When Maria Eugenia Vidal was elected Governor of Buenos Aires province in December 2015, she called Santiago Canton and offered him the job of heading the province’s Department of Human Rights. Canton at that time was living in the States, working between NYC, Washington and Florence. After 11 years as Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), he’d taken reins at the global Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights foundation and frequently enjoyed fully reclining seats on business flights. Challenged by the prospect of a career move to his native province, Canton accepted Vidal’s offer.
He knew before unpacking in his new La Plata office as Buenos Aires Human Rights Secretary that he would have some heavy business to deal with: a fetidly corrupt and brutal police force, some of the worst prisons he’s seen while working in the field, and a Méliès style of partisan politics. “The defense of human rights should be based on rights, not on ideology,” says the former UBA and Georgetown University professor.
But this is Argentina, a land where sausage sandwiches are used as a political weaponry. Ideological inclinations are almost inherent to all, people and food alike, and Canton is no exception, although he is a bit of shock to the status quo.
CFK fan, Santiago Canton is not. He got along well with kirchnerism until Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana quit and was replaced by Héctor Timerman. As head of the IACHR, every invitation he ever requested to CFK’s administration was declined. However he does agree that some good work was done, in terms of “Remembrance, Truth and Justice,” especially concerning the persecution of crimes that took place during the last dictatorship. Right now, he is pursuing projects taken on by his Kirchnerite Human Rights Secretary predecessor, Guido Carlotto – grandson of Estella de Carlotto, president of Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo – something that he is proud to be doing.
On the other hand, he thinks there’s some hypocrisy among hardcore Kirchnerites who had Timerman pleading before the Organization of American States for the abolition of injunctions, “the measures they are now asking be applied to free Milagro Sala”.
Speaking of Milagro Sala, he’s not a Cambiemos hardliner either. He’s expressed his opposition to the preventive jailing of the indigenous community organizer, arrested for protesting in Jujuy in the first month of post-kirchnerism. Canton openly recommends that Sala be freed, as the UN observers requested in their last visit.
He’s also taken a stand against Justice Minister Germán Garavano’s project of reducing the criminal accountability age from 16 to 14. “If you lock up a 14 year-old in an unfit prison system, the person you release 4, 5 or 6 years later will just be in worse conditions and you’ll only have made the future worse.” He’s thinks that Argentina should adopt a non punitive correctional system for minors, setting them apart from the 18+ legislation. When asked what he thought about the pepper-spraying of the teachers and unionists on Plaza Congreso last Sunday, he prudently replied that “things could have been handled better.”
However, don’t be mistaken, he’s not a black sheep within Cambiemos either — rather one of the more moderate voices in the coalition. He defends his team when he states that in his department, people are doing a great deal of necessary work right now, like digitalizing birth certificates emitted during the military era, as requested by Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, or providing trainings and workshops to Bonaerense cops about human rights. That doesn’t stop him from also being critical and siding with the opposition at times, like condemning the Director of the Customs Agency (DGA), Juan José Gomez Centurión, for claiming that a systematic plan to kill thousands of Argentines had never existed during the rule of the military junta.
“I obviously said it was wrong: it is, and I’m not minimizing that. But if you look at actions, what is the gravest act of denial of the military’s violations since the return of democracy? A President who names someone who abducted and disappeared people during the dictatorship as Chief of Army. That is the worst form of denial, the appointment of César Milani.”
Nobody ever said that Canton had to be neutral, he’s got his convictions and they’re strong. The perennity of the human rights projects started before him is one of those beliefs: “If we really want to have these rights, we have to start building block upon block and stop tearing down everything that’s been done before us”. Among Kirchnerite projects he’s pursuing, Canton confirms that the Transsexual Public Workers Law’s regulation should be out in a couple of weeks. What is clear though is that Canton is a man to keep an eye on. He might just be the man to take politics out of human rights in Argentina.