(This article and its content were first published on thebubble.com, June 29, 2015).
The last military dictatorship in Argentina seized power in an anti-democratic coup in 1976.
In the weeks, months and years that followed, the junta proceeded to crush any opposition to its regime by force of arms. On the premise of “restoring order” and targeting underground left-wing rebels like the Monteros, it launched a systematic and targeted campaign of state terrorism, abductions, torture and murders still known as “disappearances” since many of the victims were never found.
The disappeared were not only men, women and children from Argentine civil society, but also many of those forcibly conscripted into the military itself, including one Alberto Agapito Ledo, a conscript who was disappeared in Tucumán Province on June 17, 1976.
Whenever a soldier was forcibly disappeared, the army tended to falsify the doomed recruit’s paperwork to cover their own backs, often using the euphemistic lie that the disappeared person or persons were “deserters” and therefore missing without a trace. In Ledo’s case, the man who declared him a “deserter” in signing his paperwork was a certain Second Lieutenant Milani, who resigned his post as commander in chief of the army on Tuesday.
Appointed two years ago by the current administration, the outgoing César Milani is consequently suspected of crimes against humanity for his alleged involvement in the state terror campaign of the last military dictatorship. This situation raises some important questions. Why was Milani appointed as head of the army in the first place? Why by this current administration, which, like its predecessor, justly prides itself on the progress it has made in bringing many former oppressors from the military regime to justice? And why is he standing down now?
The final question is perhaps the most pressing. This year, human rights groups unified during a commemoration of the 1976 military coup to demand Milani be investigated. After two years of piecemeal calls for greater scrutiny, the ground was visibly beginning to shift under his feet. Naturally, though, the official line is that he quit the government for “strictly personal reasons,” as Defense Minister Agustín Rossi told the press on Tuesday, following up insistent and renewed questioning by my colleagues at The Buenos Aires Herald with the same answers.
“WASN’T IT THE RESULT OF THE INVESTIGATIONS IMPLICATING HIM IN CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY COMMITTED DURING THE LAST DICTATORSHIP?”
“RULE THAT OUT.”
“IT IS ALSO SAID THAT MILANI LEFT IN ORDER TO AVOID VICTORY FRONT (FPV) PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL DANIEL SCIOLI PAYING THE HIGH COST OF HAVING A COMMANDER ACCUSED OF DICTATORSHIP CRIMES…”
Whether we take the Defense Minister’s words on Milani at face value or not is subjective. But applying even a shred of critical reasoning to the situation suggests that, if nothing else, the FpV gains from letting Milani go before the election. Perhaps President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner forced Milani out and in so doing appeased the genuinely progressive voices within her governing Perónist movement dissatisfied with their centrist presidential candidate Daniel Scioli and surely feeling uncomfortable with an ex-dictatorship subordinate at the head of the Argentine military. Then again, if there was unease within the FpV ranks over Milani’s appointment, it was not audible on his appointment back in 2013.
It seems more likely that, with the net tightening around Milani and his shrouded past, the decision came — either from himself or his elected civilian superiors — to leave the Fernández de Kirchner administration and save the FpV the unsavory prospect of fighting a general election with a serving army chief accused of involvement in systematic human rights abuses.
Whatever the party-political dimensions are, the basis for his indictment, which may still lead to further investigations, is pretty robust and can be drawn from various pieces of evidence. First, he was mentioned directly in La Rioja’s 1984 exhaustive regional Nunca Mas (Never Again) report on dictatorship-era crimes for his alleged involvement in the abduction of both Pedro Adán Olivera and Alfredo Olivera in the province in 1977.
In the Ledo case, the signed paperwork declaring the disappeared soldier a “deserter” sits alongside his indictment by a former comrade, Esteban Sanguinetti, who did stand trial for the disappearance and alleged the former army chief’s direct involvement.
These cases haunting Milani in Tucumán and La Rioja remain in stalemate despite his recent loss of a government shield. But despite the deadlock, there can be little doubt that Milani is standing on shakier ground than he was two years ago when he ascended to his position.
Last Monday, Judge Ricardo Warley approved the habeas corpus request of Nora Cortiñas, iconic member of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who demanded Milani provide information regarding her disappeared relative Gustavo Carlos Cortiñas, who went missing in April 1977 at a similar time to the other recorded victims linked in some way with Milani. Furthermore, the Tucumán Court of Appeals is currently weighing federal prosecutor Carlos Brito’s request that Milani face further questioning regarding Ledo’s forced disappearance. It may yet send Milani to the dock.
Milani’s past testimonies have failed to completely dispel doubts that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. When human rights group the Center for Education and Legal Studies (CELS) questioned him prior to his government appointment about his time serving under the dictatorship, he said he had been completely ignorant of any human rights abuses occurring at the time — that he only became aware of them years later, after the return of democracy in 1983.
It could conceivably be true. Then again, why do we have to simply accept Milani’s own version? On the cusp of a top government appointment, his answer would have been the same regardless of the truth. It is a stretch to believe that since he was serving in the army during the military dictatorship, during a time (1976-7) of mass abductions within the army and with documents linking him to forced disappearances, he had absolutely no knowledge of what was going on. If he is innocent, why the hesitancy to face more questioning that might help soothe some of the doubts of those families so brutally affected by the army’s crimes?
The Milani affair is, of course, just one detail in the vast open wound left by the military dictatorship that still casts its shadow over Argentina. In just the same way many ex Nazi’s in West Germany were stealthily rehabilitated into privileged social positions after the fall of fascism in Europe, there are people in Argentina directly affiliated with the military regime and it’s plethora of crimes against its own people who remain untouched by justice.
As in the case of West Germany, a resolute and dedicated campaign to condemn those seduced by fascism and culpable for its crimes has helped heal the pain of its many victims. The human rights groups that continue this work in Argentina today — among them CELS, HIJOS and Human Rights Watch, who recently called the accusations against Milani “credible” — must continue to be supported and endorsed by all parties for their efforts to seek out justice.
Yet the government itself, democratically elected to best represent all Argentines, also has a direct responsibility. Whether the FpV is successful or not at the ballot boxes later this year, a central Kirchnerite legacy is the repeal of the amnesty laws that had protected so many former oppressors and ultimately brought many of them to justice.
Suspected of human rights abuses during military rule, Milani’s appointment by Cristina two years ago was an anomaly to her party’s good record. He should face further questioning not only since the evidence of his involvement remains unanswered and his own legacy murky, but because it would put to rest the painful doubts of those families affected by the crimes he is linked to. If he is as innocent as he and the government say he is, solid proof confirming so would vindicate Cristina and the FpV’s appointment of him. In the end it could be, ironically, in their best interests.