the 1970s. Thus, he employed terms connected to the guerrilla strategies of the 1970s, like "foquismo"8 to refer to the attack of the 11th. "We believe that relationships with prevailing powers can only be changed through mass popular mobilization that broadens rather than restricts democratic spaces, and not by the incendiary 'foquismo' of six masked men." He also accused Bonafini of having "favored 'foquista' violence in her speeches." Verbitsky's position is a strong critique of "foquismo," which as he sees it is currently being pursued by the Muslim fundamentalists. This formulation also suggests continuity, but in this case a negative one. For Verbitsky, this type of violence does not contribute to promoting popular mobilization or to expanding democratic spaces. Moreover, his position does not emanate from the "anti-imperialist struggle," in the sense of a group of dominated peoples fighting against an imperial nation. Rather, it stems from a universalist condemnation of human rights violations, no matter where they take place.

These two episodes on either side of the Rio de la Plata demonstrate how discourses about the past have a performative effect in the interpretation of newly emerging historic moments. To a certain extent we can say that the disputes over the meaning of September 11 were impacted heavily by the memories created within the region several decades earlier. Although there is an enormous distance between the conflicts in the Southern Cone during the 1970s and what began with September 11th, some actors intentionally sought to build connections in order to legitimate their past behavior in this new present. They seek to identify the old and the new enemy as synonymous with the terms "terrorism" or "imperialism," and try to demonstrate the validity and the necessity of certain methods like torture or political violence (which had been very questioned in the democratization processes) to achieve their political objectives. Basically, what seems to have notably expanded is the range of discursive possibilities arising from the attacks. Some things that were previously said with embarrassment or reserve are now affirmed in a much more blatant manner. In the context of a situation loaded with heavy drama and drawn out through the media, opinions are once again being expressed publicly that until now had been reserved for the private sphere.

This is only the first act of the drama. None of what is discussed here has a definitive meaning. Time will tell how much of this is simply rhetorical strategy or implies a real change in actors' behavior, and how much is necessarily due to the effects of the 11th or is the result of radical transformations taking place within these societies themselves. In reality, this region had its own explosion; in December the issue of the "fight against terrorism" took a back seat on the public agenda as a result of the events that unfolded beginning with De la Rua's resignation and the worsening economic collapse in Argentina. The depth of the Argentine crisis, its repercussions in the region and the urgent need to overcome the present situation have come to occupy the public debate almost exclusively.

The speed with which September 11 reverberated at the domestic level in the region brings a relatively neglected issue in recent decades back to the social science agenda. That issue is the relationship between the United States and local actors in Latin American countries. The excessively Manichean use of the category "imperialism" in the 1960s and early 1970s, which ascribed no autonomy to local actors and viewed them simply as puppets of the great powers, has been shown to be insufficient to explain a much more complex and dense relationship. This, like many other cases, offers a good opportunity to analyze how some national actors appropriate international conjunctures in an active sense. They seek to maximize local strategies and develop strategies for legitimization that permit them to reinsert certain discourses into local public space based on what is occurring at a global level. Nevertheless, these asymmetric relationships, in which each actor has a relative margin of freedom within a field of limited possibilities, is still understudied in the region. The changes that occurred after September 11th offer a timely opportunity to reflect again on this problem.


1 Jelin, E., "Memorias en conflicto," Revista Puentes No. 1, Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 2000.

2 Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, University of Chicago Press, 1992.

3 Semenario Busqueda, November 26, 2001, Montevideo, Uruguay.

4 "Broad Front," the Uruguayan center-left coalition.

5 Taken from Resumen Latinoamericano No 14, accessed at

6 Diario Pagina 12, "La alegria de la muerte," October 10, 2001 (accessed at

7 Bonafini made subsequent accusations in the publication Revista 3puntos: "I believe that Verbitsky is a servant of the United States. He receives a salary form the Ford Foundation, and in addition to being a Jew, is totally pro-North American." (Revista 3puntos No 227, accessed at The polemic touched on other relevant questions, such as the role of North American foundations in the financing of diverse civil society organizations in Argentina, and anti-Semitism in some sectors of Argentine society.

8 "Foquismo" was a guerrilla cell-based strategy of political violence used in Argentina in the 1970's.

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