‘US did not try to stop the repression in the 1970s’
Tom Farer, a member of the IAHRC that denounced the last dictatorship, talks to the Herald
Thirty five years ago, professor Tom Farer, as a member of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC), arrived in the country to report the crimes that the last Argentine dictatorship was perpetrating. Now he visited Buenos Aires City to deliver a lecture at the Di Tella University and he met the Herald at the hotel where he was staying.
For over an hour and a half, the first US national appointed to preside over the IAHRC recalled the days when the Commission came to the country and his testimony in the 1985 trial against the members of the three military juntas.
What are your memories of the IAHRC visit to the country in 1979?
It was a powerful, emotional experience. It was 17 days of being in a sea of grief. It was exhausting.
What are your memories of the IAHRC visit to the country in 1979?
It was a powerful, emotional experience. It was 17 days of being in a sea of grief. It was exhausting. We would work 15 hours a day and of course it was depressing but exciting at the same time when you confirmed what you had feared or suspected. The overwhelming emotion was the sense that we could help but so many horrible things had already happened. Meeting with the Mothers and Grandmothers — who are very controversial now — but then they were looking for their loved ones and were completely out of politics.
Why do you say they are controversial?
I follow the controversies between the people in the human rights movement. Some are very close to the government. I am not making a judgement. I think that I understand what is going on. I have been here in the country in good times and bad times. I feel at home in the country.
Going back to the 1979 visit. Did you meet the heads of the military government?
We met everyone. It was normal when we visited a country. In part, it was protocol and to reaffirm the rules that we could go anywhere.
Did they allow you to go to the clandestine detention centres?
If we could find them.
But you went to several places like the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), didn’t you?
Yes, but they had fixed it up. We never saw the third floor. We thought we saw everything but we didn’t. Andrés Aguilar, who was the president of the Commission, was taken one day to a secret centre were they had few people. These people were presented as capable of “rehabilitation”.
Do you remember where this place was located? Was it in the City?
No, it wasn’t. It was somewhere outside the City. There were few people. It was like a re-educational camp. That was the impression I had but it confirmed our belief that everyone else was dead.
What differences can you spot between the 1985 trial against the Junta members and the ongoing proceedings?
In the 80s, they were only the top brass, only nine. Their responsibility was clear. I feared that there was a risk of being shot.
What about now?
I don’t know. Some evidence or the witnesses’ testimony is old, still that doesn’t mean it is wrong. I haven’t seen the process. Three years ago, the government brought me down for the Human Rights Day (December 10) and to interview two retired military. I had long conversations with them. I think they were both out of the country during the last dictatorship. They didn’t fear prosecution themselves. “If the prosecution goes on forever, we feel persecuted,” they told me. Is it too late to do justice? No. If you have the case, the evidence, if they did it, punish them. Reconciliation and justice is what I believe in.
The idea of reconciliation is not welcomed here by human rights organizations as it is linked to impunity.
I am not in favour of impunity. I am in favour of the due process of law. If some evidence is old, it makes it harder to reach due process.
What do you think of taking businesspeople to court for crimes committed during the last dictatorship?
I haven’t heard about that. I know that they convicted the head of the La Plata Penitentiary Unit 9. I visited the jail in 1979 and I remember that some political prisoners were treated worse than murderers. There was no security justification, it was just cruelty. I think there were two factions within the military and that was something to be expected.
Have you ever thought why they committed these crimes, why they disappeared people and snatched their babies?
I think we understood how their minds worked. Two things. They were looking at Chile and (late dictator) Augusto Pinochet. They thought they learnt two lessons. One, don’t have prisoners because then the pressure appears. Two, no dictator, not one of us should emerge as the boss. They remembered the 1973 amnesty and they thought that the only way to deal with them was to kill them. If they were in prison, they would be out again. There was hatred. They felt personally under attack as an institution. I think there were some Fascist elements, mainly among the “duros (hardliners).” And there is something else: the Catholic Church in Argentina was very conservative, not like the Chilean or the Brazilian.
Pope Francis faces criticism for his role during the last dictatorship. Did you meet him when you were here?
I don’t think we met Pope Francis in 1979. I just don’t know. On the whole, I like the steps he is taking now. Whether they are tactical or genuine, who knows. But the Church in Argentina has the history of being unusually conservative and connected with the upper-class.
How would you define the role played by US?
The US encouraged this Manichaean view of the world but that was the ideology that penetrated. Not James Carter, but the general attitude of the US was supportive of being tough on the left. But Argentina has never been that influenced by the US. I think they would have done what they did even if the US did not exist.
Some blame Operation Cóndor and the US repressive coordination for what happened in the 1970s in the Southern Cone. Do you agree?
We knew what it was going on and we didn’t try to stop it. It could have happened without us. I think Operation Cóndor would have existed even without the US. Henry Kissinger and others knew what was going on.
What’s your opinion of the role played by former US president James Carter?
He was the first president after FD Roosevelt who really made the pursuit of human rights an element of consideration in American foreign policy. Other presidents remarked democracy but in Carter’s case he did something institutionally. He created the Assistant Secretariat for Human Rights. Pat Derian was first appointed and then she did not know anything about human rights but she grew in the role. After his presidency, Carter demonstrated that he was a sensitive, moral man. He was better as a post-president but compared to Ronald Reagan, I take Carter. If he hadn’t pressed the Junta to admit us, we might have not got the permission to come.
Can we define what happened in the country as a genocide or state terror-era?
It doesn’t fit the definition of genocide. Mass slaughter is mass slaughter. The discussion is irrelevant.
So, who was targeted by the dictatorship then?
They were targeting people who were actively involved in the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) or Montoneros — left-wing armed organizations. People they thought they were helping them, whether a doctor patching their wounds our supporting them intellectually. There was an anti-Semitic element as well, mostly in the duros. I think the duros said that sociologists, psychiatrists, atheists were against the real Argentina, so we have to kill them all. They were different from Pinochet. They did not want to go to war against trade unions, so they never were Chicago boys. They never had a clear economic policy. The ERP and Montoneros were not trade unions, they were more middle-class. The risk was the intellectual left would link with labour, which were not naturally oriented to the left, with a welfare orientation.
There are some authors who say that fear appeared as an element to explain social behaviour during the dictatorship and during democracy. Do you remember an atmosphere of fear when you visited the country in 1979?
There was fear, then the respectable classes were afraid of the insurgency. After the Cuban revolution, all the upper-classes thought it could happen. They exaggerated. They did not see the peculiar circumstances of Cuba. The US too overreacted.
Left-wing organizations too believed that...
Yes and they made terrible mistakes as a consequence. Middle upper classes were more conservative. We don’t know exactly how many people were taken. It’s odd that it is unclear up to this day. Many people knew someone who had been taken, but for many others it did not have an effect on their lives and life went on. After (Juan Domingo) Perón’s third term, the parapolice organization Triple A, bombs, people tried to normalize their lives.
Yes, but “normal life” included clandestine detention centres operating throughout the country.
Most people wanted to keep on with their lives. There was an assumption of guilt when a person was taken by the military. People looked the other way.
What’s your opinion of the Kirchnerite human rights policy?
I talked to many progressive people and they were divided, not due to the prosecutions. My first impression of Cristina was quite good. She gave a talk at the ESMA for 30 minutes. I heard her a number of times, so she has a set speech. Cristina is not a typical politician.
What role should human rights organizations play?
They have to be very, very careful not to be politicized. They lose credibility. If you violate the rules, you violate the rules. I may understand why they are doing it but in the end they cannot do it.