Theses Doctoral

Information in Counterrevolution: State Torture and the Armed Left in Southern South America in the 1970s

Katz, Paul Ryan

This dissertation explores the rise of transnational state torture and the efforts of the Left to resist and denounce it in South America in the 1970s. Looking principally to Brazil and Argentina, I ask how torture was understood by the officials who employed it and the revolutionaries who resisted and denounced it at a time when such calibrated violence stood at the heart of political struggle. While torture’s status as a grave violation of human rights is often taken for granted today, I show that in 1970s-era southern South America, many perpetrators and victims alike instead regarded torture as a powerful counterrevolutionary weapon, one capable of generating the raw data on which the region’s sophisticated information-management systems relied. At the same time, both revolutionaries and regime agents recognized such systematic torture as a grave liability for its practitioners. Militants and their allies abroad capitalized on this liability by disseminating testimonies that drew the world’s attention to South American torture chambers. Their efforts helped to consolidate the politics of bodily integrity at the heart of the current global human rights regime, yet they were unable to curb state violence or advance socialism.

Drawing on dozens of archival collections from ten countries, I reconstruct the now-forgotten meanings of torture that defined this formative juncture, demonstrating the potential of history to reinvigorate a policy debate centered for too long on the question, “Does torture work?” Instead, I ask readers to consider the work that torture and its denunciation have performed at a critical moment in the past, in order to generate new strategies to counteract it today.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Piccato, Pablo A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 8, 2021