Cultural holocaust is nothing new to Latin America, as its native Indian people will testify. The very structure of the continent, with its grotesque concentration of wealth, massive illiteracy and permanent reproduction of misery, ensures the routine suppression of creativity on an unimaginable scale. Nevertheless, today's assault on culture carried out by its dictatorships is probably more thorough and brutal than anything since the Spanish conquistadores.
The Chilean junta spelled out the objectives of the new generation of Latin American dictators when it took power in September 1973: 'The military junta assumes the task of reconstructing the country morally, institutionally and materially. The supreme task exists of changing the mentality of Chileans'. Three years later in Argentina bishop Monsignor Bonamia went further in support of the coup there: 'When there is bloodshed', he declared, 'there is redemption. God is redeeming the Argentinian nation through the Argentinian army'.
Redemption in Latin America means blitzkrieg. Tens of thousands died in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia in the 60s and 70s - as they had done for decades before in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Paraguay. Local cultural centres were destroyed, books burned, libraries purged, art galleries bombed, theatre groups disbanded, film archives razed, university departments abolished, newspaper offices incinerated and publishers of children's comics threatened.
In Chile, Andean music was called 'foreign' and 'subversive'. In Bolivia, Guatemala and El Salvador, the dynamiting of radio stations particularly those run by mineworkers, Indian communities or the Church - became commonplace.
Writers like Haroldo Conti and Rodolfa Walsh in Argentina, or Alaida Foppa in Guatemala, disappeared (see box). Musicians, like Victor Jara in Chile, were mutilated then murdered. Others, like Daniel Viglietti of Uruguay, were forced into exile. Poets, like Juan Carlos de Costa in Paraguay, died under torture. Journalists like Pedro Joaquim Chamorro in Nicaragua were gunned down in the street, 'committed suicide' in jail like Vladimir Herzog in Brazil, or, as had happened to more than 60 in Argentina by mid-1979, disappeared after abduction by government hit-squads. Actors also disappeared, like Carmen Bueno in Chile, and film-makers, like Raymundo Gleyzer in Argentina. In Chile during 1973 90 per cent of the teachers at the Santiago Music Conservatory were sacked, while in Uruguay the classical pianist Luis Batlle Ibanez had to sign a 'profession of democratic faith' before playing a concerto.
That artists and intellectuals should head the lists of dead, exiled and disappeared, together with peasants, trade-union leaders and students, is no surprise. Culture was at the heart of the nationalist and revolutionary tide which swelled in the continent from the 1930s onwards. Artists increasingly sought ways to break with the slavish imitation of European culture which had characterised urban Latin American since the 16th century. As the United States became the dominant economic power, occupying the continent with its mass media, so this alternative movement deepened, drawing increasingly from popular traditions to build an authentic Latin American culture.
By the 1960s most artists and intellectuals had linked themselves to the causes of the left: witness the extraordinary explosions of cultural activity which accompanied the Cuban revolution of 1959 and the Popular Unity government in Chile between 1970 and 1973.
The objects of the terror in the continent went beyond the removal of individual 'subversives' and the creation of a general climate of fear. As Uruguayan writer Jorge Musto told me recently from exile in Paris, the deeper intention was to 'break cultural and ideological continuity by blotting out a whole range of ideas from the consciousness of new generations'.
In every country archives and files were purged. In Uruguay, where the military took over in 1973, statements by Jose Artigas, the father of the country, regarding freedom and agrarian reform were censored. Pavlov, Tolstoy and Pushkin were dropped from university courses 'for being Russian'. Freud was banned, the French Revolution relegated to a footnote in history courses, and the study of modern, non-representational art prohibited. Censorship was even extended to speech. In Uruguay again, the Murgas, popular brass bands, were forbidden to use the words 'liberty', 'equality', 'justice', 'social justice' or 'workers'. The latter word (obrero - manual worker) was also banned in Chile, together with companero (companion/comrade).
Crude repression is just one weapon in the military's campaign of 'redemption'. Parallel with it is a formal framework for expression imposed as part of the new state apparatus. Basing their actions on the country's (impeccably liberal) constitution for a 'state of emergency' or 'state of seige' in circumstances of 'civil commotion', the generals and a select group of civilians take over all major and many minor, social functions; running everything from treasury to secondary schools. Power is centralised, with the President, a junta of military chiefs, a National Security Council and the intelligence services.
If this constellation of forces seems at all familiar, it is because it precisely reproduces the structure of the United States National Security apparatus: the 'state-within-a-state'. This is no coincidence. The modern Latin American dictator is not an individual strongman backed up by a praetorian National Guard and US military might, like his predecessors, the Trujillos, Somozas and Stoessners. Todays dictators are part of a new military-technocratic elite, trained by the US as part of a hemispheric network of defence against the 'internal enemy', exemplified by Cuban revolutionaries. Between 1961 and 1975, 76,651 Latin American military were trained by the US in Texas, North Carolina and the Panama Canal Zone. By 1973, 170 graduates of the crack Army School of the Americas, in the Panama Canal Zone-where an elite Green Beret team gave specialised training in 'matters pertaining to internal security'- were either heads-of state, government ministers, army commanders-in-chief, or intelligence service directors in Latin America
Well grounded in the principles of 'national security' and 'nation building', fledgeling administrators soon learn the use of 'decree laws' and 'constitutional acts' to forbid any activity which 'threatens security, public order, morality or good habits, gives succour to the nation's enemies, or promotes class struggle' (the latter concept has a broad meaning for the dictatorship). The honour of the armed forces and the family may be similarly preserved
Naturally, freedom of expression is restricted. Sometimes there will be clear, formal procedures. In Chile, for example, all printed matter must be approved by the military authorities before publication. And in Brazil, until recently, quite elaborate procedures operated in all fields of artistic activity - even theatrical scenery was checked by the police censor before a performance.
But often there are no such mechanisms. Recorded music in Chile is not censored. Instead, the authorities harass and threaten the producers of suspect material, cancelling concerts after all the tickets have been sold, making false accusations of tax fraud, launching campaigns through the press, and intimidating disc-pressing companies. Many regimes prefer to rely almost entirely on such 'informal' methods. In both Argentina and Guatemala, the countries where most journalists have been killed, imprisoned, tortured and abducted by government forces, there is no censorship of the press at all. In Brazil, where such censorship was lifted in mid-1979, journalists told me ironically that they actually preferred the previous system: 'at least we knew where we stood'.
Often restrictions are not necessary. The realities of Latin American society do the job well enough. Few people can afford books or to go to a concert. There are close ties between the cultural establishment, owners of major mass media, and governments throughout the continent. Newspaper, cinema, television and radio owners usually belong to the very economic groups in whose interests the dictatorships' policies operate. The enemies of free expression are not censorship and state control alone.
The dictatorships have achieved some of what they set out to do. Workers, peasants and shanty-town dwellers sometimes go without shoes - those with the money for shoes, that is - to pay installments on a colour television. But the general's victory is not complete. In poor communities the culture of democracy, now become culture of resistance, still survives. In Santiago, the capital of Chile, while progressive artists bemoan the 'cultural blackout', 300 semi-clandestine cultural workshops have sprung up in three years in the working-class suburbs. More than 60 musical groups continue the pre-coup 'new song' movement, often recording and circulating their songs clandestinely. In Bolivia, tin-miners fight to keep their tiny radio stations open. And in Guatemala, the ancient culture of the Maya lives on as a weapon in the struggle between an Indian majority and the brutal, white dictatorship.
Malcolm Coad is the Latin America specialist of 'Index on Censorship' a bi-monthly magazine devoted to publishing the work of banned and exiled writers and publicising their plight. Copies of the magazine can be obtained from 21 Russel Street, London WC2B 5HP.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7