Report from Hell

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. 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.

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 …

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