RIGHTS-PERU: "No Thanks" to Donation for Memorial Museum

By Blanca Rosales

LIMA, Mar 3 (IPS) - Heduardo, one of the most scathing caricaturists in the Peruvian press, published a cartoon showing President Alan García more interested in a "museum of amnesia" than a proposed "museum of memory."

The cartoonist was one of the first to lash out at the government’s decision to turn down a two million dollar donation offered by Germany for the construction of a museum to commemorate the victims of the political violence that ravaged Peru from 1980 to 2000.

The proposed memorial museum would have helped Peruvians remember the two decades of armed conflict between the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas and government forces, which left nearly 70,000 dead, according to the 2003 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR).

As the criticism mounted, government officials felt compelled to respond. Defence Minister Ántero Flores Aráoz told a press conference that the donation could be used in the fight against poverty, to build health posts or schools.

Prime Minister Yehude Simon, who spent years in prison on charges of terrorism under the Alberto Fujimori regime (1990-2000), said the government could ask to use the funds for support for the survivors of the political violence, and for social programmes.

People’s Defender (ombudswoman) Beatriz Merino, however, regretted that Germany’s offer was turned down, and urged that the decision be reviewed.

On Sunday, Peru’s leading newspapers published a statement signed by prominent intellectuals like writer Mario Vargas Llosa, artist Fernando de Szyszlo, theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez and sociologist Julio Cotler, as well as the former chairman of the CVR, Salomón Lerner, and dozens of other people protesting the government’s decision.

The statement pointed out that during the intense period of armed conflict, initiated by Sendero Luminoso, both the insurgents and the security forces committed massive human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

Since the CVR carried out its investigation, it has become clear that the only way to bring about "fair reconciliation with a democratic spirit is to fulfill victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparations," the signatories added.

And "one indispensable element for achieving this is a broad commemoration of what happened and an honest reflection on the past," the statement said.

The CVR found Sendero Luminoso responsible for 54 percent of the 69,280 victims documented in its investigation.

"The commemoration of victims of violence, a basic humanitarian gesture, is today a basic element of the international ethical consensus and a practice adopted by the world’s democratic nations," said the statement printed in Sunday’s papers.

"That is even more important in countries like ours, where the violence has taken place against a historical backdrop marked by intolerable ethnic and gender exclusions. For that reason, we respectfully but categorically object to this insensitive attitude on the part of the government, and we call on Peruvians with a democratic spirit to redouble their efforts to redeem (our country from its) violent past, not through silence but by means of honest, compassionate memory based on justice," it concluded.

Five years ago, the CVR opened the "Yuyanapaq" ("to remember," in the Quechua language) photo exhibit, a hard-hitting display that was to become a key component of the "museum of memory."

The CVR is not unique in Latin America, where similar commissions have been set up in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama and Paraguay.

Truth commissions have also operated in African or Asian nations that have experienced armed conflicts, regional wars, occupations or apartheid, like East Timor, Ghana, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa and South Korea.

And human rights memorial museums exist in countries like Argentina, Britain, Chile, the Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Italy, Paraguay, Russia, Senegal, South Africa and Uruguay.

What prompted the García administration to turn down Germany’s donation? Analysts who have closely followed the president’s attitudes and political stances with respect to that period in Peru’s history, especially the counterinsurgency policy followed by Fujimori – who is now on trial for a string of human rights crimes, in which a sentence might be handed down before the end of the month – believe the decision did not occur in a vacuum.

The governing APRA party, traditionally identified with social democracy, has often taken positions in line with those of the pro-Fujimori bloc in Congress.

Attempts to reintroduce the death penalty and votes in Congress blocking the impeachment of prominent APRA leaders accused of corruption reflect that informal alliance.

The formula followed by Fujimori – neoliberal, free-market economic policies alongside a strong alliance with business and the armed forces, combined with a harsh clampdown on social protest – seems to have been adopted by the current administration.

A key element in Fujimori’s current defence strategy is to highlight his government’s success in the fight against the guerrillas and argue that an attempt is now being made to forget about the peace that was achieved and to only focus on the "excesses."

Lawsuits have also been filed in court for human rights abuses committed during García’s first administration (1985-1990), such as a 1986 massacre of 118 prisoners during a riot at El Frontón prison.

The case was taken to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ruled in August 2000 that no statute of limitations applied, that the Peruvian state was responsible, and that it should investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible and make moral and material reparations to the victims’ families.

A memorial museum could be an uncomfortable reminder of systematic human rights violations as state policy - a policy followed by several governments during the "dirty war," according to the CVR report. (END/2009)