On the morning after President Mauricio Macri won his historic victory ending 12 years of Kirchnerism in Argentina, the head of conservative news publication La Nación published an editorial with a stunning reactionary line.
In it, the authors called for an end to the trials of former dictatorship-era repressors launched by Néstor Kirchner’s government which were praised ever since by human rights groups and champions the world over.
The response to the editorial was an overwhelmingly united one, criticizing the decision to publish it. Hundreds of journalists at the newspaper came together and released a statement completely rejecting the Op-ed, which was roundly criticized by almost all other media in the country with varying degrees of anger and rejection.
At least one journalist who had protested the editorial was sacked quietly by La Nación leadership, but the apparent consensus after this gross, triumphalist misstep by the newspaper’s directors seemed clear: any public attempt to re-embrace those affiliated with the fascist dictatorship of the generals, any moves towards winding down the ongoing trials of the former oppressors, any loud noises made in the direction of downplaying the horrors of the military junta would be rejected outright across the political divide.
In what was another example of the continued presence of conciliatory voices on the right of Argentine politics regarding the dictatorship, City Culture Minister Darío Lopérfido said the following this week:
“In Argentina, there weren’t as many as 30,000 people disappeared, that number was fixed behind closed doors,” he told an audience in Pinamar during a conference hosted by Margen del Mundo.
Let’s pick this statement apart, starting backwards. “This number was chosen behind closed doors.” That is more or less true, though the reality was probably far less conspiratorial than he suggested, since it was a more multi-faceted process whereby human rights organizations and the Victory Front (FpV) government gradually began revising the figure of 8,960 supplied by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP).
They did so with good reason, because as CONADEP specifically stated in its 1984 report regarding the names of those disappeared:
“Clearly the list is not exhaustive. It was compiled on the basis of depositions received by this Commission… We also know that in many cases depositions were not filed at all, either because the victims had no relatives or because the relatives were frightened or lived a long distance from the center of town. This was confirmed by the Commission when we went to the interior of the country. Relatives of people who had disappeared said that in the past few years they had not known where to go for help.”
“The list of people seen in secret detention centers is also a partial one… Finally, it has to be said that a complete list of people who disappeared and an account of what happened to them may only be provided by those who were responsible for causing the disappearances,” the Commission said.
So when Lopérfido claimed with apparent certainty that, “in Argentina, there weren’t as many as 30,000 people disappeared,” he presented us with a problem. Why? Because nobody knows. It is worth reiterating again: CONADEP said specifically that the number it provided was not exhaustive. That means there is a high probability that the total number of disappeared people was significantly higher than that which it gave based on the limited resources available to it.
There is further information to suggest that the 8,960 figure, though accurate in and of itself, is too low. For example, as the Latin American Herald Tribune pointed out:
“The National Security Archive, a Washington-based research outfit, has obtained US government documents that mention a 1978 report from Chilean military intelligence which speaks of more than 22,000 people killed by the Argentine junta.”
This is worth considering because terrorist military states of the time were routinely sharing information with each other and with the US as part of Operation Condor — a coordinated program to repress left-wing politics and dissent between the military dictatorships and the US government. They collectively spied on the entire region during this time and so had intimate knowledge about the crimes being committed across Latin America.
Back in the present, the debate surrounding the number has produced immense and bitter argument in Argentina and, when we regard the fallout from what Lopérfido said, still does.
But I would suggest that an argument over exactly how many thousands of people were abducted, tortured and killed is a false one, and not only because the complete total will likely remain unknowable due to the clandestine nature of the atrocities.
When we look back at the state terror committed by the military between 1976 and 1983, we ought to try and understand the underlying reasons why such heinous crimes were committed and theorize as to how we might prevent similar barbarism in the future.
As Lopérfido himself said when he chose to defend his comments earlier in the week, anyone disappeared by the military is a tragedy. He was in fact quoting Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association’s firebrand Hebe de Bonafini’s own comments criticizing his statements, but the point remains the same and completely correct, making the continued and intense discussion over precisely how many people were disappeared puzzling.
Call Me Joe
Defending himself, Lopérfido said his remarks were taken out of context. So let’s look at some of the other things he said during his monologue and from where they came.
While he did not go so far as to call for an end to the dictatorship-era trials (and face contradicting President Mauricio Macri’s own line that they must continue), his sentiments did reflect some of those made in the reactionary editorial insofar as it said, “the election of a new government is a propitious moment to end the lies about the ’70s,” which are supposedly related to the very political chaos of that time and the lack of credible solutions.
Lopérfido attempted some conciliatory myth busting on behalf of the military too, condemning the “20 or 30 years of lies, absolute lies,” about the years of the last military dictatorship.
(Audio available here courtesy of Infobae).
He told the audience in Pinamar that the 1976-83 dictatorship could not be compared to the Nazi regime because the Third Reich set up concentration camps to kill people “who thought differently from them.”
While he was right to be skeptical of rushed historical comparisons, however, it looks like he was wrong in this instance because we know in great detail about the concentration camps set up by the military during the dictatorship to get rid of people who thought differently from them, even if they seized power as an end in itself rather than in a crusade for the greater good.
The entire premise that generals like Jorge Rafael Videla gave for abolishing democracy and commencing a reign of terror unparalleled in the nation’s history, which they reiterated during their trials, proves this. “We agreed that it was the price to win the war against subversion,” Videla told an interviewer at the time his retrial a few years ago.
Red scare witch hunts, sponsored by the Unites States government and the CIA, happened all over Latin America at this time under Operation Condor, and the results were concentration camps and systematic human rights abuses — often targeting socialists and others on the left of the political spectrum.
The scales between the crimes of fascist dictatorships in the ’40s and the worldwide ideological battles of the Cold War differed. The attempted legitimization and state-sponsored barbarity did not.
Lopérfido continues to insist that his words were not contextualized (decide for yourself with a full audio clip here) and referenced one or two studies (out of many) from which he drew his criticism of those who maintain that tens of thousands were disappeared by the dictatorship.
Yet his attack of the left wing Peronist urban guerilla group, the Montoneros, who operated in Argentina at the time, came in the same breath as his demotion of the number of crimes committed by the military. As such it wafted whiffs of far-right sympathies more than it did constructive historical criticism.
Arguments such as these have historical precedent. In much the same way as the critics of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) were swift to denounce their legitimacy and deny the nuances behind the use of violence against South African apartheid (i.e. that it was a direct reaction to systemic violence and repression by the State), Lopérfido sought to attack an enemy of a violent fascist dictatorship while simultaneously diminishing its own crimes against humanity.
His smearing of the Montoneros reflected a level of virulent political bias similar to that of the urban guerilla group (though on the other end of the political spectrum).
Polarizing rhetoric was something Macri had promised to clamp down on during his presidency and which now on the contrary appears to be morphing into the proverbial hydra, with new gnashing heads and teeth springing up like whack-a-moles everywhere.
The “Why” Of The Thing
Lopérfido’s statements to this effect, which he himself labelled a personal “crusade” against “lies,” were underlined by their crystalline lack of subtlety (let alone tact).
They were accompanied by his reference to the bipolar “Dirty War” narrative. This has long since been discarded along with the phrase itself by many conscientious surveyors of the dictatorship, who have said that describing the military’s seven-year reign of terror as anything remotely resembling a conventional “war” does severe disservice to the civilians who were its victims.
Few defend the Montoneros assassinations as anything other than the ideological, illegal murders they were. But verbally connecting the military’s crimes with the Montoneros’ actions in the same breath smacks of historical naivety. Indeed, as we will see below, it actually acquiesces to the military’s own reasons for seizing power i.e. that they were forced to on behalf of the greater good to win the “war against subversion.”
Those of us who take a more cynical view of military coups and their usual results understand as Orwell did that power is not seized by force for the greater good as coup-makers often have us believe.
“The party seized power entirely for its own means. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me,” as O’Brien tells Winston Smith while torturing him in 1984.
Seeking to further smear a group that posed a committed armed resistance to Argentina’s most horrific dictatorship in another bout of government-sponsored McCarthyism was hardly a smart move from the City culture minister and not especially necessary, since we know of and condemn the Montoneros’ criminal assassinations just as we do the death flights conducted by the military with their victims.
In this way, his wider rant simultaneously attacked the former enemies of the dictatorship and sought to downplay its atrocities.
Minimizing The Crimes
Lopérfido’s polemic will continue to be discussed, even as Macri’s government distances itself from what he said without actually taking any action against him specifically (so far).
It is worth noting though that his statements (and numbers) chimed almost exactly with what the architect of Argentina’s mass murdering regime, Videla, said during the 2010 interviews he gave at the time of his retrial.
Insisting on the “limited” nature of the repression, Videla defended himself by admitting finally that there had been disappeared persons.
“Let’s say there were 7,000 or 8,000 people who needed to die to win the war against subversion,” he said, tying the oppression directly, as Lopérfido appeared to do, directly with subsequent human rights abuses committed by the military.
Today, this whole incident has shown how the struggle for Argentina’s recent past is far from over. Clearly, there are without doubt numerous people who feel an insatiable need to re-dredge what I suggest is a fatuous numerical debate and in doing so, minimize the crimes of the last military dictatorship.
For those who prefer to side with the interpretation of mass murder given by the most human rights advocates and organizations over those who committed the atrocities, how to interpret the City culture minister’s ill-advised statements will likely be pretty clear.