Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros118LibrairieWaiting for Marcel Orphüls: The L...


Waiting for Marcel Orphüls: The Literature of Authoritarian Rule and Resistance in Latin America

David M. K. Sheinin
p. 190-194
Référence(s) :

Lindsey Churchill, Becoming Tupamaros: Solidarity and Transnational Revolutionaries in Uruguay and the United States, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014, 206 p.

Federico Finchelstein, The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War: Fascism, Populism, and Dictatorship in Twentieth Century Argentina, , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, 216 p.

Francesca Lessa, Memory and Transitional Justice in Argentina and Uruguay: Against Impunity, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 319 p.

Texte intégral

1In 2010, at the XXIX Latin American Studies Association Congress in Toronto, the historian Steve Stern called 1970s stated-sponsored terror in Argentina a “dirty war.” An audience member self-identified as an “Argentine”, speaking for “Argentines” scolded him. “Dirty war”, he told Stern, was a term invented by the Argentine dictatorship, and as such, should never be used. Stern, perhaps the most authoritative analyst of Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, apologized, conceding implicitly that policing language brings us closer to a truth on state terror. The moment evoked the manner in which some who use the Hebrew term “Shoah” chastise those who say “Holocaust” for their putative invocation of a spiritual surrender narrative of those slaughtered by the Nazis.

2As the international scholarship on authoritarian violence in Latin America has grown quickly since 1990, dominant narratives have tended often to rigid binaries on violence, morality, state terror, and even language. As in the use of the term “dirty war”, there is right and there is wrong. In this chilling context, some investigators racing to fit their cases into these discourses – like round pegs into square holes – have disregarded what to an outsider may seem obvious based on the evidence. Commenting on a museum opened in 2007 to remember victims of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City, for example, the literary critic José Ramón Ruisánchez Serra writes, “despite a genuine effort to create a site where the most crucial event in the second half of the twentieth century in Mexico could be commemorated […] the museum receives few visitors.” (Ruisánchez Serra, José Ramón, ‘Reading ’68: The Tlatelolco Memorial and Gentrification in Mexico City’, in Ksenija Bilbija & Leigh A. Payne (eds.), Accounting for Violence: Marketing Memory in Latin America, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011, 181) In trying to explain why Mexicans will not visit this memory site to state terror, it never occurs to Ruisánchez Serra that his starting premise may be wrong. Could it be that the powerful academic line that Tlatelolco was both a unique and horrific moment of state terror in Cold War Mexico is inaccurate? Is it possible that most Mexicans may not stop by the museum because they do not view Tlatelolco as “the most crucial event” or even as significant?

3Much of the academic community addressing authoritarian violence in 1970s and 1980s Latin America has not had a Marcel Orphüls moment. Some can’t see grey zones on authoritarian rule – that the term “dirty war” can have multiple meanings or that Tlatelolco may have different connotations to different Mexicans. This is reminiscent of French political culture before the documentary Le chagrin et le pitié (1969) prompted an opening in how the French understood Vichy and Nazi occupation. Until the late-1960s, a dominant, Gaullist narrative admitted only one memory of the French under Nazi rule. There were those who supported the occupation and there were those who backed the resistance. The persistence of that binary likely helped Socialist president François Mitterand keep his most important political secret for decades: during the Second World War he had been both a member of the resistance and a Vichy bureaucrat, a combination so seemingly incongruous and so at odds with post-war French memory making on the Nazis, that it would have made a Parisian’s head spin in 1964. As French analysts have come to understand, not only can the Mitterand conundrum not be swept under the carpet. It is precisely that apparent contradiction and many others that must be resolved to break down false binaries and understand France in the early 1940s.

4Of the three books reviewed here, two take us a long way in breaking down false binaries and dictatorship-era shibboleths (the third less so). Their importance rests in the first instance in a rejection of the powerful tendency in the scholarly literature to treat dictatorship as aberrant. They explain violent military rule (and resistance) not as some Frankenstein’s monster emerging from American Cold War anti-Communism but as a function of national and transnational developments in Latin America over the long term. Lindsey Churchill’s Becoming the Tupamaros takes a sledgehammer to obscurantist, false boundaries between military rule and its opponents (in this case, the leftist guerrilla group, Tupamaros). This is no apologia for authoritarian violence or a maligning of heroic opposition to it. However, it begins theoretically and empirically with the hypothesis that to take as a given that military thugs and their enemies were polar Cold War opposites is to misunderstand both.

5Becoming the Tupamaros delves into the often poorly explained gendered abuse and humiliation of political prisoners in dictatorship-era Uruguay. Churchill shows the especially harsh, sexualized violence against women Tupamaros. She also documents the ugly feminization of male prisoners in gruesome torture methods. But the book also explains both the violent military and the Tupamaro resistance as a shared reflection of gender-based discrimination in Uruguayan society. At the same time, Churchill explains that both dictatorship and resistance were products of longer-term violence in Uruguayan society. In their clandestine publications, for example, the Tupamaros excoriated military authorities for imprisoning male guerrillas in a general prison population that included gay men. The result, according to the militants, was violent confrontation that was the fault of gay criminals. The serial Marcha reported on the case of a young guerrilla who cut a gay man with glass from a broken window. The Tupamaro was punished with years of solitary confinement that resulted in mental illness. In this and other cases, the Uruguayan left characterized imprisonment under the military as dangerous because of both human rights violations and “predatory” gay men.

6Both inside and outside prison, the revolutionary left in Uruguay and elsewhere in Latin America frequently shared a prejudiced view of homosexuality with the dictatorship and with society as a whole. Beyond this, Churchill writes, “like the Uruguayan military […] the Tupamaros supported the polarization of masculine/feminine and active/passive, with feminine and passive as synonymous” (Churchill 2014, 151). The sometimes-violent exclusion and suppression of so-called sexual deviance across political divides reflected longer term continuities. Like nonwhiteness, homosexuality seemed invisible in post-dictatorship democracy because LGBT people frequently had to conceal their identities to hold jobs or avoid police violence.

7Churchill also points out other continuities and connections between post-dictatorship democracy, military rule, and the revolutionary left where understanding overlapping political cultures is as important as grasping sharp contrasts. Many have seen the Tupamaros as progressive on the integration of women into political activity, upending notions of women as maternal nurturers, nonviolent, and passive. At the same time, the revolutionary left in Uruguay asked women comrades to reject motherhood and femininity, and to become socially constructed models of militant masculinity. Other leftist groups stressed women’s roles as wives and mothers. Either way, “embracing femininity and maternity or embracing masculinity – dichotomous gender restrictions confined women’s political participation to constructed gender norms” (Churchill 2014, 153).

8With the fall of the dictatorship in Uruguay and even more so in Argentina, an initial reconciliation narrative excoriated violence on both the far right and the far left. Churchill raises another key long-term continuity through dictatorship by explaining the remarkable integration of the Tupamaros into peaceful democratic politics, leading to the election of one of their number, José Mujica, to the presidency in 2009. Remarkably for some, on the campaign, Mujica announced he wanted nothing to do with “the stupid ideologies that come from the 1970s…” (Churchill 2014, 156). Some authors have tied the Tupamaros’ transition to electoral politics in the context of similar developments in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Churchill has an alternative explanation that breaks down the notion of the dictatorship period as aberrant. She argues that the Tupamaros were always as much “Uruguayan” as they were Cuba-inspired revolutionary Marxists. The unusual historical absence in Uruguay of powerful economic elites and church ties to politics produced what the author calls extraordinarily malleable ideologies. This proved true not only of democratic politics, but of the Tupamaros’ unique ability to mix conflicting ideologies into praxis. In the early 1970s, many members of the Tupamaros had no qualms “expressing admiration for both Che Guevara and James Bond” (Churchill 2014, 159). Unlike other leftist revolutionary groups of the era, the Tupamaros never rejected everything about the United States, which, in the end, forms the backdrop to the widespread popularity across ideological boundaries of the Mujica presidency.

9Also dismissive of the simplistic notion of dictatorship as a Cold War deviation, Federico Finchelstein’s Ideological Origins offers a compelling and bold new answer to the question, was the military government fascist? In post-dictatorship Argentine popular culture and among opponents of the dictatorship in the United States, there was a strong tendency to equate the regime with Nazism or fascism. That approach to the dictatorship drew, first, on a tendency among some to isolate the period as aberrant – a horrific interruption to modern, civil rule that must never be permitted again. In addition, it was based on the characterization of the regime as Nazi/fascist by some in the international human rights community, particularly in regard to the detention and torture of the Jewish journalist Jacobo Timerman, and Timerman’s own famous characterization of his ordeal as a descent into a new Nazism.

10Finchelstein’s linkage of dictatorship to fascism is more thoughtful and compelling. An aberrant, violent historical moment did not define the dictatorship as fascist, nor did the mistreatment of Timerman and other Jews in and of itself. The regime’s fascist tendencies have their origins in longstanding Argentine ideological and political traditions extending back at least through the 1930s, and transcending both democratic and dictatorial periods. This is especially evident in the construction of an internal, subversive enemy that concealed a foreign, intrusive presence. Drawing on 1930s right-wing tropes, at the time of the 1978 FIFA World Cup of Soccer (held in Argentina), the regime successfully promoted to a euphoric public “the widely accepted fantasy that the enemy was not really Argentine or only Argentine ‘by circumstance’” (Finchelstein 2014, 150). Reinforcing the notion that soccer was linked to the dictatorship and longstanding fascistic ideals of Argentine nationalism, the coach of the national team, César Luis Menotti thanked military junta leader and psychopath Admiral Emilio Massera for his invaluable moral support. The regime presented the World Cup to Argentines as a defence of the real Argentina against its enemies, where the dictatorship identified itself with the sacred and the hosting of the event as a victory over subversion.

11Ideological Origins goes on to show another important and longstanding link between military dictatorship, long-term ultra-nationalism in Argentina, and fascistic inspirations from Europe. The central dictatorship objective of defending national sovereignty and waging an internal war drew directly on tropes from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. All at once, in dictatorship propaganda, the war was being won, was winnable, and could never really be over. This new kind of internal war against a subversive and hard-to-identify enemy was at the same time a foreign threat. War became a value. The ferocity and absurdity of military rhetoric in the lead-up to the 1982 Malvinas War both mobilized an enthusiastic population and drew directly on years of ultra-right wing arguments in Argentina. The latter had long held that dying for the sake of Malvinas was a battle for god and patria.

12Where Ideological Origins and Becoming The Tupamaros dispense with dull binaries in trying to explain dictatorship not as aberrant but for its continuities with democracy, Memory and Transitional Justice in Argentina and Uruguay is preoccupied with exactly the opposite – isolating dictatorship as grossly aberrant.

13The book asks, what is the relationship between transitional justice and memory? Francesca Lessa offers an unprecedented overview of theoretical and empirical literatures on amnesties, trials, truth commissions, reparations, and memory narratives. Her understanding of the latter “is similar to what Steve Stern […] defined as ‘emblematic memory’, a framework for collective remembrance”, that emerges “from multiple human efforts, conflictual and competitive, to give meaning” to collective, decisive, or transformational trauma. Emblematic memories circulate “in public or semipublic domains like the mass media, government events, street demonstrations and protests, music, books, and television […]. [They are] socially constructed and selective, they are neither arbitrary inventions nor manipulations, but offer influential and convincing enunciations of often intensely disputed events” (Lessa 2013, 20-21). Emblematic or collective memory in Argentina and Uruguay is never made clearer than this.

14In a chapter on transitional justice in Argentina (still ongoing after more than three decades), Lessa is particularly taken with what she describes as the “political moment” represented in Néstor Kirchner’s election to the presidency in 2003. This marked a shift away from the impunity of the 1990s and into a new period of prosecutions; as of December 2012, in this new phase of judicial reckoning, there were 262 convictions on dictatorship-era crimes and counting. The book correctly ties political change in 2003 and a new judicial assault on dictatorship killers to a new wave of often-poignant memorialization of military rule, from the newly built Parque de la Memoria along the Río de la Plata estuary to the hundreds of memorial plaques on sidewalks throughout Buenos Aires and other cities, recalling sites from which people were “disappeared”.

15Chapters on Uruguay trace a similar uplifting story where for a long time, the formation of what the author calls collective, emblematic memories were pitted against dictatorship impunity. Like Argentina, with the arrival of a left-leaning democratic government in the past decade, a final judicial and cultural accounting could finally begin. Lessa casts Uruguay as under a pall in the late 1980s and 1990s, “a memory of silence and oblivion, with the state being totally silent on debates over the need for truth, justice, repatriations, and memorialization of the past” (Lessa 2013, 218-219). As much as anything, Memory and Transitional Justice is a morality tale of two civil societies that have finally seen the light. The problem here is that, hell bent on juxtaposing dictatorship and democracy, Lessa makes a set of false assumptions on political cultures and memory, then runs with them for the length of the book. In linking the 1990s Argentine presidency of Carlos Menem, for example, to the memory of silence and oblivion, like other critics of that administration (once sensibly described by a federal judge as an illicit crime organization), Lessa assumes that the politics of Menem’s two-term presidency was not a reflection of broad political cultures. Is that a credible assertion in that there is still no study of participatory politics under Menem, whose presidential terms spanned a period of democracy as open as that of the past fifteen years? Is it possible that what Lessa characterizes as silence and oblivion was, in fact, a reflection of an alternative memory, sense of justice, and criminal wrong during and after military rule?

16Beginning with her arguments on emblematic memories, Lessa routinely assumes that there is a collective memory on dictatorship in Argentina and Uruguay that has finally triumphed as a result of the current wave of prosecutions. There is simply no evidence to support that assertion. Her analysis is both a reflection of political cultures in white, middle-class urban enclaves in Argentina and of the Kirchner presidencies, but not of sprawling, impoverished suburbs in Rosario or Buenos Aires, or in rural Argentina. In addition, Lessa draws on narratives that she assumes are collective “Argentine” memories that are only collective for the white, urban middle class. Lessa cites the false “two demons” narrative as contributing to 1980s and 1990s impunity; instead of blaming the military for violent dictatorship, guilt was also parceled out to a second demon, left-wing guerrillas. It was only when that narrative was overcome after 2003 (and blame squarely laid at the feet of military thugs) along with other “false” memories of dictatorship that a proper judicial accounting and the new round of prosecutions could begin in earnest.

17Let’s leave aside whether or not working Argentines living in the one million strong, largely impoverished Florencio Varela municipality in Greater Buenos Aires ascribe or ascribed any blame for 1970s political repression to the revolutionary left. The more poignant issue is the either-or binary of two demons versus one demon, or how Lessa replicates discriminatory dichotomies in white, middle-class Argentine political culture that negate alternative narratives and memories. Nobody has ever conducted a study in which working people of colour in Varela and hundreds of other communities were asked what they remembered. Instead, a dominant narrative that accompanies that of “appropriate” remembrance (that is to say, Lessa’s emblematic memories that supposedly join Argentines and Uruguayans across class, race, and geographical boundaries in common recollection) is that those who don’t have the correct memories are ignorant, and condemned to “oblivion”.

18While racialized class differences shape society throughout Latin America, unlike Guatemala and Chile, state terror in Argentina and Uruguay was not directed in the first instance at working people of color. In this context, most Argentines lived through the dictatorship not in sympathy with authoritarian rule, or especially preoccupied with whether violence came from the dictatorship or the guerrillas. Most remained distant from it in all regards and in a context where state violence was not new. It had shaped their lives before military rule, during the dictatorship, and in democracy afterward and without significant difference. In 2007, the world champion boxer Juan Martín Coggi remembered his Friday evenings as a young teen-ager fighting in the streets of the desperately poor town of Brandsen in greater Buenos Aires. Coggi would fight all comers, men much bigger and stronger than him. He made money from accomplices in the crowd betting successfully on his improbable victories. One night in 1976, Coggi told me, people spotted a Ford Falcon and everybody ran. I asked why. He noted that everybody knew that Falcons were unmarked military task force vehicles. I asked him what happened next. Nothing, he answered. They all came back and the fight started again.

19In an interview that had lasted two hours and had covered the dictatorship period, this was the first and only reference to military dictatorship touching the lives of people in Brandsen or Coggi himself. To Coggi, and millions of poor, working Argentines of colour, state terror was incidental to their lives bearing in mind long term continuities of poverty and police violence. Their memories and narratives of dictatorship remain largely unknown. Most have never been asked what they recall of 1977 or 1978, and have been told by middle-class memory-making institutions (often lionized by academics) that their memory “oblivion” is ignorance. For those who have yet to feel the impact of post-1983 transitional justice in their everyday lives, there is equivalent disdain. The architect the new, pro-human rights Argentina, president Raúl Alfonsín, died in 2009. When newspapers reported on the work of his post-dictatorship human rights heroics, one Buenos Aires resident who had lived through intense poverty and runaway inflation in the 1970s and 1980s asked me rhetorically, “I wonder if anybody at the funeral shouted, ‘hey Alfonsín, and the price of milk?’” She was evidently stuck in oblivion.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

David M. K. Sheinin, « Waiting for Marcel Orphüls: The Literature of Authoritarian Rule and Resistance in Latin America »Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire, 118 | 2014, 190-194.

Référence électronique

David M. K. Sheinin, « Waiting for Marcel Orphüls: The Literature of Authoritarian Rule and Resistance in Latin America »Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire [En ligne], 118 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2015, consulté le 23 avril 2021. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


David M. K. Sheinin

Trent University.

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Tous droits réservés

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search