Argentine Terror: A Memoir

This article was written in May 1977 after a visit to Buenos Aires and the north of Argentina. Little has changed. The Falcons no longer operate, but the terror continues. Inflation rages on: Argentina is no longer cheap for the visitor. The poor are screaming; but the rich have become immensely richer: once again more Argentines go abroad, to shop, to buy the things of civilization. A new outburst is maturing lower down; a new generation of young men and women is already doomed. The society of cruelty ever renews itself.

In Argentina the killer cars—the cars in which the official gunmen go about their business—are Ford Falcons. The Falcon, which is made in Argentina, is a sturdy small car of unremarkable appearance, and there are thousands on the roads. But the killer Falcons are easily recognizable. They have no license plates. The cars—and the plainclothes men they carry—require to be noticed; and people can sometimes stand and watch.

As they stood and watched some weeks ago, in the main square of the northern city of Tucumán: the Falcons parked in the semicircular drive of Government Headquarters, an ornate stone building like a nineteenth-century European country house, but with Indian soldiers with machine guns on the balcony and in the well-kept subtropical gardens: a glimpse, eventually, of uniforms, handshakes, salutes, until the men in plain clothes, like actors impersonating an aristocratic shooting party, but with machine guns under their Burberrys or imitation Burberrys, came down the wide steps, got into the small cars, and drove off without speed or sirens.

The authorities have grown to understand the dramatic effect of silence. It is part of the terror that is meant to be felt as terror.

Style is important in Argentina; and in the long-running guerrilla war—in spite of the real blood, the real torture—there has always been an element of machismo and public theater. In the old days policemen stood a little way from busy intersections with machine guns at the ready; at night the shopping streets of central Buenos Aires were patrolled by jack-booted and helmeted soldiers with Alsatian dogs; from time to time, as a dramatic extravaganza, there appeared the men of the antiguerrilla motorcycle brigade. The war in those days was in the main a private war, between the guerrillas on one side and the army and police on the other. Now the war touches everybody; public theater has turned to public terror.

Style has been taken away from all but the men in the Falcons. The guerrillas still operate, but the newspapers are not allowed to print anything about them. They can print only the repetitive official communiqués, the body counts, and these usually appear as small items on the inside pages, seemingly unrelated to the rest of the news: in such a place, on such a date, in these circumstances, so many subversives or delincuentes were killed, so many men, so many women. The communiqués are thought to represent only a fraction of the truth: too many people are disappearing.

The military junta came to power in March, 1976. In the beginning—after the chaos and near-anarchy of the Peronist restoration—the killings were thought to be good for the economy. War was war, it was said; the guerrillas—now like private armies, with no recognizable aims—had to be rooted out; the trade unions and their leaders had to be disciplined after the license and corruption of the Peronist years. (No more free trips to Europe on Aerolíneas Argentinas for those union men, flashy provincial machos requiring attention from the crew, each man, after supper, settling down with his pile of comic books and photo-novels, light reading for the long night flight, the tips of ringed fingers wetted on the tongue before the pages were turned.) Another, more becoming, Argentina was to be created; the country (as though the country was an economic abstraction, something that could be separated from the bulk of the population) was to be got going again.

And while wages were kept down like sin, the banker-saints of Argentina worked their own inflationary miracles. They offered 8 percent a month or 144 percent a year for the peso, and momentarily gave back faith to many good Argentines who had for years been praying only for the water of their pesos to be turned into the wine of dollars. During the early months of the terror the stock market boomed; fortunes were made out of nothing; Argentina seemed to be itself again. But now—even with that 144 percent—the terror is too close.

No pattern can any longer be discerned in the terror. It isn’t only the guerrillas and the union men and the country’s few intellectuals who are threatened. Anyone can be picked up. Torture is routine. Even workmen unlucky enough to be in a flat at the time of a raid have been taken away, held for a few hours and tortured with everybody else, so automatic is the process: the tight blindfold, the eyes depressed in the sockets, the hooding, the beating, the electric shocks that leave burn marks for eighteen days, and then the mysterious journey in the boot of the Falcon and the sadism of release: “We are taking you to the cemetery…. Now, count a hundred before you take off your blindfold.”

Almost everyone in Argentina knows someone who has disappeared or been arrested or tortured. Even military men have, by the intervention of military friends, been called to receive the corpses of their children, corpses which might otherwise have been destroyed or thrown away, sometimes to roll ashore, mutilated and decomposing, at Montevideo, on the other side of the River Plate. One woman was sent the hands of her daughter in a shoe box.

There is still, for the distinguished or well known, legal arrest on specific charges. But below that there is no law. People are taken away and no one is responsible. The army refers inquirers to the police, and the police refer them back to the army. A special language has developed: an anxious father might be told that his son’s case is “closed.” No one really knows who does what or why; it is said that anyone can now be made to disappear, for a price.

Buenos Aires is full of shocked and damaged people who can think now only of flight, who find it no longer possible to take sides, who can see no cause in Argentina and can acknowledge at last the barbarism by which they have for long been surrounded, the barbarism they had previously been content to balance against the knowledge of their own security and the old Argentine lure of the spacious rich land, easy money, and abundant meat, the lure expressed in the words which so often in Argentina close a discussion: “Todavía aquí se vive mejor. Still, you live better here.”

Barbarism, in a city which has thought of itself as European, in a land which, because of that city, has prided itself on its civilization. Barbarism because of that very idea: civilization felt as something far away, magically kept going by others: the civilization of Europe divorced from any idea of an intellectual life and equated with the goods and fashions of Europe: civilization felt as something purchasable, something always there, across the ocean, for the man or woman with enough money: an attitude not far removed from that of the politician of a new country who, while fouling his own nest, feathers another abroad, in a land of law.

The official history of Argentina is a history of glory: of a war of independence, with heroes, of European expansion, wealth, civilization. This is the part of which Borges sometimes sings; but a recurring theme of some of his later stories is of cultural degeneracy.

Torture is not new in Argentina. And though Argentines abroad, when they are campaigning against a particular regime, talk as if torture has just been started by that regime, in Argentina itself torture is spoken of—and accepted—by all groups as an Argentine institution.

In 1972, at an elegant provincial hotel, an upper-class lady of Spanish descent (still obsessed with the purity of race, still fighting the old Spanish wars) told me that torture had started in Argentina in 1810, when the country became independent of Spain; and—middle-aged and delicate at the dinner table, drinking the yellow champagne of Argentina, and speaking English with the accent of the finishing school—she said that torture remained necessary because the penal code was so benign. “You have to kill a man in the most horrible way to go to jail here. ‘My client was excited,’ the lawyer says. ‘Oh?’ the judge says. ‘He was excited?’ And no jail.”

A young Trotskyist lawyer didn’t see the law quite like that. He thought only that torture had been used by “most of the governments” and had become “a pretty important feature of Argentine life.” Its abolition seemed at first to form no part of his socialist program; but then, noticing my concern, he promised, speaking very quickly, as to a child to whom anything could be promised, that torture would disappear “with the downfall of the bourgeoisie.”

However, the high Peronist trade union man I later went to see—this was in mid-1972, and the union man was close to power, waiting for Perón to come back—couldn’t promise anything. He said—and he might have been speaking of rain—that torture would always exist. It was this man, soft-voiced, reasonable, at that time still the representative of the oppressed, who told me—the map of the Paris metro and a photograph of the young Perón below glass on his desk—that there was good torture and bad torture. It was “all right” to torture an “evildoer”; it was another thing to torture “a man who’s trying to serve the country.”

And that was the very point made four years later by Admiral Guzzetti, one of the leaders of the present regime, when, defending the terror, he spoke to the United Nations in August 1976. The Admiral (who has since been wounded in a guerrilla attack) said: “My idea of subversion is that of the left-wing terrorist organizations. Subversion or terrorism of the right is not the same thing. When the social body of the country has been contaminated by a disease that corrodes its entrails, it forms antibodies. These antibodies cannot be considered in the same way as the microbes.”

Yesterday’s antibodies, today’s microbes; yesterday’s servants of the country, today’s evildoers; yesterday’s torturers, today’s tortured. Argentine ideologies, in spite of the labels of right or left that they give themselves, are really quite simple. What harms the other man is right; what harms me is wrong. Perón was never more Argentine—in his complaints and his moral outrage—than when, in 1956, the year after he had been overthrown by the military, he published his own lachrymose account of the affair. He called his book La Fuerza es el Derecho de las Bestias. The words mean, literally, “Force is the right of animals,” and the title might be rendered in English as “The Law of the Jungle.”

In that book Perón wrote: “The revolution is without a cause because it is only a reaction. It seeks only to undo what has been done, to extirpate Peronism, to take away from the workers the benefits they have won.” And Perón, if he were alive today, might use the same words about the present regime. So little has Argentina changed in the political seesawing of the last twenty years; so without point have been all the maneuverings and murders.

The killer cars are not new. They began to operate in Perón’s time, when Perón turned against the guerrillas who had brought him back to power. And the cars became more murderous in the time of Isabel, Perón’s widow and successor, when the enemies became more personal, less politically definable. Then one day Isabel ceased to rule, and the Peronist cycle was over.

It happened simply. Late one evening in March, 1976, the military, who had held off for a long time, had the presidential helicopter hijacked; and Isabel—flying back in style from Government House in downtown Buenos Aires—was told that the presidential house in the suburb of Olivos, where she thought she was going, was no longer her home. In the official story, she burst into tears, the former cabaret girl who had become the first woman president of Argentina. She was taken first to a city airfield; later she was taken under guard to the presidential house to pack her clothes. There she tried to get the household staff on her side. She thought that they were hers, loyal to her. But they, used to Argentine presidents coming and suddenly going, simply helped her pack.

That was how it ended for her, the poor girl born in the poor northern province of La Rioja. She was in a cabaret in far-off Panama when she met the exiled Perón in 1956, one year after his overthrow, four years after the death of Eva Perón. Isabel was never promoted as a replacement for Eva Perón; and Perón was never reproached by his followers for his association with her. To macho Argentina, infinitely comprehending of a man’s needs, Isabel was only the new woman at the leader’s side. And when she came back to Argentina with Perón in 1973, she came only as an “ambassador of peace,” the “verticalizer,” the woman who was to bind Argentina with her love, while Perón handled the hate.

Perón conduce, Isabel verticaliza: Perón conducts, Isabel verticalizes. The words are as difficult in Spanish as they are in English; but this was one of the slogans of the last days of Perón’s rule, in 1974, when Peronism had already shown itself to be nothing but words, and the rule of Perón and his court was like a continuation of the hysteria that had brought them back; when official printed posters supplemented aerosol graffiti, and the walls of Buenos Aires were like tattered billboards. So many posters, quickly outdated: always some new martyr to be mourned (and forgotten within a week: nothing as dead, in Peronist Argentina, as last week’s political poster), so many killings to be avenged: the leader seeking always to buoy himself up on a collective expression of anger, complaint, and hate.

Now there is silence. Isabel is still in detention somewhere in the south, the subject of fading gossip; a private snapshot, released by the authorities, shows that she grew fat during her time in office. Many of the people who ruled with her have scattered. The astrologer López Rega—he was Isabel’s manager when she was a cabaret girl in Panama, and he later became Perón’s secretary—is out of the country; he has been accused by the present government of embezzling large sums during his time as welfare minister.

The political scandals connected with Perón’s return to power, and the financial scandals of his rule and the rule of Isabel, continue. It was the guerrillas who made it possible for Perón to come back; they were the strong right arm of the Peronist movement in 1972 and 1973. But were they all guerrillas? The kidnappings and the bank raids—were they all for the cause? Or was some of the guerrillerismo mixed up with Argentine big business? Speculating this time not in land or the falling peso, but in idealism and passion, real blood and torture. It has now been established that, while the Peronist guerrillas were fighting the government, men close to the government were handling some of the guerrillas’ money, traveling abroad, investing millions.

The military like clean walls, and the walls of Buenos Aires are now whitewashed and bare. But here and there the ghostly political graffiti of old times show through the whitewash: the Evita Vive, “Evita Lives,” of 1972; the emblems of the Peronist youth movement; the Peronist election slogan of 1973: Cámpora a la Presidencia, Perón al Poder (“Cámpora to the Presidency, the Power to Perón”); the later, and Peronistically inevitable, proclamation of Cámpora traidor (“Cámpora is a traitor”): friend mysteriously turned to enemy, now an unimportant part of dead Argentine history, the ghost of a ghost: all that dead history faint below the military whitewash.

Perón himself is not much talked about now. He is dead; he finally failed everybody; he and the years he wasted can be skipped. History in Argentina is less an attempt to record and understand than a habit of reordering inconvenient facts, it is a process of forgetting. And the middle-class politicians and intellectuals who campaigned for Perón’s return, the people who by their unlikely conversion to the Peronist cause made that cause so overwhelming in 1972 and 1973, now avoid the subject or do not come clean.

They say they were hoping to change the movement from within; or they say, more fantastically, that what they really wanted was Peronism without Perón. But it was Perón they invited back from exile to rule over them; and they invited him back—even with his astrologer—because they wanted what he offered.

In her ghosted autobiography, La Razón de mi Vida, Eva Perón says she found out about poverty when she was eleven. “And the strange thing is that the existence of the poor did not cause me so much pain as the knowledge that at the same time there were rich people.” That pain about the rich—that pain about other people—remained the basis of the popular appeal of Peronism. That was the simple passion—rather than “nationalism” or Perón’s “third position”—that set Argentina alight.

Eva Perón devoted her short political life to mocking the rich, the four hundred families who between them owned most of what was valuable in the million square miles of Argentina. She mocked and wounded them as they had wounded her; and her later unofficial sainthood gave a touch of religion to her destructive cause.

Even when the money ran out, Peronism could offer hate as hope. And in the end that was why Argentina virtually united in calling Perón back, though the first period of his rule had ended in repression and disaster, and though he was very old and close to death. In his eighteen years of exile, while Argentina floundered from government to government, he had remained oddly consistent. He had become the quintessential Argentine: like Eva before him, like all Argentines, he was a victim, someone with enemies, someone with that pain about others. As the years passed, his enemies multiplied; his old words of Argentine complaint began to read like prophecies (“The revolution is without a cause,” “The military rule but no one obeys”); until finally he appeared to have become the enemy of everybody’s enemy.

Peronism was never a program. It was an insurrection. For more than thirty years Argentina has been in a state of insurrection. The parallel is not with any country in Europe, as Argentine writers sometimes say. The parallel is with Haiti, after the slave rebellion of Toussaint: a barbarous colonial society similarly made, similarly parasitic on a removed civilization, and incapable of regenerating itself because slavery provided the only pattern of human behavior, and to be a man meant only to be able to assuage that pain about the other, to be like the master.

Eva Perón lit the fire. But the idea of reform was beyond her. She was too wounded, too uneducated; she was too much of her society; and always she was a woman among machos. Christophe, who made himself emperor of Haiti, punished his subjects to build the Citadelle: the model for this fantasy was the British fortifications of Brimstone Hill in the small island of St. Kitts, where Christophe was born a slave and trained as a tailor. So Eva Perón, in power, obliterating records of her early childhood, yet never going beyond the ideas of childhood, sought only to compete with the rich in their cruelty and wealth and style, their imported goods. It was herself and her triumph that she offered to the people, the pueblo in whose name she acted.

Her enemies helped to sanctify her. After Perón’s overthrow in 1955 they put on a public display of her clothes, even her intimate garments. She had been dead three years; but this (especially the display of underclothes) was an Argentine, macho form of violation; and the people, el pueblo, were meant in addition to be shocked by the extravagance and commonness of their great lady. It was disingenuous: the violators themselves had no higher ideals, and the display of fairy-tale wealth—wealth beyond imagination coming to someone who was of the poor—added to the Evita legend.

Twenty years after her death she found legitimacy. Her small embalmed body—she was five foot two, and at her death she was wasted—now rests in the Duarte family vault in the Recoleta cemetery, the upper-class necropolis of Buenos Aires. The stone and marble avenues of the mimic town are full of the great names of Argentina, or names which, if the country had been better built, would have been great, but can be seen now only as part of a pretentious, failed past. This legitimacy, this dignity, was all that the girl from Los Toldos wanted; it has taken her an insurrection, an unraveling of the state, to achieve it.

In the early Peronist days she was promoted as a saint, and she is now above Peronism and politics. She is her own cult; she offers protection to those who believe in her. Where there are no reliable institutions or codes or law, no secular assurances, people need faith and magic. And Nature in Argentina is overwhelming: men can feel abandoned in that land of great mountains and big blank spaces. (What desert and scrub and mountains separate the northern province of La Rioja from the softer but still limitless land of the pampa: La Rioja, site of old, lost hope, the town founded in sub-Andean desolation late in the sixteenth century, after Mexico and Peru, as another of the Spanish bases for the search for El Dorado.) Desolation always seems close in the Argentine vastness: how did men come here, how have they endured?

In that desolation cults grow, and they can have a feel of the ancient world. Like the cult of the woman known as La Difunta Correa, the Deceased Correa. At some undated time she was crossing the desert on foot. She was starving; there was no water in the desert; and she died. But her baby (or the baby she gave birth to before she died) was found alive, sucking at the breast of the dead woman. Now there are little roadside shrines to her memory, and in these shrines people leave little bottles of water. The water evaporates: it has been drunk by the Difunta Correa. La Difunta Correa tomó el agua: the simple miracle is ceaselessly renewed.

Eva Perón is that kind of figure now, without dates or politics. And offerings are made at the Duarte vault in the Recoleta. The sarcophagus cannot be seen, but it is known to be there. On the morning I went white lilies were tied with a white scarf to the black rails, and there was a single faded red rose, unspeakably moving. On the ground, unprotected, was a white mantilla in a plastic wrapper. A woman came with a gift of flowers. She was a woman of the people, with the chunky body of someone whose diet was too starchy. She had come from far, from Mendoza, at the other end of the pampa.

(Mendoza, the wine region at the foot of the Andes, where in the bright southern light and clear air the imported trees of Europe, the willow and the plane, grow gigantically; and the view on one side is always bounded by the gray-blue wall of the mountains. Not the true snow-capped Andes, though: these will appear one day, very far away, apparently unsupported, like a faint white overprinting in the middle sky, giving a new idea of size, awakening wonder not only at the sixteenth-century conquistadores who came this way, but also at the Incas who, without the wheel, extended their rule so far south, and whose irrigation channels the cultivators of Mendoza still use.)

The lady from Mendoza had a sick daughter—a spastic or a polio sufferer: it wasn’t clear. “Hace quince años hice la promesa. I made a vow fifteen years ago.” In 1962, that is, when Eva Perón had been dead for ten years and Perón was still in exile, with no hope of return; when the embalmed body of Eva was presumed lost. Now, the miracle had occurred. The body was there; the daughter was well enough again for the vow to be fulfilled.

She placed the flowers on the ground; she went still for a little while, contemplating the rails and the blank vault; and then she became herself again, brisk and ready to go. She said, “Ya cumplí. There, I’ve done it.”