The dispute for education and memory in the Southern Cone

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By MAURICIO VÁZQUEZ CORREA & ANDRÉS DEL RIO*

South American countries, under right-wing and far-right governments, are reconfiguring narratives about the last dictatorships and the role of the military in democracy

Education reform was one of the workhorses of the right-wing coalition government led by Luis Lacalle Pou in Uruguay. However, since its implementation, it has left more doubts and shadows than improvements. Its imposition, marked by the lack of dialogue and participation of teachers in its design and implementation. In addition to the confrontation with student associations. These are some of the criticisms.

Claiming to be a “profound transformation”, it merely changed the nomenclature of disciplines and increased the administrative burden. But it also reveals a substantial impoverishment of the curriculum and study programs, exemplified in the euphemisms used to define some of the most sensitive concepts in recent history, which also affect the country's present.

Imposition at market price

Considering education as a commodity is nothing new. It is a typical phenomenon of the neoliberal heyday of the 1990s, but which, with the advent of a new right-wing wave, seems to be gaining strength. Uruguay does not escape this logic, with a president who built his campaign on the pillars of “freedom”, understood, above all, as the freedom of private companies over the public interest. Although the need for educational reforms was widely recognized by all social actors involved, the current reform only responds to the interests of private companies and the ideological orientation of the government coalition. In other words, its aim is to weaken and suppress the development of critical thinking in favor of market-oriented education.

In this sense, teachers' unions, as well as student unions, emphasize their imposing nature, as there has not been an adequate construction with those who, in addition to presidential mandates, are responsible for the education of children and adolescents in the country. The National Federation of Secondary Education Teachers (FeNaPES) denounces that current public education authorities and certain political operators have attempted to “criminalize unionized teachers due to their resistance to neoliberal reforms”. On the other hand, they denounce that this reform involves the biggest budget cut in history and represents “a return to the 1990s” in education.[I]

Along these lines, the Permanent Table of the Assemblies of Technical Teachers (ATD) denounced that the reform process does not respect several provisions of the Education Law, including participation, which they consider “one of the basic principles of the general organization of public education”.[ii] For their part, student associations also demanded to be heard and taken into account when it comes to making changes in education, as well as the cessation of this educational reform.[iii]

It should be noted that the legal basis for carrying out this is provided by the Urgent Consideration Law (LUC), promoted by the government as soon as it took office. The LUC is an “omnibus” law that, among other initiatives, allows financial deregulations that facilitate the legalization of capital and an increase in the punitive role of the State.

Teach to forget

In line with the deterioration in the quality of education proposed by the reform, one of the points that drew the most attention was the recategorization of some sensitive events from the recent past.

The new curriculum uses the concept of “suspension and subjugation of constitutional guarantees”, which is nothing more than a euphemism for the civil-military dictatorship that governed the country between 1973 and 1985, and removes the notion of “State terrorism” from the curriculum.

This change had already been attempted in 2022, but was not successful at that time. However, at the end of 2023 and ignoring teaching staff, they managed to achieve it. This year, just a few days before classes began, the change was noticed, which prompted a reaction from the Association of History Teachers of Uruguay (APHU). “Change is not innocent”, they argue in a statement, claiming that the term “is used by historiography and social sciences to describe and analyze human rights violations carried out by dictatorships that occurred in the second half of the XNUMXth century in Latin America” .

Furthermore, the union denounces the introduction of an item called “guerrilla movements and human rights violations”. As we know, this statement “is unfounded, as it ignores numerous legal norms and literature that indicate that it is the State that can commit human rights violations”.[iv]

According to Carlos Demasi, professor at the Universidad de la República, he seems to adopt “a denialist vision” that “tries to dampen what the dictatorship and the entire period of state terrorism represented for Uruguayan society”.[v] Carlos Demasi points out that this type of argument is very present in the speech of the Cabildo Abierto, the militarist party that is part of the government coalition, which “whenever it talks about the dictatorship it also talks about what happened in the 60s” of the last century, “as if was a justification.”

For his part, the general secretary of FeNaPES, Emiliano Mandacen, highlighted that the elimination of the term is a clear attempt by the hegemonic power bloc to rewrite history and justify what happened during the dictatorship, delegitimizing the importance of memory.[vi] For the president of the National Academy of Letters of Uruguay, Gerardo Caetano, the replacement of the term is unacceptable and implies an unfounded departure from the historiographical consensus.

These events, which disfigure human rights violations and the State's responsibilities, are not isolated facts. A few days later, the senator and leader of the Cabildo Abierto, Guido Manini Ríos, stated that the Armed Forces are the “brake” so that “anti-democratic institutions”, such as the country's only trade union central (PIT-CNT), do not “do whatever you want in the country” and “enter the Government House”.[vii] Statements of this type are a constant from the senator, who represents conservative and military sectors.

A regional phenomenon

When we look at our neighbors, they are also going through a process of symbolic and material transformation in relation to considerations about the last civil-military dictatorships. On the one hand, in Brazil, Bolsonaro promoted celebrations of the last coup d'état, in 1964. Remember that, in March 2022, the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defense published a note praising the coup.[viii] The current president of Brazil, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, intends to lower his profile and maintain silence about the events of March 31, 1964. Neither criticism nor celebration.

A major setback in matters and a dangerous silence. Even more so if we take into account the damage caused by the previous government: since the commemoration of the coup, the creation of hundreds of military schools, having been the government with the largest number of military personnel in civilian positions, having established a multitude of privileges and benefits for the category and, of course, the responsibility of many military personnel in the construction of the coup attempt on January 8, 2023, which is being analyzed by the Federal Supreme Court.

The Brazilian president's justification is the intention to calm the relationship with the Armed Forces. As the president of the prerogatives group, Marco Aurélio de Carvalho, points out, “Ignoring the past favors the resurgence of new setbacks, as in the case of the pardon campaign (amnesty) for the unspeakable and their accomplices”.[ix] Marco Aurélio de Carvalho claims that pardoning the 1964 coup is in line with the demand to grant amnesty to the sectors that participated in the coup attempt on January 8, 2023. Among them, Jair Bolsonaro and high commands of the Armed Forces.

If we take a leap to the other side of the Rio de la Plata, the situation in Argentina is no better. Argentina, an example in the field of transitional justice, is observing and mobilizing in the face of the new president in the Casa Rosada. Especially due to the statements made by its vice-president, Victoria Villaroel. At every opportunity, Victoria Villarroel casts doubt on the number of missing people left by the last civil-military dictatorship, in 1976. March 24th is the national day of memory of truth and justice, but this time there was no official event .[X] On the topic, according to the vice-president: “We are in a democratic state, if they want to celebrate the coup, that is up to them, there is clearly a morbidity about it”.[xi] Disregarding one of the most important national dates in the country.

At the beginning of March, an attack occurred against a militant from the national network of Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Forgetfulness and Silence – HIJOS[xii] After being beaten and abused, the activist was threatened with death. As she left, her tormentors left marks on the wall, with the acronym VLLC (Viva La Libertad, Carajo), the famous slogan of President Javier Milei. In this process, there are movements to restructure the military sectors, salary improvements, reintroduction of mandatory military service, use of the military for internal security, among many other proposals. Huge setbacks that were also encouraged by the disastrous government of Mauricio Macri.

Horizon

South American countries, under right-wing and far-right governments, are reconfiguring narratives about the last dictatorships and the role of the military in democracy. As part of this process, there are changes in education and a profound dispute over memory. Uruguay has presidential elections at the end of 2024. And the result will determine the direction of the type of education and the meanings of memory of the recent violent past.

*Mauricio Vázquez Correa holds a master's degree in Contemporary Latin American Studies from the UDELAR-Complutense University of Madrid.

*Andres del Rio is a professor of political science at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).

Notes


[I] FeNaPES (2022), “A reformation of Terror”. On the web, a series of data is listed that accounts for the cut-off and other factors that affect educational failure. Available at: https://fenapes.org.uy/DeTerror

[ii] Published in La Diaria, October 4, 2022. Available at: https://bit.ly/49To3IO

[iii] Educational Platform of the IAVA Student Association, Human Rights in Uruguay, Annual Report of SERPAJ Uruguay (2023), pages 245 and 246. Available at: https://bit.ly/4cb6EN8

[iv] Asociación de Profesores de Historia del Uruguay, (2024). Announcement in relation to the new History program of the First Year of Superior Media Education. Available at: https://bit.ly/3ID23Wu

[v] https://ladiaria.com.uy/educacion/articulo/2024/2/demasi-considera-que-cambios-que-codicen-hizo-al-programa-de-historia-de-bachillerato-se-alinean-con-visiones-negacionistas-de-la-dictadura/

[vi] https://www.pagina12.com.ar/717494-uruguay-el-negacionismo-florece-en-la-educacion

[vii] https://www.elobservador.com.uy/nota/manini-rios-dijo-que-las-ff-aa-son-el-freno-para-instituciones-como-el-pit-cnt-y-le-respondieron-legisladores-20242299330

[viii] https://www.brasildefato.com.br/2022/03/30/forcas-armadas-celebram-golpe-de-64-em-nota-legado-de-paz-de-liberdade-e-de-democracia

[ix] https://www.poder360.com.br/brasil/prerrogativas-diz-que-silencio-sobre-o-golpe-de-64-e-inadmissivel/

[X] https://www.pagina12.com.ar/721736-dia-de-la-memoria-sin-acto-oficial

[xi] https://www.lanacion.com.ar/politica/victoria-villarruel-se-opone-a-la-intervencion-del-ejercito-en-rosario-y-defendio-el-aumento-a-nid21032024/

[xii] https://www.pagina12.com.ar/723116-el-testimonio-de-la-militante-atacada-un-gobierno-elegido-po


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