‘Excesses’ pardoned in the name of a greater good - human rightsSunday, January 5, 2014
The two demons return to centre stage
The journey of justice following the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the last Argentine dictatorship seemed to leave behind the idea of the two demons and, moreover, a penchant for denial. Although a return to impunity seems unlikely in Argentina, the past few years have brought a certain relativization of the past to the public debate. The muddy ground of politics and the endorsement of political parties by human rights organizations play a key role in helping these dark ideas return to centre stage.
Argentine democracy had reached a welcome consensus: state terrorism must be brought to trial and the guilty parties must go to jail; the victims are entitled to the truth; the military regime cannot be compared to guerrilla organizations; amnesties, closures and other “reconciliatory” solutions violate the aforementioned points.
To be sure, consensus doesn’t amount to unanimity by any means. By ideological affinity or shared responsibility, powerful sectors have turned to the politics of denial for a long time: the theory of so-called “excesses,” pardoned in the name of a greater good — fighting terrorism — then and now (turning the page). However, since the magnitude of the atrocities perpetrated during the dictatorship — known early on by everyone after the reinstatement of democracy — thwarts the excesses thesis, the theory of the “two demons” emerged, in some cases, as an effective veneer of history: a speech tool meant to fight for impunity.
Nevertheless, the theory of the demons is more complex than the vulgar explanation of mere excesses and it incites different approaches, including some that are quite contradictory. Supporters of these demons saying that it was in fact a “civil war” have emerged, over the last decades, from the ranks of ex-members of guerrilla organizations. Without going any further than Uruguay, this line of thought is flaunted by a sizeable part of its political leaders who doggedly refuse to accept anti-impunity rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The late Montonero fighter and all-purpose agent Rodolfo Galimberti and Uruguayan ex-Tupamaro fighter Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro were separated by an abyss of behavioural differences but yet were brought together by their belief that there are no unresolved issues to be settled in a court of law. For both of them, the game of war created winners and losers.
The debate, however, is never-ending among those who call for justice: the issue of whether to broaden the trials to include civilian supporters of the dictatorship and those who relied on the coercion of state terrorism to do business leads to new questions and puts the Argentine judicial system to the test.
While not ideal, Argentina’s pact for justice and memory — reached after many comings and goings — seemed acceptable although it may not be as solid as many thought. During the last few years, several attempts at relativization re-emerged, especially in regards to the so-called “civil war” or with a policy of denial circumscribed to the “anything goes” logic of Argentine politics.
Another high-priority factor gains ground among the reasons for this change of era. A large part of the human rights movement joined Kirchnerism. The explanation provided by its leaders is that the Néstor and Cristina Kirchner administrations have furthered an agenda that human rights activists had been striving to promote, to no avail, since the late 70s. The families of victims of state terrorism amass thousands of different experiences but it is undeniable that most of the mothers, grandmothers and children of disappeared persons who have raised their voices publicly became vocal supporters of the current government, displaying a sense of unanimity which, however, doesn’t do much to explain the strong disputes — both past and ongoing — in the inner ranks of dissident organizations. The decision to throw their weight behind a government meant stepping into the muddy ground of politics — more so if the party’s support resembles a dogma rather than an attachment based on principles or practicality.
In 2007, almost every presidencial candidate — including the three who secured 85 percent of the vote (Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Elisa Carrió and Roberto Lavagna) — argued in favour of continuing the trials for human rights violations. Those who had the courage to propose some sort of amnesty — be it masked or explicit — were relegated to the electoral margins. This image clashes profoundly with what happens in other countries with similar cultures, such as Spain, Chile, Uruguay, Peru and Brazil, where the political groups in favour of obliterating the memory keep facing each other in every election.
The “Never Again” slogan has permeated the conscience of Argentine society and, following an exhausting fight against impunity, it became the frame of what can be expressed in public discourse. The last decade brought a significant novelty in the form of a non-Peronist centre-right force with a certain electoral weight, unlike the Ucedé, a party which laid claim — through its founder and most of its leaders — to the repression perpetrated by Videla, Massera and others. This is not so inside PRO. Miguel Braun, executive director of the Fundación Pensar (a think-tank of Mauricio Macri’s party), whose family had to go into exile in 1975 following threats by the Triple A, voices his “intellectual, political and personal” belief in the “democratic consensus against the dictatorship.”
“Ever since I’ve joined PRO, I’ve never found myself in an argument with another leader who showed a different stance,” he said. Strictly speaking, the City government may have won over some promoters of the trials movement but that was the exception rather then the rule.
Four years after the first presidential election won by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, during the following campaign the almost unanimous agreement displayed in 2007 shifted. A not-so-marginal presidential candidate — Eduardo Duhalde — voiced his hope to meet the needs of “those who approve of Videla and those who don’t.” Another candidate from a mainstream political front — Elisa Carrió — at the time quoted Uruguay’s José Mujica and contended that “no old man be left in jail” — meaning that all prisoners over the age of 70 would be allowed to continue their prison terms under house arrest. She was specifically speaking about repressors. Last year, Córdoba Governor José Manuel de la Sota dusted the cobwebs off the archive and said Argentina should move toward reconciliation with the Armed Forces.
Months ago, an anecdotal episode where a son of disappeared persons used his situation in a traffic dispute opened the door to explicit denials. Journalists, anchors, a comedian and a host of social network commentators reasoned that (born at the leading detention centre ESMA in 1978, adopted by a repressor and recovered in 2004 by the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo), Juan Cabandié did not have to “put up with the dictatorship” because “he was just a year old” when it ended.
The association between “putting up with the dictatorship” and the Dirty War with no regard for its consequences — such as the theft of some 500 babies (of which around 400 still keep the identities given to them by their appropriators) — is another form of memory trivialization, according to sociologist Daniel Feierstein, director of the International Association of Genocide Scholars IAGS).
“I find Jorge Lanata and Alfredo Casero’s discourse more novel and better linked to the denial or trivialization. Unlike the demons theory, this is not about comparing responsibilities but about denying consequences — or minimizing them, as it happened with Cabandié, where what’s at stake is the appropriation and identity theft,” Feierstein said.
The eternal return
The Nunca Más (Never Again) report was the bedrock of the current democracy. In December 1983, President Raúl Alfonsín requested a report the multiple crimes against humanity. In nine months, the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (Conadep) delivered — through its president, writer Ernesto Sábato — a text that listed thousands of disappearances and hundreds of clandestine detention centres.
If “Never Again” was a founding text for Argentine democracy, it was also its preface — written by Sábato — which furthered an explanation of what had happened and which would be hegemonic for years. According to the author, between 1976 and 1983, a left-leaning demon had cast the first stone and a right-wing demon — controlling the state apparatus — had retorted in an infinitely worse manner. In the middle lay an immobile society which was terrified and isolated from what had happened in the hundreds of clandestine centres dispersed throughout the country.
In his last book, Feierstein maintains that the demons theory inherits the logic of war brandished by the sectors associated to the perpetrators of the last military dictatorship and also to some left-wing groups. According to this logic, everything is defined by factions and casualties. There is no analysis of the aftermath. In a war, there are belligerent factions, there are errors, excesses and collateral damage.
Un testamento de los años 70 (A Testament of the 70s), a text by ex-Montonero fighter Héctor Ricardo Leis that was published last year, suggests that, according to its author’s judgment, there was only one demon: terrorism. Leis, who ironically mentions his own involvement in the 70s, calling himself a “terrorist with a beautiful soul,”maintains that guerrilla terrorism came first, forcing the government’s “legitimate” response which then became terrorist itself (Triple A and the dictatorship).
Leis’ book denies the concept of “state terrorism” and disqualifies the idea of “crimes against humanity” beyond any statute of limitations, calling it an artifice. The text includes commendatory introductions written by the mother of a disappeared person — Graciela Fernández Meijide, former minister in the Fernando de la Rúa administration, and writer Beatriz Sarlo, who maintains a more distanced stance. The former wrote: “Before the misappropriation of historical memory currently perpetrated by the government alongside some emblematic human rights organizations and former guerrilla fighters who sought refuge under the wing of the state’s power, the author contemplates what has happened.” Sarlo foresees that Leis “will be attacked due to his intellectual courage” and for “reopening a debate that is truly too closed.”
In some manner, the author — who holds a Social Science PhD from the Universidad Católica of Río de Janeiro and teaches in several universities in Argentina and Brazil — dreams about reopening the debate begun in December 2004 by philosopher Oscar del Barco, who — in an open letter to La Intemperie magazine — criticized the Guerrilla Army of the People (Ejército Guerrillero del Pueblo — EGP) for shooting and killing two militants who wanted to leave the Salta-based guerrilla grouping (the episode is also featured in the history short story Muertos de amor, by Jorge Lanata, who gathers a series of testimonies which were, in some cases, denied by their alleged authors or even denounced as distorted.) By then, Del Barco had denounced the guerrilla and the military for violating the founding “Thou shall not kill” social principle and spoke against their petition for pardon, pointing a finger at writer Juan Gelman, father of a disappeared person and former Montonero leader.
Leis furthers an estimate of 10,000 victims of the “civil war” between 1966 and 1983; he asks for forgiveness; he says “using the memory of the victims poisons the present;” he puts the “moral responsibility” of the crimes on “everybody’s” shoulders; he claims a unique list of victims in alphabetic order. In an interview published months ago in the Enfoques supplement of La Nación, Leis brushed up on his image, saying that his generation was “heroic,” “unselfish,” “volunteering” and “original.” In opposition, he sees La Cámpora, which has won over many young people over the past few years, as “opportunistic and assimilated by the Kirchners; lackeys of state power.”
Displaying a self-criticism that doesn’t make him plead guilty in any court of law, Leis says: “All of us were victims and victimizers.” A personal confession which could surface as a historical revelation if we weren’t talking about 8,000 disappeared persons (according to Conadep records) or 30,000 (a figure denounced by human rights organizations during the dictatorship), if we hadn’t had a lethal system operating for many years in state facilities such as the Navy school ESMA, if many of the victims of figures such as Alfredo Astiz or Julián the Turk hadn’t been swept away from their homes in the dead of night just to sell their belongings and steal their children later on, if the state apparatus hadn’t been used to terrorize dissidents, with much deeper goals than fighting a guerrilla group.
The enlightening view of history would arrive to say that those who chose armed struggle in the 70s “weren’t heroes.” Fernández Meijide made it explicit in the title of her latest book: “Eran humanos, no héroes” (They Were Human, Not Heroes). Her thesis is that there is a certain idealization promoted by the Kirchnerites who were involved in the armed struggle in their youth.
This is strange. The Kirchners, even in their youth, coexisted with a Justicialist Party that promoted, in 1983, the amnesty, although that wasn’t their idea. A decade later, Carlos Menem had to sign the pardons while the couple from Santa Cruz was gaining power in their district. The fact that no major stridency against that ignominious amnesty was heard from Néstor and Cristina de Kirchner seems to contradict the resolute anti-impunity politics promoted since 2003. But it is also a public fact that the current president had a critical and aloof view of the armed struggle of her left-leaning Peronist colleagues; therefore, the idea of “heroes” sounds quite forced when it comes to Kirchnerism.
For the thesis of Leis and Fernández Meijide to take root, it is necessary to say that someone in power promotes the sanctity of all the disappeared people and the members of armed groups in the 70s. Otherwise, the attempt loses all meaning. The 70s were troubled years when it comes to politics and armed struggle, with conflicting views, accusations and hatred all around, but they were also disturbing for the families who experienced a clash of generations, while the massive repression created all kinds of victims.
While we must admit some factions of the armed organizations, many relatives (it is interesting, however, to read the deep overtones expressed by the mothers of disappeared people beyond leading voice Hebe de Bonafini) and some Kirchnerites promote the heroic view of disappeared persons, it becomes less verifiable that such a notion would gain traction with human rights bodies, with the government and society in general.
Ever since Miguel Bonasso’s text Recuerdos de la muerte (Memories of Death, 1984), many essays and research efforts went into derailing any attempt to idealize the disappeared persons. Since then until the film Infancia clandestina (Clandestine Childhood, 2012) by Benjamín Ávila, the son of disappeared people, only a very absentminded person could believe that Montoneros, ERP members and so on were heroes instead of being just human.
The aim made explicit by the former minister and Leis is to heal the wounds and not misuse the past but that would rebound upon a common feature of all the victims: their suffering. Leis takes this to a symbolic level by proposing a communion between that suffering and a memorial site listing the names of those people killed by armed organization as well as those of the people killed or disappeared at the hands of state agents. An ex-member of a left-wing armed organization and a former member of Conadep now proposes a “complete memory,” as the sectors defending the military dictatorship call it.
Historian Federico Lorenz fathoms that these discussions are difficult for a society such as Argentina which still has deep wounds.
“We are still in the trauma stage,” he says. Lorenz doesn’t agree with these proposals. “What Leis or Fernández Meijide do is compare from the perspective of the suffering, which can surely be comparable for the families. But those deaths do not have the same social repercussions,” he said.
For memory specialist María Sonderéguer, Leis and Fernández Meijide’s proposal is, without a doubt, a return to the demons theory. “We can discuss whether there were social struggles before the coup but what we had in its aftermath was the extermination by the state which is the holder of the monopoly offorce ,” she said.
Over more than 20 years, organizations and victims’ families were united by the trials. That uniformity around a key goal such as trying perpetrators and knowing the truth may have helped to dim or postpone their differences of objectives, ideology and so on. While the trials kept advancing, with more than 1,100 in the dock including accused, those sent to trial as well as sentenced persons, the nuances and contradictions within the human rights movement gained visibility and complexity.
However, the recent years and months have shown another facet of iconic organizations whose support for the government led them to conspire against the principles and methods they had followed for three decades. The most extreme case features the doubts surrounding Army Chief-of-Staff César Milani, a general who was accused, without a definite degree of certainty, of having been involved in disappearances. The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and the majority of the members of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo – Founding Line, alongside the chief of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Hebe de Bonafini, chose to keep silent and take a picture with the general accused of being a repressor, therefore brushing off all doubts. In La Rioja, another mother, Marcela Brizuela de Ledo, just as much a mother of a disappeared person as Bonafini, calls for memory, truth and justice and demands caution in the light of the testimony and documents incriminating Milani.
The comings and goings of organizations and the advancement of trials acted as catalysts helping to bring to the fore old speeches which many imagined long buried. Sonderéguer said that this re-emergence cannot be analyzed separately from the current prosecution policies which are pitting
civil responsibility against extermination. Moreover, she said that the changes in the manner of the testimonies may play a role. “The witnesses are not the witnesses-victims of the Trial of the Juntas; these are witnesses who are victims but who also manifest that they were militant and politically engaged individuals. This recreates the debates that set the trend before 76,” says the researcher from Universidad Nacional de Quilmes.
There is little doubt regarding the intention of those who, after having done the impossible for decades to conceal the atrocities perpetrated at the ESMA, now cry in outrage because of a barbecue organized in some part of the former Navy school facility which is run today by an organization whose leaders are named by the executive branch of the government, the City and more than 10 human rights organizations, many of which were created by the victims’ families. The legitimate debate on what purpose a death camp should have polarizes even ESMA survivors. It also seems never-ending and typical of any society that experienced concentrationary traumas. Perhaps some can move forward opportunistically on the road vacated by those who fought an epic battle, arousing the conscience of the society and the public powers, and who chose a different path today.