Transcript: Tina Rosenberg speaks on violence in Latin America


Q: In Children of Cain you examined different types of violence in Latin America through specific accounts from six countries: Colombia, Argentina, Peru, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Chile. What is your assessment of these countries 20 years later?

A: There are many differences now, throughout Latin America, compared to 20 years ago. When I wrote Children of Cain I was writing about four or five active wars underway in Latin America at that time, and there are no longer wars like those. There is still very strong ideological conflict though, probably stronger than 10 years ago. There are countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Nicaragua where there is a stronger left party, and this leads to an ideological confrontation.

But a major difference with respect to 20 years ago is that the two sides in ideological competition are no longer backed by superpowers. There is no financing or support, for example, for a guerilla movement. There is also less tolerance for open dictatorships. There is only one, which is Cuba, but there are many governments that are “dictablanda,” [soft dictatorships] I would say. They stay in power using very authoritarian methods, but are basically nonviolent.

So as for the specter of political violence, I see a notable improvement. Violence associated with common crime is another matter. In several countries violence associated with common crime and drugs is a major problem, indeed I think it may affect more people and have a greater impact than the political violence of 20 years ago.

Q: If you were to write the book now, in 2011, which six countries would you choose?

A: If I were to write a book on political violence perhaps I wouldn’t write about Latin America, perhaps I’d choose another region of the world, such as the Middle East or North Africa. If I were to write a book on violence in Latin America I would include the violence caused by drug trafficking and common crime. I think I would choose Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala—which, in addition to having violence associated with drug trafficking, has constant violence related to repression against the indigenous peoples—also El Salvador—where violence associated with common crime is very high—perhaps Brazil, where there is considerable repression of popular movements, and Cuba.

Q: You just mentioned Mexico. Many people say that Mexico is “the new Colombia,” but what are the similarities and the differences between the situation in Mexico today and Colombia in the 1980s?

A: I agree that Mexico has much in common with the Colombia of 20 years ago. I was in difficult regions of Colombia at that time, including Medellín and Urabá, and I see many similarities in Mexico today. I think there are two big differences, which are both bad news for Mexico. One is that while Colombia’s judicial institutions were very weak, Mexico’s are even weaker. All of Mexico’s institutions are weaker at this time. It is not a country with a tradition of strong institutions, respect for the law, a state that has power paired with the wisdom of how to confront problems in a useful manner. Mexico also lacks a solution that Colombia did have, which was to export the problem northward. Colombia is now better off than before because it basically exported the problem to Mexico and to several countries in Central America. But Mexico cannot do the same. What does it have to the north? The United States. I’m not saying that the United States doesn’t have a very major problem with violence associated with drug trafficking, but we do have the institutions to fight it.

Q: Have you identified new types of political violence in Latin America over these 20 years?

A: I would say so. I don’t know that I would call it political violence; I would call it repression. It’s much more subtle. The authoritarian governments of Latin America don’t need violence and don’t use violence—at least for the most part—to stay in power. Political repression suffices. For example, you read that they punish freedom of expression so as to persecute the political opposition. It’s much more subtle, I wouldn’t call it dictatorship [dictadura in Spanish], I’d call it “dictablanda,”[soft dictatorship].

Q: In your book you defend the notion that violence has been an essential part of the history of Latin America since the Conquest. Does violence continue to be so deeply rooted in the region as when you published your book?

A: I would say that it isn’t, in part because Latin America in the 1980’s, in terms of political violence, was experiencing a golden age. Violence has always been part of Latin America, but I’m talking about violence that was brought by people from other countries who had interests. The countries in which the Conquest was most present were the countries that had gold and silver, such as Mexico and Peru. These are the countries in which violence, inequality, and other problems became most acute. The countries less central in the Conquest, such as Chile and Costa Rica, had better luck.

Yet at this moment Latin America has the good fortune to be almost ignored by the rest of the world, although I know there are many people in Latin America who don’t like that. But I believe that it’s very healthy because the interference of the United States, the Soviet Union, and before that of the Spaniards and the Portuguese, has been very harmful.

Q: In countries such as Colombia or Argentina, mechanisms of justice have been implemented to provide accountability for a past of massive atrocities and violence. Now it appears that Brazil is going to embark upon a similar process. What is the impact of these judicial processes on these societies?

A: They have a very strong impact, but only on a very small group. Yet with that group the impact is important. It is very noteworthy that 35 years after the dictatorship people are still calling for justice in those countries. For me this means that if you don’t do anything, the cry for justice remains—it is not going to go away—and it will continue to be a very serious problem—not for society in general perhaps, but among a group of people who are very active and who deserve justice.

Q: Do you think society at large doesn’t benefit from these processes? Or is it simply not interested?

A: It depends. Chile is the case I know best. There isn’t the slightest doubt that Chile is much better off because Judge Garzón, in Spain, issued an arrest warrant for General Pinochet. At first, many Chileans were displeased, but it clearly turned out well, Chile is much better off for ridding itself of the influences that the Pinochet forces still had in the country; it also revealed information on corruption in the Pinochet administration that angered many people. There is one sector in Chile that always tolerated human rights violations, they weren’t very bothered by them, but they were concerned about corruption. And they had always said “the government may kill people, but it is not corrupt.” Well, that wasn’t so. But Chile only learned of the corruption once the proceeding against General Pinochet began.

Q: What role should the international community play, especially the United States?

A: The United States bears a very large share of the blame for political violence in Latin America. We all know the dark history of military coups, and the United States tolerating and promoting them. The United States has not done so in recent years, and the mere fact that it has pulled back from that position has had a very salutary effect in Latin America. It has even reached the point that when there was an attempted “self-coup” in Guatemala a few years ago by a president who attempted to assume authoritarian powers, the Guatemalan elites, who historically would have supported such a coup, did not do so because they knew the United States and the Organization of American States would punish them. They knew it was bad for their businesses to have a dictatorship in Guatemala—and this is an accomplishment.

Q: How can organizations such as ICTJ help these countries confront the traumatic legacies?

A: When I began to write about political violence in Latin America and other parts of the world, how to deal with the past was approached very schematically. There were three models: the model of trials, the model of truth commissions, and the South African model, which was a sort of combination of the two. People thought you had to choose among A or B or C. We now know that’s not so, that it’s much more complicated. Each country has its own requirements. And the role of an organization like ICTJ may be very important for teaching people what they are looking for, what we can do with the past; to bring the country information about what has worked in other countries, why it worked; what didn’t work in other countries, and why not. So it’s like a repository of wisdom and an example of best practice.

Translated from an interview conducted in Spanish.

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