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As the pink tide turns, Latin America’s right launches a war on memory

Across the continent, the conservative right is attacking museums and challenging historic narratives – threatening to reopen barely healed wounds.

In late 2017, Juana Carrión, an elderly Quechua-speaking woman, was accused of promoting terrorism. She is the president of a group of the relatives of people murdered during Peru’s internal armed conflict (1980-2000), which claimed up to 70,000 lives.

For 15 years, the group has maintained a Museum of Memory in Ayacucho, a poor Andean city that was ground zero for the violence. It carefully commemorates the atrocities by armed forces and Maoist guerrillas with folksy, grisly dioramas. A local prosecutor acted on complaints about the museum from a congressman with the conservative Fuerza Popular (FP) party, headed by the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s authoritarian former president.

On this occasion the authorities dropped the case and apologised. “We don’t want our children to suffer like we did. That’s what this museum is for”, Carrión told me in a recent interview

The incident was an early skirmish in a growing battle across South America over historical memory. The “pink tide” of left-leaning governments in the 2000s oversaw the creation of spaces commemorating and confronting the conflicts and dictatorships of the late twentieth century. The public largely welcomed these institutions as an imperfect but necessary part of reckoning with the past, and avoiding its repetition.

But as Latin America’s pendulum swings to the right once again, with conservative governments winning back power in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru since 2015, museums are becoming a fulcrum in a culture war that is gripping the continent.  

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Tucked between the Pacific Ocean and the cliffs that form the western edge of Lima is The Place of Memory, Tolerance and Social Inclusion (LUM). Opened in 2015, the sloping concrete edifice houses testimonies and artefacts relating to the armed conflict. In one moving exhibit, victims’ relatives calmly relate their stories from a forest of narrow screens suspended from the ceiling.

But even this delicately calibrated, reflective museum has faced attacks that border on the farcical. Last April, right-wing congressman Edwin Donayre visited the LUM, disguised in a hat and wig. He secretly recorded a visitor assistant suggesting, in response to his repeated questions, that elderly, jailed terrorist leaders could be freed. She was fired as a result (the museum’s director resigned after a similar outcry over an exhibit the year before).

In neighbouring Chile, the Museum of Memory and Human Rights is dedicated to the victims of the 1973-90 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The striking structure of oxidised copper and glass rises above still pools of water in the western suburbs of Santiago. It was inaugurated in 2010 by the centre-left president Michelle Bachelet, herself a victim of torture at the hands of the US-supported Pinochet regime that killed nearly 2,300 people, tortured over 27,000, and forced 200,000 into exile.

Yet as Chile shifts to the right, the museum faces a growing chorus of criticism from conservatives – the prelude, some fear, to open praise for Pinochet entering the mainstream once more. In August, previous comments by Mauricio Rojas, the then culture minister, resurfaced; he called the museum a “shameful and deceitful” manipulation of history, a “sham” designed to shock rather than inform. Several right-wing politicians agreed, criticising the museum for lacking “context.” 

Such critics have typically pointed to political and economic instability under the socialist former president Salvador Allende, whom Pinochet overthrew. Others argue that any museum of the era should also refer to the few dozen killings perpetrated by armed left-wing groups – most of which took place after the 1973 coup. These calls to “relativise” human rights and “consider the context” are a thinly veiled attempt to justify the atrocities of Pinochet’s civilian-military dictatorship, argues Alejandro Guillier, the left-wing candidate that Piñera narrowly defeated in 2017 elections.

Piñera’s government – which has placed former supporters of the dictator in key cabinet posts – has used an iron fist in a conflict with the indigenous Mapuche in southern Chile, opposed further liberalisation of abortion, and cracked down on irregular migration. Rewriting history, it seems, goes hand in hand with reviving the repressive policies of the past.

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A similar process is underway in Colombia, where the National Centre of Historical Memory (CNMH) – an institution studying the country’s ongoing conflict that is due to open its own National Museum of Memory in 2020 – has attracted rolling controversy in recent months. In March, Colombia’s president, Ivan Duque, appointed the conservative historian Darío Acevedo to direct the CNMH. Acevedo denies that Colombia experienced an armed conflict. Rather, he elides the 220,000 deaths of the past 55 years as casualties in a struggle to crush the left-wing terrorism of groups like the FARC.

But among all these examples, the right’s attempt to revise history currently rages fiercest in Brazil. Former army captain Jair Bolsonaro took office as president in January after an incendiary campaign that seduced voters weary of years of political corruption, economic turmoil and a rampant murder rate. Underlying Bolsonaro’s politics is a polemical version of Brazil’s history that has gained popularity among white conservatives.

This is a “Christian and patriarchal past,” which paints the country as “the legitimate heir to Western Civilisation” and ends up “erasing the history of indigenous and black peoples,” writes historian Paulo Pachá. Bolsonaro has lamented that Brazil’s native inhabitants were not exterminated, and called quilombolas (the descendants of runaway communities of enslaved Africans) “not fit to procreate.”

This revisionism extends to periods within living memory. Bolsonaro openly admires Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship, which killed an estimated 434 people, caused the deaths of over 8,000 indigenous people, and tortured tens of thousands. In fact, his only criticism is that they didn’t murder enough socialists. In Bolsonaro’s version – roundly rejected by historians – the generals, supported by the public, saved Brazil from sliding into left-wing dictatorship. On 31 March, on Bolsonaro’s orders, the armed forces held renewed commemorations of the 55th anniversary of the coup.

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This war over historical memory is playing out in public spaces – both digital and physical. Bolsonaro and his sons lead the air war on social media, defending dictatorship among their six million Twitter followers and even using official government channels to do so. Revisionist documentaries flourish in the darker recesses of YouTube. The self-described “first right-wing bar in Brazil” opened in Belo Horizonte last month, promising frosty beers and an end to the “demonisation” of conservative views. Meanwhile, museums and memorials related to slavery are cash-strapped and struggling, Ana Lucia Araujo, a historian, tells me in an email.

Classrooms are also becoming a battleground for revising history. Bolsonaro’s government hopes to implement a policy – Escola Sem Partido, or Nonpartisan School – to present a pro-military version of the dictatorship and root out left-wing “indoctrination” in classrooms. Textbooks “that don’t contain the truth about 1964 have to be eliminated from Brazilian schools,” a general involved with the planned changes to the curriculum has promised.

Some once lauded Brazil’s “politics of silence” for promoting harmony and reconciliation. Instead, public amnesia has provided fertile ground for an aggressive revisionism to flower, heralding a return to authoritarianism. Police snipers are being used in Rio’s favelas, the government plans to turn over vast indigenous-owned rainforest to the powerful agricultural lobby, and circumstantial links are emerging between Bolsonaro – who has vowed to “cleanse” Brazil of “red outlaws” – and the right-wing Rio militia that murdered socialist councilwoman Marielle Franco in 2018.

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As right-wing political movements swell across the world, history has been subject to aggressive reinterpretation: whether rehabilitating Confederate generals, re-evaluating the “benefits” of British Empire, or praising the supposed benevolence of Spanish conquistadors. On one reading, these elite efforts to command the past are intended to enable their control of the present – and secure their influence over the future.

Latin America’s recent experience is similar, where leaders seek to avoid condemnation for past abuses and lay the rhetorical groundwork to shore up resurgent authoritarian projects. Yet the new revisionism also has a curious psychological element. Civilian and military elites have adopted the language of historical memory but unanchored it from reality, instead depicting a situation where “there is blame on both sides”. One some level, the powerful believe themselves to now be the real victims and judge that those who suffered most during conflict and dictatorship have been indulged.

That thousands of Latin America’s “disappeared” are yet to be found, and most of their killers are yet to face any kind of justice, is enough to refute this narrative. Disinterred from around Ayacucho, hundreds of human remains languish in the local prosecutor’s office, which has only now secured the political will and funding to definitively identify them. “My brother is one of them,” Carrión told me: she recognised the scraps of clothing on his bones.

Laurence Blair has reported from across Latin America for the Economist, the BBC and Financial Times. His book about South American history will be published by the Bodley Head in 2020.