BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Just days before US President Barack Obama will touch down in Argentina for an official visit, members of his administration have explained that Washington will open its archives on the 1976-1983 right-wing military dictatorship that it supported in Argentina.
Obama will travel to Buenos Aires to meet with newly-inaugurated President Mauricio Macri and then he will continue to the southern resort city of San Carlos de Bariloche in Patagonia.
His arrival, slated for March 24, coincides with the anniversary of the beginning of the darkest era in Argentina’s history.
On March 24, 1976, members of a right-wing military carried out a coup d’état that deposed María Estela Martínez Cartas de Perón, better known simply as 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.
From then until December 10 of 1983, the junta oversaw the “Dirty War,” a period they called “the National Reorganization Process.” During this era, some 30,000 people were killed and “disappeared” by the de-facto government while tens of thousands of others were the victims of other heinous human rights abuses like assault, torture, rape and baby theft as part of a state-sponsored terrorism campaign.
This was part of Operation Condor, a period of systematic political repression and state-sponsored terror involving cooperating international intelligence organizations conducted by the right-wing dictatorships of South America, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.
This was all done with the staunch financial, logistical and political support from the United States. The program’s purpose was to “eradicate communist or Soviet influence and ideas,” and to suppress and eliminate any opposition, real or imagined, against those dictatorships.
As Obama now is the maximum representative of the United States government, several prominent human rights groups and figures have called on the US leader to postpone his trip or re-arrange the dates.
In response, the trip has now been changed so that Obama will spend the 23rd of March in Buenos Aires, where he will lay a wreath in memory of the dictatorship’s victims at the Memorial Park and travel to Bariloche, 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) to the south, the following day. This decision, however, also angered more people given that Obama will be spending the day golfing in the picturesque region while the rest of the country commemorates the anniversary.
The decision to visit Argentina and to open the military and intelligence files on the dictatorship (for the first time) seems to be a benevolent gesture, but only comes on the heels of Macri’s inauguration in late December.
Macri, a wealthy businessman and politician born to an Italian-born construction tycoon who arrived in Argentina in 1949, is focusing on liberalizing the national economy, giving way for more opportunites for US-based companies to make their mark on the local economy.
What is even stranger with the timing, however, is the importance placed upon the memory of the dictatorship by the last two administrations.
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.
Kirchner, who passed away in 2010, was instrumental in tearing down the Final Stop Law, which granted amnesty to all but 9 of the top junta members who were charged with crimes against humanity, in 2005. Kirchner’s hard work allowed for the prosecution of Dirty War criminals, which continues today.
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.
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 while the truth and justice are for the continued search of missing persons and the prosecution of those deemed to have committed heinous acts of human rights abuse.
Given these developments during the last twelve years, it only seems logical that the Obama administration (2009-2017), which is described as “being fully committed to human rights in the region” by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, would have opened the archives during the presidency of Fernández de Kirchner where they could have had much more impact.
Macri, whose father’s businesses (and now his) benefited from lucrative deals made with the junta during the dictatorship, has firmly placed those human rights issues on the backburner. In fact, Macri, whose right-wing PRO Party voted against investigating the murky economic transactions that took place during the dictatorship, has even closed certain human rights organizations’ offices and de-funded several others during his time as Buenos Aires mayor (and now President of the Republic).
Regardless of the dubious timing, Obama, who has a much more positive image in Argentina compared to his recent predecessors, is making more strides in connecting to nations in Latin America.
While he has not directly apologized for Washington’s role in many heinous events in the region, he has taken the unprecedented step of at least admitting that the US government has played roles of varying significance in many transgressions.
The move by the US to declassify the documents comes a year after the Vatican, led by Argentina native Pope Francis, said that it will open their archives on the South American nation’s dictatorship.
The Catholic Church in Argentina played a major role during the dictatorship as it served as a primary place of grievances made by the relatives of the disappeared. With the different security forces working in tandem with the military dictatorship, complaints made at various police stations and other installations were ignored and people turned to their local churches instead.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the people who sought help from their bishops and other Catholic figures received much of the same treatment that they received from security officials; they were ignored and/or turned away, albeit with slightly more empathy. Many episcopal figures went a step further, however, and actively collaborated with the military government, which described itself as “deeply Catholic,” in order to shamelessly attain even more personal information from people that would later be used to detain their friends, family and colleagues.
To be fair, the figures may have been looking out for themselves as several priests throughout the country were kidnapped and eventually killed by that same “deeply Catholic” military government leading the country for their roles in closely collaborating with poor communities and slum associations, something frowned upon by the junta.