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The Politics ofMemory and Oblivion in Redemocratized Argentina and Uruguay* Luis Roniger and Mario Sznajder The memory ofhuman rights violations that occurred under military rule has continued to haunt the Southern Cone societies following their transition to democracy. With the end in 1983 and 1985 of the respective military dictatorships, the massive extent ofsuch violations was made public in Argentina and Uruguay (as well as in Chile, following the return to democracy in 1990). Parallel to the institutional mechanisms elaborated for treating these violations, a politics ofmemory and oblivion was generated, which involved contrasting attempts to preserve and diffuse the memory of the past or move beyond past experiences and their varied interpretations. This article analyzes the dynamics of diis politics of memory and oblivion in two Southern Cone societies, Argentina and Uruguay. While this selection is basically due to reasons ofspace, a comparative approach allows us to point out crucial elements in the ways in which intellectuals, victims' relatives, and other agents articulate distinctive patterns of collective memory and oblivion ofthe shared experience ofhuman rights violations. The analysis of collective memory has become a burgeoning focus of theoretical inquiry in different disciplines, from sociology and anthropology to history and cultural studies. Most ofthese studies follow die seminal distinction between history and memory developed among others by Pierre Nora. Whereas the concept of history implies an image 133 Luis Roniger and Mario Sznajder ofthe past clearly distinguished from the present, the concept ofmemory places the past widiin the present, as an integral and continuously reformulated part ofit.1 Usually, such studies attribute to political groups the desire to transform history into memory, that is, to make the past a living force for present strategies of shaping policies. In contemporary Latin America, however, the transition to a politics of memory and oblivion has had more to do with the inability of the local political systems to confront the legacy of authoritarianism through institutional channels. The Latin American governments have been interested in dissociating themselves from the issue ofhuman rights violations, but the period ofmilitary rule has remained a constandy reopened black hole in die public domain. The polarized visions ofdifferent sectors ofsociety and the possible repercussions ofany official statement on the issue for the viability ofdemocratic institutions have prevented an official version of the "history" of this period from being elaborated in the first years of redemocratization. Whereas the governments endorsed the view that historical writing and discourse are valuable means for portraying the past in a contained form distinct from the present, they have been mosdy unable or unwilling to implement policies that would have transformed the memory ofsuffering into history. The politics of memory and oblivion have embedded images ofthe past—about which there is no consensus—within the present, as meaningful factors that shape current visions and decisions, precipitating an "eternal return" to these issues. In Pierre Nora's terms, these societies have gone "from a history sought in the continuity of memory to a memory cast in the discontinuity ofhistory."2 HISTORICAL-SOCIOLOGICAL BACKGROUND Argentina and Uruguay are highly articulated and politicized nations, which share a history ofSpanish colonization, political independence in the early nineteenth century, a sociodemographic configuration with salient immigratory components since the late nineteenth century, and a society modeled on Western ideas of development. But whereas Argentina experienced in the twentieth century a great degree of social 134 The Politics of Memory and Oblivion conflict, regressive economic development and political instability, triggering alternating waves of authoritarian and democratic rule, Uruguay attained a model of consensual democracy. This model was based on a political mechanism of consensual conflict resolution, which reduced polarization and blurred ideological differences between the major political parties; on a system of political rule shared by both majority and minority political forces; and on institutional forms of reaching consensus among eûtes. This system, created by José Batde y Ordóñez in die early twentieth century, upheld civilian rule and instilled the values ofcitizenship, republicanism and consensus in the population.3 In bodi countries, the institutional format was sustained by die development of an agro-export economic model, coupled witii financial markets (more open in Uruguay than in Argentina between 1930 and...


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