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Latin America is Seeking Repatriations - and Western Nations are Taking Notice

Hannah Hains | Latin America

Hoa Hakananai'a (hidden or stolen friend). Moai; an ancestor figure, made by the Rapanui people. 1000-1200 CE. Image credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin via Wikimedia Commons.

In Chile, the hashtag #devuelvanelmoai (return the Moai) went viral earlier this year. The hashtag originated from an Instagram video in which a Chilean influencer filmed their visit to the British Museum to see the Moai–famous monolithic human figures from Rapa Nui, a territory of Chile. In the video, the influencer called for the Moai to be returned to their homeland.

Following this, an avalanche of #devuelvanelmoai comments flooded the British Museum's social media. The campaign caught the attention of Chilean President Gabriel Boric who gave it his support and reignited discussions between Rapa Nui’s mayor and the museum.

Across the Atlantic, at a recent event in Portugal in front of a mass of foreign journalists, the country’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said that Portugal needs to “pay the costs” of its colonial past. Though President de Sousa didn’t outline plans, he did suggest that returning ‘looted goods’ could be a way to repair the damage done during the country’s colonial era.

These two events are distinct examples of the growing global decolonisation movement across Latin America and its former colonisers. In the region, the impacts of the colonial era are still felt today, particularly amongst black and indigenous communities. The housing of culturally significant objects in foreign museums or collections is a highly visible and inflammatory practice, and functions as a denial of the damage done by colonial powers. Repatriations offer a solution through which former colonial powers can help to restore cultural heritage and reconcile with former colonies.

As often recognised in Australia, repatriations are a crucial part of reconciliation, with the Federal Government funding them as part of their reconciliation plan. Currently, there is no known equivalent funding from government bodies in Latin America, though there is some legal framework in place for reparations – referring to actions that make amends to wrongdoing (such as truth–telling commissions). Repatriations have only more recently gained public attention.

Cultural lootings remain an ongoing issue today, with criminal networks facilitating sales of items to western collectors through the black market. Independent Peruvian media organisation Ojo Público has extensively investigated these lootings and created a database of suspected stolen Latin American artefacts. Their extensive work has prompted the opening of investigations between Latin America and other Western nations.

In the United States, Homeland Security has begun collaborating with the Mexican Government to repatriate looted artefacts. A representative from the Mexican Government highlighted the importance of possession of these items for the country’s identity and cultural wealth, but also the strengthening of historically fragmented US-Mexico relations through repatriations.

Italy and The Netherlands have also returned items to Mexico, with both countries highlighting the importance of doing so as commitment to restoring cultural legacies. Repatriations are clearly beneficial for all parties, serving as a diplomatic tool to strengthen relationships between states. However, while states have shown more willingness to repatriate recently looted items, they are hesitant to intervene in repatriations of items looted in the colonial era housed in museums.

Repatriation of items stolen in the colonial era requires recognising the damage of colonialism, unlike repatriation items recently stolen by criminal networks. This key difference likely explains the lack of willingness from governments to repatriate items taken during the colonial era, particularly when they are housed in institutions such as  national museums.  Yet with increasing pressure on governments many leaders may soon be forced to come forward, take responsibility, and suggest cooperation – much like President de Sousa has recently done. 

 Devuelvan el Moai, Decolonisation, and Indigenous Solidarity 

The #devuelvanelmoai campaign originated not from Rapa Nui, but from mainland Chile, and was led predominantly by young people. Though the Moai are yet to be returned, the citizen-led campaign reflects the importance that Chileans assign to cultural artefacts and their interest in decolonisation. Repatriations are a critical aspect of decolonisation as objects provide a visual reminder of cultural identity and history. Commenting on the #devuelvanelmoai campaign, Chilean academic Gonzalo Enrique Ortega stated:

“When these objects are lost, we are left with only the immateriality, we are left with the memory, but the immateriality is fragile and without the object being there it is difficult for us to remember [the past].”

Though not necessary to decolonise, the possession of cultural items can instil a sense of cultural understanding and pride that strengthens the movement. #Devuelvanelmoai also speaks to growing Indigenous solidarity, which is critical to decolonisation, as the campaign originated from and was supported heavily by non-Indigenous Chileans.

Beyond Latin America: The Growing Global Movement

Many countries, including Australia, have brought demands for repatriations to the global news cycle. Late last year, Greece made headlines when its President demanded the permanent return of Parthenon sculptures from the British Museum. A recent campaign in Ghana saw museums return looted artefacts in January this year. An advisor to Ghana’s culture Minister highlighted the significance of the repatriations, stating that the artefacts were “...a part of the soul of the nation. It’s a piece of ourselves returning”. Similar campaigns from Benin, Kenya, Nigeria, and other African nations are increasingly difficult to ignore, and countries, including Ireland and France, have expressed a willingness to cooperate.

Healing the Past to Restore the Future 

Latin America has suffered extensively from colonialism, and the recent interest in repatriations shows that decolonisation is an issue of increasing importance, particularly to young people. This increased interest has forced western nations to take notice, with some repatriations already being facilitated. Yet pressure must remain to ensure that this is only one step in the decolonisation movement.

Hannah Hains is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She recently completed her Bachelor of International Relations from The University of Adelaide and looks forward to undertaking postgraduate study in the future and investigating grassroots movements in Latin America.


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