A grandmother, Licha, and her granddaughter, Ana Libertad
In 1977 a group of women with missing relatives met — the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo was born
More than 100 children were kidnapped in the early hours of December 6, 1977. Simultaneous operations took place in Buenos Ares, La Plata, Mar del Plata, Córdoba, Mendoza and in the provinces of Entre Ríos and Misiones. Hours later, Marta Vásquez, whose pregnant daughter had already been forcibly disappeared, would witness how furniture was loaded onto an Army truck on the corner of Callao and Juncal, in the City’s neighbourhood of Recoleta. Furniture was not all they took from that apartment, where a squad from the 601 Battalion had also snapped up adults and children.
A group of women had previously agreed to meet later that day to write up lists of family members who had disappeared. Among others, Vásquez, Eva Márquez de Castillo Barrios, María Casinelli de Irureta Goyena (the mother-in-law of Juan Gelman’s daughter) Nora Cortiñas and Alicia Zubasnabar de la Cuadra would meet that day. Zubasnabar de la Cuadra, known as “Licha”, at the time had two children exiled in Italy — Luis Eduardo, who had been threatened by the Triple A, and Soledad. Roberto José, a YPF employee who had been an activist alongside Raúl Bonafini, had been missing since August 1976. Another daughter, Elena, who was pregnant and studying to be a teacher, had been missing since February 1977, along with Licha’s son-in-law, Héctor Baratti. Two more young in-laws had been kidnapped in Mar del Plata. Ana Libertad, Elena and Héctor’s daughter, had been born on June 16 while in captivity.
A historic meeting
That meeting in December 1977 brought together the core of what months later would become the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Licha, a homemaker from Corrientes province, had been acting as a liaison between the women from La Plata who were searching for their children and grandchildren. That led to a knock from María Isabel “Chicha” Chorobik de Mariani on her door, and later, in 1978, another from Estela Barnes de Carlotto. “The Grandmothers were founded from a couch in your house” was the praise that Licha received dozens of times from human rights organizations throughout the years. Almost as if it were the next logical step, Licha de la Cuadra was the first president of Argentine Grandmothers with Disappeared Grandchildren (Abuelas Argentinas con Nietitos Desaparecidos), the original name for the organization that last Tuesday recovered Guido Montoya Carlotto.
What Licha did not know during that meeting on December 6, 1977, was that among those kidnapped that day was another son-in-law, Gustavo Freire (married to Estela de la Cuadra and later thrown from a plane into the sea) and their young son. However, and in contrast to Ana Libertad, he was returned by the repressors like almost all of the children taken into custody that day toward the end of 1977. Estela de la Cuadra, an activist in the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party like her disappeared brothers, would go into exile with her children. First in Brazil, later in Sweden and finally in Italy.
“My mother will never forgive you and she is going to come after you,” Laura Carlotto told her torturers at the La Cacha concentration camp in La Plata.
Licha’s son-in-law, Héctor Baratti — thrown into the sea in December 1978, his body was identified by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) in 2007) — would have an exchange (one of those that leave a mark on a country’s conscience) with the torturer-priest Christian von Wernich. “You accuse us of being subversives, but of what can you accuse children that are three or four days old?” Baratti challenged von Wernich, according to witnesses held at the 5th Precinct of the provincial capital.
“The children will pay for the sins of their parents,” responded von Wernich, now sentenced to life imprisonment and in charge of delivering Mass at Marcos Paz prison.
The De la Cuadra family search led the brothers exiled in Italy to ask for assistance from Pedro Arrupe, the Spanish head of the Jesuit order. Arrupe handed the task to Jorge Bergoglio, who failed to help in the search as denounced by the De la Cuadra family.
Finally, a La Plata suffragan bishop named Mario Picchi took the matter to the intelligence services. “The girl is with a good family,” was Picchi’s message. He would later be revealed to be a collaborator.
Licha de la Cuadra gave up the post as president of the Grandmothers in 1982, handing it over to Chicha Mariani. That year her daughter Estela returned from exile to work on the detection of transmissible blood-borne diseases at a La Plata hospital. The family followed up on two leads on Ana Libertad’s whereabouts, but one of them was incorrect and the other corresponded to another family with victims of forced disappearances.
I asked Estela, who is now retired, what kind of relationship her mother had with Estela de Carlotto and Chica Mariani. “They established a collective spirit, they were absorbed by each other. Mum also maintained a relationship with Hebe (Bonafini), despite the public positions that she took.”
“I am looking for two sons, two sons-in-law and a grand-daughter.” That phrase, difficult to hear, is not impossible to say. At least, it was uttered by Licha de la Cuadra in a documentary. Those who knew her remember her with fondness. Alicia Zubasnabar de la Cuadra was a person who smiled.
Estela still fills her time giving testimony, following the trials, looking for her niece. Among her last priorities she mentions the recovery of an apartment in the Abasto neighbourhood that the dictatorship stole. Her two other siblings have returned from Italy. Luis Eduardo, a theatre teacher, in 2002 and Soledad in 2008.
The recovery of Guido Montoya Carlotto gives Estela new hope. Her calm voice from La Plata says it all “I will never forget the agony of this young man’s parents. I am happy for Estela, for the Grandmothers, and of course, for Guido. I think it’s beautiful and it is going to have a huge impact because it will push many who have doubts about their identity to come forward.”
Of the three presidents of the Grandmothers, Licha passed away in 2008 without finding Ana Libertad, Estela was reunited with Guido on Wednesday and Chica Mariani is still looking for Clara Anahí, taken from her home in La Plata.