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Argentina: Living With Cruelty

Before I had gone to Argentina I had been sent gruesome documents about torture. But some of the people I went to see in Buenos Aires didn’t seem as frantic as the messages they had sent out; some seemed rather surprised that I should be taking the matter so seriously. A young Trotskyist lawyer said in a matter-of-fact way, “Torture is pretty important here.” When he saw that I thought his tone too casual, he said, with one of incantation, like a parent wearily encouraging a difficult child, “Torture will disappear only with a workers’ government and the downfall of the bourgeoisie.” A Peronist trade union leader, sitting in his well-appointed office, said in the soft and reasoned way for which he was known, “A world without torture is an ideal world.” Torture was going to continue; but there was good torture and bad torture. Bad torture was what was done by the enemies of the people; good torture was what, when their turn came, the enemies of the people got from the protectors of the people.

This was in 1972, when almost everyone was Peronist, and people were shouting about bad military torture, and keeping quiet about the good torture they were looking forward to when Perón came back.

Robert Cox said, “You can be fooled. You can run a campaign about someone represented to you as an innocent victim of the police. And then, at his graveside, there are great tributes paid to all the acts of violence he took part in.”

Even with the element of mimicry, the guerrilla idea in Argentina had little in common with the student theater of Paris and the United States. If revolution in Argentina didn’t absolutely contain the mystical idea of blood, it held the idea of physical punishment for people on the wrong side. High political principles ran into this simpler idea of personal outrage, the personal quarrel, the blood feud: the denial first of the other man’s cause and then of his humanity.

In 1880 there would have been open sewers and unpaved streets in central Buenos Aires. The population then was 300,000. By 1915, after “the Conquest of the Desert”—the curious name given in Argentina to the wiping out of the pampas Indians and the seizure of their immense territory—and after the great European migration, the population of the city was 1,500,000; and the great belle époque Parisian city had been built, with the names of architects and engineers carved in stone or set in metal letters to one side of tall doorways. The elegance barely lasted. Just thirty years later, in 1945, the Peronist revolution began; and twenty-five years after that, the guerrillas appeared.

By 1977 the guerrillas had been all but destroyed. Now, fourteen years on, in a city showing the signs of many years of neglect, I went to talk to Ricardo about the movement. Ricardo had been a sympathizer.

He lived in an apartment in a rundown pre-1914 block in a central area. The flat was of its period, with a separate servants’ entrance and minute servant rooms; the front rooms were light, the back rooms were very dark. Ricardo kept no servant. He was like a man camping in the old apartment. Layers of paint had coarsened the detail of ceilings and architraves and skirting boards.

He was in his early forties, middleclass by education. He seemed still disturbed by his country’s recent history and was as yet without a settled profession. He was of the generation of the guerrillas, and had in fact gone to the school where some of the more important guerrillas had been educated. He had known them from a distance: when he was fifteen, they were seventeen.

The school, the National College of Buenos Aires, was famous; it was, Ricardo said, the best school in the country. It had been started by the Jesuits in the eighteenth century, and run by them until they were expelled from the Spanish empire. “When modern Argentina started, the school was reshaped by a Frenchman according to the French encyclopedic education of the times.” In 1966, at that school, Ricardo heard some of the senior boys singing “the fascist hymn, the Mussolini hymn,” in the changing room after the swimming period. “They were pretty serious about it.” This was at the time of another military takeover: the internal, back-and-forth Argentine conflict going on, after the populism and economic mess of the Perón revolution.

Ricardo began to understand that in Argentina he had a fight on his hands. Something else added to his political education. “In the late Fifties and Sixties there was in Argentina this movement called Catholic Action, Acción Católica. It was a militant organization within the church. Two priests from Acción Católica were counselors at our school. They were just two blocks away from the school. The Montonero guerrillas, the Peronist guerrillas, started because of the influence of those two priests. One of them was called Father Mujica. He was killed by paramilitary forces some years later, in 1974.”

I said, “I met Mujica in 1972. I didn’t know he was so important. I thought he was a very vain man.”

Ricardo said, “Vanity plays a big part in this story. There is a word in Spanish, soberbia. It doesn’t strictly mean pride. ‘Arrogance’ is better. Mujica had this soberbia. He came from an old Argentine family. Everybody knew that, and he did live in a good area. But sometimes arrogance and shame are brothers. Or arrogance and guilt. Many people who participated in this movement we are talking about felt guilt about the part played by their families in the version of Argentine history that was fashionable at that time.”

When he was twenty, Ricardo managed to travel out of Argentina for some months.

I left the country working on a cargo ship, looking for adventure, looking for trouble, trying to shape a personality.” He got to Paris in May 1970. The evening he arrived he went for a walk, and he found he had walked into a riot. “Those people were celebrating May 1968, and there were policemen on one side and rioters on the other. It was very surprising to me.” It made him more aware of his rage and frustration and passivity in Argentina. A short time afterward he read in the newspaper of the kidnapping (and subsequent murder) by Montonero guerrillas of former President Aramburu, the Argentine general who, after Perón was deposed, had ruled as president from 1955 to 1958.

He went back to Argentina a changed man. The military were still in power, and he was ready then to be on the side of the guerrillas.

What did the guerrillas want?

He said, as though surprised that I should ask, “To destroy the army. Peripheric countries like ours receive very clearly what is thought in the northern hemisphere. ‘Liberation’ was the word. Cuba was recent. Chile was going on, Allende’s Chile. Vietnam was going on, too.”

But why, since they wished to destroy the army, did they complain so much abroad that the army wanted to destroy them?

After all these years, his passion was still the passion of the feud, in which the other side had no cause at all.

He said, “They were using guns acquired with taxpayers’ money. And they were using torture illegally. They were delinquents, in fact, delinquents protected by the state.”

Delinquent”—the military used this word as well, to describe the guerrillas.

But then, in spite of what he felt about the Argentine army, Ricardo began to have doubts about the Montoneros. They wanted Perón, the revolutionary of the 1940s, to come back; but Perón was now very old and surrounded by crooks.

Their idea of Perón was not precise. The second point that was hard for me to swallow was they said they represented the interests of the working class, with which it was evident they had very little contact.” But he didn’t give up the guerrillas right away. “They were not trying to fool you. I think they were honest people. They were people I trusted because I knew them. And at the same time they had success. They had succeeded in building an organization out of nothing, and they had defied the police and the army, and they were there. So they must have had something right: they had not failed. Faced with that success, all I had were my intellectual doubts, which seemed not very relevant.”

And there was the excitement of action itself, of secret meetings, of running away in a dozen different directions when the police appeared, and coming together again according to a prearranged plan somewhere else. Still, his doubts about the Montoneros grew.

When we were in the crowds sometimes—in fact, every time—they showed pride in their own crimes.” Kidnapping and murder, and bank robberies. The ideology wasn’t always clear. The Montoneros said they were Peronist. Why, then, did they murder Rucci, the Peronist trade union leader? “That was one crime they had problems with. They could hardly tell people they had done it.”

Paris in 1970 had given Ricardo, passive and frustrated, an idea of the possibility of action. But the conflicts of Argentina were not as formal and regulated as the celebratory riots of Paris, with the police on one side and the students on the other, and everybody going home afterward. Argentina was full of hatreds that weren’t all clear, couldn’t always be reduced to principles. Argentina was much bloodier, full of real murder. Ricardo felt himself sinking into a moral and political mess. He had not yet undertaken any big action; he hadn’t been compromised in that way; and it was possible for him to detach himself from the guerrillas.

He said, “Argentina made people dream too much. When the dreams fell apart the response was anger and looking for the guilty. Many of the guerrillas were grandchildren of immigrants. And the army men, too. There were many family links between the two sides, because it was basically a fight within a certain social segment of society. They were not big landowners; they were not working class. They were people who expected a certain social development based on education, and they were beginning to feel that for various reasons the doors were closing.”

There was a time, hard to imagine now, in the early part of the century, when Argentina, with all its rich, empty land, its conquered “desert,” all its new pampas wealth, thought itself the equal of the United States; and it drew the same kind of European immigrant. But Argentina was a cheat; it was never a land for pioneers; it was a colonial agricultural economy on a vast scale, built around great estancias or estates. Argentina didn’t require pioneers; it required only hands. In the United States in the late 1960s the grandchildren of immigrants, playing at revolution, were really only making their way in an open and rich and many-sided country. In Argentina the revolt of that same generation, of more or less similar antecedents, was more desperate.

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