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Latin American Research Review 38.1 (2003) 238-247

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Recovering from State Terror:
The Morning After In Latin America

Alison Brysk
University of California, Irvine

State Violence in Guatemala, 1960-1996: a Quantitative Reflection By Patrick Ball, Paul Kobrak, And Herbert F. Spirer. (Washington, D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1999. Pp. 154. $10.00 Paper.)
Death Squads in Global Perspective: Murder with Deniability. Edited By Bruce B. Campbell And Arthur D. Brenner. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. Pp. xvii+364. $49.95 Cloth.)
Chile under Pinochet: Recovering the Truth. By Mark Ensalaco. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Pp. xv+280. $47.50 Cloth.)
Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity. By Priscilla B. Hayner. (New York: Routledge, 2001. Pp. xii+340. $19.99 Paper.)
Societies of Fear: the Legacy of Civil War, Violence and Terror in Latin America. Edited By Kees Koonings And Dirk Kruijt. (London: Zed Books, 1999. Pp. xii+335. $65.00 Cloth, $27.50 Paper.)
Chile, Pinochet, and the Caravan of Death. By Patricia Verdugo. (Coral Gables, Fla.: North-South Center Press, 2001. Pp. ix+230. $49.95 Cloth, $21.95 Paper.)

In Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden, an individual victim of shattering human rights violations serves as a metaphor for her entire society, as she struggles to recover truth, justice, and stability. Her anguished confrontation with the vagaries of memory, the temptations of vengeance, and the limits of pacted transitions mirrors the political history reflected in these works (Dorfman 1991). In a similar spirit, in the immediate aftermath of Latin America's democratic transitions I suggested that the "emerging democracies"—then lauded by U.S. policymakers and some "transitologists"—were more appropriately labeled "recovering authoritarians" (Brysk 1994). The individual [End Page 238] analogy of "recovering alcoholics" was intended to highlight the ongoing legacy of decades of abusive and pathological behavior, which cannot be overcome until it is confronted, and restructured on a daily basis—with the help of broader support networks. The works under review, and the experience of the intervening decade, sadly confirm that Latin America is a hemisphere populated by "recovering authoritarians," and demonstrate the challenges and pitfalls of amnesia and impunity.

Recovery begins with memory, and memory is a key slogan and project for most of the continent's human rights movements. Three of the books here illustrate the main strategies of memory pursued in Latin America: Priscilla Hayner chronicles truth commissions; Patrick Ball, Paul Kobrak, and Herbert Spirer compile statistical documentation; while Patricia Verdugo exposes hidden history through investigative journalism. This form of human rights scholarship directly contributes to the "information politics" which is one of the main mechanisms of transnational transformation (Keck and Sikkink 1998). Thus, it is an ironic but not unexpected testament to the importance of these projects that recent threats to human rights in Latin America focus on the architects of truth, ranging from widespread persecution of journalists to expulsions of forensic anthropologists.

Restructuring is an even more contested and incomplete aspect of recovery, often contrasted with "reconciliation." In different ways, several of these works demonstrate the price of impunity: the continuation or even reactivation of repressive networks and institutions (Campell and Brenner), the distortion of political culture and the destruction of social capital (Koonings and Kruijt), and the ultimate delegitimation of the democratic institutions that reconciliation is designed to stabilize (Ensalaco). These books begin to show how societies as diverse as Guatemala and Chile are impaired by untamed militaries and unresolved social conflict, in addition to the direct impact of the trauma of repression.

However, global support networks do attempt to contribute to recovery. Human rights scholarship often chronicles and sometimes participates in this healing process. Hayneris an international consultant to the United Nations and emerging truth commissions, which have been influenced greatly by international expertise, models, and even testimony. Kruijt and Koonings helped to negotiate the Guatemalan peace process. Ball, Kobrak, and Spirer work with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Human Rights Program. Their report on Guatemala is specifically designed to...


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