A 40-year consensus that is now in question

The struggle for human rights in Argentina is a model for other countries, but recent events bring back a feeling of insecurity

Miriam Lewin is an investigative journalist and dictatorship survivor

2013. I’m at a conference on transitional justice in Kabul, Afghanistan. When someone mentions the work of the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropology — which searches for the remains of missing people — the people and representatives from countries like South Africa, Syria, and Libya all rise for a standing ovation.

2015. I walk into the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta to give a lecture. A giant picture of Estela de Carlotto, the president of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, is on display next to the ones of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

2023. I receive an email requesting my authorization to include my case in an exhibition about genocides at the Holocaust Museum in Illinois. 

There is a long list that proves that the policies of Memory, Truth and Justice that Argentine democracy has enforced ever since the creation of the CONADEP, regarding crimes against humanity committed by the civic-military dictatorship, are a paragon and a model for the rest of the world. And even if they are questioned by some sectors that would like to move even further, other countries that have experienced human rights violations view with admiration what the Supreme Court itself has declared to be state policy.     

We have been building up our democracy for the past 40 years, with many accomplishments but also many outstanding debts and failures. Still, we had reached a consensus that is now being questioned. It seems anachronic, but it’s actually happening.  

At the landmark Trial of the Juntas, we had to testify that there had been disappearances — something that seems unthinkable now. It was like that. Those of us who had survived had to prove we had been kidnapped in endless testimonies that made us feel like we were the ones on trial. And the Federal Chamber was respectful of a defendant’s rights. So much so that in my case, number 2365, then Brigadier Orlando Ramón Agosti was not convicted for my illegal detention at the Virrey Cevallos clandestine center of detention — run by the Air Force’s intelligence agency — because there were no corroborating testimonies. 

The positions of people who not only deny but openly vindicate the crimes of the dictatorship are resurfacing. They even justify crimes against humanity using MacCarthyist accusations. The expression “was a terrorist” is used, for example, to validate a pregnant woman being murdered after stealing her newborn baby, only because she was a dissident or a member of a guerrilla organization. But what can you say about other events, such as the disappearance of diplomat Elena Holmberg, ambassador Héctor Hidalgo Solá, and businessman Fernando Branca, just to name a few? What about the murder — in an alleged accident – of Monsignor Angelelli? Or the machine gun attack on Pallottine priests in Belgrano R? 

Yes, there was violence. But most of the alleged perpetrators of violent guerrilla attacks were wiped out. They didn’t get the right to a fair trial like former commanders and hundreds of men from the armed and security forces were guaranteed to have.

The dictatorship was not a war. It wasn’t a confrontation between two armies, but between the state, its illegitimate government, and civil society. It wasn’t even “dirty,” because there were no “excesses.” There was a systematic plan to carry out crimes against humanity. There is no complete truth that remains unheard. The courts have ruled on this issue many times since 1985 to date.   

The recent vandalization of memory sites, the threats using pictures of the emblematic Ford Falcon, the reappearance of warnings against journalists; all raise the alarm about the expansion of groups — hopefully inorganic — that bring back a feeling of insecurity that affects rights that seemed protected. 

The fear of debating, dissenting, and questioning power has progressively receded over the past four decades. No one can say their lives have been at risk because of their ideas. We had forgotten all about political violence, and the social condemnation of the crimes against José Luis Cabezas and Mariano Ferreyra, the disappearance of Jorge Julio López and Santiago Maldonado, as well as the massive and diverse march against the 2×1 seemed to indicate there were antibodies in place.

A question is emerging within some human rights advocates: “What did we do wrong?”. There is a need for a mea culpa, but also for acknowledging that this phenomenon is not local. It happened in the U.S., Brazil, Spain, Italy, and most recently, the Netherlands. 

Voters’ discontent, frustration, and hopelessness exist. And this cannot be ignored.


All Right Reserved.  Buenos Aires Herald