War, Peace, and Memory Politics in Central America *

Rachel Sieder

in The Politics of Memory and Democratization

Published in print April 2001 | ISBN: 9780199240906
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780191598869 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Studies in Democratization

 War, Peace, and Memory Politics in Central America  *

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This chapter considers the role of ‘memory politics’ – understood as the combination of official and unofficial attempts to deal with the legacy of past violations – in the struggle for democratization in Central America: official initiatives can include truth commissions, amnesty dispensations, criminal investigations and prosecutions, and a range of institutional reforms aimed at redressing the previous failure of the state to guarantee human rights; unofficial initiatives developed by civil society actors to confront the past can include investigations of violations, legal actions, and different kinds of commemorative acts and exercises in collective memory. Memory politics operates at multiple levels and involves a diversity of agents, including local communities, national and international non-governmental human rights organizations (HROs), governments, the media, and, in the case of Central America, the UN; however, it is suggested here that its long-term effects in any national context depend on the interaction between official and unofficial efforts to address the legacies of the past. The experiences of memory politics analysed in this chapter are those of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the three Central American countries that during the 1990s undertook official processes of investigating past violations of human rights. The precise nature of memory politics and the impact it has had varied considerably in these three countries, and it is suggested that four interrelated factors are central to explaining differences between the respective national experiences: the first is the specific political and social legacies of human rights abuse in each country; the second concerns the circumstances of the transition from war to peace, specifically the prevailing balance of forces and the trade-off between truth and justice that this engendered in each case; the third is the role of local HROs and civil society in general in the politics of memory; and the fourth is the role of international governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in efforts to uncover the truth about the past and to address the consequences of violations. The first three sections of the chapter compare the legacies of human rights abuses, the transitional trade-offs between truth and justice, and the role of civil society organizations and international actors in the memory politics of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala; the final section considers the impact of memory politics on the prospects for democracy in these countries.

Keywords: amnesty; Central America; civil society; commemorative acts; criminal investigations; democracy; democratization; El Salvador; exercises in collective memory; Guatemala; Honduras; human rights abuse; human rights organizations; human rights; institutional reforms; international governmental organizations; international non-governmental organizations; international organizations; justice; legal actions; memory politics; official initiatives; political legacy; prosecutions; social legacy; transition from war to peace; truth and justice; truth commissions; unofficial initiatives; violations

Chapter.  11864 words. 

Subjects: Politics

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