In Brief: The 1976-1983 Dictatorship in Argentina


(This article and its content were first published on the bubblear.com, December 19, 2014).

Walking across Plaza de Mayo, the iconic heart of the microcentro in Buenos Aires, you find yourself surrounded by living history: The Casa Rosada,  Argentina’s pink Presidential palace, the National Bank, the Piramide de Mayo column celebrating the revolution. But, if instead of gazing up at the loftier landmarks, you turn your eyes downwards and on to the cobbles of the plaza, you notice a strange, uniform circle of white headscarves painted across the ground and embracing the square in a large loop.

Hang around until Thursday afternoon, and you’ll see the real thing. Mothers wearing the white headscarves, holding pictures of children: their children. During the military dictatorship, thousands of children were abducted from their families by the regime and incarcerated, to be tortured or killed or raised away from their parents. During the late 70s and early 80s, the mothers of these lost boys and girls began protesting in Plaza de Mayo and eventually in plazas all over the country against the military regime. Unarmed women facing down a military dictatorship.

File:Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, Derechos Humanos, Madres de Plaza de Mayo, Marchas.jpg

Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. Image: Archivo Hasenberg-Quaretti via commons.wikimedia.org

It was a unique moment when dissent against the regime stunned it into a non-violent response. During the seven years of military rule opposition had been crushed freely, a State terrorism campaign that included concentration camps, the mass murder of students and targeted assassinations of intellectuals. Despite this catalog of horrors, it drew the line at gunning down unarmed mothers in the heart of the capital. They had gained a foothold on the military’s turf, and helped foster the great swell of public pressure that eventually forced the Generals out of power in 1983.

They weren’t usually so passive when it came to matters of “security”. It’s estimated over 30,000 Argentines were “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983. During ‘The Process of National Re-organization’ or El Proceso as military rule euphemistically called itself. Political freedom was strangled. It was an attempt to assert martial order on a country still reeling from the death of Perón.

Holding a view or ideology deemed “leftist” became a potential death-sentence. Thoughtcrime, in other words, was a capital offense. We know this by looking at who the military chose to disappear. Thousands of students and public intellectuals like union leaders or journalists merely suspected of left of center beliefs were abducted, often snatched off the street and bundled into the back of a green or blue Ford Falcon, the car which became the bat-mobile of the regime’s hired thugs.

After that, they were routinely tortured and many were killed in concentration camps set up across the country. A further favorite tactic of the navy towards the disappeared was to drug them and bundle them onto airplanes, which were sent on flights high above the Rio de la Plata or the Atlantic Ocean before dumping the doped victims out. These “death flights” were long suspected after unnamed bodies began to wash up across the Atlantic coast, and were later admitted to by participants put to trial years later.

Olimpo Detention and Torture Center in Buenos Aires. Image: Adam Jones via flickr

The military hoped that the arbitrary nature of the abductions would crush what they perceived as communist ideology across Argentina by ensuring few people felt safe.

A state terror campaign that lasted seven years. It mirrored what was happening in Chile, under the brutal Pinochet dictatorship, and this was no coincidence.

It was part of the continent-wide campaign to “eliminate Marxist subversion” called Operation Condor. Conducted by the military dictatorships across Latin America in the 70s and early 80s, it was promoted and then overseen by the US government and CIA in a zealous bout of Cold War paranoia.

Communism became the great rival of US imperialism in the 20th Century, and each new President who sat in the White House did what he could to stamp it out wherever it was or might conceivably be blooming. This, especially after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, meant Latin America; “Our backyard” as Washington condescendingly regarded the region after Teddy Roosevelt coined the phrase. Operation Condor was a logical progression: Let’s get the brutal military regimes we’ve helped install in Latin America to help us put down the Red Menace once and for all.

The knock-on effect for Argentina from 1976 was the surveillance and regular disappearing of individuals suspected of Left sympathies, however pale or vague the association actually was. It was an ideological campaign of repression, but also a tactical one as it was invariably the Left that stood up to the military throughout the dictatorship; from peacefully demonstrating students to the underground urban guerrillas Los Monteneros.

Despite only being few in number, the military’s fear of an armed enemy within led them on in attempts to stamp out any supposed links or sympathizers with Los Monteneros. The infamous Night of the Pencils, depicted  in the powerful 1986 film of the same name was perhaps the most shocking single event of El Proceso. A group of teenage students from La Plata who had been involved with peaceful protests for student bus fares were kidnapped at night by the military police. They were blindfolded and driven to one of the many ‘detention centers’ set up by the regime.

Emilice Moler, one of only four survivors from the group, later described what happened next

“They tortured us with profound sadism. I remember being naked. I was just a fragile small girl of about 1.5 m and weighed about 47 kg, and I was beaten senseless by what I judged was a huge man…after about a week at our first detention center, we were all taken to another place in a truck. At some point we stopped and some of my friends were taken out. Those are the ones that disappeared.”

This atrocity happened within the first few months of the dictatorship (September 1976), but set the tone for the terror that hung over political life in Argentina for the next 7 years. Eventually a needlessly bloody war and social and economic pressures helped topple the military junta, and paved the way for representative democracy to return in 1983. The new President Raúl Alfonsín immediately set up the National Commission for the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), which began the long and painful task of cataloging the crimes that had only now come to an end. Congress also voted for the state to pay compensation to families of the victims, and over 11,000 families have received this so far.

General Videla assumes the Presidency as the military take power, 1976. Image: http://www.mendoza.gov.ar/24demarzo/#1 via wikipedia.org

The report was published in 1984 and documented the sweeping brutality and repression imposed by the military during its seven year rule. It was fittingly nicknamed Nunca Más (Never Again), a slogan that can still be found on walls and lips across Argentina. Nunca Más cleared the way for the trials of many of the chief criminal perpetrators of the regime, including the Generals Videla and Galtieri and Admiral Massera. They were brought to trial in 1985 and eventually condemned to life imprisonment, found guilty of crimes against humanity.

However only a few years later the top criminals of El Proceso managed to slither away from justice.  It was mainly due to President Carlos Menem, Alfonsín’s successor. Like a decision made in Spain after Franco’s fascist dictatorship gave way to democracy, Menem decided to introduce an amnesty law or pardon called the “Full Stop Law”. The idea was to help with reconciliation. But letting the Generals off the hook re-opened old wounds for thousands of affected Argentines who now saw the tyrants of yesterday roam free again.

It was only after years of activism from groups like the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, and the election of a new President, Néstor Kirchner, that all amnesty was revoked and trials of military figures could begin again. No imposition of justice like this has ever happened in Spain.

Here in Argentina, it continues to this day as more ex-military figures are hunted down by the courts. This process all started with Alfonsín  and the CONADEP. But as vital and just as the commission was, most now believe it to be a gross underestimate. It documented the forced disappearances of 8,961 Argentines under the dictatorship, but most people know that this number is too small and believe the genuine figure to be much closer to 30,000. And so despite the justice finally metered out to the criminals of the military junta, tens of thousands of Argentines are still unaccounted for since the dark days of El Proceso. That is why every Thursday the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still meet and protest for answers. The complete truth about the years of the military dictatorship remains elusive.


Argentine Judge Going After Spanish Fascists From Franco Era


(This article and its content were first published on the bubblear.com, November 13, 2014).

A Federal Judge in Buenos Aires has issued arrest and extradition orders for 20 Spanish nationals who held positions or were otherwise involved with General Franco’s fascist dictatorship in Spain. Maria Servini de Cubria cited the concept of universal jurisdiction and demanded the 20 ex-members of the Franco dictatorship should be extradited to Argentina to stand trial for a host of alleged human rights abuses.

Servini, who since 2010 has been investigating the genocide that’s widely acknowledged to have happened under Franco’s regime, employed the idea that some crimes like mass human rights violations, war crimes etc. are so abhorrent that they demand action beyond the legal frontiers of nations. That’s more or less what universal jurisdiction means. It’s being used in this case because of a specific law in Spain. It was introduced after Franco died and the dictatorship gave way to democracy in the 70s, and it enshrines a ‘pact of forgetting’ into Spanish law that means no-one will be persecuted for past deeds that happened during and after the Spanish Civil War, won by the fascists in 1938-9. Franco ruled as dictator from then until his death in 1975, and amnesty was introduced by 1977.

Federal Judge Servini (Image: Natuur12 via commons.wikipedia.org)

It’s similar to a previous law Argentina made after it did away with its very own military dictatorship. Unlike in Spain, though, former President Nestor Kirchner changed the rules and as a result many former human rights abusers were successfully brought to justice. After his death, this process continued under Cristina Kirchner’s government. Since no such rethink has happened in Spain, its judges are muzzled and prevented from going after many of the fascists of yesteryear who are still roaming free.

Despite this legal barricade, Argentina and Spain have an agreement over extradition, so there might be scope for cooperation on matters like this. Some Argentine ex-military were tried by Spanish judges in this way before with success: Adolfo Scilingo, for example, was found guilty of mass human rights abuses and killings during the military regime and remains behind bars to this day.

So this current situation follows on from other examples of universal jurisdiction; where judges assume a ‘without borders’ role on the grounds of upholding the principle of human rights. Perhaps the most famous and relevant case had to do with another 20th Century fascism, this time of General Augusto Pinochet. After his brutal rule over Chile ended he stayed on as head of the army, but was detained in the UK when a celebrated Spanish Judge, Baltasar Garzon, issued an international warrant for his arrest.

The ex-dictator eventually weaseled his way out of standing trial thanks to his claiming ill health and an indulgent British government. But the incident showed that arrests are possible when universal jurisdiction is brought into play.

Like the Scilingo case, this event also displayed the small part in Spain’s legal history where the concept has been used to catch those suspected of human rights abuses. Just not for their own citizens so far. In fact, Garzon tried to do something similar to what Servini is doing now from Argentina, and get to the bottom of the atrocities committed by the Franco regime. As a result, he was put on trial himself by the Spanish Supreme Court in 2010. Even though he was eventually cleared of the accusation of ‘abuse of power’ leveled at him for investigating the topic in the first place, the incident indicated the entrenched position that remains on the controversial amnesty.

So does Servini have a better chance working from Argentina? Well, since she isn’t bound by the Spanish amnesty law, that would be the hope. This is a law  by the way that has stayed in place despite calls for repeal from a host of human rights groups, international lawyers and the United Nations itself, the organization that helped create the legal apparatus for protecting human rights globally with a special Charter. Since the amnesty law lives on, legal authority from other countries, preferably with closer ties to Spain like Argentina, must take on task of pursuing suspected cases of human rights violations.

Mass grave of Republicans executed by Franco’s army in 1936 uncovered in Northern Spain (Image by Mario Modesto via wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Terror_(Spain) )

The case against those people whom Servini is demanding be extradited is a forceful one, as you might suspect regarding anyone who was involved in General Franco’s terroristic dictatorship. Among the accused are Rodolfo Martin Villa, 79, who was a high ranking official under Franco, and Jose Utera Molina, the regime’s former Minister for Housing. It’s suspected that Villa, for example, ordered a police raid on a protesting workers’ camp which killed five of them who had been sheltering in a church. Utera, among other allegations, is thought to have signed the death warrant for famous Catalonian anarchist Salvador Puig Antich. The most committed opposition to Franco during the Civil War and afterwards came from the organized Left: trade unions, socialists or anarchists like Antich. Under Franco’s regime tens of thousands were executed, while hundreds of thousands more of his political opponents were imprisoned, tortured or exiled.

The true extent of this Spanish Holocaust is only now beginning to be understood. Since the millennium, a series of mass graves have been unearthed in Spain thanks in part to the work of campaigns like the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, which welcomed Servini’s call for extradition as “a great day”. The inroads made by this group (which was founded by the grandchildren of Republicans murdered during the Civil War) and others like it show how the violence that erupted in Spain’s Civil War between 1936 1939 continued with severity under Franco. Experts estimate that over 20,000 political opponents were executed in a systematic campaign of revenge against all those who’d fought for and been sympathetic to Republican Spain. On top of this, hundreds of thousands more were tortured, imprisoned and died in concentration camps.

Many countries during the twentieth century were affected by military and totalitarian horrors of a similar nature to this, Argentina among them. In trying to face up to this difficult past, it’s hoped that international cooperation, particularly in a legal sense and between nations that bear similar scars, can offer a useful platform and finally help heal old wounds. This process underlines the view that atrocities like this are a global issue, a serious problem for humanity as a whole. By using universal jurisdiction as a tool Servini is flying the flag for that cause and may yet produce results.


CFK and US Foreign Policy in Latin America


(This article and content were first published on the bubblear.com, October 15, 2014).

“If something happens to me…look North.”

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner said, triggering another sound-bite auto-controversy when addressing the nation across all frequencies on Cadena Nacional back in 2014. Responding to the high pantomime Islamic State threat against her life; she made it plain that fears for her own well-being do not originate in the unstable East, but rather in ‘the North’: Code for the good ol’ US of A, or I’m a Dutchman.

Was this just Cristina being her ridiculous self? Well in some sense, yes. Despite his government’s track record making high profile strikes around the globe, (Drone Strikes, Zero Dark Thirty anyone?) it seems fairly unlikely that Obama’s Pentagon would go after CFK, not least because she just doesn’t enter onto his radar to the same extent as the United States unavoidably does for all Latino governments. The White House barely responded after Cristina’s address, though a certain State Dept. representative shrugged off her words with a few cool, nonplussed sentences.

Then again, it’s (hopefully) common knowledge these days that the US government via the military, CIA etc., has been illegally intervening in Latin America ever since they were strong enough to; at least for the last 150 years that is. In the years post World War II, as the USA assumed its superpower mantel, it directly or indirectly attempted to overthrow governments in virtually every Latino nation, many of them democracies, and helped promote massive human rights abuses across the continent; all against targets it didn’t like at that particular moment in time. This was all done with a certain callous impunity too, summed up by that old warmonger Richard Nixon when he said of the whole region:

“People don’t give a shit about the place”.

Don’t just take my word for it. It’s all been documented. It happened. (If you’re late for an Asado, get up to speed with a quick list of the interventions up to 1996, though they go well beyond that year).

Cristina, of course, knows this as well as anyone. Sure, retaliating with bouts of jingoish anti-US rhetoric is easy political capital for her: ever since the Vulture Funds crisis started flaring up again it’s been a simple pointing of the finger at the foreign monsters from far away. But it raises the specter of justified fears of the US and its impact on the whole region in modern times. From the barrios of Santa Clara in Cuba to high-rises in Santiago, many have good reason to view the United States as little more than a jack-booting bully of a neighbor with a lot of blood on its hands.

What at first seemed like sheer paranoia from CFK was, then, also a barbed sting aimed at her least favorite government right now and the dark side of its foreign policy (cue Darth Vader Theme). On the receiving end of this misguided foreign policy have been many left of center governments in Latin America; they pissed off Washington just by doing what they were elected to do: Nationalize, redistribute wealth etc.

It’s hardly surprising that Cristina, and Evo Morales (Bolivia), and the late Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), and Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and everyone else glance critically North over their shoulders now and then. Her speech last Tuesday was like a logical progression: an upping of the rhetoric since she addressed the UN and criticized the Americans’ taste for military aggression in her part of the world and elsewhere, thereby following a United Nations General Assembly tradition of many Latino heads of state.

This tradition exists for a reason. But the reasons for it go back before the UN even existed. In the old (19th Century) days, there was barely a veil of political distaste from the US at all. Washington just sent in the Marines, killed who they wanted, changed what they wanted and that was that. It all started in 1823 with the Monroe Doctrine, which said no other ‘Great Power’ i.e. the Europeans were allowed to get involved in Latin America anymore. Or, in other words: ‘Hands Off, This Is Our Playground Now’. Over the next century or so, in the years before the Cold War got going, the US sent its troops and mercenaries to a whole host of Latino countries, including four invasions of Nicaragua in just seven years, and Panama every year between 1901 and 1904, staying there until 1914.

Today, incursions by US Marines, in Latin America at any rate, have largely been swapped for incursions by predatory capitalism. Just look at the Vulture Funds. But the principle of unilateralism is the same. Ever since it could, the most powerful nation in the hemisphere, and its affiliated private capital, has done whatever they want or what is ‘necessary’ for perceived national security (as if Nicaragua could physically threaten the USA or ever has!) with little regard for other nations and peoples.

In 1904 Teddy Roosevelt condescendingly established via the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine that the entire continent was ‘Our Backyard’. The term, with its implicit racism and imperial worldview, stuck through the next Roosevelt in 1945 and beyond as many, many regimes continued to be overthrown by the US or with support from Washington, now in the name of fighting communism. To be even mildly leftist in Cold War Latin America put your government in US sights on the ‘Red Menace’ pretense.


Take the notorious example of President Jacobo Arbenz in 1950s Guatemala, for example. When he proposed mild land reform in an attempt to modernize the nation’s antiquated farming economy and help out its peasants, the Bostonian United Fruit Company (that owned vast swathes of ‘Banana Land’ as it bragged in advertising) went bananas with rage itself and so did Washington. Arbenz’s New Deal style reform was labeled a communist conspiracy (it wasn’t one), and President Eisenhower unleashed the CIA. Here’s what former CIA chief Howard Hunt had to say about that:

“What we wanted to do was have a terror campaign, to terrify Arbenz particularly, to terrify his troops; much as the Nazi German Stuka bombers terrified the populations of Holland, Belgium and Poland at the onset of World War II, and just render everybody paralyzed.”

It worked. Amid the panic and terror attacks, the Arbenz government fell and he was forced to flee with his wife and thousands of other Guatemalans and sympathizers. A lot of those who stayed were rounded up as Communists, tortured and shot by the brutal new Armas regime.

All this started with a low-level intelligence operation that spread fear in the small nation, including a bunch of diplomatic cables released by the State Department. Yes, the warning message the US Embassy released last week was standard practice and Cristina probably overstepped the line labeling it as ‘provocation’ pure and simple. But her view isn’t without its historical merit either. In Guatemala, it was the info-war that came first.

What happened to the small Central American republic was repeated in various ways across the whole continent during the Cold War. Virtually no Latino country was passed over. Least of all Cuba. It’s an amazing irony that one of the people who fled Guatemala during the CIA terror campaign and was radicalized by it was an Argentine doctor called Ernesto Guevara. With a group of other idealists he helped bring down one of Latin America’s many Washington-sponsored fascist dictators and set up the Cuban Revolution with Fidel at its head. In this sense, the CIA accidentally helped create Che Guevara.

If Cristina’s assassination sound bite evoked memories from Latino history, tough, it’s Che’s old buddy Fidel Castro. Cuba was never forgiven for having a revolution by the US; which blockaded (still), invaded (JFK- Bay of Pigs) and undermined it (more CIA terror fun) any which way it could under the moniker of ‘Operation Mongoose’. This included the list of infamous plots to whack Castro, who’s had at least 638 documented attempts on his life, many coming straight from the CIA. The stories read like a compilation of rejected James Bond scripts: Poisoned scuba suits, femme fatale assassins, cigars of the explosive and poisonous types (even his hallowed beard was targeted for poison. Nice and absorbent presumably).

So yes, the US government has a legacy of going after lefty Latino leaders it doesn’t like, and Cristina goaded them about it with her speech. As usual though, her primary target last Tuesday was the Vulture Funds. These are the embodiment of US business and capital interests screwing Latin American economies for profit. And that has a history too, linked in some cases very directly to the CIA’s involvement in offing presidents and governments it just can’t abide, while installing ones it knows will put down any politics deemed ‘anti-business’.

Chile in 1973 is the most notorious and maybe most heartbreaking of lot. Like Arbenz in 1950s Guatemala, the left of center Salvador Allende was democratically elected with aim of reforming the economy in favor of state ownership and redistributing wealth to the poorest. This was the antichrist for the US government and business, which screamed communist daemon with the usual zeal. Nixon, Kissinger and the CIA plotted with the Chilean armed forces to overthrow Allende after a destabilization campaign, which they managed in 1973.

September 11th means a whole different thing for Chileans, though it’s terrorism all the same. On that date, Allende’s government and Chile’s democracy was overthrown (he shot himself during the bombing of the Presidential palace), all thanks to American help. The White House preferred fascism and neoliberalism in the form of General Pinochet.

Afterwards, when Pinochet had set up a concentration camp system with more than a hint of Final Solution about it and used this to torture and murder thousands of innocents, he  worked in blissful harmony with US-trained economists led by Milton Friedman; the so-called Chicago boys. They imposed a ‘shock doctrine’ of fast and extreme privatization that simultaneously got rid of the high inflation, the ‘anti-business’ vibe and the myth that democracy and liberal capitalism always go hand in hand.


Coups, invasions, death squads…the list of US interventions and crimes in Latin America goes on and on and fortunately is the subject of far more comprehensive studies than this article and its author are capable of.

The point is that the hullabaloo Cristina generated last Tuesday wasn’t just her doing what she does best and creating another media storm in a teacup.

She did what most other center-left governments of late have felt compelled to do- directly challenge US unilateralism in the region. She did it clumsily and for political gain. We all know the CIA aren’t about to poison her cigars or plan the bombing of the Casa Rosada. But the wounds run deep. Reminding the USA just how badly it has behaved, is behaving and will probably keep behaving in the region is, from where I’m sitting, fighting the good fight and refreshingly daring. Yep, Cristina’s got some balls.