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Fragile Memory, Shifting Impunity

Commemoration and Contestation in Post-Dictatorship Argentina and Uruguay


Cara Levey

Fragile Memory, Shifting Impunity is an interdisciplinary study of commemorative sites related to human rights violations committed primarily during dictatorial rule in Argentina (1976–1983) and Uruguay (1973–1985). Taking as a departure point the ‘politics of memory’ – a term that acknowledges memory’s propensity for engagement beyond the cultural sphere – this study shifts the focus away from exclusively aesthetic and architectural readings of marches, memorials and monuments to instead analyse their emergence and transformation in post-dictatorship Argentina and Uruguay. This book incorporates the role of state and societal actors and conflicts underpinning commemorative processes into its analysis, reading the sites within shifting contexts of impunity to explore their relationship to memory, truth seeking and justice in the long aftermath of dictatorship.
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Introduction: Contentious Presents, Unsettled Pasts


The past is never dead. It’s not even past. —William Faulkner1

Years after the end of brutal and repressive civil-military dictatorships in Argentina (1976–83) and Uruguay (1973–85), questions over how state repression should be addressed continue to haunt the urban landscape and trouble public conscience. In late 2009, controversy erupted in Uruguay over the filming of an advertisement for the soft drink Sprite (owned by the Coca Cola Corporation). It was claimed that, during the shoot, the Memorial de los Detenidos Desaparecidos2 [Memorial to Disappeared Detainees], constructed in the late 1990s in homage to Uruguay’s detenidos-desaparecidos [disappeared-detainees], was temporarily covered up by the production company, rendering it camouflaged against Montevideo’s Vaz Ferreira park. Human rights organizations and their supporters denounced the multinational’s use of the site as an attack on the memory of Uruguay’s disappeared and criticized the local government for neglecting the Memorial.3 However, Uruguay was not the only country in which the treatment of dictatorship-era memory caused considerable furore. In early 2013, the Argentine media ran a story on an end-of-year barbecue hosted that previous December by the Justice Minster, Julio Alak, at the most emblematic of the dictatorship-era ← 1 | 2 → clandestine detention centres, the Escuela Mecánica de la Armada [Navy Mechanics School, or ESMA], a designated ‘space for memory’ since 2004.4 Amidst calls for Alak’s resignation and the inevitable public outcry over the appropriateness of holding a barbecue in the place where prisoners’ bodies had been incinerated on pyres, several...

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