BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – US President Barack Obama wrapped his Argentina visit to mixed reviews, with some praising him for attempting to mend relations and admit past mistakes and others criticizing him for whitewashing current human rights issues and his insensitive timing that coincided with the 40th anniversary of the US-supported military dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983), which led tens of thousands onto the streets.
Obama traveled to Buenos Aires and met with newly-inaugurated President Mauricio Macri, a wealthy businessman and politician born to an Italian-born billionaire construction tycoon who arrived in Argentina in 1949.
Macri’s predecessor Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015) was constitutionally barred from running again so Daniel Scioli, of her center-left Front for Victory (FpV), was the losing candidate against Macri.
Still, the uncharismatic Scioli lost the election by less than three percentage points, which showed that almost half of Argentina was not ready to end 12 years of ‘Kirchnerism,’ the name given to the ideology espoused by Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007).
Nonetheless, Macri emerged victorious and Washington was more than happy to welcome the news of the liberal’s victory. Macri hit the ground running in his first three months in office by removing currency regulation (which has led to a 30 percent depreciation in the Argentine Peso), laying off over 20,000 public workers, agreeing to pay the New York-based vulture funds that have refused to accept restructured loan payments and pledging to solidify relations with nations like the United States.
Given that he is focused on liberalizing the national economy and giving way for more opportunites for US-based companies to make their mark on the local economy, Obama’s visit was the definitive proof of Washington’s enthusiasm with the new government in Buenos Aires.
Macri welcomed Obama to the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, where the two spent their first moments together speaking about a wide range of topics. “We were impressed by all the work President Macri has done in his first 100 days in office,” Obama said and called Macri “an example” for the region.
The two men signed several agreements on trade, climate change and the ever-touchy regional subject of security in the scope of drug trafficking and organized crime.
Later that evening, Macri ironically hosted a presidential dinner for Obama and his wife Michelle at the Kirchner Cultural Center, a grandiose building that was converted from an abandoned post office into Latin America’s largest cultural center through a project led by Fernández de Kirchner (who named the building in honor of her husband and former leader).
Obama then danced the tango, Argentina’s traditional dance and a cultural treasure, and enjoyed the relaxed dinner throughout the evening. The next morning, however, had a more serious and somber feel, and with good reason.
That morning was March 24, which 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 was slightly modified so that Obama spent the 23rd of March in Buenos Aires but would remain in the capital for only several hours in the morning the following day, thereby leaving before the major commemoration ceremonies began. Regardless, his continued presence in the country during this sensitive time produced a major protest in the capital where thousands marched the streets with anti-Obama and anti-Macri signs, and two protesters burned a US flag as the protest wound down.
On the morning of the 24th, Obama accompanied the awkwardly emotionless Macri in laying wreaths in memory of the dictatorship’s victims at the Memorial Park on the shoreline of Buenos Aires and then throwing flowers into the Río de la Plata, the river where live prisoners were drugged and dropped to their deaths from military airplanes. Then, he held a brief conference near the memorial and spoke on the issue.
“I have spent a good amount of time studying the history of the foreign policies of the United States,” Obama said in response to an Argentine reporter’s question about any possible self-criticism of the role played by Washington during Latin America’s dictatorships.
“In studying this history, I have found moments of greatness and moments that were contradictory to what I feel should represent the United States. Everybody knows what happened, it is history. In the 1970s, there was a maturation in which human rights became important again,” Obama said, with the last part referring to the policies of US President James ‘Jimmy’ Carter (1977-1981).
That statement, of course, seemingly does not take into consideration the fact that the Carter policies were just a blip in the decades-long pro-dictatorship policies, the fact that the US government explicitly supported (and funded) these dictatorships, and nor does it touch upon the fact that most of those dictatorships lasted well into the 1980s, with Chile’s Pinochet leading the nation with an iron fist until even 1990.
Regardless, Obama continued on to say that “one of the great things about the United States is that there is much self-criticism, whether on the part of the government as a whole or the leader at the time.”
“I’m going to speak clearly,” he said, “in that I think that democracy is better than dictatorship. I believe in the freedom of express and the freedom of assembly, and I do not believe that people should be arbitrarily detained, and I say this regardless of the country I am in at any moment, and sometimes it is uncomfortable.”
In that vein, Obama announced the confirmation that his government will declassify Washington’s files on the dictatorship, including those of the US military and intelligence agencies for the first time. Bill Clinton had previously released US government files on the dictatorship in the late 1990s.
Obama went a step further in his discourse when he said that the “US and other democratic nations around the world need to have the courage to admit when they do not live up to the values that they defend, and this was the case in Argentina.”
Even though he said that “the past must not be forgotten,” Obama repeatedly mentioned “looking to the future” and “moving on” and never once asked for forgiveness in the name of the US government, something that was asked of him by the nation’s (and region’s) leading human rights groups who criticized Obama’s comments as “a very soft self-criticism” of the US government’s past transgressions.
The release of the files, however, is a benevolent gesture but one that is marked by strange timing. It only comes on the heels of Macri’s inauguration in late December. Macri is primarily concerned with economic issues and has been accused of violating human rights instead of supporting them, in sharp contrast to the 12 years of ‘Kirchnerism.’
Fernández de Kirchner and Néstor Kirchner both carried the banner of uncovering the truth and achieving long-awaited justice for the victims of the 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 and has produced convictions of nearly 700 criminals (while 526 cases remain open) as of March 1, according to the office of the Argentine Attorney General of Crimes Against Humanity.
Kirchner also established today’s museum form of ESMA, a Navy Mechanical School-turned clandestine detention center-turned human rights museum. Well over 5,000 people passed through ESMA’s doors during the dictatorship and less than 250 survived. Since Kirchner’s action to turn the building into a space for memory, some 70 of these types of memorial 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. Even if relations were strained during this period, an attempt at rapprochement and declassication of files would have been welcomed by the governments of Kirchner and Fernández de Kirchner.
Macri, whose Mussolini-supporter father’s businesses 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).
Furthermore, Macri has done nothing in the case 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, a public housing 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 many across Argentina, the region and the world have decried her detention and have said that she is a political prisoner. Pope Francis, known for his social justice background and support for those who work in that field today, sent Sala a personalized rosary and his best wishes. Macri has been called upon to issue an executive order for her release, but has no plans to take any action.
The circumstances of Obama’s visit, during which he hailed Macri as a “model for the defense of human rights in the region,” thus angered human rights organizations in the country and across Latin America.
Obama himself recognized the “courage and heroism of those who have opposed the violation of human rights in Argentina,” but those human rights groups of which he spoke summarily rejected his visit due to his other words and the timing of his actions, especially those that deal with the Macri administration.
Regardless of the dubious timing and the cold reaction he received in the South American country from human rights groups and many citizens, 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 did not apologize for Washington’s role in many heinous events in the region, he did take the unprecedented step of at least admitting that the US government has played roles of varying significance in many transgressions.
After the morning’s ceremonies, Obama traveled to Bariloche, 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) to the south, in order to leave Buenos Aires by the time the commemoration ceremonies began. This decision, however, also angered more people given that Obama spent the day relaxing, sailing and luxuriously dining in the picturesque region in Patagonia surrounded by snow-capped mountains and translucent lakes while the rest of the country remembered the dark anniversary.
Back in Buenos Aires, the streets were filled with demonstrators from hundreds of groups and organizations who gathered to pay their homage to the victims of state-sponsored terror.
What began as a sad and somber event, however, ended with chants, songs and drums and hundreds of thousands of people who had braved the wind and rain made it loud and clear that “without human rights, there is no democracy” and that Macri’s every move is being watched.