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Yesterday, the 24th of March, in Argentina was 'el Día de la Memoría por la Verdad y la Justicia' (Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice), a national holiday marking the beginning of the country's last military dictatorship in 1976. A massive event took place last night in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, although I decided to visit Córdoba, another city deeply affected by the events that took place in the seventies and eighties.
In November 1975 in Córdoba, Marta Rosetti de Arquiola wrote the following:
For 21 days, I was detained by the provincial police force's Department of Intelligence (D2), the first two days with my daughter Virginia. During this time, I suffered torture, humiliation, physical exhaustion and death threats against my daughter, and I was very aware of my daughter's screams and the fact that she was being tortured … During one of the dark nights, I was moved to a cell, 2 metres by 60cm; the walls were smooth and wet, the floor cold, and it had a thick steel door with a 20cm gap between the upper edge and the ceiling through which some light came in. The following day, the light allowed
me to read - in a corner of the wall, low down next to the door - the following words, that someone had scratched into the green paintwork with their nails or something sharp: "OSCAR CHARBROL, they want to kill me. 8/10/75." In that moment, I thought about the level of desperation that a person must feel to write that.
Given the violent recent history of Argentina, it is strange how easy it would have been for me to visit the country and head home with memories of tango dancing, some photos of brightly-coloured houses in La Boca and a jar of dulce de leche, without ever getting to grips with the fact that this is a country that was ruled, in my lifetime, by a military dictatorship that wilfully slaughtered its own people.
Thirty-five years ago yesterday, on 24 March 1976, a military coup d'état overthrew the then president of Argentina, Isabel Perón. In her place, a military junta was installed, headed by General Jorge Rafael Videla, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera and Brigadier Orlando Ramón Agosti – a junta that remained in power until 1983. Free speech was suppressed in every way imaginable and people were arrested, tortured and killed by
the authorities if they were suspected of engaging in any kind of activity that might challenge its rule.
In total, it is estimated that 30,000 people ("los desaparcidos" or “the disappeared”😉 vanished without a trace, amongst them many students, trade unionists and activists. Most were illegally detained in clandestine detention centres and tortured. If women were pregnant, their children were killed or stolen and given to families supportive of the military dictatorship. Many detainees were heavily drugged and thrown alive out of planes along over the Atlantic Ocean. Without any dead bodies, the government was able to deny that they had been killed.
My starting point here, in the city of Córdoba, was ‘el Museo de la Memoria' (admission free, open 9am-noon & 2pm-8pm, just off San Jerónimo between the town hall and main cathedral in the city centre). The museum occupies one of the many former clandestine detention and torture centres (24 operated in Córdoba alone) and much of the building remains today as it was then. As a result, the place is bleak - a difficult but very worthwhile place to visit.
One of the first things you encounter is a room that was used as an
office by those managing the detention centre, and which is now filled floor-to-ceiling with photographs of people who were “disappeared”. Standing in the room and trying to take in the level of pain that must have been caused during this period in Argentina's history is a dizzying experience and visiting the detention cells – one of which Marta Rosetti de Arquiola describes above – is particularly chilling. In one of the cells, film footage from the period of the military dictatorship is projected onto the stone walls; the sound of the footage makes you feel about as far away from tangos and pretty coloured houses as you can get.
Whilst military coups feature strongly in the history of Argentina – the 1976 coup was the sixth that the country experienced in the twentieth century – there is now a prevailing mood of “Nunca Más” (“Never Again”😉. Moreover, the courtroom trials of some of those responsible for the violence during the seventies and eighties, happening and being televised right now in Argentina, gives a real sense of the efforts that the country is making to confront its past and move on.
I had heard yesterday that, here in Córdoba, there was
going to be a protest happening at 6pm to mark ‘el Día de la Memoria' at the corner of two streets, Colón and La Cañada. I went along, for some reason expecting something on a fairly small-scale (I'm clearly conditioned to expect English levels of political engagement, but should have known that politics in this country are far more visceral and alive than back home). There were, in fact, around 25,000 people marching through the city centre, united by the demand “Nunca Más”.
I was surprised, given the scale of the protest, by the fact that there was no police presence whatsoever. It reinforced my belief that non-violent protests, no matter how large, don't need policing. In fact, my experience is that policing a protest increases the amount of damage done and I am convinced this would have been the case last night.
I want to believe, and there are many reasons to believe, that another military coup will never happen in Argentina. Military leaders and the armed forces are weaker and much less-respected here now, compared to thirty years ago. The strong awareness of the country's history has eroded the people's tolerance for any kind of military dictatorship.
Also, if a little awkwardly, democratic institutions are becoming more and more established here. However, I would also argue that there are still some fairly fundamental problems with the politics here, not least of which is a national overdose of political imagination – something very much in evidence at last night's protest.
Coming from England, I am used to living in a country in which there is a complete lack of political imagination and in which the people, in general, lack any real kind of political ambition for their country. Argue that tuition in English universities should be funded out of general taxation and you are dismissed as being unrealistic or extreme. Propose some fairly basic and straightforward moves towards capping excessive boardroom pay in England and you are dismissed as some kind of loony communist. This lack of political imagination might make English politics stable, but it also makes it impossible for politicians to introduce any decisive, progressive policies to improve the society we live in. In the end, as the character of Che sings in the musical Evita, “we get the government we deserve.”
Conversely, here in Argentina, political imagination is spilling out everywhere. It's in the
graffiti, on the news, in the literature, and it was clearly all over the place at yesterday's protest in Córdoba. The uniting theme of the march may have been “Nunca Más” but it was obvious that the many groups represented in the march had radically different ideas for the future direction of Argentina. The images and names of former political figures are used in abundance by groups, often by those whose politics bear no relation to those of the political figures concerned. Election posters here invariably zoom in on the candidate's face and carry some meaningless slogan about “transforming Argentina” or “understanding the heart of the people”, but without any reference to any specific policies. And the political parties here are a mess; there is no clarity between left and right, and political parties and candidates embrace a shameless mishmash of left and right-wing policies, seemingly at will. The political imagination of Argentina is allowed to run wild, embracing all kinds of different and radical visions for the future of Argentinean society, whilst few people seem to articulate clear and consistent agendas.
I love the political fire of Argentina. However, in the context of ‘el Día de la Memoria', the
Argentinean preference for political imagination over political reality, for grand political visions over clear policies, worries me as it feels a little unstable. So much hinges here on individual politicians and their personalities and there's a palpable craving for the arrival of the next political savour to solve all of the country's ills, all of which means that politics here can sometimes feel more evangelical than democratic. Or perhaps a better way of describing it is that it sometimes feels as though the people of Argentina, rather than electing a politician, are seeking to elect a father-figure (or, failing that, the wife of a former father-figure, as has been the case a couple of times), whilst crossing their fingers and hoping that their new president is a kind father-figure and not a violent or abusive one.
Despite the fact that Argentina is currently experiencing its longest ever period of democracy (lasting twenty-eight years and counting), I do wonder whether the fact that the people seem too ready to invest power in a very small number of hands means that there is still too much fertile ground here for another military coup.
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