Memory as Action:
Reflections on the Peruvian Commission on Truth and Reconciliation
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Gisela Cánepa Koch
Departamento de Ciencias Sociales
Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú

On August 28th of 2003, after two years of intense work, the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation (CVR) -created in 2001 by Valentín Paniagua's interim government, and later ratified by Alejandro Toledo's administration- released a copy of its final report to each of the three Peruvian government branches (Executive, Legislative, and Juridical).


The following day, August 29th, in the city of Ayacucho- which is the capital of the department where terrorist activities began two decades ago, and the place that suffered the most human rights violations at the hands of the Shining Path and the armed forces- the CVR released its final report to Peruvian citizens. This event took place in the city's main square and was civic-cultural in nature, unlike the official and formal act that took place in Lima. Among those present at the event were the local political authorities, the CVR commissioners, groups representing the families of the disappeared, and human rights organizations. At night there was a music festival featuring performers from various Peruvian provinces.


Releasing the report in Ayacucho had considerable symbolic meaning in the context of a nation with serious social, cultural and geographic fractures and a very fragile social conscience. In this regard, the CVR, as a state entity, poses an internal threat to the Peruvian government, whose policies have failed to reach the core of a society whose history is marked by marginalization, discrimination and ethnic genocide- policies that have produced second and third-class citizens whose legal, economic and cultural rights are not fully recognized.

"The Migrant's Cross" by Claudio Jiménez, 2000.
Photo: María Eugenia Ulfe


Furthermore, in the context of the current decentralization policies, releasing the report in Ayacucho gave visibility to what we call "the deep Peru." This act calls for a new geography of identity, one that forces us to acknowledge the provinces as places where citizens exist, too, demanding that Lima cease to be Peru's sole political and cultural center.


Neither event was devoid of mishaps, and both were plagued by tensions and doubts. The media and several congress members began a smear campaign against the commissioners. Moreover, there was the possibility of having to postpone the report's release date so it would fit the president's agenda, whose priorities lay elsewhere. Finally, it was rumored that opposition groups were planning to boycott the event at Ayacucho Square by creating disturbances during the ceremony. This would have forced the ceremony into an enclosed area, a move that would have been antithetical to its nature as a public and democratic act.


The fact that the report was released, as planned, in both cities and on the original dates, was due to the willpower and resolve of the people who prepared the report and organized the events. Their success had an important performative and political dimension. On the one hand, negotiating the release date for the CVR report implied negotiating the location of the release ceremonies, and everything this implied for the national political agenda. On the other hand, negotiating the spatial design for the ceremony in Ayacucho implied the possibility of reinventing the Peruvian State itself, through forms of action and communication that would bring Peru closer to its citizens -not in the manner of ex-president Alberto Fujimori, when he traveled around Peru dressed like the locals and giving away tractors that didn't work and schools that collapsed- but rather through actions that would foster a mutual commitment by acknowledging a shared memory.


The final report is a historical document that, using numbers and archival and ethnographic facts, adds content to the memory of violence in Peru during the past two decades. Its central argument is that the violence we lived through was ultimately rooted in the logic of racism, authoritarianism and centralism that characterizes our society, and which explains the fact that the majority of victims were quechua-speaking peasants. This argument finally gives sense and directionality to memory, understood not as an object, but as a process requiring constant debate and future actions. Within this same logic, the importance of having released the final report in Ayacucho lies in putting the report-that is, memory-into action. An action designed to produce events that can generate a new memory that will rewrite Peruvian history.


Although the report was released two months ago, there has been no official statement from President Toledo. He has other priorities, such as the country's economic insertion into the global market, welcoming important foreign figures on their visits to Peru, touring as a response to his plunge in popularity, and inaugurating buildings. As for the media, they are reluctant to disseminate information about the CVR because "that stuff doesn't sell," choosing instead to focus on political issues that can be exploited for their elements of drama or scandal, like the recent revelation of the vice president's "favors" for his 26 year-old girlfriend (incidentally, his own son's ex-girlfriend) and for his family.


Taking this into account, we must question the efficiency of the ceremonies surrounding the CVR's report, as far as their intention of putting national memory into action. The CVR's work, as well as the steps they took to effect social change-e.g., holding public hearings and calling Peruvians to action through campaigns that ranged from posters to rock concerts to street theater-are prime examples for reflections on the politics and poetics of the production of memory as it relates to the emergence of a public culture (Appadurai 1995). This opens up spaces of democratization, new practices of intervention, and new audiences, but it also requires negotiating with large interests, such as the market, the media, State bureaucracy, local groups in power, etc. It hasn't been easy for the CVR to get TV spots to broadcast the public hearings. The release ceremonies for the report did not get the same kind of media coverage that the World Cup or the Olympics would get.


The production and circulation of memory within Peruvian public culture opens some possibilities, but also poses some threats and contradictions we must consider. For example, how can we "spectacularize" politics without de-politicizing them? How can we utilize mass media without succumbing to infotainment-style reflections and political debates?


In this regard, it is worth mentioning the CVR's photography exhibit entitled "Yuyanapaq: To Remember." It opened in August 2003 with small exhibits traveling around Peru, and has become the most efficient space the circulation of memory. Visited daily by people of all ages, it is a space where memory as a national topic continues to have urgency, to be communicated, and to be active. It is also an example of the potentiality of non-media forms of action-like museums and installations-to have mass impact, without having to "sell" memory to commercialist and corrupt television networks. We shouldn't underestimate the efficiency of "small actions." We must recognize local voices that are also putting memory into action through their performances (e.g., music and dance) and craftwork (e.g., altarpieces, mates burilados, etc.). Making the CVR the sole authority to speak on the topic of national memory would only reproduce old power dynamics. And I'm sure the members of the CVR don't want that to happen.

Translation: Marlène Ramírez- Cancio

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