Friday, August 17, 2007


A sick country

It is fitting that Buenos Aires has more psychoanalysts per person than any other city in the world, for if there was ever a case study par excellence for analysis and therapy it is the Argentine republic.

Speak to a few Argentines and you will quickly hear the country’s prognosis : “this is a sick country.” That phrase is used like a motto – many Argentines say it with something approaching pride. Recently a friend sent me a photo of her back garden in Buenos Aires . The city had just seen snowfall for the first time in nearly 90 years and her lawn was a carpet of white. I got around to replying a week or so later and asked if it was still snowing. “No,” she wrote back, “the snow lasted about as long as a healthy economy around these parts.”

The economy is one reason for the country’s terminal illness, but actually Argentina has recovered from its catastrophic currency collapse in 2001 fairly well. It has paid its foreign debts, and has distanced itself from the US and the institutions whose policies and predictions caused the crisis. The story is very different in the countryside, but Buenos Aires is thriving, and has all the confidence of a leading world city (or The Greatest City in the World, as I prefer to call it).

But Argentines have seen so many economic peaks and troughs that there is a general pessimism about the country. And this does not just apply to the economy. For a country which is so proud of its dance, its literature, its football, its beef, its landscapes – for a country, in short, which feels so superior in many respects to the rest of the world, there exists a chronic psychological insecurity.

I do not know why this is, but I think it may be linked to two things, neither of which Argentina has ever dealt with, and both of which are closely linked. One is Peronism, and the other is the Dirty War.

The name of the father

Every politician nowadays is a Peronist. Carlos Menem, the former President whose loyal adherence to the US-WorldBank-IMF some blame for the 2001 collapse, was a Peronist. His politics were broadly neo-liberal : he assumed the Presidency in 1989 in the middle of economic mayhem, and launched a series of privatisations which lowered inflation at the expense of large-scale unemployment. He is also notorious for pardoning the leaders of the 1976-83 military dictatorship (of which more later).

And Nestor Kirchner, the current President, is also a Peronist. His politics are more left-wing, he has a radical Leftist past, and he has reduced the influence of the military and vowed to bring those involved in crimes against humanity during the 1976-83 dictatorship to justice. Crucially, he has also opted out of the US-led Free Trade Area of the Americas and joined forces with colleagues within the continent, such as Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales.
So you can see – Peron is a man to whom leaders of many political persuasions aspire. He is like a father-figure, a man to love and hate, but a man from whose political legacy Argentina cannot (or at least, feels it cannot) escape. There is a common pattern in Argentine politics : elect a Peronist > marvel at how the chosen one has come to rescue the country from itself > protest against the very policies you elected him in for > elect another Peronist. This is why Argentina is so fundamentally unradical – it repeats its mistakes, it convinces itself of the need for the Peronist father-figure, it cannot escape from its past.


Juan Peron himself was a curious mix. He was sympathetic to Italian Fascism (he had spent time there in the 30s) and offered protection to Nazi war criminals, yet he also unionised Argentina’s workforce, introduced radical labour reforms, industrialised the country and led what he called a third way between capitalism and communism. He was a mass of contradictions, which meant that when the military took power via a coup d’etat in 1955 and forced Peron into exile, all and sundry could quote his name in vain. Left and right alike invoked Peron (although Peronists were officially banned from political life in the late 1960s), and when they weren’t referring to Peron they were blowing each other up in his name.

In his absence, the right-wing military (with the perennial support of the Catholic Church) assumed power, and it was only in 1973, after 18 years in exile, that Peron was welcomed back to Argentina . Millions of left-wing Peronists assembled at Ezeiza National Airport in Buenos Aires to greet their hero, and a group of far-right military-backed snipers opened fire and killed 13 of them. Elections were restored in 1973, and Peron was voted back into power, but this was not an environment in which democracy could flourish, and acts of terrorism between left and right escalated.

El debut de terror : the Dirty War

When Peron died, his third wife Isabel took over as President and clamped down hard on the left-wing insurrectionists. She gave sweeping powers to her Social Welfare minister, Jose Lopez Rega – an obsessive obscurantist and Freemason and the man who had coordinated the Ezeiza massacre – to deal with the left-wing threat. He responded by setting up the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance (or ‘Triple A’) death squad. The ‘Dirty War’ against elements of subversion in Argentina had begun.

Between 1973 and 75, when Argentina was ostensibly still a democratic state, the Triple A carried out 458 assassinations of “subversives,” including Marxists, Peronists, trade unionists, lawyers, intellectuals and other left-wing “sympathisers”.

In 1974, Isabel Peron appointed Jorge Videla as Commander-in-Chief of the army. By this point, Argentina had reached a state of national emergency, with wide-scale violence between left and right. Using the need to crush the threat of Communism as a pretext, Videla led a coup d’etat to depose Peron and a military junta took power on 24 March 1976. Where the assassinations had been conducted underground, from now on they would be an official part of Argentina’s political life, part of the US-supported Operation Condor, whose mission it was to eradicate Communism in Latin America through any means necessary.


“As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure,” Videla said in 1976. Another general went one further, estimating the numbers involved : “we are going to have to kill 50,000 people : 25,000 subversives, 20,000 sympathisers, and we will make 5,000 mistakes.” And the junta’s definition of a subversive?

“El terrorista no solo es considerado tal por matar con un arma o colocar una bomba,” he told British reporters, “sino por activar a traves de ideas contrarias a nuestra civilizacion occidental y Cristiana a otras personas.” Or to translate : “we do not consider a terrorist just to be somebody who kills with ammunition or lets off a bomb, but also someone who inspires other people through ideas which are contrary to our western, Christian society.”


By the time the junta lost power in 1983, when democracy was restored to Argentina , it is estimated that 30,000 people had been killed, kidnapped tortured or otherwise “disappeared.”

Ending the silence

In 2005 President Nestor Kirchner withdrew the amnesty which had protected the leaders and collaborators of the junta from prosecution. Since then there has been a slow trickle of cases coming to trial. The influence of the army has declined in the last 20 years, and Argentines will shed few tears over any ex-generals who are convicted of crimes. The more difficult thing for Argentina to face up to is the complicity of the Church in the Dirty War.

In the days leading up to 24 March 1976, senior representatives from the Church had met with military leaders and advocated “hard and violent measures” to deal with subversion. “The heads of the Catholic Church participated in the dictatorship,” says Nora Cortinas of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the group of women who lost their children in the Dirty War and who meet every Thursday outside the country’s parliament building to ensure politicians cannot forget their tragedy. “Many priests were chaplains inside the barracks of the concentration camps.”

The Nunca Mas (Never Again) report on the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, set up in 1983 to investigate human rights abuses perpetrated during the military dictatorship, gave testimony after testimony detailing the Church’s involvement. The writer and activist Horatio Verbitsky, states in his book El Silencio (The Silence) that it was the Church which suggested that the infamous “vuelos de muerte,” the “flights of death” where victims were killed by being dropped into the Atlantic from an aeroplane, were a Christian form of death.

The Nunca Mas report provided enough witness statements to quash any real doubt about the Church’s and the military’s involvement in the atrocities, but it is only now that those responsible are being brought to justice. In fact, the most prominent of these, Father Christian von Wernich, is only the third person to come to court since the withdrawal of the amnesty. Von Wernich is an extreme – he is accused of covering up crimes in seven deaths, 31 cases of torture, and 42 cases of illegal imprisonment – but as Horatio Verbitsky says, “it is an extreme within a continuum. There is a point at which it’s impossible to distinguish the priest from a cop. I mean, he was personally torturing people.”


A week or so ago, the Buenos Aires daily Pagina 12¸reported that four boxes of documents had been found in a prison in the province of La Rioja. The papers provide details of political detainees, records of guard-duties and written evidence that other senior ecclesiastical figures were directly involved in acts of torture and detention during the dictatorship. The Trade Unionist Plutarco Antonio Schaller testified to the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons to the involvement of one of these senior figures, Father Pelanda Lopez, some twenty years ago :

... the chaplain Pelanda López visited me briefly on Sundays, chatting for a short while in the cells. He would justify torture. On one occasion one of the detainees told him. 'Father, they are torturing me terribly during interrogations and I beg you to intercede to stop them from torturing me any more.' Pelanda López replied, 'Well, my son, but what do you expect if you don't cooperate with the authorities interrogating vou?' On another occasion I told the chaplain that they could not possibly continue to torture me as they were doing, to which Pelanda López replied, 'You have no right to complain about the torture.'

In January 2007, Isabel Peron was arrested in Spain because of her links with far-right terrorists, and there have recently been allegations that officers tortured and killed their own troops during the Falklands conflict.


Even more significantly, in April, the amnesty given to Jorge Videla in 1990 which protected him from charges of human rights abuses was rescinded by the Supreme Court. He is now due to stand trial. It is to be hoped that the victims of Videla, a close friend and ally of the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, will not be deprived of justice in the way that the Chilean nation was. The process of bringing murderer and torturers to justice will be slow and cumbersome, but without it Argentina might never account for that dark period in its history, a period which it is so loath to discuss.


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