“I am terrified by the fragility of human destiny: in one stroke, in an instant, life is changed forever, the individual has neither a vote nor a voice: a kidnapping on horseback, a Gestapo official knocking at the door, a Ford Falcon in the streets of Buenos Aires, in the front seat someone is hooded, someone who will never be heard of again. But behind this fear comes a worse one, fear of society’s silence: the silence of the people who won’t leave their houses to stop the suffering of the woman burned in the night, the silence of those who stay away so they are not ‘contaminated’ by the victims who have been on the other side, the silence of the nineteenth-century intellectuals who follow the traditions of the time, looking the other way and speaking only of their own concerns (like the struggle against Rosas) in order to build themselves a position of personal power, while the extermination of blacks and Indians goes on.”
– Susana Rotker, Captive Women: Oblivion and Memory in Argentina
The aspect of my Argentina fascination that has not been lighthearted – that has had nothing to do with castellano, jerga porteña, tango electronico, gorgeous architecture, or poetry – is the military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983. When close friends ask me, “Why Argentina?”, they mean, Why is that country’s recent horrific history so important to you?
I’m unable to entirely answer to my own satisfaction, but as I wrote in my previous “Why Argentina?” blog post, “No sé” simply doesn’t cut it as a response any more. After spending many hours this past spring reading and writing for my study-abroad course in Buenos Aires, and then agonizing over whether I was being a morbid cultural imperialist Yanqui, I feel compelled to try to fashion an answer. But I also keep in mind that sometimes we choose what we want to work on, and sometimes things go to work on us.
I think any person of conscience grapples with questions about genocide at some point in his or her life. These questions can be up-close and gripping, or distant and philosophical, depending upon our origins and experiences and those of our loved ones. As I recently told a close friend when I described some of our course readings and planned visits in Argentina, the Shoah in Europe feels like history to me, but the military junta took power in Argentina when I was a teenager just beginning to study Spanish, so it’s always felt much more immediate.
What does it mean to be a citizen of a country that’s committed atrocities? What are our moral obligations as human beings? I’ve struggled with these questions for decades; perhaps those who adhere to a particular religious faith have readier answers than I. When I was a young teenager, I began to become aware of what the European colonists did to the indigenous people living in, and the African people they enslaved and brought in shackles to, what is now called the United States. Later I became aware of what this country was doing and had done to the people of other nations and territories in order to expand its empire. I was a feminist and a youth liberationist from the age of 12 or 13, and in high school and college developed an interest in Latin America. When I was old enough to begin comprehending what was on the TV news, the U.S. was slaughtering people, and destroying their land with bombs and deadly chemicals, in Southeast Asia. Living under a government that orders the military to kill thousands of people doesn’t feel too foreign to me. By the time I began meeting Argentineans who were horrified by what their government had done in the 1970s and early ’80s, I’d spent nearly two decades feeling repulsed by the actions of my own country’s ruling elite. Having watched the U.S. government and military kill more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers and roughly a million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, and trigger the subsequent genocide in Cambodia, I had an inkling of an idea of what Ángela and other Argentineans were going through emotionally – although their government was killing its own citizens within the country.
But of course the U.S. was also responsible for an enormous number of those killed in Latin America, and was certainly culpable in the mass murder in Argentina and many other countries. I wrote a bit in a previous post about the U.S. Army School of the Americas (“A tour of ESMA, May 18”). I came of age at the start of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, which was notorious for arming mercenaries, right-wing dictatorships, and death squads, particularly in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The Reagan administration supported General Manuel Noriega’s dictatorship in Panama; in 1989 the administration of George Bush the First invaded the country and bombed residential neighborhoods, killing several thousand people and displacing 20,000. The Reaganites funded groups of contrarevolucionarios, or Contras, who targeted civilians in the Nicaraguan countryside for murder, kidnapping, rape, and torture. In the early ’80s, the dictatorship in Argentina and the U.S. Congress provided financial and military support to the Contras, but by 1984 “El Proceso” was over in Argentina and Congress had cut off the funding. Reagan’s cronies began the arms running and drug smuggling that became the Iran-Contra scandal – selling weapons to Iran and bringing crack cocaine into the United States and funneling the money to the Contras.
People of conscience in the U.S. were so busy defending Central America from the Reagan administration in the ’80s, most of us didn’t pay much attention to fledgling democracies in South America. Although I was aware of the previous right-wing U.S. regime’s hand in the destabilization of the democratically elected government in Chile (and subsequent overthrow and killing of president Salvador Allende) and support of the junta in Argentina, they were barely on my radar screen at the time, remaining a sort of amorphous fog of Southern Cone fascism. Sure, I went to the independent theater and the university film series with my friends and saw The Official Story and The Battle for Chile, but I felt as if I were watching events long past in places far away. Although I was horrified, I never felt as pained as I did when I thought of the acquaintances I’d made when I was in Nicaragua for a month in the summer of 1986.
That changed when I went to the University of Colorado in the early ’90s (see previous “Why Argentina?” post). Except for brief chats with a couple of Germans I met while traveling the youth hostel circuit in the Rockies in 1989, before I met Ángela I’d never before talked with anyone from another country who was grappling with questions about nationality, culpability, and state-sponsored terrorism.
For USians with a brain and a conscience, these questions resurface as we hear the news of the “War on Terror” our country wages, particularly in the Middle East, year after year after year. For me, the war on terror is a fiction akin to “El Proceso de Reorganisación Nacional” in Argentina in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “El Proceso” used the fight against leftist guerrilla groups as an excuse to rescind civil liberties; close down the national congress; and kidnap, torture, and murder the entire left, the vast majority of which was nonviolent, and tens of thousands of (mostly young) people who worked with the poor, organized unions, tried to obtain bus passes for high school students – in short, anyone who worked for human rights in any form. The “War on Terror” has been used as an excuse to restrict civil liberties and to engage in racial profiling to round up thousands of (mostly Muslim, mostly Middle Eastern, mostly male) people, imprison them in places like Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, torture them, and keep them locked up for years without trial, until some commit suicide. For the last 10 years, the CIA has been running an international “extraordinary rendition” program that has kidnapped and flown an estimated 3000 “suspected terrorists” to secret prisons and to various client states, where many have been tortured.
Both of these so-called wars have destroyed individuals, ripped apart families, and debased their country of origin, victimizing some citizens and residents and turning the rest of us into witnesses of crimes against humanity. As I studied for my upcoming trip, the parallels kept occurring – exactly two weeks before our group left for Buenos Aires, the U.S. military announced that Osama bin Laden had been captured and executed. When I heard that he’d been “buried at sea,” I literally howled in disbelief – this was the method the last Argentinean military dictatorship used to kill many of its victims. Many of our new acquaintances in Buenos Aires asked those of us from the U.S. what we thought about the bin Laden killing.
For two months before this news came from Pakistan, I’d been steeping in stories from the gulag of clandestine detention centers during the last Argentinean dictatorship. This was partly because of the curriculum – our class was going to look at the revitalization of civil society and the labor movement after the dictatorship, and how those years were being remembered and the desaparecidos were being memorialized – but it had also been an interest of mine for years. I found, however, that now that I was finally doing an in-depth study, reading hundreds of pages every evening after work and more on weekends – now that the trip to Buenos Aires I’d wanted to take in 2009 was about to actually happen – I was questioning my motives. Reading about the horrors that one group of human beings had visited upon another group of human beings – as in Germany in the ’30s, their sister and brother citizens – was giving me asthma problems and nightmares.
After I’d been reading nonstop for several weeks, I took a break one afternoon and went across the river for lunch at a favorite café and to the Amherst Cinema to see the biographical film about Phil Ochs, There but for Fortune. I liked his music but didn’t know it well, and I looked forward to the chance to hum along with some good folk tunes. Instead I left the theater feeling even more burdened than when I’d arrived. Watching Ochs’ downward spiral and struggle with bipolar disorder and alcoholism was difficult enough (particularly because Ochs was the uncle of a Boston acquaintance of mine), but I hadn’t realized that toward the end of his life, he became friends with Victor Jara, the folk singer who was brutally murdered by the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. In the film Pete Seeger (bless his wonderful old heart) told, with what I can only describe as relish, the story of Jara’s defying his torturers. I realize Jara is a hero, but Seeger’s attitude reminded me of an argument I had a few years ago with a lover who complained that “you leftists” seemed too fascinated with gore and trauma.
A month later, after even more reading, film viewing, discussions, and Spanish study, I wondered if my ex had been right. I kept asking myself, “Am I being a cultural imperialist, going to another country to stare at the aftermath of right-wing governments? Am I being morbid in wanting to talk and write about los desaparecidos all these years after the end of the junta’s terrorism? Why am I doing this?”
One reason became obvious as I read about the desaparecidos: I identified heavily with them. I wrote in my journal: “It could be me, and all of my friends, and acquaintances, and political ‘comrades’; if the U.S. ever turns more fascist than it already is, my friends and I will be the first to go.” Had we been born in the wrong time, in a different country; had my great-grandparents emigrated from England, Scotland, and Germany to Argentina and Uruguay instead of the U.S… Nearly every one of my friends and acquaintances would have been disappeared or exiled. The leftists, activists, progressives, queers, anarchists, artists, labor organizers, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, polyamorists, peace pilgrims, Buddhists, atheists, Jews, freaks, sex educators, feminists, radicals, transgender folk, genderqueers – whatever labels we like, we would have been targeted. And still could be. I trust no governments, no national systems. This is why it hits so close to home. As investigative journalist Christian Parenti said on Democracy Now! recently, conventional warfare draws people together against a common enemy; in so-called counterinsurgency, civil society is the battlefield.
I was surprised to find that I was alone with my feelings of sadness and anger at times during the tour of Buenos Aires with 17 other people. It was clear that, although most of the students in the graduate Labor Studies program had politics similar to mine, no one but the two professors had the same level of emotional connection with Argentina and its history and culture. In certain places, such as the Parque de la Memoria, I had to go off by myself for a breather. Finally, after we’d been in the capital nearly two weeks, I realized that the generations of Argentineans who lived through the last dictatorship were not the only ones haunted by it; some of us in other countries had our own ghosts to exorcise. Once I realized that, I stopped feeling defensive. When one of the youngest students in our group asked me on the last day how I’d become interested in Argentina, I was able to answer her honestly, rather than with vague phrases.
I also realized that one of my unresolved traumas is the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s in the United States. I watched a huge swath of my generation of gay and bisexual men, and the generation just before it, die in a horrible way while the heterosexual mainstream, the corporate media, and the federal government pretended not to see or refused to help. Obviously the parallels are not exact – in this case the state wasn’t engaging in terrorism against its own young people, but as one of our professors, Max Page, pointed out when we talked about it on the public bus on the way back from Parque de la Memoria, our government helped to kill these citizens through indifference and neglect.
Once I arrived in Buenos Aires, I stopped feeling like a cultural imperialist gawker and began feeling like a student. It was incredibly encouraging to me to meet and learn from Argentineans, some of them young enough to be my children, who are well informed about the crimes against humanity perpetrated in their country and who work to make sure they never occur again. Although the right wing is still a problem and some of the represores are still on the loose, a huge number of people are working for justice and punishment – juico y castigo. I saw how Argentina could be a model for healing, although a different model than South Africa, which offered amnesty to its perpetrators who testified about their crimes. Unfortunately, it’s taking so long to bring the represores to justice in Argentina, many of the parents whose children were killed are now deceased themselves.
As my country needs its citizens to be just as vocal about its governmental human rights abuses, I’ve realized that it’s time to educate myself further about what the U.S. is doing around the world, write letters, and participate again in demonstrations, in addition to penning blog posts about the rest of the Americas.
An enormous thank you to Julia, Leticia, Pancho, Tatiana, Pablo, Marianela, Eleanora, Luz, Sergio, and many others I saw briefly and whose names I didn’t learn: you give me hope that Nunca más is not just a slogan or a dream.
A brief article about U.S. torture:
Center for Torture Accountability site: