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October 25, 2014
Sunday, August 10, 2014

Revisiting the past

Estela Barnes de Carlotto gives a press conference to present her grandson on Tuesday.
By James Neilson / As I See it

Times have changed and now the entire country supports the Grandmothers

Back in the late 1970s, when the Mothers and, a bit later, Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo began their long campaign to find out what had happened to their sons or daughters who had “disappeared” in the course of the “dirty war”, few respectable citizens wanted to have anything to do with such disturbing troublemakers. Luckily for posterity, no opinion polls were allowed, but the general public clearly assumed the military regime had no choice but to deal ruthlessly with the equally murderous but far less effective terrorist organizations such as Montoneros, a Peronist group that had recently migrated from the extreme right to somewhere on the left, the “Marxist-Leninist” ERP, and others. It certainly did not look too kindly on the distraught relatives of the missing.

But times have changed. It now seems that the entire country, including people who despise what the terrorists said they stood for, supports the Grandmothers. The reaction to the reuniting of Estela de Carlotto with her grandson after looking for him for 36 years could hardly have been more heart-warming. Does this mean that, apart from a tiny handful who for understandable reasons have kept silent, Argentines put basic human rights and the rule of law above political expediency? Or is it simply a question of a moving human interest story? Let us hope we never have to learn the answer to that particular question.

The disaster that befell the country almost forty years ago cannot be blamed entirely on the armed forces or, for that matter, on the terrorists who for some time had been running amok. Both behaved the way they did because they assumed the end, revolution or saving the country from the horrors one would entail, justified the means.

In those days, the idea that, as democracy was a farce, lethal force should be applied against one’s adversaries, proved irresistible to a great many people. Many who at first had cheered on the terrorists and then changed their minds found it easy to give the military the benefit of every conceivable doubt. Had the men in uniform realized that one day they pay a heavy price for trampling on human rights, they would have employed far less bloodthirsty methods, but they took it for granted that a majority would continue to back them in the future just as it seemed to do in the months following the 1976 coup.

At the time, most Argentines simply wanted to get on with their lives and looked the other way when the warring factions clashed head on. Widespread indifference towards the crimes that were being committed ensured that, for the duration, human rights would be very much a minority concern. Few senior politicians or respected intellectuals raised their voices; in those days, Raúl Alfonsín, Ernesto Sábato and the like preached only to the already converted.

Human rights did not become an important issue until it became clear that the dictatorship had not put an end to decades of economic mismanagement and then, in a desperate attempt to cling to power, started a war against the UK that, briefly, enjoyed massive support. Defeat gave the many who had, by and large, supported the regime an excuse to change sides.

Once it was agreed that torturing and then killing terrorists, real or suspected, was wrong, people remembered that, in their quiet way, they had always been against such brutality. Some attributed their silence to ignorance; others, who could not pretend that they had never even imagined that terrible things could be happening near their homes, said they had been too afraid to do or say anything because, if they had spoken up, they too would have been murdered.

Would they? Perhaps, but had the current consensus in favour of human rights been around forty years ago, the regime would have had powerful reasons to try and stick to the letter of the law, or at least to ask leading politicians to tell them how they should go about fighting terrorism. But most politicians had no desire to take responsibility for anything. They preferred to let the military do things their way, manu militari.

As time went by, many began to feel the need to persuade themselves that, despite appearances, Argentine society had always been on the side of common decency. For political reasons, the few politicians who had done their best to confront the regime could not be hailed as heroes for very long. That role was eventually granted to the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. It did not strike those who belatedly chose them to be their spokeswomen that the mere fact that, for years, almost the only people who really cared about the “disappeared” were their closest relatives told us a great deal about what was wrong with the country: family ties tend to matter most when the State is considered untrustworthy and public opinion counts for little. In a healthy society there are plenty of influential people who protest without asking themselves if a mistreated person is a relative or a member of a political faction they approve of. Forty years ago, there were few such people in Argentina.

Mothers everywhere care for their offspring. Many have risked their lives to do so in worse circumstances than those prevailing in Argentina under the military dictatorship, as in Stalin’s Soviet Union and present-day Cuba, in the hope of forcing the authorities to listen to them. They usually fail but, if they survive and somehow a democratic order comes about, they will later become surprisingly popular among compatriots who want to think that they too were opposed to a since discredited regime but had been prevented from expressing their true feelings.

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