Facing up to history

Tue, Oct 29, 2013, 01:00

‘To be forgotten is to die twice,” said President Michael D Higgins at the Monument to Memory and Truth in El Salvador which lists 30,000 victims of its civil war in the 1980s. He added that any attempt to stop remembering them would be to die three times. The importance of memorialising conflicts has been one of the major themes of his 12-day visit to Mexico, El Salvador and Costa Rica, along with the need for Ireland to open up new links with Latin America. President Higgins has a close personal interest and involvement in the region which he has communicated well as a wider opportunity to develop closer relations with its leaders and peoples.

Mexico is particularly important for these links. Its relations with the United States echo some of those between Ireland and Britain, originally dependent and recently more evenly balanced and mutually respectful. Both peoples are migratory, especially to the US, and their diasporas have a vital role to play in developing their homelands.

Mr Higgins also paid tribute to fresh Latin American thinking about relations between states and markets after the worldwide recession, which deserve more international attention. Mexico’s trade with Ireland dwarfs that with other Latin American states and it makes good sense to reinforce political economic and cultural contacts by using Mexico as a gateway.

Deaths in El Salvador’s civil war are estimated at 80,000. It was the most vicious conflict, pitching social and guerrilla movements against the army and death squads backed by the US, which feared a communist threat in its southern neighbourhood.

The most lamentable violations of human rights occurred in the village of El Mozote in El Salvador, as its president Mauricio Nunes said last year. Government troops massacred1,000 civilians and children there all the while denying any such thing had happened. Mr Higgins’s tributes to Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, murdered after calling on troops to stop killing civilians, and to Irish priests who helped publicise the atrocities, was moving and well deserved.

Recalling that historical honesty is an essential part of building a better future in El Salvador and for all conflicts. It cannot simply be forgotten and put behind its victims, as sometimes demanded, for that would be to endorse the narrative of those who violated their rights. The ethics of this process are as challenging in Central America as in Ireland. Mr Higgins has performed a valuable role by using the examples from there to develop this argument about how memory can create a better future.

Rounding off his tour in Costa Rica contrasted its more peaceful history with neighbouring states, highlighting Central America ‘s political diversity. Trips like these help broaden Irish horizons of a changing world and are an important means of realising the potential benefits of making more political, cultural and economic contacts with Latin America.

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