The heated human rights debate facing Argentina’s new president

The faces of 21 people tried for involvement in kidnapping, torture and murder at a dictatorship-era detention centre. Reuters/Enrique Marcarian

No sooner had centre-right candidate Mauricio Macri been elected president of Argentina than one of the country’s leading newspapers, La Nación, published an unsigned editorial headed “No More Revenge”. In it, the paper bluntly said that “the election of a new government is an ideal time to end the lies about the 1970s and the current violations of human rights”.

The phrase “current violations of human rights” was a heavily loaded reference to what the editorial called the “embarrassing sufferings” of those who have been judged and sentenced for crimes committed during what the author called the “repression of subversion” – that is, Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship.

During that period, 30,000 people were “disappeared”, and approximately 500 children were stolen from their incarcerated parents; many were later brought up by their parents’ murderers. In 1985, during the administration of Raúl Alfonsín, members of the military government were put on trial and sent to prison. However, the 1986 Full Stop Law and the 1987 Law of Due Obedience, together with the subsequent pardons given by the then president Carlos Menem in 1989 and 1990, set the perpetrators free. Only with President Néstor Kirchner, who was elected in 2003, were those laws declared unconstitutional, resulting in the trials being reopened in 2006.

La Nación was decrying the fact that those repressors were or still are being held in common prisons despite their advanced age. The piece also accused former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of installing a “culture of revenge” in the media and in schools.

The editorial immediately sparked a huge controversy. A photograph was widely circulated in which a large number of journalists from La Nación could be seen holding up signs in protest, distancing themselves from the editorial. On Facebook and Twitter, people expressed shock that La Nación had not even waited 24 hours after the declaration of the election results to call for the cancellation of the trials, which had only recently been reopened after decades of impunity.

But despite the sudden flare-up, this particular editorial did not come out of the blue; La Nación has been pushing this line for some time.

Alarming words

La Nación recently called Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government “a hate machine” that was trying to divide the Argentine people with “rancour and resentment” under “the disguise of human rights”. Another editorial congratulated television diva Mirtha Legrand for calling Fernández de Kirchner’s government “a dictatorship”, at the same time as referring to the 1976-1983 military regime as a period of “double terror […] both governmental and subversive”.

A third editorial published in May 2015 praised author Carlos Manfroni who, during a meeting on human rights, criticised “the complete abandonment of the victims of Marxist guerrillas during the 1970s”, while another lamented that on 24 March (the anniversary of the 1976 coup) “there were only official memories of the disappeared by the terrorist state…forgetting the victims of gangster groups such as the [left-wing guerrilla organisations] People’s Revolutionary Army and Montoneros”.

If none of these previous pieces caused the same reaction as the editorial of 23 November, that may be because people now fear that the new government will indeed threaten the advances made in the field of human rights over the past decade.

Only two days before the election, the House of Memory and Life, located near the former clandestine detention centre known as Mansión Seré, was [spray-painted](link text with the words “El 22 se termina el curro” – on the 22nd, the racket’s over.

This phrase had originally been used by now-president Macri, who in 2014 said that “conmigo se termina el curro de los derechos humanos” (the human rights racket ends with me) in an interview with La Nación.

The Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), the most emblematic concentration camp in Argentina during the dictatorship, now converted into a Space for Memory and Human Rights, also received bomb threats last year.

Those working at the House of Memory and Life responded by overwriting part of the slogan so that it now reads “la lucha no se termina” [the struggle isn’t over].

Given this increasingly alarming context, it is important to flag up that it remains an absolute fallacy to call the recent trials “an act of revenge”.

“Our only revenge is to be happy”

The language used by the anonymous author of La Nación’s editorial is simply reproducing the views of former leaders of the Junta. In 2012, Spanish magazine Cambio 16 published an interview with the dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in which he referred to the recent trials in the same terms as La Nación – that is, as an act of revenge.

Members of the organisation HIJOS (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Oblivion and Silence), a group made up of children of disappeared parents, replied by pointing out that an act of revenge would be to torture the relatives of the perpetrators, to rape them, kill them, and kidnap their children, as the military had done during the dictatorship. “Our only revenge”, they concluded, “is to be happy”.

Post-dictatorship writers have imagined stories of revenge to great literary effect. In one novel, a group of friends plan the abduction and murder of a former perpetrator of the dictatorship; in another one a transvestite born in captivity in the ESMA supposedly works undercover killing policemen who played an active role during the military regime; and in a third novel a son of a perpetrator kills his father when he finds out about his crimes.

But in the real world, the reaction to impunity for the dictatorship’s leaders and enforcers has never been violent. If Argentina’s human rights movements have one defining characteristic, it is precisely that they have never called for revenge.

Even though so many of those responsible for torture and disappearance during what was a brutal dictatorship have walked freely for so many years, there is as yet no recorded incident of an act of private vigilante justice carried out against such perpetrators.

And in their search for justice, these human rights organisations have played a key role in contributing to the creation and recognition of judicial norms that are now used in post-dictatorship and post-conflict processes around the world.

That is why the hope is that, under the new government, the perpetrators of the dictatorship and their accomplices will continue to be judged where they should be: in court.