Extract from the Guatemalan “Military Diary,” a military intelligence register of detained individuals, most of whom were disappeared. The code “-300-” is interpreted to mean that the individual depicted was executed.
The most disturbing scene recounted in Bolaño’s Estrella distante is without a doubt Chilean Air Force pilot and fascist poet Carlos Wieder’s final exhibition as official artist in residence of the Pinochet junta. Wieder prepares his artistic action in a small apartment in Santiago, before a selected audience of young military officials, artistic and journalistic collaborators, his elderly father, and a single upper-class female socialite. One by one, the attendees file into a small locked room, designed to resemble a humble artist’s studio, whose walls and ceiling are covered with photos depicting the grisly fates of disappeared women artists and intellectuals: “They are not displayed in accidental order, but following a line, an argument, a history (chronological, spiritual…), a plan.” They resemble “an empty hell,” “an epiphany of insanity”.
Although Wieder’s work may be seen as a perverse aesthetic vindication of the State’s project of control and terror, his military comrades are appalled – or at least disappointed in their expectations of a pleasant evening of artistic enjoyment among confidantes. It is not Wieder’s participation in acts of atrocity that disturbs his fellow soldiers, but his transgression of the regime’s code of silence and forgetting. A team of military intelligence operatives arrives at the party to confiscate Wieder’s photos, to quarantine an outbreak of truth. His comrades reflexively reinforce authoritarian norms: “Someone recalled an oath, someone else began to speak of discretion and honor among gentlemen.” Carlos Wieder himself is apparently arrested and effectively disappeared, only to resurface years later in another form as an exile in Europe.
In a some terrible way, Wieder’s transgression prefigures (as if like a fear-distorted image in a nighttime mirror) the drama lived to this day by the family members of the detained and disappeared in Latin America, forced by the sudden loss of their loved ones to undertake a decades-long pilgrimage from morgue to morgue, to carry out somber vigils and rebellious acts of memory in the streets, to attempt to identify their child, spouse, sibling in the bones and scraps of clothing uncovered in the exhumation of clandestine cemeteries. The iconic imagery of blurred, black and white identification photos, sometimes a family’s only record of the existence of the disappeared, has an uncanny resonance with Wieder’s art.
This week, family members of the Guatemalan disappeared presented their case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Guayaquil, Ecuador, requesting that the Guatemalan State be found responsible for the disappearance of 26 women and men whose detentions are registered in the “Military Diary,” a military intelligence document acquired by human rights archivist Kate Doyle in the late 1990s. In recent months, bodies exhumed a former Guatemalan military base in Chimaltenango have begun to be conclusively identified as belonging to labor and political activists included in the document. (Meanwhile, in Cobán the military has restricted press access to an exhumation where more than 90 bodies have been discovered on an active military base used currently for U.S. Military humanitarian operations and special forces training for U.N. “blue helmet” missions.)
The alternative media collective CPR Urbana provides coverage of the IACHR hearing, from the perspective of activists in Guatemala who watched the proceedings via video stream. I can only imagine their indignation at the denial of the significance of their case by representatives of the Guatemalan government, including a former military intelligence informant who survivors implicate in disappearances, Jorge “The Tank” Herrera, named by Otto Pérez Molina’s administration as head of the National Reparations Program, an institution which manages the personal information of thousands of survivors of the internal armed conflict:
Jorge “The Tank” Herrera…kept silent while listening to the testimony of survivors, and Antonio Arenales Forno…on several occasions tried to blame the current Attorney General [Claudia Paz y Paz] for nearly 13 years of impunity.
The head of the Peace Secretary, Arenales Forno, who recently stated, “It angers me that people claim that there was a genocide in Guatemala,” responded to the Court and its members aggressively, and on several occasions said that the crimes had been committed 30 years ago and that the executive branch has nothing to do with the ineffectiveness of the justice system.
The survivors’ own transgressions against forgetting and silence following the detention and disappearance of their loved ones made them the immediate targets of state terror, yet decades later their struggle to uphold the truth and shatter the legacy of authoritarianism continues.