Argentina: Silence still shrouds history of cross-sword-money allegiance

June 2, 2012
Protest by the mothers of the disappeared in 1979.

On March 24, 1976, after a sustained period of economic instability and rising violence, a military coup led by General Rafael Videla overthrew the democratically elected government.

Over the next seven years, thousands of Argentineans were kidnapped, tortured and assassinated by the country’s military and security forces.

The Argentine Armed Forces set up clandestine concentration camps where people suspected of being opposed to the so called National Process of Reorganization were held without a charge, tortured and murdered by their captors.

Victims included pregnant women killed after they gave birth. Their babies were adopted by military personnel or given to people connected with the regime.

These children did not know the identity of their biological parents until many years later, when human right groups carried out comprehensive investigations at the behest of their maternal/paternal families.

It has been estimated that as many as 30,000 people “disappeared” during the darkest chapter in the history of Argentina.

Such a genocide could have never taken place without the silence, collaboration and complicity of the country’s dominant political and economic classes, the leaders of the union movement and the Catholic Church, the mass media and international financial institutions.

The military dictatorship exploited the paranoid preoccupation among the most conservative sections of the population about the perceived influence of internal and external forces in social and political movements whose alleged aim was to overthrow the state and install a communist government.

The armed forces emphasised the need to “re-establish order” and to eliminate the threat of the “subversive activities” using illegal methods.

The military avoided public executions as it did not want to antagonise the Vatican by being seen as operating outside the law. Nor did it wish to be questioned about the validity of its claims it was the guardians of “Western democracy and Christian values”.

However, the kidnappings and violent attacks carried out by the armed forces in daylight,and the huge presence of army and police personnel in the streets, created a sense of fear, distrust and vulnerability among the population.

These feelings of despair defined the behaviour of many people within their families, in their workplace and in public. The family was called upon to obey and defend the actions of the regime while maintaining absolute silence.

As Admiral Emilio Massera, a member of the military junta, once said: “There are times when some talk and others must remain silent, so we can listen to the voices of the just and the silence of the sinful.”

Silence became the norm. Some people preferred to ignore the atrocities committed by the military dictatorship, while others cynically adhered to the regime's claims that associated the victims of repression with “the subversion”.

After the military coup, and even though there were drastic political restrictions, the military maintained a “dialogue” with leaders of the mainstream political parties regarding the political future once the “subversion” was defeated.

Therefore, the leaders of the main political groups were able to keep their influence and power within their parties and continue their public activities.

Their only criticism of the military was in relation to its failure to control inflation or promote development but they remained conspicuously silent about the state terrorism.

The leaders of the union movement adopted a similar attitude. They avoided criticism of the junta's so-called dirty war, even though they were aware union delegates and workers were being systematically detained, tortured and murdered by the military.

A possible explanation of the collaborative behaviour of the union bosses could be found in their concern about a new breed of combative leaders who threatened their influence.

In other words, the murderous actions of the military were seen as an opportunity to get rid of union activists who were a thorn in the side of the established union leadership.

Although it would be simplistic to assume that the Catholic Church in Argentina was a homogenous institution, there is compelling evidence that its hierarchy supported the Argentinean Gestapo.

Immediately after the military takeover, the president of the Episcopal Conference, Monsignor Tortolo, said that “although the Church had a specific mission, there are circumstances in which it could not avoid participating when the country was dealing with problems regarding the 'order of the state'.”

Meanwhile, mass media groups openly supported the military coup, the “ fight against the subversion” and, in spite of being aware of the murders of thousands of people, failed to report the gross abuses of human rights.

National newspapers La Nacion, Clarin and La Razon were among the most vocal supporters of the murderous regime and were economically rewarded when they signed a shameful agreement to secure themselves a monopoly over paper supplies.

Although the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were well aware of the human rights violations of the military dictatorship, they loaned the regime millions of dollars that were not needed.

The external debt grew excessively between 1976 and 1983, when the military regime formally came to an end. That growth followed the implementation of a model designed to benefit financial business, exports and capital flight by national and foreign conglomerates, and to prop up an unconstitutional government.

Argentina's external debt is fraudulent as it was contracted by an illegitimate government and used to plunder the natural and financial resources of the country.

Unfortunately, since then the debt has been refinanced and restructured by successive civilian governments in a clear violation of the Argentinean constitution.

The collaboration, betrayal and cynical opportunism of many political, social, clerical and economic forces during the military regime largely contributed to the death of thousands of Argentineans and to plunge the country into a cycle of poverty and debt which still affect the most vulnerable sections of its society.

[Manuel Rodriguez is an Argentinean journalist who holds a BA (Communication) from the University of Technology, Sydney.]

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