BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentine President Mauricio Macri finally met with the nation’s human rights groups, including the famed Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, nearly three months after he assumed power but only did so after finding out that visiting French leader François Hollande would be meeting with the group.
Earlier this month, a meeting was held between the groups and Macri’s Secretary of Human Rights, Claudio Avruj (who cut funding for memory-related spaces and functions in the same position for the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires when Macri was Mayor), after the former expressed concerns about changes made in their sphere since the new government assumed power.
After finally meeting with Macri himself, Estela de Carlotto, the head of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, said that when the women arrived, “the president had one face on and when we left, it was another face; that is to say that the message of these old women was delivered and heard.”
When Macri was sworn in on December 10, human rights groups and advocates knew that Macri, a wealthy businessman and politician born to an Italian-born construction tycoon who arrived in Argentina in 1949, would focus on liberalizing the national economy. Given Macri’s background as the son of a staunch Mussolini supporter and billionaire who greatly benefited financially from deals made during former military dictatorships, the human rights groups also expected Macri to make changes to the institutional legacy of those dictatorships, whose wounds still remain deep.
Argentina’s former leader Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015) and her predecessor and late husband Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) both carried the banner of uncovering the truth and getting long-awaited justice for the victims of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. On March 24, 1976, a group of high-ranking military men deposed Isabel Perón, who became leader of the Republic of Argentina in July of 1974 following the death of her democratically elected husband, Juan Domingo Perón. That right-wing military junta then assumed power and ushered in one of the country’s darkest periods.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the coup, Kirchner began the tradition in 2006 of marking every March 24th as the “Día de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia,” or “Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice.” The remembrance is for the victims of the brutal military dictatorship that ruled from 1976 to 1983, victims of what was called “the National Reorganization Process” by the then-ruling junta. The justice is for the continued search of missing persons and the prosecution of those deemed to have committed heinous acts of human rights abuse.
It is estimated that over 30,000 people labeled ‘subversives’ due to their alleged left-wing political leanings and involvements were killed or ‘disappeared’ during these years. This was part of a state-sponsored terrorism campaign now known as the “Dirty War” that included arbitrary arrest, kidnapping, torture, rape, and murder.
Amid a crumbling economy, defeat in the Malvinas/Falkland Islands War and mounting opposition at home and abroad, the junta decided to abandon ‘National Reorganization Process’ and elections were finally held.
The dictatorship officially ended when Raúl Alfonsín was elected as President and began his term on December 10, 1983. The Radical Civic Union (UCR) politician oversaw the return of democracy in a generally negative six-year term, marked by an increasingly unstable economy and a law passed called the Ley de Punto Final, or Final Stop Law. The law in question granted amnesty to all but 9 junta members and other military and police officials wanted for crimes against humanity, although it is said he signed the passing of the law under threat of another coup by the military.
Kirchner, who passed away in 2010, was instrumental in tearing down the Final Stop Law in 2005, an action that allowed for the prosecution of Dirty War criminals. Kirchner also established today’s form of ESMA, a Navy Mechanical School-turned clandestine detention center-turned human rights museum. Since then, some 70 of these types of centers have been established throughout Argentina with more to be converted in the future.
When Macri assumed power, he said that changes to this field would not be made but just weeks in, several developments have taken place that suggest otherwise. The first issue arose when Macri broke tradition with former leaders by not meeting with the human rights groups early in his mandate or even mentioning the act.
Then, Darío Lopérfido, the Minister of Culture of Buenos Aires and one of Macri’s closest political allies, said that “there were not 30,000 people disappeared in Argentina, this number was arranged on a closed table.” He said he was referring to the “Never Again” report produced by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) in 1984 that claimed that the figure of the disappeared was at 9,000 people, and while the document was hailed for its contribution to human rights accountabiliy, many claim that military figures also had a figure in amending certain figures within.
Furthermore, Jorge Videla, the first and longest-serving dictator of the period (1976-1981) who was convicted for his grave crimes, also constantly denied the figure of 30,000 and accepted the lower figure surprisingly readily, showing how likely it was that the lower figure suited him and his image much more given that it was a steep underestimation.
De Carlotto, whose Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights organization was founded in 1977 with the intention of finding the true identities of babies stolen and illegally adopted out to families with ties to the military during the Dirty War, was understandably upset with Lopérfido’s words and Macri’s attitude.
“We constantly go with the figure of 30,000 due to the diligent work of various human rights groups here and abroad, and even the genocidal criminals have referred to a figure of 45,000 in the past. We are still receiving reports of grandchildren who were born in captivity because there are people just now encouraging the nation’s people to tell the truth. What ridiculousness and evil to now start changing numbers! He should give us that list that he is citing, if he has it,” de Carlotto said.
This time around at the meeting with Macri, de Carlotto and her organization was joined by representatives from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo-Founding Line, Families of Disappeared and Detained for Political Reasons, Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Forgetfulness and Silence (HIJOS) and the Center of Legal and Social Studies (CELS).
The representatives left a list of “demands” for Macri, just as they did for Avruj, a list that will ensure that “the theme of human rights continues to be an active subject and concern for the State, and that what we have already constructed will not be changed or diminished and what still needs to be done will be done.”
Avruj said that the meeting he held with De Carlotto and the others was “positive” but there were “tense moments and dissent in dialogue.” De Carlotto, meanwhile, said the two sides spoke of many issues, but concerning human rights specifically, she highlighted that her side “strongly disagreed” with the appointment of Edgardo Busetti as Chief of Staff of the Ministry of Security because of his role as the “defense lawyer of repressors and killers,” i.e. Dirty War suspects.
Despite the meeting with government officials, de Carlotto was still clearly irked that Macri “did not have time” to meet with those human rights groups and “shut the door rudely” on them without the possibility of a future meeting. This angered the human rights groups especially given that just days before, he met with a group of holocaust survivors that settled in Argentina after World War II, and even posted photos of the encounter on his Facebook page.
In the meeting with Macri, the human rights groups still lamented the removal of Horacio Pietragalla, a politician and one of the most well-known ‘recovered’ babies, as the head of the National Archive of Memory. In addition, they voiced their pleasure with another dismissal, this time of Eduardo Jozami, a famed writer, professor, lawyer, journalist and human rights activist who was detained and tortured for the duration of the dictatorship as the head of the Haroldo Conti Cultural Center for Memory, a position he held since the center’s opening in 2008.
Despite the tension, de Carlotto seemed calm after the meeting with Macri: “We understand that when someone is the president of a nation that it is not pleasant to receive criticism, so we can understand the difference in ideologies or the lack of agreement. We had a quiet and relaxed chat, and it was done with respect so from our standpoint, it is a feeling of mission accomplished,” she said.
De Carlotto explained that she asked Macri to issue an executive order for the release of Milagro Sala, an indigenous social leader in the northwestern Province of Jujuy.
Sala, who was closely aligned with Fernández de Kirchner, heads the Tupac Amaru Neighborhood Association, an public ousing construction and maintenance organization that wields a significant amount of power in Jujuy and operates with a high budget as they have built thousands of homes (and several factories, schools and a hospital) for the needy in the impoverished region. Seeing the success in Jujuy, the association spread to several other cities and regions in Argentina.
This earned her enemies on the other side of the political aisle and she repeatedly clashed with Gerardo Morales, a Senator for Jujuy. Morales then became Governor of Jujuy on the same day that Macri assumed the presidency and shortly thereafter accused Sala of fraud and illicit enrichment. He forced the breakup of the association and in response, Sala held a public protest in the Plaza Belgrano, Jujuy’s main square, for a month until Morales ordered her arrested for “public disorder.”
Since early January, Sala has remained imprisoned and in de Carlotto’s eyes, she is a “political prisoner” that is being targeted for her views.
“There is no legal basis for her detention and any investigation held into her activities should develop without violating the presumption of innocence or personal liberty. As relatives of former political prisoners and the detained-disappeared, we cannot but to help view this development as a huge setback for democratic development in our country,” the human rights groups’ statement to Macri read.
In this year’s March 24th “Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice,” the 40th anniversary of the coup, the human rights groups will, as always, march to the Plaza de Mayo. They are hoping that this will happen without a hitch as United States President Barack Obama will be visiting on the same day. Macri assured the groups that they will be able to march as usual without any problems.
“If President Obama wishes to meet with us, of course we would be happy to oblige. He is the leader of a democratic country. The United States government willingly encouraged the repression in our country during those years, but over the decades, we have received a tremendous amount of support from citizens of the United States,” de Carlotto said.