The ESMA Museum and Site of Memory on Tuesday hosted a celebration of its recent inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Officials and human rights leaders referenced the dangers of denying the dictatorship’s crimes, as well as the apologism for state terrorism by some presidential candidates.
At the ceremony, the museum staff and human rights organizations unveiled the plaque that will mark the site’s listing as a World Heritage Site. The honor was established earlier this month by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the UN’s cultural agency dedicated to the identification, protection, and preservation of cultural and natural heritage of exceptional value to humanity.
Nearly 5,000 people were detained and disappeared at the Officers’ Quarters building in the former Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA, by its Spanish initials), one of the main clandestine centers of detention, torture and extermination of the last military dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983. Tortured and kept captive in inhumane conditions, many of them were ultimately injected with sedatives and thrown alive into the sea.
“This wasn’t just the result of political will, which was essential, but also a thorough effort that took several years,” said the museum’s director, Mayki Gorosito. “It was years of studying, learning, researching, strategizing, and drawing support from all over the country and the region. We had to prepare the museum and the ESMA premises to defend this nomination.
“It was very, very hard work.”
Human Rights Secretary Horacio Pietragalla Corti described UNESCO’s decision as “an acknowledgement of the coups d’etat in South America, which were part of a plan conceived by the US.”
Pietragalla is a victim of the dictatorship himself. When he was only five months old, police forces took him away after a raid in which they killed his mother Liliana Corti, a militant with the Montoneros guerrilla group. An Army lieutenant colonel named Hernán Tefzlaff later gave the baby to his maid. Only in 2003 did he recover his true identity thanks to the Grandmothers of Plaza the Mayo, the group that searches for the estimated 500 newborn children who were illegally taken from their mothers by the dictatorship.
Pietragalla also warned of the dangers of denialism and said that with the Ex-ESMA’s UNESCO listing, “the international community is saying that what happened in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, were genocides, meant to persecute and annihilate political opposition.”
Graciela Lois, head of the organization Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared for Political Reasons, recalled the injunction she and activist Laura Bonaparte filed in 1998 to prevent the ESMA site from being demolished for a real estate development. “After everything we hear from candidates who are not just denialists but also defenders of the dictatorship’s actions, we say to them that we now have a new injunction, but this time it was humankind who did it,” she said.
She said the listing would stop La Libertad Avanza vice presidential candidate Victoria Villarruel, a notorious denialist, from “doing whatever she wants with this site.” Villarruel recently said that the ESMA premises should be returned to the family who donated it.