The Macri administration is advancing its project to move the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights to the Space for Memory and the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. The site was formerly the Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics (ESMA), the clandestine detention and torture center most emblematic of the last military dictatorship. Some 5,000 Argentines were held there between 1976 and 1983, according to UN reports.
The move is key for Macri’s administration, which in the past has been accused of “turning the other cheek” in response to atrocities committed during the dictatorship. A group of lawyers involved in prosecuting crimes against humanity, for example, reported at a conference in 2016 that the government had dismantled investigations, delayed criminal trials of ex-military officers, and downsized the Ministry of Human Rights.
Although Congress converted the ex-ESMA into the Space for Memory and the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights in 2004, several of its buildings are deteriorating. Flooding is common, and sewage and electrical pipes need fixing. The Space theoretically functions under the tripartite auspices of the federal government, the city of Buenos Aires, and a group of human rights organizations. The government, however, has historically neglected its part. “It is often forgotten,” Minister Germán Garavano told La Nación yesterday, “that my assignment is Human Rights and not only Justice. Our goal is to restore the equilibrium.” The move will additionally save the government 30 million pesos in annual rent.
The site now houses a museum of memory; historical archives; a cultural space for cinema, theater, music, and workshops; an identification center for families of desaparecidos; and several public television networks. Garavano plans to oversee plumbing and electrical works and offered to install a dining room and multiuse auditorium as part of the transfer. He supports UNESCO’s plan to declare the property a World Heritage Site, among the ranks of Auschwitz and Robben Island in South Africa.
Among the project’s interlocutors is Estela de Carlotto, president of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, who previously accused Macri of trying to erase popular memory of the dictatorship. “Although we have differences with the government,” she told La Nación, “we do not oppose the move. What we wouldn’t tolerate would be the placement of a ministry that has nothing to do with memory.” She has recently met several times with government officials, in the hopes that the move will boost official support for public remembrance.
Blueprints will be sent to the Space for Memory for approval this week, after which the government will begin contracting works. Garavano anticipates the transfer of 350 people over the next two years to “Building 11,” an unoccupied section of the ex-ESMA.