Justice to heal Argentina’s soul
From Where I Stand
The long trial that ended Thursday with the sentencing of dictator Jorge Rafael Videla to 50 years imprisonment revealed the dirtiest secret of the “Dirty War:” the systematic murder of pregnant women prisoners after arranging for them to give birth.
Then came the ultimate obscenity: the babies were given to families connected to the military or police, thus robbing them of their identity.
It is the only crime which appears to cause Videla and the other military officers convicted with him to feel some shame. That assumption is grounded in the efforts of the serial killers of the dictatorship to keep their heinous plan a secret.
The shroud of secrecy was unravelled by the grandmothers of the missing babies who organized to form The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. I am proud that the Herald was the first newspaper to report the existence of the tiny band of brave women who were the nucleus of today’s amazing organization.
The grandmothers inspired the formation of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and the establishment of a DNA bank. Both are world renowned. I am also proud to have signed my name on a petition supporting of the nomination of The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Between 400 and 500 babies are believed to have been handed over to military families after their mothers were murdered. So far, 105 of them, who are now in their 30s, have been identified through genetic testing and united with their relatives. In a few cases, a surviving parent has been able to recover a child.
The Herald’s reporting on the “disappearance” of people taken from their homes by unidentified armed men, which was a sinister mystery until it became clear that the military had adopted terror tactics, led to our discovery that we could save lives through journalism. We had the satisfaction of seeing people reappear after we published the basic facts of cases that embarrassed the military. This was particularly effective when children were involved, especially if we could feature photographs of missing kids on the front page. A number were surfaced or returned to relatives as a result of Herald reporting.
I gave evidence at the “babies” trial last year and found it difficult to keep my composure. The enormity of this crime seized my soul. How could any man decide in cold blood to order that pregnant women should be allowed to have their babies and then be killed, usually by being dumped, naked and unconscious from military aircraft into the freezing waters of the Atlantic? Their babies were then stripped of their identities as they were given away — in some cases, believe it or not, to the men who tortured and killed their mothers.
Today when so much is known about the atrocities committed by the military, although those committed by the terrorists seem to have been forgotten, it is the missing babies who make the strongest claim on the humanity of people who continue to deny reality or prevaricate and refuse to face the truth.
The trial that has just ended gave Videla what is, in effect, his third life sentence, while other major figures received sentences from 40 to 15 years, including Reynaldo Bignone, the last junta leader and the man who ordered the burning of all the records; Santiago Riveros, who was in charge of death camps in the province of Buenos Aires; former Navy chief AntonioVañek; Jorge “Tigre” Acosta, head of the ESMA torture centre with its maternity ward for the doomed mothers; and the doctor who delivered babies born there.
The disturbing evidence given during the trial has exposed the hideous hypocrisy of Videla, who throughout his term as junta leader and de facto president, claimed that he was doing his utmost to restrain the worst butchers among the generals. He pretended to be a moderate.
Indeed, when I saw him on his request after I had decided to leave Argentina following serious threats to my family, he told me that he would like to go home, but that he feared that if he left office his place would be taken by a general who would be so ruthless that Argentina would be “drowned in blood.”
I believed him at first because I needed to believe that he was trying to control men like Guillermo Suárez Mason, Antonio Domingo Bussi, Ramón Camps and Luciano Benjamín Menéndez, generals whom I knew had a lust for blood and some whom I knew had expressed hatred of me.
Not surprisingly, I find myself wondering how the civilians who served the dictatorship feel about Videla. The well-meaning people who accepted posts in the military government always depicted him as a decent, moderate man who was trying to stop the killing, not a lawless, ruthless killer, as he depicts himself today. Were they all lying?
Videla’s tough talk began when he decided to break his 15-year silence since he was sentenced to life in 1985 in the trial of all the junta leaders, which was annulled by president Carlos Menem’s amnesty.
He unloosed a long harangue at the end of the trial two years ago in Córdoba when he surely knew that he faced a life sentence (which was duly delivered) and had lost hope that former provisional president Eduardo Duhalde, who is said to have promised to free the detained military officers, would be elected.
I question the motives behind his declaration at the Córdoba trial that he takes full responsibility “as the highest military authority” for the actions of the military and that his subordinates simply “followed my orders.” I am not convinced that he was fully in command as he claimed. I recall a description of Videla by one of his officers. He said that Videla was the kind of general who would only give an order that he knew would be obeyed. It was my impression that a lot of the time he did not know what was going on, although I think that there can no longer be any doubt about his inclination to murder and that he had no qualms about the routine use of torture.
I think that Videla’s failure to take responsibility when he was in power (which may, in fact, have been only nominal) was his greatest crime. When. finally, he said that he took responsibility for the actions of the military it was far too late. It was a futile gesture by a military martinet who refuses to come to grips with reality.
Thanks to a devastating book by Ceferino Reato, Disposición final (Sudamericana), which is based on 20 hours of interviews with Videla, we know how this hollow man sees himself.
The portrait that Videla paints of himself is that of someone who lies to himself, as evidenced in his atrocious statement about the young women who were murdered: “Although I respect them as mothers, the pregnant women mentioned by the prosecution were activists who used their embryonic children as human shields during combat.”
The knowledge that justice has been done and has seen to be done in this historic trial will surely help to heal the soul of Argentina.