Every year, the NC Latin American film festival brings together an amazing line-up of films from Latin America to the Research Triangle. This year, one of the very first showings was a film by Paraguayan filmmaker Paz Encina: Memory Exercises (Ejercicios de Memoria). Because it’s still unusual to have a Paraguayan film make the rounds in the U.S., I had the chance to give a little bit of context for Encina’s beautiful meditation on the tragedy of the Goiburú family. Here are the remarks I prepared.
The main theme I want to think about is why it’s important to tell the stories of the Stroessner dictatorship. Alfredo Stroessner was a military general, a member of the Colorado Party, and a rightwing dictator who governed Paraguay from 1954-1989. During his regime, hundreds were disappeared, many more were detained, surveilled, tortured. Paraguay was part of Operation Condor: a classified, publicly denied agreement in the 1970s between governments of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay—with the full knowledge of the U.S.—to share intelligence and to surveil, detain, and assassinate each other countries’ subversives.
Agustín Goiburú was a Paraguayan medical doctor and a member of the dissident wing of the Colorado Party (known as MOPOCO) who became a critic of the regime when he started treating people who’d been tortured by the regime. He denounced human rights violations as he came across bodies floating in the Paraná River (border between Argentina and Paraguay) that had been obviously tortured, some with the appearance of having been dropped from a very great height—infamous death flights. He was disappeared in 1976 while living in exile in Argentina. This film tells the story of Goiburú from the perspective of his family.
Again, why it’s important to tell the stories of the Stroessner dictatorship: Though Stroessner is not in power and Paraguay has transitioned to democracy, the dictatorship continues to have reverberations to today. There’s been little accountability, there was no truth and justice commission; torturers and perpetrators walk the streets with impunity. Stroessner was finally overthrown in a coup in 1989, but he lived quite happily and comfortably in exile in Brazil until he died of old age in 2006.
Families like Goiburú suffered extreme social exclusion as all were punished for the activism of one—they were social pariahs rejected by their own families, denied admission to university, etc. In recent years, there’s been a forgetting of what it was like to live under the regime and there’s been a revival of the Stroessner military government. Paraguayans are openly “Stronista” and praise the regime’s deeds. In fact, the current president of the country is unapologetically stronista, the son of Stroessner’s personal secretary.
And so, in the face of the lack of public accountability, art makes a crucial personal and political intervention. It’s through art that silenced stories get told. This is why Paz Encina’s film is so important. Ejercicios de Memoria is actually part of a vibrant effervescence of film in Paraguay that grapples with social questions, including for example, Marcelo Martinessi whose film Las Herederas has taken home film festival prizes worldwide this year.
In addition to the courageous work of filmmakers like Paz Encina, I want to close by mentioning the ongoing courage of Agustín’s son Rogelio Goiburú and other survivors like him. To this very day, Rogelio heads up an organization that searches for the remains of those disappeared by the Stroessner regime and Operation Condor. Rogelio and his group have successfully found the remains of people disappeared by the regime, but his search for his father Agustín continues even as official Paraguayan history seeks to erase his memory and the memory of MOPOCO.
The example of Agustín Goiburú, Rogelio Goiburú, and their family doesn’t only teach us how to maintain a sense of historical memory. Rather, it urges us to constantly seek the out “the erased,” that which is “disappeared” from officially sanctioned history.