Published May 06, 2019 by Maria Perez Mendoza ’21

Contentious Narratives: Truth Commissions’ Reports and the Struggle over Social Discourse in Latin America

Guest speaker Felix Reátegui spoke about the complexities of truth commissions around the world and of the challenges that arise when creating a narrative during the process of reconstructing memories.
Felix Reategui and Irina Junieles, answering questions from students attending the colloquium “Memory, Truth and Justice: Lessons from the Peace Processes in South America”
Felix Reategui and Irina Junieles, answering questions from students attending the colloquium “Memory, Truth and Justice: Lessons from the Peace Processes in South America”

Félix Reátegui, senior researcher at the Instituto de Democracia y Derechos Humanos (Democracy and Human Rights Institute), previously worked for Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, heading the team that wrote the commission’s final report.

He began his presentation at Bowdon by pointing to the tension between social memories and national truth commissions. Essentially, it is impossible to prosecute everyone, he argued, but victims need to be kept safe and feel represented. He went on to share the challenges that truth commissions face in the search for truth about varied armed conflicts.

Reátegui pointed out as well that Latin America has had an exemplary record of truth commissions around the globe, and he highlighted two: Chile's National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation and Argentina's National Commission on the Disappeared.

Among others are ones in Perú (2001), Guatemala (1994), El Salvador (1993), Brazil (2014), Bolivia (1982—started but not finalized), and Ecuador (2010). In addition, Venezuela has started talks of a truth commission.

Conflicting interpretations try to explain why so many exist in Latin America, but most point to the prevalence of violence and authoritarianism—as well governments' willingness to help victims. But to what extent are the commissions useful? And useful to whom?

Perhaps the biggest struggle that truth commissions face is representation, or when a sampling of individual cases are considered representative of a broader number of cases, with the hope that all victims feel vindicated and that justice is served.

Reátegui also commented on how the objectives of these commissions have changed over time. Early on, commissions tended to focus on finding the facts, or pursued a demand for historical truth. But now more often, as in the case of Colombia, the most pressing question is the rationale behind the actions, or why the perpetrators did what they did.

Impregnated in the role of truth commissions is the intense struggle over memory: not only remembering but also forgetting.

The Bowdoin class Attesting to Violence: Aesthetics of War and Peace in Cotemporary Colombia has looked at the actors involved in the enduring armed conflict in Colombia. Just as there exists a push for truth to become visible to the general public, there also exists a push for denial and oblivion from certain actors and accomplices who benefit from forgetting and the shield of oblivion. In cases involving the National Army as well as business owners and high rank politicians, agents of Colombia’s conflict gain from the truth being kept from the eyes of the people. Power disparity causes some stories to be heard and makes it easy for some stories to be forgotten.

Another challenge is that if truth commissions don’t shape their final reports within the parameters of social science and law, they run the risk of being unsatisfactory to the population. Because truth commissions struggle to be as objective as possible, suffering is translated into legal terms and loses the sensitivity of human emotion. However, within all the different subjectivity of truth that different actors can contribute, there can exist a basic undeniable truth within the memories of the victims. Therefore, it is imperative to construct a set of testimonial narratives that would complement the reports from the commissions.

As part of our course we had two major presentation assignments: a thematic one highlighting some of the historical context, and a presentation on the memories of the victims. This combination of contextual information along with a humanist perspective of the violence gave the numbers presented in the reports a voice. Presenting the atrocities simply as figures in a report dehumanizes the victims, but showcasing their resilient efforts to move beyond their testimonies ultimately dignifies them.

Truth commissions are not perfect, but as Reátegui quoted from Canadian author Michael Ignatieff, they help “reduce the margin of lies.” All in all, the truth commission in Colombia was set to make memories, and to perhaps shed light as to how to prevent further violations of human rights across the world. La no repetición.