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Report from Hell

1.

Nunca Mas, which was published in Argentina in 1984, is a report from Hell. The work of a special commission appointed by President Alfonsín, it describes in detail almost unbearable to read the system of licensed sadism the military rulers of Argentina created in their country from 1976 to 1979, when more than twelve thousand citizens were “sucked” off the streets, tortured for months, and then killed.1 The roots of this horror are deep in the modern history of the country: Argentina has been a political and economic paradox for almost a century. It has extraordinary natural resources, rich and vast agricultural land, and an educated population of mainly European stock, and it benefited, early in the century, from heavy foreign, particularly British, investment in its railways and industry. Economists routinely predicted, fifty years ago, that it would become the most prosperous of all Latin American countries. But it never achieved the political stability economic success required, and the peculiar role of the military in its politics was both a cause and an effect of that failure.

In 1930 the Argentine armed forces overthrew the elected government of President Hipólito Yrigoyen, of the Radical Civic Union party, in an unconstitutional coup; since then they have overthrown five more elected governments, and ruled Argentina for a longer period, in the aggregate, than all these democratic governments together. Juan Perón, who was then a colonel, participated in the coup that unseated President Ramón Castillo in 1943. He used his position as head of the National Labor Department to take control of the developing trade union movement, which he corrupted into an instrument of personal power. With the help of his wife Evita, who has been a glamorous radio star, he was elected president in 1946 and governed autocratically until he was himself overthrown in 1955 and exiled, eventually to Spain. In his years of power he created a cult of personality, particularly among workers, by lavish spending that exhausted the huge financial surplus Argentina had amassed during the Second World War. He also created a police state, using informers and torturers, and Robert Cox has convincingly argued, in these pages, that Perón’s administration prepared the way for the terror described in Nunca Mas.2

Perón was worshiped by both left and right extremists, and they worked together in 1973 to elect a Peronist president, Héctor Cámpora, who had vowed to call Perón back to power. But before Perón returned in June 1973, to dismiss Cámpora and become president again himself, the two wings had split apart, and the enormous crowd that gathered at the airport to welcome him from Spain turned into two warring armies before his plane landed. An estimated two hundred young people died in the fighting between them, and that airport slaughter was a dramatic signal. Argentina had begun its nightmare.

Perón immediately sided with the right. (When a reporter from a newspaper financed by the Marxist-Leninist People’s Revolutionary Army [the ERP] asked him, at a televised press conference, whether he would stop paramilitary groups from kidnapping members of that organization, he made no reply except to order that her name be taken. She was soon kidnapped herself.) The ERP and a group of left-wing Peronists who called themselves the Montoneros became terrorist groups, and killed and maimed government and police officials, and civilians as well. At least eight hundred people died at their hands. Right-wing terrorist bands, which included groups from the army and police, assassinated left-wing leaders in turn, and an undeclared civil war began on the streets of Argentina’s cities.

Perón died on July 1, 1974; his second wife, whom the Argentines called Isabelita, was his vice-president and became president in his place. She was as incompetent to check the different terrorist groups as she was to control the terrifying inflation, which has reached an annual rate of 700 percent, or to halt a severe economic decline that had produced a negative growth rate. On March 24, 1976, the military took control yet again. The familiar tanks surrounded the Casa Rosada (the “Pink House” from which Argentine presidents governed) and Isabelita was quietly flown first out of Buenos Aires and then, after some years of house arrest, back to a Spanish exile.

The military formed a three-man junta composed of the commanding officers of the army, navy, and air force. The junta adopted a Statute for the Process of National Reorganization which gave it ultimate power to govern; it replaced the Supreme Court and many other judges with its own appointees, and took command of the universities. The country did not protest, and the middle class, tired of inflation, appalled by the chaos of Isabelita’s brief administration, and frightened by terrorism, welcomed what it saw as a return to sanity. Argentina’s greatest writer, Jorge Luis Borges, whose mother and sister had been arrested under Perón, said that once again Argentina was to be governed by gentlemen. He had no idea what these “gentlemen” actually had in mind.

A substantial section of the military were fascists. They thought of themselves, not as the servants of constitutional government, but as the true ruling caste of the nation, guardians of its values and way of life. They dismissed the Congress and replaced the members of the Supreme Court. They believed that the terrorists of the left were not just criminals to be pursued and punished by police action, but a lethal and immanent threat to Argentine civilization, an army of evil they had a duty to destroy in what they called a “dirty war.” Nor was this threat limited, in their eyes, only to the guerrillas and terrorists themselves: it was posed, more profoundly, by what General Jorge Videla, the army’s representative in the initial junta, called “subversive thought.” He meant dissent of any kind.

Watchful Argentines soon discovered what a dirty war was. People—mainly but not only young people—began to disappear in great numbers. They were swept off the street, or from their homes in the middle of the night, by squads in plain clothes, and bundled into the trunks of the Ford Falcons with no license plates these squads drove. Most were never seen again. When desperate parents or friends sought information from the police or the military, they were told the authorities had no knowledge of who had taken the victim or where he or she was. Some relatives hired lawyers to bring actions of habeas corpus in the courts. But almost all these actions were dismissed—the judges the junta had appointed remained faithful to them or frightened by them, and anyway had no power to question the military’s flat denials of any knowledge—and the lawyers who brought the actions began to disappear themselves.

Very few of those who disappeared had any connection to the left-wing terrorist groups whose activities provided the original excuse for the military coup. Many were trade unionists, journalists, or lawyers, others were friends of these, or acquaintances, or people whose names had been given in fright by those who had been arrested, or whose names were in their address books, or people against whom someone in power had a grudge, or who had property someone in power wanted. Many were middle-class and professional people, or their children: no one could be sure that he or his family was safe. Families who had influence or connections were told to make no trouble, that if they kept quiet their son or daughter would no doubt be returned. They almost never were.

The disappearances were no secret. Most people knew someone whose son or daughter or friend had been sucked off the streets. In rare cases the military released someone it had taken; in other cases it acknowledged it had him, tried him on trumped-up charges, jailed him, and finally released him. Those who returned to society told their stories, and these circulated within Argentina and abroad. Jacobo Timerman, the highly influential editor of a leading newspaper, was abducted, but his friends within and outside the military were powerful enough to secure his exile to Israel. Timerman wrote a book reporting how he had been tortured, and the sickening conditions under which he and others had been kept.

Not all Argentines were too shocked or frightened to protest. The English-language newspaper, the Buenos Aires Herald, reported disappearances regularly and ran editorials demanding information from the military, though its editors were themselves threatened. An extraordinarily brave group of women, who came to be called the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, demonstrated weekly in front of the Casa Rosada, demanding information about their disappeared children. (Several of them then disappeared too.) Concerned citizens, including a prominent lawyer, Emilio Mignone, whose own daughter had disappeared, formed human rights groups to try to monitor the repression. The Carter administration in the United States accused Argentina of human rights violations, and sharply restricted foreign aid.

But though the evidence was soon undeniable that the junta had been engaged in mass terror, most Argentines were satisfied with its explanation that harsh measures were necessary to save the country; they told themselves that the army knew best, that their acquaintances who had disappeared were probably secret communists after all. After 1979, in any case, the disappearances largely ceased. The junta’s power was finally broken, not by any domestic or international concern about human rights, but by its own economic and, in the end, military ineptitude. It had based its title to rule on the claim that no elected government could take the measures needed to restore economic health and political stability. After the coup the junta had appointed a well-known banker, Martínez de Hoz, an advocate of a fiercely unregulated market economy, as finance minister. His programs of attracting foreign capital were successful in the short run—the Argentine peso increased in value so dramatically and quickly that middle-class Argentines traveled the world on their strong currency, and delighted in suddenly cheap imported goods of every kind. But the short-term success turned into economic disaster: domestic industries were ruined, the economy plunged, and inflation returned.

By 1982 it was plain that the military would be unable to deliver the prosperity it had promised, and it suddenly seemed no better than the elected government it had replaced. Mass strikes began, and General Galtieri, who had become the army’s representative in the junta, turned to the traditional remedy of unsuccessful tyrants: foreign war. Argentina had claimed title to the Falklands (which the Argentines call the Malvinas), an unpromising group of islands in the South Atlantic near Argentina that Britain had governed since 1833. Negotiations with Britain had dragged on for years, but Galtieri suddenly invaded the Falklands in April of 1982. He and his advisers fatally misjudged Great Britain’s willingness to defend them, and his invasion ended in spectacular and humiliating defeat: the Argentine armed forces could not defend the small group of islands they had occupied, close to their shore, against an attack launched from half the world away. Galtieri resigned in disgrace, and was replaced by General Bignone, who realized that the military could not continue to govern, and organized elections to install a democratic and civilian government. The final junta took the precaution, before those elections, of adopting a general amnesty purporting to immunize every member of the military from prosecution for any crimes he had committed in the so-called war against subversion.

  1. 1

    A translation has been published by Faber and Faber in London, in association with Index on Censorship. Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish the report in September.

  2. 2

    Robert Cox, “The Second Death of Perón?” The New York Review of Books (December 8, 1983), p. 18.

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