Estela Barnes de Carlotto, human rights activistSunday, November 17, 2013
‘Pope Francis has never helped us but we give him a confidence vote’
Born: October 22, 1930, BA city
Position: Head of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo
Favourite book: Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Newspapers: Página/12, Clarín, Tiempo Argentino and Crónica. I live in the city of La Plata, so I read El Día, which says nothing. During the dictatorship, the Herald told the truth and for us was like a balm.
TV programmes: 678. I want good information, not gossip. I don’t watch (Jorge) Lanata, (Mariano) Grondona or (Samuel) Gelblung’s programmes because I have high blood pressure and I know what they are going to say.Estela Barnes de Carlotto is possibly the most iconic figure of the Argentine human rights movement. The 83-year-old lady travels every day from La Plata to work at the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo’s headquarter in BA City. She does not stop a single minute in her struggle to find Guido, the son of her daughter Laura, who was killed by the dictatorship death squads in 1978.
“What happened to us was an aberration,” she told the Herald last week. “We used to think that if our children had done something wrong, they would have been tried and given back to us. We used to think that we would be able to raise their children,” she added.
In 1978, a survivor told Estela to be prepared to look for Laura’s baby at hospitals. And she was. Estela even prepared the baby’s layette. She must still have it, waiting for the day she could embrace Guido, the main reason for her struggle.
What’s your “balance sheet” for these 30 years of democracy?
We have to celebrate because we have never lived such a long democratic period. We want democracy to last forever. We were born and were raised in different dictatorships, which ousted popularly-elected presidents. We were educated in that dictatorial background, which was also legitimated by the press. These 30 years are a popular victory, which cost 30,000 people’s lives under the civic-military dictatorship that began on March 24, 1976. Our struggle to not leave our loved ones in oblivion has made this democracy possible.
What are the pending issues?
Not all governments were as good as we expected. We don’t know where our forcibly disappeared children are; we haven’t found our missing grandchildren: we don’t know where they are, what their names are. There are also situations that keep violating human rights: people who do not have a home, a good education, good health care, a job. They are doing their best to solve this situation but we should also get involved. There is a government but we, the people, should be active. That’s the Grandmothers’ motto.
In the last few decades, Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo has been behind some outstanding achievements such as the scientific method to identify missing grandchildren, the possibility of taking repressors to court in spite of the Due Obedience and Full Stop Laws and the recognition by a court that the dictatorship had systematically planned children’s appropriations. Are you conscious of those achievements?
Yes, because we have been walking this path for 36 years. We defied the dictatorship. Of course we were afraid of disappearing but that fear vanishes when you do what you have to do: to look for your daughter, your son, your grandchild. We were able to group together and also to combine skills. Maybe it’s something too feminine but we have always taken all our chances. Once we came across an advertisement and we started thinking that blood could be used to identify our missing grandchildren. We travelled abroad to explain what was going on in the country because here the media said everything was great. Our National Genetic Database (BNDG) was created in democracy and some say that genetic studies improved thanks to our struggle.
How would you define the role played by Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo during the Kirchnerite administration?
For us, the so-called ‘won decade’ was a very good one, in which the rule of law has prevailed and the state has done what it was expected of it. We do not need to demand something from the state, it is open for us now. When some say that the government uses us, it’s the other way round. We have seen doors open and we walked through: they give us things, we ask for others and we respond as well, that’s a democratic relationship.
The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo association was criticized for its links with the government by actor Alfredo Casero and journalist Jorge Lanata. How do you respond to those criticisms?
These are the rules of the game. Bad people can only criticize such a thing. Any citizen in spite of any ideology can deny this: a crime against humanity has to be tried in court, punished with that democratic tools. We have never wanted revenge or a “firing squad,” we are totally against that. But people are bad and follow other interests. I don’t think they conduct this attempt to smear our reputation for free.
What was the role played by the Catholic Church during the dictatorship?
The Church was an accomplice of the military regime, that’s been proven. Maybe they do not like my words but that’s the truth. The Church was an accomplice by action or omission. The ecclesiastic hierarchy was part of the dictatorship and blessed the killings; some looked the other way but there were even bishops that collaborated. Members of the Catholic grass roots were victims of the repression.
Is there any change now that there is an Argentine Pope?
Our demand to the Pope is that we want to know about the archives. We want all the information regarding our children and grandchildren.
Did Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) help you before his arrival at the Vatican?
No, he never came near us. We believe he has never talked about the disappeared people or the children snatched from their mothers. I have attended some rallies in which he did not even say hello to me. The funny thing is that when we visited him at the Vatican, he recognized and remembered me at the meeting in the Metropolitan Cathedral, where he had not greeted me. He has been accused of some things but no evidence was found. Now he is the Pope and we give him a vote of confidence. He is currently proving to have progressive ideas. We have expectations and that’s why we’ll talk with him and his representatives in the country.
And the Judiciary’s role?
They were accomplices, too. During democracy, we had the dictatorship’s legacy that made our life impossible, defending perpetrators instead of defending the victims. Now, that’s changing but we want to go further: we don’t want court officials by inheritance. They are a corporation, though they do not want to be called that, and they do not want to lose their privileges.
Forces seem to act contradictorily: while an Air Force officer handed the archives of the repression, other security officers helped a convicted former military officers to escape. What’s your opinion?
These are the contradictions of a democracy that is being built still. One is a democratic military officer who hands the archives to his boss to avoid these files from being incinerated as has happened in the past. That’s a positive attitude. In the other case, he is not the only fugitive perpetrator with the collusion with the forces. Something has to be done.
César Milani’s appointment as the head of the Army is an issue that has to be mentioned. Do you want him in that post despite reports involving him in cases of abductions during the dictatorship?
The Judiciary has to prove the crimes he is accused of. Nobody wants a repressor in a state position and even less as the head of the Army. If he is innocent, we’ll accept him; if not, we don’t want him.