During a recent visit to Buenos Aires, I visited the site of the former Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), used as a clandestine torture and extermination centre under the last Argentine military dictatorship (1976-1983). The government of Néstor Kirchner turned the ESMA into an educational facility dedicated to the memory of the victims of the regime and ongoing human rights activism.
As you can see from the photographs below, display boards located throughout the grounds between the buildings provide profiles of the individuals and families who were “disappeared” and photos of victims of the dictatorship are etched into windows, but the face of Milagro Sala also appears on a wall. Milagro Sala is an important community activist from the poor northern province of Jujuy, which has a substantial indigenous population. She was a close ally of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whose government provided generous subsidies for the popular housing cooperatives, textile factories, schools and clinic that Sala’s Túpac Amaru Association administered. Sala was arrested on charges of fraud and criminal conspiracy to subvert public order at the beginning of the presidency of Mauricio Macri, whilst leading a protest against the cutting of subsidies to programs benefiting the poor by her longstanding political enemy, provincial governor Gerardo Morales, of the Radical Civic Union, who has repeatedly accused her of inciting violence. Although she has now abandoned a hunger strike at the request of her family, she remains in gaol despite expressions of deep concern by Pope Francis and Amnesty International.
It is clearly in the interests of Maurico Macri and his allies to discredit Cristina Kirchner and her allies. Similar tactics have also been used against the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo movement and the Kirchner family itself. In Argentina as in Brazil, accusations of corruption diffused by pro-government media offer an effective way of delegitimising political opponents who still possess substantial popular support, whilst distracting attention from skeletons in one’s own closet, although this proved more difficult in Argentina than in Brazil. Shortly after his narrow electoral victory, President Macri figured prominently in the Panama Papers scandal.
That problem, and continuing suspicions that the new government is not over scrupulous about economic interest conflicts, is, however, less significant than the social impacts of the new round of “neoliberal shock therapy” that the government has adopted. Although the enormous price hikes resulting from the cutting of subsidies on electricity and gas have yet to bite fully as a result of court decisions, poverty and homelessness have already increased substantially. The economy has failed to receive the rapid boost that Macri promised would result from the high level of approval that the new government’s economic policies enjoy from “the markets”. Conceding the demands of “international investors” backed by New York courts in the shape of the “vulture” hedge funds that bought part of Argentina’s national debt and refused to accept the debt restructuring terms that other creditors accepted, is burdening the country with new debts for a long time to come. After the bitter experience of neoliberal economics Mark One under the administrations of Carlos Menem, many Argentines remain deeply sceptical about the wisdom of a new round of privatisations and handing over national assets to foreign capital. Because Argentina still has some strong trade unions, and a plethora of social movements associated with an extensive, if fragmented and fractious, Left that are eager to take to the streets in protests, the new administration, elected on a slender majority, has had a rocky ride from the start.
In contrast to the government that Brazil will have once the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff is completed, the government of Mauricio Macri was installed through a democratic election. Yet it is not simply its intention to return to neoliberal economic policies that is troubling people. Mauricio Macri’s posture on the military dictatorship has always been questionable. Although he describes that period as “a horrible tragedy”, he caused consternation even amongst many of his own political allies by remarking, in a recent interview transmitted via Facebook, that he had no idea whether the number of people disappeared was “9,000 or 30,000” and that it was “senseless” to discuss numbers. He also used the expression “dirty war” to refer to the dictatorship, despite the fact that in the Argentine context the phrase is generally viewed as supporting the argument of soldiers accused of crimes against humanity that they were carrying out their duty as soldiers in a war against violent subversion.
Macri had already displayed an unpalatable sympathy with the military’s version of history immediately after taking up residence in the Casa Rosada. He ordered the restoration of a picture of Jorge Rafael Videla to the “gallery of presidents” on the official website of the Presidency. Videla was the army general who led the coup against Isabel Perón and presided over the dictatorial regime from 1976 to 1981, dying in a civilian prison in 2013 after receiving a second sentence of 50 years in 2012 following an initial conviction in 2010. Without apology, Videla accepted responsibility for one of the most exceptional, even by Latin American standards, of the horrors that took place in the ESMA. Pregnant women were kept alive until their babies were born, and the babies were then taken from them and given to military families for adoption. In some cases, the soldier who received the baby was directly involved in the murder of the birth mother. Although more than 100 of the estimated 400 stolen babies have now been identified, tracing these lost children and restoring their true identities to them is still an ongoing process. It is not therefore a trivial matter to advocate putting an end to the “memory politics” that has made Argentina an example to the rest of Latin America and trying to discredit the social movements that drive these efforts. Yet this seems to be exactly what Macri wishes to do, in suggesting that the remaining members of the military who face prosecution for their actions during the dictatorship should not be sentenced to die in prison.
How reasonable is this position, which Macri might wish us to believe is based on a case for “reconciliation” and humanitarianism towards what are now elderly people? The Argentine dictatorship was particularly brutal. The ESMA was a place where victims of torture were subsequently taken to an “infirmary” where they were given injections that they were told were “vitamin shots” to help them recover from the pain and exhaustion. Rendered unconscious, they were then stripped naked and dumped in the River Plate from the air. It is clear from the historical record that what Macri’s critics insist must be called “state terrorism” rather than a “dirty war” was directed at all forms of peaceful social and political activism, designed to create a climate of fear that would discipline society. The determination of those who insist on documenting the horrors of torture and disappearance under the dictatorship is to ensure that history can never repeat itself, as is encapsulated in the slogan “Nunca más!” (Never again!). This creates a heightened sensitivity to contemporary signs of an attempt to return to the criminalisation of social protest. The Macri government has an electoral mandate, but this does not, in itself, guarantee that it will lend any stronger support to respect for human rights than Mexico’s current government, also formally democratic but ever more strongly impugned internationally for its lamentable record on human rights, or the forces that have, at least for the moment, suspended genuine democratic life in Brazil.
Argentine forensic anthropologists played an important role in investigating the disappearances and establishing what happened to at least some of the victims of state terror. The non-profit organisation that they created to do this, the EAAF (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team) has subsequently extended its work to many other countries, including Mexico in the wake of the mass disappearance of students from the teaching training college of Ayotzinapa in Guerrero. Yet the contrast between Argentina under the Kirchners and Mexico in terms of making members of the military accountable for their human rights violations could hardly be greater. The published version of an official report on Mexico’s own “dirty war” was carefully edited by officials of the government of Vicente Fox that sponsored it, so as to avoid the possibility of bringing to account members of the military who were responsible for crimes similar to those of their colleagues during the Argentine dictatorship. Mexico today offers strong evidence that such impunity does make history repeat itself, over and over and over again.
Some still argue that insisting on bringing all the torturers and murderers to book is socially and politically divisive, and that using the term “genocide” to characterise their crimes, in order to avoid statute of limitations problems, is unreasonable. In 1986, the Argentine congress approved the infamous Ley de Punto Final (Full Stop Law), reluctantly brought to the legislature, under a pressure from the military that amounted to the threat of a further coup, by the Radical Civic Union party government of Raúl Alfonsín (whose son Ricardo was one of the allied politicians who roundly condemned what Macri said in the interview mentioned earlier, and, like his father and Gerardo Morales, a member of the UCR). Although a few military officers had been convicted and sentenced in 1985, the new law blocked further action, and was in short order accompanied by a further piece of legislation that made it impossible for subordinate officers to be prosecuted if they could establish that they were carrying out orders (The Law of Due Obedience). Néstor Kirchner set about repealing these laws, which were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2005. It was in the following year, at the end of the first of a series of new prosecutions, fortified by the accumulation of much more solid evidence on what actually happened, that the court determined that extermination of a class of people defined by their political dissidence constituted genocide, in handing down a sentence of life imprisonment to former porteño police commander Miguel Etchecolatz for kidnapping, torture and murder. The court did this precisely to avoid the possibility of a lapse back into the logic of the earlier amnesty laws and arguments that kidnapping, torturing and murdering could be seen as the military “doing their duty” in a war in which all their victims were violent guerrilla enemies. Furthermore, as Ricardo Alfonsín argued: “No se puede establecer equivalencias entre lo que fue el accionar de la guerrilla y el terrorismo de Estado, porque el Estado está para evitar eso y no convertirse en caníbal” (“You can’t establish equivalencies between guerrilla operations and state terrorism, because the State exists to avoid this and not to convert itself into a cannibal”).
The memory politics of the ESMA, as a conserved space of horror in which we can get to know the personal biographies of the victims, most of whom were clearly not guerrilla fighters, and also understand something of the mentalities and ideologies of those who tortured and killed them, is not just about the past. It is about human rights in the present and concrete measures that can help us to avoiding history repeating itself. Mauricio Macri may find this Kichnerista project unpalatable, but the real issue is whether he finds it inconvenient enough to aim to close it down. The logic of “war” and extermination is still very much present in our current securitised social environments. Torture and extra-judicial killing reflect the way members of increasingly militarised police forces, as well as soldiers assigned to security duties, understand the various socially and politically constructed categories of “dangerous others” to whom they mete out such treatment. This is not just a Latin American problem, although it is likely to be exacerbated further in countries such as Argentina and Brasil by the changes in economic policies that new right-wing governments are pursuing, not to mention their more generally socially revanchist nature. Impunity for past crimes will certainly ensure their repetition in the present, because they had, and will continue to have, both a meaning and a purpose for both their intellectual and material authors.