Just watched the first in a series of Argentine television dramas of some of the children of “desaparecidos” (“the disappeared”) whose origins were brought to light thanks to the dogged efforts of their grandmothers. A five-handkerchief experience.
You’ve got to admire people finding the courage to dredge up the past and look it squarely in the eye. It isn’t easy to do. You’ve got enemies in powerful places – in this country, in the church and in a number of (other) conservative circles – and you’ve got your own natural desire not to dwell on things that can pull you into depression. History of the state terror is still fresh on the minds of anyone over forty in Argentina.
On March 24, 1976, there was a military coup in Argentina that lasted until the fall of the junta led government, on October 30, 1983, brought about by their abysmal failure in the Falklands War.
Liberation was in the air in the 60s and 70s, and restlessness in virtually all of the cone of South America led to rightwing crackdowns – Pinochet in Chile, the junta in Argentina, other dictatorships in Uruguay and Paraguay as well. (See Operation Condor, on Wikipedia, for more.) My interest here is with Argentina, but much of what went on here went on elsewhere, as well, particularly in Chile.
The crackdown got considerable support from those, including the American government in the person of Henry Kissinger, who saw danger in chaos. Where one man sees chaos, another man sees first steps to ridding the world of oppression, and the debate will not soon end on just how great the threat of communism was in places like Argentina. In any case, the Church and the junta joined forces and brought about a reign of terror in which up to 30,000 lost their lives. Some say things just got out of hand and others say it was in the nature of the beast to begin with. And I need to acknowledge, in passing, that the term “the Church” inevitably carries a lie by omission. There are two Latin American catholic churches, one represented by Liberation theology – a priesthood and lay populace on the vanguard of the struggle for liberty and dignity, and one represented by the establishment, the “integristas.” The term translates as fundamentalist, but carries much more of a connection of papal authoritarianism than of doctrine, as fundamentalist normally suggests in the protestant American context.
In any case, when the junta staged a coup, they called their program the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional – the National Reorganization Process. The episode is referred to, sometimes as El Proceso, sometimes as La Dictadura, (the dictatorship), sometimes as La Guerra Sucia (the Dirty War). For more, see (in Spanish) http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proceso_de_Reorganizaci%C3%B3n_Nacional or (in English) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Reorganization_Process .
If you read the English version of the Wikipedia entries, note the reference to Kissinger. It goes a long way to explaining anti-American feelings on the part of people coming out of this dark history.
I won’t discuss the facts of the dictadura; it is dealt with at great length in any number of places. I only want to note in passing that to read the papers on a daily basis – even the conservative ones – and to watch what comes across the TV screen – is to see a country slowly coming to terms with the horror of the period. If I were an Argentine, I’d be proud of what is happening. I am developing a profound respect and affection for the place from these events.
Cristian von Wernich, the priest just sentenced to life for his complicity in the terror, held out to his final day in court that he was simply working to impose divine truth on Argentina, suggesting that could only be done by the church and not by the human truth of the courts. That he continues to show absolutely no sign of contrition demonstrates the strength of the conviction people in his position have, inside the church and out, that fighting communism made it necessary for them to do some of the things they did.
The parallels with Americans justifying torture and invasion are there to be made, if you choose to, although Americans get to excuse themselves because the misery we create still falls outside the U.S. and not on American lives, except more indirectly. The justifications are the same. In a black and white world, there is nothing to prevent you from using techniques most people once associated with Nazis and the gulags of the Soviet Union. Realpolitik and utilitarian ethical thinking will never go out of style. The Argentines are being reminded in this retrospective on such justifications what can come of them. When, if ever, the majority on the American right gets to look at this picture is an open question.
The kind of television I saw last night brings home the reason this notion of “necessary evil” is so corrupt. The program was about children who were left behind when their parents were whisked away without a trace – and probably ended up being dropped into the La Plata River so they would not be able to identify their torturers – and adopted by strangers. These kids were taken in by good people; often it was members of the military themselves who took kids in, and one can only imagine the horrors of discovery that your “parents” were murderers of parents you did not know existed. You can see the stuff of TV drama potential on this, the thirtieth anniversary of the Madres and the Abuelas (grandmothers). The children involved now have children of their own pushing for more information on their family history.
The episode is a gash across the Argentine consciousness. It would be easy to run with the times and lash out unthinkingly. I am still looking for clearer proof of von Wernich’s complicity than has come from witnesses against him. I think we all could do more to consider how guilt is assessed in a world gone mad. Political correctness is an ever-present risk and there is a challenge to getting the history right.
Last night, however, I decided was a time to sit and listen to the grandmothers tell the happy story of having found some of their lost children, and watch the children deal with the circumstances of their adoption.
Makes you want to weep. Or strike out. And get a stiff drink. Not necessarily in any order.
Good, I think, that people are talking.