Sunday, March 26, 2006

Never Again, Argentina!

The posters and billboards vowing "never again" were put up days in advance, accompanied by special museum displays, photographic exhibitions, books, public forums, and television programs.

Then Argentina came to a halt to mark the 30th anniversary of the military coup that ushered in the dictatorship that may have been the most murderous in modern South American history.

Overcoming some resistance in Congress, President Néstor Kirchner succeeded earlier this month in making March 24 a permanent holiday, to be called the National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice.

In response, many Argentines marched or held commemorative vigils across the country in recent days, while a few gathered outside the homes of former officials of the military dictatorship to hurl insults, eggs, rocks, sticks, and containers of paint.

At a ceremony at the military academy Friday afternoon, with human rights leaders sitting in the front row, just a few feet away from the military high command, Kirchner unveiled a plaque that promised "Never again coups and state terrorism."

In the speech that followed, he castigated the armed forces for their "criminal project" and "plan for extermination" during their rule from 1976 through 1983, but he added that other groups were also to blame.

"Sectors of society, the press, the church, the political class, also had their role," as did "powerful economic interests," he said. "Not all of them have acknowledged their responsibility for those facts."

The anniversary of what was known as the "dirty war" against those thought to be subversives - including not just leftist guerrillas, but also groups as diverse as union activists, long-haired university students, and Jewish psychiatrists - has been accompanied by reminders that some of the problems of Argentina's past still linger.

In the provincial city of Córdoba, a stronghold of death squads during the dictatorship, masked men broke into the home of a leader of the human rights group Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo last week. According to police reports, they beat her and made clicking sounds as if holding a gun to her head and pulling the trigger.

In addition, a small bomb went off Thursday at a Ford dealership here. The act carried political connotations because Ford supplied the car that became the hated symbol of the repressive state security forces, the Falcon. Ford is being sued by a group of former employees who were labor leaders and accuse the company of cooperating with state security in having them kidnapped from the plant floor and illegally detained.

More ominously, it came to light this month that the naval intelligence agency has continued spying on public officials, journalists, and political leaders, including Kirchner, Defense Minister Nilda Garré, and at least one provincial governor. Two admirals, one of whom was the director of naval intelligence, have been fired and all naval intelligence activities have been suspended pending a complete investigation.

That the navy was involved is especially relevant, because the Naval Mechanics School was the most notorious of the hundreds of clandestine torture centers during the dictatorship.

Two years ago, Kirchner announced that the school was to be made into a Museum of Memory, but the project has stalled because of disagreements among human rights groups about how best to accomplish that objective.

Last Wednesday, Garré ordered that all official military archives from the period be opened. That step, coming months after an amnesty law for human rights violators was overturned, is expected to help prosecutors when trials of former military officers charged with crimes like kidnapping, murder, and torture begin later this year.

Simultaneously, the National Security Archive, a private research group based in Washington, has made public newly declassified U.S. government cables and transcripts relating to the 1976 coup.

Documents indicate, for example, that when a deputy warned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger two days after the coup to "expect a fair amount of repression, probably a good deal of blood," Kissinger was unfazed and ordered U.S. support for the new military junta.

"I do want to encourage them," Kissinger said, according to the documents. "I don't want to give the sense that they're harassed by the United States."

The papers also include a Chilean intelligence report, passed on to the United States, listing 22,000 names of people who had disappeared in Argentina by mid-1978 and were presumably killed.

That is significant because an official commission here in the 1980s published a list with the names of just over 9,000 people, far fewer than the 30,000 human rights groups have long said were killed during the seven years of the military dictatorship.

The level of anniversary commemorations has been much higher than five or 10 years ago, Argentines agree. That is largely due to Kirchner, a Peronist who, though accused recently of trying to manipulate the judiciary and the press, has made the defense of human rights and "recovering our historical memory" hallmarks of his administration.

"The Kirchner government signifies a problem difficult to resolve" for human rights groups, said Horacio Verbitsky, director of the Center for Economic and Legal Studies. "For 30 years, human rights groups have gone to the streets shouting and were accustomed to being repressed or at best ignored. But now there is a government that says, 'Yes, and is there anything more?' So where is the enemy? That has produced a great deal of bewilderment."

A faction of one group, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, for example, has halted its weekly marches, arguing that there is no longer any need to protest human rights abuses.

But another faction continues, and similar divisions were on display in the congressional debate about the designation of March 24 as a national holiday.

Opposition parties, as expected, criticized the legislation, arguing that a policy of state terrorism began not with the military coup, but three years earlier, when General Juan Perón returned to power. But even some leading human rights advocates expressed concern that an official holiday would end up trivializing what is still a national trauma.

You can see that the opposition has not totally settled down in Argentina. Rather frightening news! The decoration is from a sad and lovely website in Argentina, a blog entry dated March 24, 2006. here With this image of so many "desaparecidos" (the lost ones -- the "disappeareds" literally), the blogger notes that 30 years ago on that day, March 24, 1976, the Argentine Armed forces took over the government, promising before God and the saints to defend Western civilization and Christianity. This (those who disappeared under the secret police regime that followed) was the result. The blogger says, "Memory is essential to avoid committing the same mistakes." The Argentine majority who observed the National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice, are determined to remember, and to avoid the same mistakes in the future. May their efforts be blessed. Never again, Argentina! Nunca Jamas!

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