BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – A meeting was held between newly-inaugurated leader Mauricio Macri’s Secretary of Human Rights and various human rights groups after the latter expressed concerns about changes made in their sphere since Macri assumed power in early December.

Photo: Ricardo Mazalan  / Associated Press
Photo: Ricardo Mazalan / Associated Press

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 run 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.

Last week, 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.

Estela de Carlotto, the leader of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the human rights organization founded in 1977 dedicated to 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.

“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.

Claudio Avruj, Macri’s Secretary of Human Rights, tried to smooth over the issue while still maintaing a bitter tone: “The numbers are not important. The 30,000 figure has been established by society and it is symbolic. It is true that CONADEP said 9,000 but there are still judicial cases pending, cases that we will not suspend. The issue of the disappeared is a sensitive issue and this government does not want to create a controversy with numbers.”

Despite that stance, the Macri administration further angered Argentines days later by announcing a plan to move the offices of several other human rights groups, domestic and international (including offices of Indigenous Affairs, LGBT organizations, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNICEF and UNESCO), into the ESMA space, where some 5,000 of the 30,000 total were detained and only 200 survived.

Furthermore, the government announced that it will be displacing Horacio Pietragalla, a politician and one of the most well-known ‘recovered’ babies, as the head of the National Archive of Memory while Eduardo Jozami, a famed writer, professor, lawyer, journalist and human rights activist who was detained and tortured for the duration of the dictatorship, was also ousted. Jozami was head of the Haroldo Conti Cultural Center for Memory, a position he held since the center’s opening in 2008.

“Within the ranks of this government are individuals who were accomplices of the dictatorship, people who killed and destroyed in the interests of a national economic model that favored them. How can we let them run this institution?” Pietragalla asked a crowd of demonstrators gathered outside the complex shortly before he was escorted away by police after the government’s order.

Avruj said that Macri made the decision in personnel change “because ESMA is an institution for human rights and is not meant to be linked to any political ideology or government,” referring to the fact that both Pietragalla and Jozami belonged to the center-left Front for Victory (FpV), the party of Kirchner and Fernández de Kirchner.

Ironically, Avruj made this announcement just after he said that the Secretary of Human Rights for the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, which is controlled by Macri’s right-wing PRO Party, will also be moving into the complex.

As of now, Macri has broken tradition with every other leader since 1983 in not meeting with de Carlotto and her Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo personally, which also caused controversy.

Instead, Macri sent his Chief of Staff Marcos Peña and Justice Minister Germán Garavano, along with Avruj, to meet with de Carlotto and 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), Good Memory Association, Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH) and the Center of Legal and Social Studies (CELS).

Avruj said that the “meeting was positive” but there were “tense moments.” Regardless, he said that despite the “dissent in dialogue” and “certain disagreements,” there was still “willingness to seek consensus from both sides” and he did not rule out the possibility of more meetings in the future.

Speaking after the meeting, de Carlotto said the groups left with Avruj a “list of demands” 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.”

De Carlotto 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.