|Francisco Madariaga Quintela and his father|
I saw a documentary years ago now that I can no longer place. It was about goings-on in Latin America. Jeane Kirkpatrick was coming out of a meeting with Augusto Pinochet and a reporter with a microphone was asking her what she thought of him. “Muy amable,” she said, smiling. “Muy amable.”
I felt a coldness in my spine I rarely feel. A laser-beam loathing for this woman. Pinochet was already known as a ruthless torturer and killer of his political opponents, and here we had this official voice of the American government calling the guy a nice man. All the ugliness of American foreign policy, the wars to further American interests, the training of thugs at the School of the Americas, as it was then called, evidence that American complicity in torture didn’t begin at Guantanamo, all seemed to be summed up in this wretched woman’s assessment of a “very amiable” dictator.
Kirkpatrick was Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy advisor and creator of the so-called “Kirkpatrick Doctrine” which advocated support for totalitarian dictatorships like the ones in the cone - Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile – under the guise of fighting communism.
I blogged back in 2007 about my obsession with Father Cristian Wernich, the priest who participated in torture of the Argentine government’s political enemies during la guerra sucia (the “dirty war”), as it has come to be called, when they used to take young leftist idealists and make them disappear. They would claim ignorance of their whereabouts after taking them up in military airplanes and dropping them into the ocean to drown. (If your Spanish is up to it, here is a ten-minute summary of the charges against this man. I still choke up every time I hear the sentence announced and the cheers of the crowd, knowing that justice has come at last.)
That trial was five years ago already. Argentina is a completely different place. Still troubled economically and not as stable as most Argentines would like, it is free of the curse of U.S. supported dictators who knew how to play the anti-communism card to keep their hold on power.
Five years since that trial which I’ll never forget, and this morning, it all comes back with the news that they have just completed the long drawn out case against two Argentina leaders, Jorge Rafael Videla and Reynaldo Bignone. Videla was the architect of the sinister plan to kidnap the children of the enemies of the state and turn them over to the kidnappers and murderers, a notion that could only have been hatched in hell.
The good news is they gave Videla an additional 50 years on his life sentence and Bignone 15. Absurd sentences if you think logically. Richly satisfying sentences if you are committed to a sense of justice. Seven others were convicted as well. The bad news is you can’t bring people back to life once you’ve dropped them from airplanes. And in most cases, you can’t put the lives of the 300 to 500 children of these victims back together, either.
One of the difficulties in dealing with this period of history, from 1976 to 1983, similar to the difficulties in dealing with any exercise of ruthlessness by the Hitlers, Pol Pots, Charles Taylors, Pinochets and Saddam Husseins of the world, is that the attention necessary to prosecute their crimes tends to curdle the blood and tax your ability to keep the bile from overflowing. Dropping people from airplanes is possibly the most merciful part of this story. (Unless you can put yourself into the head of a 21-year-old falling from the sky and feeling her lungs fill with water, that is.)
For me the psychological cruelty perpetrated by Videla and others of the dictadura is even worse than the physical torture. Along with the policy of “disappearing” people they created a policy of systematic abduction of their children. In some cases babies were kidnapped right out of the uterus, by Caesarian section, and handed over to the very people torturing them, to raise as their own.
Abuela – grandmother – is a beautiful word in any language, but in Argentina there is the image of thousands of mothers and grandmothers who refused to let time heal their pain through forgetfulness. They fought on, the madres demanding justice and recognition of the crimes, and the abuelas working to get their children's children back. Nobody knows the exact number of children missing, but the figure is usually estimated at between 300 and 500. Children stolen from parents just before those parents were killed – and handed over to their killers. I know I’m repeating myself, but it takes time for this to sink in.
If you haven’t seen the 1985 film, The Official Story (La Historia Oficial) make a point of finding it, if you can. It was the first Latin American film to win an Oscar for best foreign film.
For Americans, there is a side to this story that should not be missed. According to AP wireservices, Elliott Abrams, who was Secretary of State for Latin American affairs during those dirty years, testified by videoconference and let it be known that the Reagan government was aware of the disappearances. They “knew that it wasn’t just one or two children.”In a book by Martin Edwin Andersen, called Dossier Secreto, which the New York Times called a “tour de force,” Andersen, a professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and onetime aid to Senate Majority Whip Alan Cranston, details the junta’s celebration of the shift from Jimmy Carter’s administration, whose human rights policy was causing them serious distress, to Ronald Reagan’s.
According to an Alternet article from this morning,
When President Jimmy Carter’s human rights coordinator, Patricia Derian, berated the Argentine junta for its brutality, Reagan used his newspaper column to chide her, suggesting that Derian should “walk a mile in the moccasins” of the Argentine generals before criticizing them.
At least we have the satisfaction of knowing justice was brought a little closer with the decision to add more years to the life sentences of Videla and Bignone. And if you dig a little, you may come up with additional bits to lift the heart and calm the rage.
In addition to the horror in the stories behind the Videla/Bignone and Cristian Wernich verdicts, there is also the heroism in the stories of attempts to track down the kidnapped children of the Disappeared. One of those stories made headlines in February of 2010. It’s the story of Francisco Madariaga.
The story actually starts with Pablo and Carolina, two children adopted by Norberto Atilio Bianco, an Argentine military doctor and his wife, Susana Wehrli, who left Argentina to live in Paraguay when the Argentine military dictatorship collapsed. And just as they felt the need to escape the justice they might face in the new Argentina, many of those who had fled the military dictatorship were now returning. One of those was Abel Madariaga, who had been living first in Brazil, then in Sweden. Abel returned to Argentina as soon as he could in 1983 and came to believe that the son born in 1977 to his wife, Silvia Quintela, might be this boy Pablo, and that the doctor father who had raised him might have been involved in his wife Silvia’s death.
Madariaga petitioned the Paraguayan authorities to conduct a DNA test to resolve the question of paternity. For ten years they refused until finally, under pressure from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, they relented. For reasons not clear to me, the new Argentina government apparently managed to have them extradited to Buenos Aires to face charges.
Madariaga was not to get satisfaction, however. Pablo and Carolina both had established families by now in Paraguay, and did not want to know if Madariaga’s charges had any substance. They refused to go to Argentina or to submit to DNA testing.
That is the story, at least, as told by Robert Parry, writing today in AlterNet. It would appear there is some considerable delay between the filing of his story and the big news of the past few days, however. Parry missed a very important second story.
Elsewhere in Argentina, a boy grew up with the name of Alejandro Ramiro Gallo. After Alejandro’s parents' marriage fell apart (his father was jailed for murder at one point), Alejandro began to suspect he was adopted. He confronted his mother and she broke down and told him the truth. The two then went together to consult with the Abuelas working so hard to reunite families, and Alejandro took a DNA test.
Meanwhile, Abel Madariaga had joined the grandmothers’ group - the first man ever to do so – and was around when the tests came back. Alejandro Ramiro Gallo doesn’t use that name any more. The DNA tests showed him to be Abel's son. He now goes by his birth name unknown to him just a short time ago. He is Francisco Madariaga Quintela. The two had found each other after 32 years.
There is a p.s. to the story in an earlier HuffPost which contains this interesting information:
Former Capt. Victor Gallo and his ex-wife Susana Colombo, were sentenced to 15 and five years in jail, respectively. Their adopted son, Alejandro, now Francisco Madariaga, testified against them and said he hoped their sentences would set an example.One can only wonder what mixed feelings the boy had testifying against the mother who raised him. True, she was an accomplice to the kidnapping. But she was also a victim of her husband’s violence and she went with her adopted son to contact the abuelas and help him reunite with the father who had spent the last thirty-two years searching for him.