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Last year, the City of Buenos Aires passed law 5608, establishing August 23rd as the city’s official Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Totalitarianism. The adoption of this legislation was headed by the Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America (CADAL, for its acronym in Spanish) in coordination with city legislators Cecilia de la Torre and Francisco Quintana.
August 23rd marks the anniversary of the signing of the 1939 nonaggression pact between National-Socialist Germany and the Soviet Union, also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The former President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, a Polish national, referred to the pact as “collusion between the two worst forms of totalitarianism in human history.” It was at the initiative of Václav Havel, along with other politicians and human rights activists, that the European Parliament, followed by Canada, first decided to officially commemorate the victims of totalitarianism on this day.
By commemorating these innocent lives, Buenos Aires not only pays tribute to the victims of past abuses but it also takes on a renewed commitment to standing in solidarity with the victims of current acts of racial intolerance and those facing persecution by the world’s remaining dictatorships. These dictatorships, which still govern over a quarter of the global population, include the governments of North Korea, China, Cuba, Turkmenistan, Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo, Bahrain, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia.
Despite passing with 37 votes, this law commemorating the victims of totalitarianism faced resistance from 15 legislators. Its opposition was comprised of Kirchnerista sympathizers of the “vamos por todo” slogan; representatives from the nostalgic revolutionary-left parties; Martín Lousteau’ political ally, Roy Cortina; and friend to Pope Francis’ father, Gustavo Vera.
It is worth noting that Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – passed on December 10, 1948, with abstention from the socialist block – reads, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
It is very concerning for the strengthening and consolidation of Argentina’s democracy that some political sectors decided to vote against commemorating the more than 100,000 people that fell victim to Communism in, mainly, the former Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Cuba, including those victims persecuted for the very same motives that the Universal Declaration recognizes as being rights and liberties.
Today, a victim of totalitarianism is not only a person who was jailed or executed but also “those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism,” as it is stated on the Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Prague. As the Italian Academic Loris Zanatta summarizes it, “There is no place for an individual’s autonomy or passiveness in a totalitarian state: there will always be a neighborhood committee, a party cell, a prying neighbor, or a government spy seeking to monitor one’s lifestyle and adherence to the regime’s moral norms.”
In line with the progressive, liberal philosophy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Cecilia de la Torre defended the proposal with courage at the city legislature. In her presentation, she stated, “given the need to never forget the crimes committed by totalitarian regimes nor their victims, and given that the temptation of totalitarianism is still present in parts of the world today, I think it is necessary that this date be recognized in the City of Buenos Aires.”
From this year forward, the Argentine capital will be a pioneer city in Latin America as it commemorates the victims of totalitarianism every 23rd of August. Someone who will always be in our thoughts on this day will be Cecilia de la Torre, who passed last December; her civic engagement with human rights and the past has been nothing short of exemplary during her short political career.
Gabriel C. Salvia is Chairman of the Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America (CADAL). This article was originally published in Spanish in La Nación (Buenos Aires) on August 23, 2017.
Translated by Eric Cuevas.