BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentina has finally received the first set of a series of the United States’ State Department file releases on the nation’s violent military dictatorship (1976-1983) in which Washington’s support, logistically, financially and politically, is clearly demonstrated.
In March of this year, US President Barack Obama visited Argentina in a trip that many called insensitive as it coincided with the 40th anniversary of the coup d’état that ushered in the dictatorship.
Obama made the trip to Buenos Aires shortly after Argentine President Mauricio Macri was inaugurated into office.
Macri, a wealthy businessman and politician born to an Italian-born billionaire construction tycoon who arrived in Argentina in 1949, emerged victorious in the election months before as he defeated Daniel Scioli. Scioli, the uncharismatic candidate supported by Macri’s predecessor Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015) who was constitutionally barred from running again, represented the center-left Front for Victory (FpV) while Macri co-founded the center-right Republican Proposal (PRO).
As such, Macri set out to erase 12 years of ‘Kirchnerism,’ the name given to the ideology espoused by Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007).
Washington was more than happy to welcome the news of the economic liberal’s victory as he has hit the ground running in office by removing currency regulation (which has led to a 30 percent depreciation in the Argentine Peso), laying off over 150,000 public workers and agreeing to pay the New York-based vulture funds that have refused to accept restructured loan payments.
Furthermore, Macri has removed the subsidies instituted by his predecessor and went a step further by adding higher taxes on vital services like public transport fares, electricity and water. The costs of these services increased between 200 percent and 700 percent and Macri has warned of even higher prices and more layoffs. Last month, Macri’s government sought to raise the price of gas by 1,000 percent in the middle of a cold snap but a series of protests against this measure was halted by a federal court.
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.
On the first day of Obama’s visit, agreements were signed, public appearances were made and even tango was danced before the commemoration of the coup was observed the following day.
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 had unsuccessfully called on the US leader to postpone his trip or re-arrange the dates. 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.
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 announced release of Washington’s previously classified files on the dictatorship, however, was considered a benevolent gesture but one that was marked by strange timing. It only comes on the heels of the inauguration of Macri, a man who 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.
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 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) and has turned a blind eye to the case of the political prisoner Milagro Sala, an indigenous social leader in the northwestern Province of Jujuy.
Regardless, US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Buenos Aires this week where he met with Macri briefly. Kerry handed the dossier of declassified documents personally to the Argentine leader. “More documents will be delivered in the future as the relations between the US and Argentina continue growing stronger,” Kerry said.
Before more documents arrive, however, the current set of over 1,000 paper sheets concerning the period from 1977 to 1980 is currently being scrutinized and, despite the existing knowledge of Washington’s involvement in various ways with the dictatorship, the revelations are still damning.
Testimonials from people who were tortured and saw loved ones kidnapped and disappeared and clear descriptions of clandestine detention centers nationwide figure in the papers, as do diplomatic reports and copies of letters sent between high-ranking figures in Buenos Aires and Washington.
In one example, a file reveals that in 1977, then-leader Jimmy Carter sent a letter to the first de-facto head of the dictatorship, Jorge Rafael Videla, in which he outlined how much both countries agree on the theme of human rights. In the same letter, Carter even thanks Videla for inviting him to the wedding of Videla’s son but says that he is too busy to attend.
The profile of Videla, a commander in the Argentine Army who was the main figure responsible in the coup and the man that ruled the nation from the start of the dictatorship until 1981, was also found in the files.
“A moderate that genuinely avoids excesses of violence, a father devoted to his family, a devout Catholic and a man that honors values and traditions” is how Videla was described in 1977 by US authorities in the files. In September of that year, Videla was welcomed in Washington by Carter where the latter told the former his “admiration for the achievements made by the Argentine government against the problem of terrorism.”
This is the same man that was tried and convicted for his role in crimes which included mass-scale human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. He died in a federal prison in Marcos Paz, just outside of Buenos Aires, in May of 2013.
Some diplomatic cables raised the issue of possible “excesses” in dealing with civilians, but the concerns were either brushed aside as being “exaggerated” or chalked up to “small mistakes” that were made as the dictatorship was still in its early period.
Another release, however, showed that even after several years of the dictatorship (and after several damning reports by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights), top US figures clearly knew what was happening: “We believe that the detained individuals are being routinely tortured as part of interrogations and they are eventually extrajudicially executed,” read a report sent by the US Embassy in Buenos Aires to the State Department.
The most disconcerting aspect about the newly-released documents, however, involve a figure that is already quite notorious in the region: Henry Kissinger, who served as the National Security Advisor from 1969 to 1975 and as Secretary of State, the US equivalent of a Foreign Minister, from 1973 to 1977 under Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
Previously declassified documents revealed that Kissinger knew what was happening in Argentina but declined to specifically mention to local military officials to stop arbitrarily detaining and harassing civilians, let alone to stop committing widespread crimes against humanity as part of the state-sponsored terror campaigns.
These previous documents were unearthed at the National Security Archive, a non-governmental organization that houses documents mostly concerning US foreign policy, located at George Washington University in the US capital.
Patricia Murphy Derian, a human rights advocate in the Carter administration, noted that Robert Charles Hill, the US Ambassador to Argentina from 1974 to 1977, sent repeated messages outlining his concerns about human rights abuses to Washington but never received a response. In fact, transcripts showed that Hill spoke with Argentina’s Foreign Minister at the time, César Augusto Guzzetti, who told Hill that his “boss (Kissinger) knew what was happening and did not care.”
In fact, Kissinger even encouraged such activities as files documented Kissinger speaking to Guzzetti about the “terrorist” situation: “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly. We will not cause you unnecessary difficulties,” Kissinger told him. When Guzzetti worried that the issue of human rights would be brought up in a meeting, Kissinger simply asked how long it would take the junta to “clean up the problem.” Guzzetti said by the end of the year (just before Carter was to take office) and Kissinger approved, giving the junta “the green light,” according to Hill.
Kissinger, who sat next to the dictator Videla at the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Buenos Aires as his personal guest shortly after the two shared lunch, has now been described in the latest releases as having intentionally stopped efforts by the Carter administration to stop the crimes of the dictatorship. While Carter tried to withhold loans and military equipment sales to Argentina in his last two years in office as the atrocities piled up, files revealed that Kissinger met with Videla in private even after he stepped down as Secretary of State and continued to praise the dictator for his “wonderful job in wiping out terrorists.”
Raúl Héctor Castro, the man appointed as Ambassador to Argentina by Carter, wrote in a cable that he was “increasingly concerned that Kissinger’s repeated praise of Videla and his government will only embolden their hardened stance on human rights.” Furthermore, officials in Washington were concerned that Kissinger had an “apparent desire to speak out against the Carter administration’s human rights policy.”