Tourists in Buenos Aires don’t take pictures of auto inspection garages in Floresta, a working-class neighborhood, but I was not exactly a tourist and I knew this place as something else.
I had seen it before — if only in photographs more than a decade old. It looked changed.
“Hey, what are you doing? Come over here.”
The attendant at the gate was dressed in civilian clothes, but the tone and demeanor suggested a cop, someone used to people obeying his commands. I obeyed.
“What do you think you are doing?”
I looked down. I looked both ways. I stammered.
All of a sudden I was a scared kid again.
“You can’t take pictures. This is police property. You have an ID?”
“No, not with me. I have them in my car, next block. Want me to go get them?”
It sounded so naive it made him pause. We both just stood there, looking at the camera.
I didn’t know if he was going to grab it and demand I give up the film or call other cops and take me in.
Then, oddly, he asked me where I lived.
“Miami. I work for The Miami Herald.”
He hesitated again. This time, I turned around and slowly, very slowly, I walked away. I wanted to run.
I expected he was going to yell at me to stop. I didn’t know what I would do. I had a flash of people chasing after me,
grabbing me. I imagined insults, punches, kicks. It was 1976, I was 22 again, the cops and the military had
life and death powers over me and this place was a police garage but also El Olimpo, Olympus,
one of the clandestine concentration camps in Buenos Aires, a place of torture and death.
I got to the car where my driver was waiting. I wanted to scream at him to wake up, drive off. Get me out. Now.
Instead, I coolly gave directions and we moved on to the next place on my list, an auto body shop nearby. It was known back then as Automotores Orletti because of the sign over what had been an old car workshop. It was also a secret detention and torture center. And from there we went to Tiro Federal, a firing range where a guerrilla commando ambushed the army van I was in (I was a draftee) and killed my captain. And after that, to the Navy’s Mechanic’s School, known as ESMA. In this place an estimated 5,000 people were killed, some thrown from airplanes into the South Atlantic, alive but drugged. Others were allegedly killed and buried on the school grounds.
Today, ESMA is shrouded by a kind of severe Ivy League gentility of neatly trimmed lawns, clean paths and white buildings. A true Harvard of death.
A proposal in January by President Carlos S. Menem to tear down ESMA and create a park “that would be a symbol of national reconciliation” instead created an uproar. Memory in Argentina, has a price of anger, fear, and shame. But then, no society that comes face to face with its own evil should expect, or want, to shrug it off with a handful of verdicts, the formalities of democracy and the
spoils of a growing economy. Such suffering by so many deserves better.
The guerrillas who dreamed of change and social justice achieved by the power of the gun and the military who kidnapped, tortured and murdered to protect what it defined as Argentina’s Western, Christian way of life, were not space aliens. They were Argentines — and they were not alone. An evil of such magnitude could not have been carried out so efficiently for so long by a small group of people. Many collaborated.
So how did one of the richest, best-educated nations in the hemisphere descend into such homicidal madness? Where were we good, decent, ordinary Argentines? How did we allow it to happen?
Mine was a ghastly tour but I needed to see. I made myself see.
A Tough Hand
I lived most of my life in Argentina under military rule.
From 1930, when a democratically elected civilian president was overthrown by a military coup, to 1983, when the military junta conceded elections, civilians were elected only with the consent of the military and proved powerless, inept or both.
I grew up hearing pleas for “an honest military man,” a severe, all-powerful father-like figure who would straighten out, once and for all, the mess made by politicians. It was a yearning for order above all, no matter the price. Lo que hace falta acá es una mano dura, alguien que de leña , what is needed here is a tough hand, someone not afraid to give a good beating, one refrain went.
For me, government overthrows and their inescapable routine of patriotic marches on the radio and military trucks rolling around the city were as much a part of childhood as homework in my mom’s kitchen and fistfights at my Saturday soccer game.
In every coup, the armed forces took political power, and with it, the mantle of moral arbiters. They turned the country into a barrack. Discipline was paramount. Obedience was the rule. Challenging authority was unthinkable.
The military dictators intervened not only in strategic industries but in universities, athletic organizations, and radio stations. There were not only uniforms for high-schoolers, but also dress codes for civilians. At one point, I can’t remember under which junta now, shorts and sandals could not be worn in public. There were rules about facial hair — no beards or mustaches for any official picture ID — and restrictions on amorous behavior. As a teenager, a friend of mine was necking with his girlfriend at a secluded spot in a park when suddenly the police drove up, lights ablaze, zigzagging through the trees, demanding identification cards and lecturing them on morals before shooing them from the area.
It took distance and years for me to realize how this militarization of our life, little by little, numbed us to violence, dulled our capacity to question, made us citizens of an occupied country, no longer our own.
A New Word for Horror
I was 16 and in my last year of high school in 1970 when I heard that the Montoneros, a group of guerrillas, had kidnapped retired general and former President Pedro Aramburu. I didn’t know who he was or why he was important — he had been a leader of the 1955 coup that overthrew the government of democratically elected Gen. Juan Peron — and yet I felt something was happening, something dramatically different.
These Montoneros guys were a change — and it was about time. The military had bullied us civilians with impunity for so long and here was someone, people not much older than me or my friends, standing up to them and pushing back. And so it was, street rules as national politics. That’s as deep as it got for some of us in those days.
Then we watched in horror as our champions proved just as brutal as our tormentors.
After a mock trial at a secret location, Aramburu was “convicted” for the 1956 killing of Gen. Juan Jose Valle, the leader of a failed uprising against the military dictatorship that succeeded Peron. In the aftermath, Valle and 26 of his followers were executed by firing squad, an unprecedented act in modern Argentine life.
Now Aramburu himself was sentenced to death and executed. Peron, from exile, approved.
We were rushing into a catastrophe.
Seemingly overnight, several guerrilla groups exploded onto the political scene.
There had been short-lived attempts at guerrilla warfare in Argentina’s Northeast in 1964 and 1968 — part of Che Guevara’s legacy. Now there were several well-armed, determined, and disciplined groups championing a variety of leftist ideologies challenging the military, the police, and the political establishment with bank robberies, kidnappings, and assassinations.
The government responded with more repression.
Soon not only guerrillas and security forces were at war, but also right-wing Peronist death squads, parapolice and paramilitary groups, gangs of rightist labor union enforcers, and even armed Catholic right-wing groups — to name a few.
Battle lines blurred.
The guerrillas went after senior military or police officers, but also, in time, their own dissidents. The parapolice and paramilitary bands and the union thugs set out to kidnap, torture, and murder presumed leftists — but eventually also targeted military, union men and each other as personal and territorial disputes grew.
Businessmen paid both sides for protection.
I was not fearful. I was in a daze. The suddenness, the viciousness of the situation took me by surprise. The news in the paper, the images on TV, the unmarked cars speeding by, sirens wailing, were from a familiar place that I didn’t know.
When someone actually counted, we had had, between May 1973 and April 1974, 1,760 politically motivated armed incidents. A year later, in the same period, it had escalated to 2,425, and between May ’75 and March ’76 the number reached 4,324.
Contributing to the chaos, the presidency changed hands twice in 1973 before Juan Peron, the crucial figure in modern Argentine politics was voted back into office after an 18-year exile. But Peron died in July 1974 and was succeeded by Vice President Maria Estela Martinez de Peron, better known as Isabel. A political neophyte, Peron’s widow had made the ticket as a compromise choice between the warring factions in Peronism.
It was the inept Isabel Peron who, in February 1975, charged the armed forces 0with “the eradication of subversive elements.” A few months later, Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, the army commander, said that: “As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure.”
Gen. Videla, army commander and president of the governing military junta
The economy was in shambles, racked by inflation. The prices in the stores changed hourly. Unemployment kept on rising. It was the witches’ brew that conjured Nazism in Germany and fascism in Italy. In Argentina, the worst instincts of a society educated under decades of an authoritarian culture, numbed by frustration, shaped by a malignant respect for the power of the gun, were unleashed. We fell to the rule of fear, anger, and despair.
The old longing for order became blinding. Many of us just wanted the trains to run on time, the garbage picked up, the bums removed from the street, by someone, somehow, no questions asked.
It all played into the hands of the military.
As they brushed the helpless Peron aside and set out to wipe out all real, perceived, or potential opposition, the junta members were lionized in the press, welcomed by bankers, church leaders, and housewives alike. The great poet Jorge Luis Borges, in a remark he later came to regret, said “Now we are governed by gentlemen.”
Even the guerrillas hailed the coup as an event that, in the jargon of the day, “would sharpen the contradictions.”
This was no mere grab for power. This coup had a plan and a credo. The armed forces claimed they were defending nothing less than Christian and Western values.
The enemy was anyone who disagreed. “Terrorism is not only killing with a weapon or planting a bomb,” said Videla, “but also activating people through ideas contrary to our Christian and Western Civilization.”
Political activists, artists, lawyers, priests, teachers, psychologists, labor organizers, students, housewives, all became suspects — along with their relatives, their friends, the friends of their friends. There was no room for dissent.
In May 1977, Gen. Iberico Saint-Jean, governor of the province of Buenos Aires, was quoted as saying: “First we will kill all the subversives, then we will kill their collaborators, then . . . their sympathizers, then . . . those who remain indifferent and, finally, we will kill the timid.”
What followed was a vast campaign of state terror unprecedented in Argentine history. Its main instruments were wholesale kidnapping, torture, and murder made more terrifying by a calculated arbitrariness and a cloak of civility. The trains did run on time.
The savagery, the military argued cynically, was an unfortunate byproduct of war.
It is a disputed claim.
In its final report, published March 1983, the military claimed victory over 25,000 subversives. But El Mito de la Guerra Sucia (The myth of the Dirty War) published in 1984 by an Argentine human rights group argues that “at their peak [in 1974-75] the insurgents were no more than 2,000, of which only 20 percent were armed. . . . The armed and security forces numbered approximately 200,000 men
and had one of the most modern infrastructures in the world. . . . We can only talk about a war in a metaphorical sense.”
What the numbers suggest is that the guerrilla was an excuse for the military’s own designs — which came to include outright thievery and child stealing. By mid-1976, perhaps earlier judging by the army’s own reports, the guerrilla groups were finished, the leaders dead or in exile.
Yet between 1976 and 1982 in Argentina there were at least 340 clandestine detention centers and concentration camps. By the time the Dirty War was over, between 9,000 and 30,000 had lost their lives and Argentina had contributed a new word to the world’s language of horror: desaparecido, disappeared.
The Firing Range
I was drafted for military service in 1975. After basic training, I was sent to a communications unit, based at the Army General Command building in downtown Buenos Aires. It was a lucky draw. At the end of the day, if I was not on sentry duty, I would take the bus home.
Within the unit I was assigned to the armory, sharing duties with Dario, another draftee.
We had met at basic training. There he had seemed a bit rough around the edges and goofy. His most memorable trait was that while most of us whined about military life all day, he never did. “ Yo me la banco, ” I can take it, was his line.
One on one, he revealed himself smarter and gentler than he first appeared. Still, neither one of us was a big talker so we said little. We did not socialize outside the army building. We played soccer once. That was it.
But then, we spent entire days locked in a small room together, in a numbing daily routine of cleaning weapons, basic repairs, and inventory. It was more than enough.
When we got the order to test the weapons, it was a welcome change of pace. We´would load a van with semi-automatic rifles, pistols, machine guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition, and drive across town to a shooting range. We would test and write a report on each weapon. Then we would drive back. I never thought of the danger.
Looking back, it was sheer lunacy.
Here was a van, clearly marked as a military vehicle, full of weapons, at the height of the guerrilla uprising, crossing the city, twice, without escort and defended only by a captain, a sergeant, and three or four poorly trained draftees squeezed into two seats.
On Monday, Aug. 18, we went on our last run. That day seven of us crowded in the van. I was in the back seat squeezed with two other guys, holding the loaded rifles straight up between our legs. We arrived at the range and it was closed. The captain was incensed.
As we turned to leave we saw a man in officer’s uniform with two impeccably dressed men in suits and ties, sporting sunglasses and holding machine guns, bodyguards I assumed, walking toward the van. I don’t know why I remember thinking about making it back to the office for lunch. As he got closer we saw his insignia. He was a colonel. He gestured toward us. Seeing a superior, the captain
ordered the van to stop. The trio came up to the van and waited. The captain descended, exchanged military salutes, and extended his hand. I remember the “colonel” smiled as he took the captain’s hand and then I heard a noise, like popcorn, and looked out again. One of the “bodyguards” was shooting the captain, up and down, while the “colonel” held his hand as he tried to pull away.
They were about three feet from my window. I froze. The “bodyguard” turned toward me and shot directly into the van. We ducked and heard the bullets hitting the roof. I felt the door opening and heard shouts. “Everybody out! Leave the weapons.”
Someone pulled me out and threw me down to the dirt. A voice ordered us to stay down, face down, and wait. I heard car doors slamming and engines revving. I sensed the van pulling away and heard other vehicles following in its wake. When I looked up, someone from a car parked near the far entrance yelled at me to get down or get shot. I obeyed and lay there, looking at the captain’s motionless body
to my right. I saw the pool of dark blood. I heard a car leaving. The whole thing couldn’t have taken more than five minutes.
I don’t remember how long we waited before we got up and went for help.
Eventually, we all ended up in the local police station — all except Dario. I found then that he had left with the attackers. At first, the assumption was that he had been kidnapped. But by the time we were taken back to our base, a few hours later, there was a growing suspicion that he had been in on the attack.
That made me a suspect, too.
I was detained for two weeks. The first week I was incommunicado, interrogated by military intelligence officers day and night. Suddenly the most banal choices from my recent past took on a sinister meaning with potential life and death
consequences. Why did you go to the museum at such a time? Why did you wear a headband? Why did you invite so and so to come with you?
Other questions just stunned me.
“Why does a nice guy like you, from a good Catholic family, have a Jewish girlfriend?” one of them asked me. “You like Jews? Do you have many Jewish friends?” Some of my interrogators seemed furious at me, pushing me around, hitting me a couple of times, screaming at me at the top of their lungs. I feared the others more, those who acted like milquetoast accountants, who had lifeless eyes, looked slightly bored, never raised their voices. “We have dealt with much smarter, much tougher people than you, but when we start pulling their nails they talk, and you will, too,” I remember one saying, not even looking at me. “Don’t waste my time.”
It was one of this crew who opened the window suddenly, grabbed me by the collar and threw me on the ledge. We were on the 16th floor.
“Don’t fuck with us,” he droned. “If I push you and you fall it will be a suicide. Who do you think is going to argue?”
Still, for all the psychological torture, the bullying, and the threats, my experience resembled a stay at a summer camp compared to what thousands of Argentines — including children, the elderly, and pregnant women — went through during the Dirty War. One of the tragedies is that perhaps we will never know how many were secretly detained, beaten senseless, tortured with electric prods and raped and
As it turned out, Dario was a guerrilla. Of course, I knew nothing about the plot for the ambush. In fact, he never said a word about politics to me — and that probably saved my life.
It must have been obvious early to my interrogators that I didn’t know a thing. But I was also lucky. I was accounted for from the beginning, officially held in a public building — and I did what I could to let my friends among the conscripts know that I was still there. I made it a point to be seen when they brought in food or I was being escorted to the bathroom. I was hoping they would call my family. It was a very thin thread, but I imagined it my insurance. Looking back, it was pathetically naive to think the military might have some concern they would be held accountable for what happened to me. Just a few months later people disappeared, were tortured, and killed for much less than having a guerrilla acquaintance or being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Dario was killed two weeks later in what was reported as a “battle with the army,” a generic line that could have meant anything. The stolen weapons were recovered. I found out about it the following day when I was freed. I remember feeling numb for days afterward. I had witnessed a murder and nearly been killed. I had been detained, interrogated, and threatened. I felt betrayed, thankful, sad, angry.
What I remember most about Dario is the weekend we played soccer and hung out in my neighborhood. In retrospect, the timing suggests a goodbye. Much of it is fuzzy, but I do remember vividly that I said something about politics, I think about a demonstration I thought I should have gone to. I do not know why I dared say something like that in that climate to someone I didn’t know well. Dario smiled an
odd, older brother smile and said, “You’re a musician. What you can do to help out is be a good musician.”
A few years earlier while at the university and in arguments with certain friends since I had been taken to task for not getting involved in political activism. Music, the arts, was a frivolous activity in such times, they suggested, a petit bourgeoise distraction, perhaps (this was only hinted) a sign of cowardice. The country is bleeding to death — the argument went — how can anyone be practicing Mozart?
Most political activists struck me as members of a sort of religious sect. I also wanted true democracy, social and economic justice, greater freedoms — but I still despised their born-again certainty, the mix of arrogance and silliness (a slogan for every occasion), and their militarism.
In an authoritarian society accustomed to views imposed by force and a culture that reduced complex issues to brutal with-me-or-against-me-choices, the guerrillas only offered more guns, inflexible dogmas, and murder.
Argentina didn’t need more armies. One was bad enough.
What the country desperately needed was alternatives.
The Thin Man
I have felt guilty for 20 years about el flaco Ernesto.
He was tall, skinny (hence el flaco) and nothing ever seemed to bother him. He had Bugs Bunny teeth, an easy laugh, and wore boat-size shoes that were a terror when we played soccer. You didn’t want to be fouled by him.
He played guitar fairly well — we all thought he was going to be a musician. Since I wrote bad imitation beat generation poetry, we hung out together quite a bit, talked about music, books and drew a comic strip. We were living our own ’60s. We didn’t do drugs — we were working-class, neighborhood guys not Barrio Norte sophisticates — but we spent a fair amount of time trying to get us some of that free love we read so much about.
I was the one who brought those first books on politics — the anarchists, Marcuse. We read we talked, we got more books. I forgot about the whole thing.
After high school we saw each other occasionally. I went to the University of Buenos Aires to be a mathematician. Two years later I quit math to play Kerouac, traveling across the country with a knapsack, getting material for the great Argentine road novel.
Ernesto, however, maintained his interest in politics. We talked rarely those days, but I knew he was getting involved in the Peronist Youth, a left-leaning group within Peron’s movement. I didn’t know how deep he was in the organization — which had thinly disguised connections to Montoneros — but I knew he was serious. His demeanor had changed. It had a gravity I didn’t recognize.
I remember he told me he hadn’t played guitar in months.
Ernesto’s interest in Peron was hardly unusual. As Peron’s successors fumbled around, Peron, safely in exile, attained a near-mythical status. Having a hold on a large segment of the working class and the labor unions, Peron was courted by power seekers of every stripe. A master tactician, Peron told each group what it wanted to hear. The net result was that Peronism became anything one wanted it to
be — from neo-fascist corporatism to a vaguely defined brand of homegrown socialism.
At one point in his remote-control battle with the military, he embraced the leftist Peronist guerrilla groups. He spoke of them as “juventud maravillosa” (marvelous youth) and encouraged them with maxims such as: “In the hands of the people, violence is not violence, it’s justice.”
But by 1974, back in Argentina and in power, Peron, a military man, after all, had no use for armed civilians making demands — much less young, leftist armed civilians.
He aligned himself with the right-wing of his movement and the security forces and moved to crush the once marvelous youth, who had suddenly become, in his words, “immature imbeciles.”
Every time I saw Ernesto, I’d tease him about it.
“Flaco, when the general said such-and-such yesterday, was it a tactical or a strategic move? Because boy, it certainly made you guys look like asses to me.”
At first, Ernesto would get annoyed and attempt to explain Peron’s statements away. Later on, it became a joke. He would answer deadpan, “strategic” or “tactical” and I would nod like a good but slow student. We always laughed it off.
I don’t remember when I heard that Ernesto had been killed.
Over the years I pieced together that he was a Montonero and an armed group had been waiting for him at an apartment of a friend of his, a place I had been to, I don’t remember exactly when or why, and they shot him when he resisted.
For a while I’d imagine Ernesto bloodied, angry, fighting.
I could never imagine him holding a gun.
I left Argentina in June 1977. I was still not involved in politics. But I was young, a musician, had long hair, moved in what I was sure were seen as questionable circles and had friends who were or might have been involved in politics. I was terrified of another explosion of violence, the certainty of my helplessness and the memory of brutal, senseless deaths.
Like many others, I had survived for years by holding on to my routines. I willed myself invisible and mute. I felt a threat in every gaze. By then, in Buenos Aires we didn’t look at each other, we watched each other. We were both the accused and the accusers, prisoners and jailers.
I trusted no one. Especially not myself. I had lived in fear so long that I didn’t need anyone to police me, I carried a cop in my heart.
I was my censor, my interrogator, my guard.
Every time, before I left my house I made a mental list in case someone stopped me — where I was coming from, where I was going, who I was going to see, why. I didn’t write down phone numbers. I didn’t give mine out. I was careful of never being in groups of three people or more. That mistrust, that fear ran deep. I realized how deep when I sat down with my sister, Susana, to talk about what her life had been like during the Dirty War. I realized that, in all these years, I had never discussed it with her — and she had never volunteered.
“It was terrifying,” she says now. “I was dancing with a modern dance group. We were experimenting with theater, using local and contemporary music, unusual set designs — and all that sounded subversive. Besides the husband of one of the girls, a geneticist disappeared. She was beaten up. Every so often the cops would come into the rehearsals to see what we were doing, demand we take our things out of the bags.
“It was routine for them to take away the male dancers to give them beatings, so we had to go to the police station and get them out. Why did they take them? For being gay. They would treat us like whores and beat up the guys. Life was terrible for everyone, but for them, it was worse. It got to a point that when they were late we would go get them because there had been suicide attempts. One eventually
succeeded and killed himself.”
Susana, who is two years younger than I, left the country in 1980 and lived in Spain for a year, but returned to Buenos Aires. She is now married and has a 13-year-old son. She has only talked about this subject with her husband, Claudio, who was a student at the time and says he had no idea how bad things were.
“He still tells me `But, where was I?’ ” she deadpans. “I tell him he lived here in another country.”
Many of us did. Everybody knew and nobody knew. It’s a refrain I’ve been hearing for 15 years. Everybody knew something was going on, everybody, especially in Buenos Aires, knew someone who had disappeared, had been jailed, killed. But in part, because the information was tightly controlled and fragmented few had a grasp of the whole picture.
It turns out many of us lived side by side with the same terrible secret. We doubted our senses. We did not believe what we saw, what we felt in our bones, what we knew.
“The dictatorship was very careful not to militarize Buenos Aires so the repression was all but invisible,” pointed out Marguerite Feitlowitz, a writer, translator, and Harvard University teacher whose A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture has been just published by Oxford Press. In fact, she reminded me how “Buenos Aires was beautiful [then]. One of the first things they did was to
start a massive beautification project: They fixed the sidewalks, whitewashed the buildings, refurbished the public gardens, planted flowers and trees. The city looked great. So what you asked was: `What’s wrong with me ?’ ”
“Except for the [unmarked] Ford Falcons roaming the streets, except for a roadblock or a kidnapping now and then, life was normal,” says Feitlowitz without irony. “And that was truly brilliant. If they had made a radical change in the environment it couldn’t have been denied.”
But the repression was denied. For many, that denial was a matter of survival, of sanity.
“What I found over and over is a sense of `I was there. I saw it. I don’t know anything,’ ” she says. “What I think is at the bottom of that is that of all the kinds of knowledge that were prohibited, the most dangerous was self-knowledge. That sense in your own flesh that something is wrong was denied over and over and over. That’s how people can see a kidnapping, repress it and not think about the
meaning of what they saw.”
Or if they couldn’t suppress it entirely, many simply shrugged it off.
In a society that had long made a credo of ¨no te metas”(don’t get involved),
many simply dismissed whispered news of a disappearance with a “por algo será” (there must be a reason) — and that was that.
A couple of years ago, retired Navy officer Adolfo Scilingo stunned friends and foes when he admitted to journalist and author Horacio Verbitsky that the Navy routinely threw live political dissidents out of planes. His testimony is documented in Verbitsky’s The Flight, (1996, The New Press).
“A large part of the country consented to the barbarities that were being committed,” said Scilingo. “A certain excessiveness in the proceedings, as it was called at the time, was not rejected. It was accepted. If the majority of the population had demonstrated against it, things would have been different.”
Mario Villani, a scientist who was kidnapped while driving in Buenos Aires on Nov. 18, 1977, spent four years desaparecido in five different secret concentration camps. He recalls a macabre scene during the 1978 soccer World Cup, which was played in Argentina, a soccer-mad country, and which Argentina won.
“Because I am a physicist I have some knowledge of electronics, and that is something that saved my life,” he says. “When they found out, they made me set up electronic shops in the camps and would bring me to fix all the stuff they would steal in the kidnappings — TVs, radios, stereos, VCRs.”
At one point, Villani recalls, at a concentration camp known as El Banco, in Buenos Aires, he was ordered to place one of the TV sets he had fixed on a platform at the end of a row of cells. “When Argentina was playing, they would open the doors and we would sit outside our cells and they would allow us to lift the tabique, the blindfold, we had over our eyes and watch the game and call the goals.
“We saw all those people in the stadium, screaming `long live Argentina’ while at the same time we were there, kidnapped and tortured, so close to where the game was going on. It was hard. You had to believe those people in the stands didn’t know, otherwise you would have gone crazy.”
Mario Villani survived four years, and five secret concentration camps, as a desaparecido
Many, if they did know, were distracted by an economic mirage.
“Very important sectors of the middle class had a growth of consumption, and that can be a great anesthetic of the moral conscience,” said Verbitsky, perhaps Argentina’s premier political journalist. “We had the period of the `deme dos’ [gimme two] in which, for Argentines traveling around the world with an overvalued currency, everything seemed cheap and they would come back loaded with shopping.”
But it wasn’t only bargain hunters who were satisfied into distraction.
Mariano Grondona, a well-respected conservative author and columnist, lamented recently that during the Dirty War, “many of us [free market neo-] liberals were very concerned about the floating rate of exchange and were absolutely indifferent to the floating corpses in the river.”
It was a selective blindness that afflicted almost every sector of Argentine society.
Though every institution in Argentine life had honorable dissidents, including many who paid for their convictions with their lives, the collaboration of members of the political class, the business world, and the church, for example, has been amply documented.
But even after 15 years of democratic governments, the role of the civilian society during the dictatorship remains largely taboo.
Grondona’s lucid, if belated, self-criticism is rare.
I went to several bookstores in Calle Corrientes looking for a book addressing the role of the civilian society in the military dictatorship.“There are none,” said an attendant at one of the largest bookstores after thinking awhile.
“Don’t you find it curious?” I asked him.
“`Yes,” he said, puzzled. “But I had never thought about it.”
For Rosita Lerner, a former social worker and Mario Villani’s wife, the issue is crystallized in an image.
“I think of the seamstresses making the hoods they gave the prisoners in the camps,” she says. “We are not talking about 20, but thousands [of hoods]. I’m obsessed with that. These people exist, and I always wonder: What did they think they were making?”
As it turned out, it was not revulsion at the atrocities that toppled the military regime. It was its own corruption and incompetence.
In 1982, with the economy in shambles and its grip slipping, the junta resorted to cynical, desperate gambits. There was a revival of an old border conflict with Chile in January — but it fizzled. Then, days after a labor demonstration in which one worker was killed, the military invaded the Malvinas/Falkland Islands off the coast of Patagonia.
Reclaiming the archipelago from Great Britain, which seized it in Colonial times, had been a long-standing national cause. Britain was far away and it seemed a good, safe, necessary gamble at the time.
I was living in Boston and followed the war on TV. I would call family and friends in Buenos Aires nearly every day and hang up afterward depressed, angry and frustrated. What I was watching on the North American networks was British propaganda, they would tell me. Argentina was winning — winning, as if this were a soccer match. I was being bamboozled by this vast international conspiracy against
Argentina, they would say.
Overnight, seemingly no one thought of the junta as dictators, no one remembered the dead, no one wanted to talk about torture or desaparecidos. Then the adventure ended. It was a humiliating disaster — and a crucial victory.
It was not the guerrillas, the politicians, the church, the labor unions, or the intellectuals who won democracy back for Argentina.
It was Margaret Thatcher.
“The Malvinas war was very important because it showed in a decisive way the incompetence of the Argentine armed forces for anything but repressing internal dissent,” says Verbitsky, the political columnist, and author. “Here you have [Navy Officer Alfredo] Astiz, the hero of the Dirty War, surrendering ignominiously to the British without firing a shot. Suddenly the question was: `Why do we have these
guys? What are they good for?'”
In December of 1983, the dictatorship held elections.
In the years since, members of the junta, as well as low- to mid-level army officers, have been tried by civilian courts for crimes committed during the Dirty War, something unprecedented in Latin American history. Many were found guilty.
A panel of notables was assembled, the CONADEP, National Commission on the Disappeared, to take testimony from survivors of the repression. It was compiled in an extraordinary document titled Nunca Más (Never Again).
Still, the military remained unrepentant and threatening.
President Raul Alfonsin, in a move he claimed, was designed to preserve and strengthen democracy, made highly controversial concessions to the military, passing laws that limited the responsibility of the lower ranks and set a deadline to file charges.
Both were repealed by Congress last March. But the repeal is not retroactive.
Those who went free can never be brought to justice. Many enforcers and torturers — once dubbed in a bit of popular black humor, “the unemployed labor” — walk around Argentina freely today.
Villani told me of several chilling encounters with some of his captors on the street.
“It’s difficult for someone who didn’t go through this to imagine how you can live with it, but you do,” he says, determined. “I’m reconstructing my life, not erasing it. If I focus my anger on these guys, I’m missing the point.”
Still, some of the convicted did serve time in jail. But in 1989, after some violent military protests, President Carlos Menem signed pardons for 400 officers and non-commissioned officers, including more than 40 generals, admirals, colonels, and captains in jail for human rights violations.
It was Menem who called early this year for tearing down ESMA and creating what he described as a big, green, open space with a monument.
His proposal appalled and infuriated many, especially those who still do not know the fate of their loved ones. It has since been blocked by the courts.
In a visit to Miami in February, Menem sounded pained by the response.
“Reconciliation or pacification does not mean forgetting,” he told me. “The pardon is not forgetting. Simply put, we are pardoning to achieve pacification . . . If we are going to keep going back to the shameful past we have lived, Argentina will not have a future.”
Menem’s wishes notwithstanding, these issues are not going away.
“The Argentine tendency is to sweep things under the rug,” says Grondona, the political commentator. “So this becomes an unburied corpse, and it smells. And it will do so until we give it a proper burial, until we learn the truth. I admire what the South Africans are doing: those who go and confess their crimes are pardoned. It’s the old Christian way. In truth there is forgiveness. Here there is no confession. We are still not telling the truth. We are still not facing the truth.”
As I walked around Buenos Aires, I kept thinking of a quote I had read in Feitlowitz’s book. It’s by Oscar Camilion, a diplomat under military dictators Gen. Roberto Viola and Gen. Jorge Videla and Menem’s former minister of defense: “A nation creates itself not just with what it remembers, but with what it forgets.”
In Argentina, the nation’s collective memory is a battleground not only for those of us who lived the terror but for those who are just now learning about it. A generation has come of age since the end of the dictatorship.
These kids are not as afraid as I was at their age. They question, they challenge authority figures, they want to know. But it’s a slow, painful process. I often felt a sense of battle fatigue about the subject. Life goes on. People are concerned about jobs, safety, the cost of living. Verbitsky explained it succinctly.
“It’s not possible to forget and it’s not possible to have it present 24 hours a day,” he said. “So there is an ebb and flow. There are moments of great interest and concern and there are moments of denial and `better let’s not talk about it because I want to look forward.’ It’s an unsolvable contradiction and it will continue to be.”
Mario Villani lives with that contradiction.
He talks about his imprisonment, his torture, his experiences with his jailers with extraordinary dignity and composure. He has testified at the junta’s trials and is scheduled to testify in Italy, one of the nations that have opened investigations into
the fate of their citizens in the Dirty War. He is also following closely the unfolding scandal over several recently discovered secret Swiss bank accounts, allegedly owned by former ranking officers, active during the Dirty War. These accounts, human rights activists, and family members of the victims of the state repression claim hold some of the blood profits of the Dirty War: money stolen in the
kidnappings, ransoms, profits from the sale of stolen goods and the forced sale of some victims’ properties. This in particular is of personal interest to Villani. While kidnapped, he was forced to sign over to his captors a house he owned.
And yet Villani remains a man with a wry sense of humor who loves discussing jazz, daydreams about traveling and is particularly proud of his growing CD collection.
If Villani can be optimistic, I have no right to doubt.
“There were people who before the trials [of the juntas] told me that all this stuff about desaparecidos and tortures was all bullshit,” says Villani with an ironic grin. “After the trial, those people had to admit that something had happened. As a society, we stopped denying what had happened. That is progress.”
A Far Country
In my most recent trip to Argentina, I spent a morning with Nino, the neighborhood’s baker, in his shop.
He has known me since I was a kid and I could barely reach my hand over his counter with my mother’s change.
I asked him what he knew about what had happened, what he remembered — and he told me. Nino rambles and I had all the time in the world. His shop is a neighborhood hangout. People came in and out, some joined in the conversation, told stories and left, others sat around. I didn’t have to ask. It poured out — bodies dumped in the river at night, secret mass graves in such and such park. An older man tells me about watching the firefighters wash the blood off the sidewalks of Plaza de Mayo the morning after the Navy bombed civilians in a failed
attempt to overthrow Peron, back in June 1955. A man talks about being at the table where a union boss was gunned down. Another man recalls seeing “the kids, lined up in the courtyard, naked” when he delivered cookies at a neighborhood police station that doubled, he came to find out later, as a secret concentration camp.
Someone else tells me how Gen. Valle, the populist general that rose against his former comrades in arms after they overthrew Peron, demanding elections, was shot in the basement of a prison in Buenos Aires. The prison, he said, was leveled a few years later. There is a green, open space there now. I was stunned. I knew it well. I played soccer there as a teenager. I had no idea of the history of the place. Not even Menem’s ESMA concept is new.
I stayed and listened. I made myself listen.
At one point Nino and I were left alone. Neither one could talk.
“This city is a graveyard,” he said in barely a whisper, and we fell silent again.
These are the stories we carry. We have been carrying them around for years, each generation prisoner of its own tale of horror, starting anew.
It has to stop.
I think of my nephew Santiago, who looks eerily like pictures I’ve seen of myself when I was his age, who loves math, draws cartoons, and who sometimes I catch still looking at me in awe: the crazy uncle from North America.
I don’t want Santiago to ever have to write a story like this, far from people and places he loves, in some other country, not his own.
This piece appeared in The Miami Herald Sunday Magazine, April 1998