November 22, 2017
Saturday, April 12, 2014

Can Argentina recover from its recent past?

An archive photograph showing one of the iconic images from the 1985 Junta trials.
An archive photograph showing one of the iconic images from the 1985 Junta trials.
An archive photograph showing one of the iconic images from the 1985 Junta trials.
By Andrew Graham-Yooll
For the Herald

A human rights debate compares two traumatic tests

Softly, softly, you begin to hear views on and reviews of the post-dictatorship actions dealing with the crimes of the tyrants, loosely described as “human rights” policies.

Pointing the way to reappraisal are books by former senator Graciela Fernández Meijide (They Were Human not Heroes) looking at her own past and the “disappearance” of her own son and, to a different extent, the books on guerrilla murders written by journalist Ceferino Reato. The essay, Guilt and Pardon, by Senator Norma Morandini, whose brother and sister were “disappeared” in Córdoba, takes the message even further into the idea of trying to bring peace out of our disturbed past.

So what should be done now to deal with past events in a fashion that would help us move into the future?

The government, or the supporters of its matrimonial predecessor, have often pointed to the success of the current line in human rights: the abolition of laws blocking further trials and dating back to 1986 and 1987, required for political expediency by Raúl Alfonsín, and the pardons by president Carlos Menem in 1990, the 2004 reopening of the trials of surviving senior officers and of some who were quite junior in the seventies, and the unabashed near claim by the regime that took office in 2003 that they invented human rights in Argentina. We must acknowledge the facts while rejecting some of the claims, but also in evidence is this government’s sweeping belligerence that has severely divided the country and made it politically lame.

In contrast there is a revisionism of sorts which, first, wants the current authorities to be a little less mean in recognizing the valour of Alfonsín when he put military chiefs on federal trial in 1985 and, second, wants to see a palpable effort to make the events of Argentina’s recent past better known.

In a bid to open the historical debate on human rights after dictatorship, there has been an interesting academic effort to broaden the study of the why and the how and, indirectly, what’s left. This has led to the comparison with South Africa’s post-Apartheid, and Argentina’s policies since the trials of 1985. The academic discussion looks at the situations posed by justice and the moral issues: how to reconstruct a society after mass crime. One result is a collection of essays, Gross Inhumanity: Argentina and South Africa, Reflections after Evil (Lesa humanidad: Argentina y Sudáfrica), published by Katz in Buenos Aires. The editors and compilers are Argentine sociologist and political scientist Claudia Hilb (who last year published a curious but very necessary exploration titled, What do We do Now with the Seventies?), French-Moroccan philosopher Philippe-Joseph Salazar and political science lecturer Lucas G. Martín.

Hilb’s essay (with Salazar’s, the strongest in the book) hinges on Hannah Arendt’s philosophical treatise on “the banality of evil”, for the study of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the amnesty of the perpetrators (which did not always include the crimes committed) and their acceptance by the victims. (Hilb quotes philosopher Jacques Derrida’s criticism of Arendt in that the pardon by the victim is not of a perpetrator but of “another” person who repents and no longer is the criminal.)

In Claudia Hilb’s overview of both experiences, Argentina and South Africa, she insists on their uniqueness and on the need to keep them separate. Argentina’s experience in the trials of 1985 involved, first, the impressive task of gathering information which came from the victims. The author remarks that the perpetrators in Argentina were the most reluctant to provide information, quite unlike South Africa where those most interested in telling the truth of their actions were the criminals. Another marked difference in the experience of both countries was that Argentina put on trial a group of men who had been part of a heads-of-state collective. The most senior authority in the land at one time was put on trial, and that took some doing.

Philippe-Joseph Salazar is a lecturer at the School of Philosophy in Paris and at Cape University, in South Africa, where he now lives. Salazar is convinced of the benefits of the South African process, originally proposed by Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu who presided over the first meeting of the commission on December 16, 1995, under the terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act. Tutu’s report on the commission was presented to President Mandela on October 29, 1998.

Bishop Tutu worked from a moral and religious standpoint, and with a long record as an opponent of Apartheid. He argued that both the black and white population were oppressed. In first place, the African was oppressed by the white man, but the white boss was oppressed by the system his own kind had devised and required him to help enforce. This sounded an extremely tolerant path to the rivals on both sides of the racist system. South Africa made it work and the process of nearly 1,300 hearings of the many and different forms of crimes produced the kind of information that the newly independent country needed. Bishop Tutu was asking South Africans to understand that the oppressor was also a victim.

Salazar argues that “South Africa needed to know and understand what had happened and to be able to learn it was necessary to let people speak.”

In an interview in La Nación, the philosopher, who atended some of the trials in 1985 and others more recently, said that “half of Argentine history (for the seventies) disappeared in the silence of those who will not speak. In South Africa people agreed that working only on memory industry was unpolitical because it prevented any form of progress. Museums show pieces of evidence but much more than is shown remains hidden.”

Salazar argues that due process is simply the submission of evidence against evidence. “Justice is a coded form of revenge... South Africa showed that there are other forms of justice to understand politics. They (Argentines) will never know the truth”. In one trial in Mendoza in March last year Salazar saw former police convicted for crimes during the dictatorship. “I was given the photo of one of the accused, it was the face of a handsome young man, not the old man I saw sentenced. I want to try to understand what is not known. People asked for more blood: this will never end. The children of the condemned might one day seek revenge. I saw no compassion.”

Quite unnerving.

There are five other essays in the book by specialists in the subject, they are Hugo Vezzetti, Emilio Crenzel, Vera Carnovale, Martín Böhmer, and Erik Doxtader.

And one footnote. In 1995 or thereabouts, on the eve of the setting up of the commission in South Africa, an international law conference was held in Buenos Aires at the UADE university on Avenida 9 de Julio. A substantial number of South Africans attended and at one point they asked the dean, the late Dr. César Marzagalli, where they could find information on the 1985 trials, but in English. Dr Marzagalli directed them to the Herald, and for three days we had at least half a dozen lawyers pouring over the 1985 copies of the paper. The consulted one another, chatted with staff, and almost ran our antique photocopier dry. They wanted all the information, they said, for consultation before the Act was debated. By then, however, South Africa had decided on a different course.

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