• Email
  • Print

Argentina: Living With Cruelty


In Argentina in March 1977, at the time of the military government’s “dirty war” against the guerrillas, I found myself taken off a long-distance bus by the police one day, and held for some hours as a suspected guerrilla.

This was in the far north of the country—an older, more tropical Argentina, deep in the continent, and still with the feel of the Spanish empire: wide valleys beside the Andes, miles and miles of sugar cane, an Indian population. While in Buenos Aires I was an obvious stranger, here in the north I could pass. (And sometimes more than pass. Once, in a small town in the Córdoba hills, during an earlier trip, a middle-aged Spanish-looking man had called out with great seriousness to me across a café: “You! You look like a pistolero.” A gangster.)

I was staying this time in the old colonial town of Salta. One morning I took a bus for the town of Jujuy, in the province to the north, on the border with Bolivia. Just outside Salta the bus stopped, perhaps at the provincial boundary. Indian policemen in dark-blue uniforms came in and asked for identity papers. Argentines are trained from childhood to carry their papers. I had none; I had left my passport in the hotel in Salta. So—with my gangster’s face momentarily of interest to the other passengers, who were mainly Indian—I was taken off the bus, which then went on again.

I went with the two policemen to the small white concrete shed or hut at the side of the road. This shed was plain outside and inside. A third policeman was there, standing behind a chesthigh counter; and I could see, on a table on his side of the counter, and close to his hand, the black-and-gray metal of a machine gun lying flat. There was nothing else on that table.

I was with serious people. They listened, but without much interest, to what I had to say. They talked among themselves; then they held consultations with someone else on the telephone or on a radio system. After a while I was taken—in what vehicle or by what ways I cannot remember: I made no notes about the events of this day—to a small low building standing by itself in a sunstruck patch of bush somewhere. This, though it didn’t look it, was a police post or subpost.

The men who had brought me there went away—rather like the morning bus to Jujuy. Salta began to feel far away. My idea of time changed; I learned to wait. I gave my details once again. The policeman who wrote them down then began to telephone. This wasn’t easy; the Argentine telephone service was very bad. Telephone lines, legitimate and illegitimate, hung over the streets and belle époque buildings of central Buenos Aires like gigantic cobwebs; the Indian policeman was trying to tap into the cobwebbed city, from a patch of bush a thousand miles away. He dialed and dialed, sometimes talking, sometimes not. His companion never took his eyes off me: smiling eyes, civil now, but biding their time.

I sat on a bench against a smooth plastered wall. I looked at the bush and the light outside. I smoked the pipe I had brought with me. After some time I wanted to use a lavatory. I was told there were no facilities in the little building. The policeman with the smiling eyes pointed to a spot in the bush some distance away: I was to go there. He said, “If you try to run away, I’ll shoot you.” With the smile, it sounded like a joke; but I knew that it wasn’t.

And then—unexpectedly—a call came through on the telephone: no one of my description was on any guerrilla list. I could go. The senior policeman said, with something like friendliness, “It was your pipe that saved you. Did you know that? That pipe made me feel that you really were a foreigner.”

It was an African pipe, a small black Tanganyika meerschaum I had bought in Uganda eleven years before: I had noticed that it had interested them. But all the time I had been trusting to my appearance, my broken Spanish, my Spanish accent. It was only now that I understood that to these Indian policemen of the far north Argentina would have been full of foreigners. So it was only at the moment of release, coming out of the slight shock, my disturbed sense of time, that I began to understand how serious my position had been. In the city of Tucumán, just a few days before, I had stood with a small group of townspeople watching policemen with machine guns below their raincoats getting into their unmarked cars. Like a kind of country-house shooting party; but in Tucumán the dirty war was especially dirty, and Tucumán was just to the south of Salta.

I was free, but I had no idea where I was. Some little feeling was with me that the policemen should take me back to where they had picked me up, but I didn’t put it to them. They showed me where the road was. I was walking in that direction when it occurred to me that I still had no “papers,” and could be picked up again. I went back to the little building and asked the senior policeman for a certificate of some sort. He understood at once; he was almost pleased to be asked. He sat down at his table, put a narrow sheet of headed paper in his heavy old typewriter and began to type, at a speed which surprised me, a constancia policial, a police “certification.” The language was formal: the bearer had been detained, but had “recovered his liberty,” because his detention was “not of interest,” por no interesar su detención. With this I went and waited on the road. A young Italian immigrant driving a white pickup truck gave me a lift back to Salta.

I gave up the idea of further travel in the north. The next day I started back for Buenos Aires; within a few days I had left the country. A short while later, over a period of two or three weeks, I wrote the article I had gone out to Argentina to write. But I was unhappy with the shape of what I had written; and then for three of four weeks more, trying to put it right, I found myself writing the same article again and again in more or less the same way. I became fogged, and laid the article aside.

Two years later, when I looked again at what I had written, I found it fair enough, and wondered at my confusion.1 It was as though, at the time, some writer’s instinct had wanted me to keep the emotion of that day to myself, and not to expose it even indirectly in an article. Later that year I began to write a long imaginative work set in a country in Central Africa. I transferred, when the time came, the emotion of Argentina, and even the isolated police building in the bush of Jujuy, to my Central African setting. When the book was finished, the unpleasantness at Jujuy dropped out of my consciousness; I forgot about it. Though it had marked the end of a five-year period of intermittent travel in Argentina, and though I wasn’t to go to Argentina again for fourteen years, the day in Jujuy formed no part of my Argentine memories.

But, just as sensation returns to a jaw when a local anesthetic wears off, so, more than ten years later, when the African book had worked itself out of my system and I could no longer be sure of details of a narrative I once knew by heart, so the day at Jujuy began to come back. And—without the shock of the day itself, and the disturbed sense of time, which kept me quite calm right through—I can be sickened at the thought of how close I was then to the dirtiness of the dirty war. Thousands of men and women, many of them not guerrillas, were disposed of at that time.2 Torture was routine: it was there in the smiling eyes of the junior policeman. Only my little African pipe raised a doubt in the mind of the senior policeman—and by the end of the year, when I was deep in my Central African book, I was to stop smoking, and lay aside that pipe and all the others.

And I never thought the Argentine guerrillas had a good enough cause. Some were people of the left; some were Peronists, campaigning for the return of the corrupt and old Perón; some wanted Peronism—a mixture of nationalism and socialism and anti-Americanism—without Perón. Some I thought had no cause at all; and some were simple gangsters. They were a mystery to me in 1972, when I first went to Argentina. They were educated, secure, middle-class people, perhaps the first full generation of secure and educated people after the great migrations from Europe earlier in the century, and after the Depression of the 1930s. Yet, barely arrived at privilege, they were—as it seemed to me—trying to pull their world down.

What had driven them to their cause? There would have been the element of mimicry, the wish not to be left out of the political current of the 1960s. “What the students say in America, they want to make concrete here”—I was told this in 1972 by a woman whose guerrilla nephew had been killed by the police: the young man had taken his revolution more seriously than the American students whose equal he wanted to be. Another, younger woman told me how a friend of hers had made his decision. They had gone to the cinema to see Sacco and Vanzetti; afterward her friend had said, “I feel ashamed at not being a guerrilla.”

There was also the old Argentine idea of revolution. This held much more than suggestions of upheaval and chaos. It was the idea that it was always possible to put an end to any particular political mess and make a fresh start. Sábat, the Buenos Aires cartoonist, put it like this: “Every time a president is deposed they raise the flag and sing the national anthem.” Robert Cox, the editor of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, said, “When there is a coup everyone is exhilarated and walks the next morning with a spring in his step.

For a film maker of Italian origin this idea of revolution went back to the early nineteenth century and the bloody wars of independence. He didn’t think it was funny; he thought it contained “the mystical Spanish idea of blood.” I thought the words were too grand; but I felt after some time in the country that they went some way to explaining the Argentine obsession with torture.

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.

The revolt had a religious side. I wanted to know more about that, and early one morning Ricardo took me to see a survivor of the 1970s. We met in the man’s office in central Buenos Aires, before it opened for business. The lift didn’t work; the turn-of-the century paneling was dim and tarnished. Like Ricardo’s apartment, this business suite from a grander time seemed to be a place that was being camped in.

The man we had come to meet was biggish, in his forties, plump now. He was in a brown suit. Just as Ricardo gave off melancholy, so this man suggested heaviness and dullness. He did a dull job in his dim office; he had a white, expressionless face. It was hard to imagine him as a man with a gun.

His talk was abstract from the start.

He said, “The idea of bearing witness, of organizing a way of life [un proyecto de vida] around one’s concern for others, that doesn’t come only from a Catholic source. It also comes from the tradition of the left.”

The Catholicism was in his background. At his public school, where there were nationalist and fascist and leftist ideas, he found his Catholic instincts coinciding with the ideas of the left. What ideas, especially?

The idea of the New Man, the idea of the revolutionary as an identity, the revolutionary confronting injustice. If in the Judeo-Christian culture it’s one of the commandments to love your neighbor—which also means that God is in the other man—then I cannot be indifferent to the miseries of this man, and I mean not only his material miseries, but also his cultural and spiritual miseries. That’s part of the Gospel. It coincided at that moment with left-wing ideology—Che Guevara, the New Man, the Cuban revolutionary tradition, the Marxist revolutionary tradition. The New Man is a cultural attitude. It detects, opposes, and denounces the prevailing culture”—the words came out like that: the musical sounds of Spanish can beguile people into using more words than they need, and more and more musical words—“when that culture is seen as a mechanism of domination.”

I wanted to know the stages by which his Catholic and New Man faith, so large and abstract, had narrowed down to guerrilla actions. These actions were specific; they could sometimes appear—even to someone like Ricardo—to be a matter of mysterious enmities.

He didn’t give the kind of answer I was hoping for. He said, “It’s like a process of conversion, conversion in a political way. And it goes very fast. You arrive at a vision that you can alter history, that history doesn’t follow its own fixed course. And I made my commitment. I gave up my career, my family, my social life, and began doing what I had to do. You also develop the clear sense of belonging to a group, a new group, different from the one you were given by your parents. Though my family were tolerant and very supportive.

The idea of commitment contained the idea of physical risk. It’s simple. If you are doing what is correct, you think that you are being correct, and you have a regard for what you do. At a certain level of action you are trying to cope with your own anguish and solitude. But in my case what was most important was not the action itself, but the self-esteem that came to me from the action. The self-esteem came to me from doing the correct thing.”

I said, “This is a religious attitude. It’s almost priestly.”

The man in the brown suit said, “It was.”

Ricardo said to me, “You find it strange? That’s because you are not a Christian. The psychological scenario had links with this cultural tradition.”

Footsteps sounded on the solid marble steps, and a woman came into the outer office: a secretary, getting ready to start the working day.

The man in the brown suit said, “Our Catholic upbringing made us militant. That’s where it started, in the idea of service and discipline.” And then—someone else coming into the office, and Ricardo and I getting ready to leave—he stood up and said, “What resulted was sometimes a perversion.” It was, at last, like an acknowledgment of the confusion, and the calamity, that had befallen his cause.

When we were in the street Ricardo said, “The guy”—Ricardo used the word neutrally—“was presenting himself to you as a defeated man, part of a defeated generation.”

I wish, though, I could have got him to talk in a more concrete way. Perhaps, because his cause had failed so completely, he didn’t want to talk of real people and real events. But it was also possible that his abstractions represented the way he thought. The principles by which he had tried to live were his own and were what he had to hold on to. The action (protagonismo, protagonism, was the word he used) into which those principles had led him had been worked out by others, to whom he had entrusted himself, and was incidental to his higher cause.

Ricardo and I had coffee in a students’ café.

Ricardo said, “I am seduced by rigorous ideas when I can reach them. The lack of rigor is something we have paid heavily for.”

The avenue we came out into was very wide: the turn-of-the century city had been planned for great things. Black smoke poured out of the exhausts of small and noisy Argentine-built buses, grating away between traffic lights. Above, the belle époque buildings were extravagantly cob-webbed—with the black telephone lines of a system that had been nationalized by Perón in 1945, at the start of his revolution, at great cost, a system that ever since then had been less of a public utility than a telephone workers’ racket: the big black webs spun, as it were, out of the entrails of the city and hanging over it like an emblem of nearly half a century of revolutionary plunder and waste.

The guerrillas of the 1970s, educated men and women, grandchildren of immigrants, had carried on Perón’s revolution. Twenty years on, they (with the repression they had provoked, and everything that had followed the repression) could be seen to have further impoverished and stultified the country.

Nearly everyone in that avenue would have been obsessed with money: not just with earning a living, but with maintaining the value of money. To ignore your money for a week was to lose it. The inflation that had started in Perón’s time had raced away in the last twenty years. In 1972 I had been excited by bank advertisements offering 24 percent a year; since then inflation had sometimes reached 100 percent a month; now, with the new stringency, it was, officially, about 4 percent a month.

Ricardo said, speaking of the guerrillas of the 1970s, “Only a part of the intelligentsia was involved, but they were all massively attacked. Being an intellectual was risky at the time. The repression became massive.” Just as in Argentina there was good torture and bad torture, depending on your side, so, still to Ricardo, there had been the good war, fought by the guerrillas, and the bad war, the “repression” by the army. “A good part of the intelligentsia had to flee, and this is something the country is paying for even now.”

He began to project his own melancholy on to his vision of the future. There would be more guerrillas one day, he said. They would be without the “elegance” of the guerrillas of the Seventies; they would be more like the Sendero Luminoso of Peru, animated by blood and rage.

The guerrillas of the Seventies tried to have some ethical attitude, some ethical advantage over their enemies. Sendero has given that up. They don’t play the good guys any more. That could happen here. You go out to the suburbs by train now, and you get into contact with people you wouldn’t know how to reintegrate into the society of the future. They are not conceivable to us as human beings. They are mestizos.” People of the old Indian north. “They are appearing like mushrooms in those suburbs.”

What Ricardo said was true: in those suburbs the Parisian city seemed to be reverting to its South American earth.

The feudal system of their origins, the system their parents came from, no longer wants them. It doesn’t include them, or content them, any more. And the capitalist system of the city has no place for them. So they are born outlaws. The Sendero-style guerrilla has some kind of appeal for that kind of person. So do some religious groups. That’s an important new phenomenon, by the way: those American preachers on TV, they have begun to come here.”


When I met Father Mujica in 1972 I didn’t know that he was one of the patrons of the guerrillas. I am sure now that Daniel, who took me to meet him, knew. Daniel very much wanted me to meet Mujica; but he told me only that Mujica was one of the “Priests for the Third World,” and that Mujica was of the Argentine upper class. Daniel was a respectable middle-class businessman; and even at the time I thought his interest in what he had given as Mujica’s cause a little strange. It showed to what extent in 1972, before Perón came back, and before things got really nasty, the guerrillas were operating from within the society and—in spite of the police dogs on the streets and the policemen with machine guns at street corners—were really protected people.

Mujica was running a church in a villa miseria, an Indian shanty town, in the Palermo district. Palermo is to Buenos Aires what Kensington Gardens are to London, or the Bois de Boulogne to Paris. Palermo has a great park. (And a fair amount of patriotic public statuary: too Paris-like for the local history: the park itself was laid out on the Buenos Aires estate of the rancher-warlord Rosas, who came to power some years after independence and then ran Argentina in his very rough way for nearly a quarter of a century, until 1852.)

The Palermo villa miseria, which was about fifteen years old, was hidden away. You could drive through on the wide, roaring avenues without seeing it. It was just next to the river, and it was unexpectedly large and solid and settled-looking. As soon as you came to it you felt you had left Palermo and Buenos Aires. The people were Indians from the far north, from Salta and Jujuy; Daniel said that some would even have been from Bolivia. The lanes were unpaved and muddy. The small buildings were low and cramped, but they were of brick, with here and there an upper story. With its early-evening busyness and the softness of its electric lights, dim here as elsewhere in the city, it didn’t look at all bad; in India this Argentine villa miseria might have passed as the well-off bazaar area of a small town.

Mujica’s church was a big, unheated concrete shed. It had no overt religious emblems, or none that I remember; and there was nothing ecclesiastical in its divisions of space. It offered music: an amplified Argentine song—no hint of God or religion in that, either.

Mujica was there in his shed, and he seemed to be very much part of the same production. He was a big man, busy and serious and frowning. The black leather jacket he was wearing bulked out his arms and chest. His hair was thin and his eyes were angry. Daniel, who had met him before, at once fell into an attitude of deference, going quiet and still and keeping his eyes fixed on the great man. Mujica was pleased to be sought out; but I felt he was a bit of an actor and—to prove himself in front of Daniel—was going to make trouble.

Soon enough I gave him cause. I asked about the Priests for the Third World. He said, with some irony, that he also “happened to be” a Peronist; and then he added, irony quite overtaking him, touched at the end with a little rage, that as a Peronist he was not as concerned as some people were with economic growth.

I asked how many people there were in the villa miseria. He said, in his oblique way, that for every one who left, two came. I pressed him to give a figure. He said a few years ago there were only 40,000; now there were 70,000. (Daniel had told me 30,000.) Because of the folly of the government there was no work in the interior, Mujica said; that was why the Indians kept coming down from the north.

I wondered how he could square this with his rejection, as a Peronist, of the idea of economic growth. I wasn’t making a debating point. Argentina in 1972 was confusing for a visitor; and I didn’t know what Peronism meant.

Mujica became enraged. He said he had better things to do, and he wasn’t going to waste his time talking to a norteamericano, an American. He turned away from Daniel and me and, switching from rage to upper-class affability (as if to show us what we had missed), he walked toward a black-caped, frightened-looking Bolivian family group, no one more than five feet tall, who had just come into the concrete shed. He opened his arms as though he was about to crush them all to his leather-jacketed breast.

If I had known—what Daniel knew—that Mujica had guerrilla links, I might have approached him differently. As it was, I thought I had come to the end of this particular Priest for the Third World. It was, besides, cold and damp in the shed. It was late May, the Argentine winter; the evening mist from the River Plate was beginning to be noticeable in the dim electric light. And the Argentine song on Mujica’s sound system was really very loud.

I told Daniel we should leave. He looked unhappy. He was more on Mujica’s side than mine. He said I should at least stay and tell the Father that I wasn’t an American. I felt that if I didn’t do as Daniel asked I would be damaging his credit with Mujica. So I waited. When Mujica was finished with the Bolivians, they went and sat meekly on a bench and looked down at the concrete floor, praying in the faint mist.

Daniel, overcoated, standing still, his eyes now fixed on Mujica’s back, said to me, “Go and tell him.”

I went and said to the leather-jacketed back, “Father, I am not an American.”

He turned around; he was abashed. His eyes softened; but then, as we talked again, and I asked a little more about Peronism, his angry manner returned.

He said, “Only an Argentine can understand Peronism.” Peronists weren’t only the middle-class people I had been meeting: all the Indians in the Palermo villa miseria were Peronists. “I can talk to you for five years, and still you wouldn’t understand Peronism.”

As he explained it, Peronism contained both Castroism and Maoism. In Mao’s China they had turned their backs on the industrial society and were more concerned with “the development of the human spirit.” That was true of Castroism as well, and Peronism in Argentina had a similar goal. But there were enemies. He recited them (while his black-clad Bolivians prayed in his sanctuary): the oligarchy, the military, and American imperialism, expressed in Argentina through its economic control. These enemies were sucking the country dry.

From the abstraction of “the development of the human spirit” as a goal, which could forgive itself anything, Mujica had no trouble making a leap to the idea of the enemy, someone just there, and the very concrete idea of physical punishment. In this, Mujica was like the Jewish Peronist lawyer I had met who could categorize the enemies of the Argentine people in an almost Aristotelian way. “Fundamentally,” the lawyer said, “the enemies are American imperialism and its native allies. These allies are: the oligarchy, the dependent bourgeoisie, international Zionism, the sepoy left. By sepoys I mean the Communist Party and socialism in general.”

Many people had little lists of enemies like this, and if you put a few of the lists together, then nearly everybody in Argentina turned out to be somebody’s enemy.

A woman friend of Daniel’s wife had a racial list. She said to me one evening at dinner, “If only we had more Nordic blood, more people from Europe—I don’t mean Poles. If only we had more Germans, more English people, more Dutch, to renew and improve the race. In Buenos Aires and Rosario we have a good-looking race. But the people of the north, who are pure Indian, they are not good-looking. They are tiny. Horrible.”

This woman’s group was itself on the racial list of a man of remote Irish origins—an ancestor would have come out early in the nineteenth century as a shepherd or ditcher. He spoke only Spanish now, and worked in a provincial university. He was in no doubt about where the calamity of Argentina lay. Whispering one day in the library, he told me the story of former President Roca, the conqueror of the desert, visiting Buenos Aires toward the end of the nineteenth century and seeing a shipload of Italian immigrants. “My poor country,” Roca said, “it will be a sad day for you when you are governed by the children of these people.” And now, the unlikely Irishman said, in his penetrating Spanish whisper, that day had come.

In Argentina,” Sabát said in 1972, “there is a formal racial prejudice against everybody [un perjuicio racial integral contra todos]. What we are seeing here now is a kind of collective frenzy. Because it was always easy here before to get money. There is a saying here that the final revolution will come the day you can’t get a beefsteak, the so-called bife de chorizo.”

The immigrant society was being atomized, and Argentina was becoming as invertebrate as the Spain Ortega y Gasset had written about in the early 1920s. Disparate peoples, Ortega had written, come together not simply for the pleasure of living together, but in order to do something together, tomorrow. That hope, necessary in the formation of an immigrant country, had gone, and in its place was a deepening cynicism and demoralization.

The young film maker I had met defined this cynicism well. “I am an Italian myself, but many of the things I dislike here I relate to Italians—a kind of watching things happen, and taking advantage of the situation that results. It’s a middle-class attitude, but I suppose you start being cynical when you take advantage of your own skepticism to make profit out of things.”

To be without cynicism was to be without a kind of protection; it was to feel pain. The poet Jorge Luis Borges felt this pain. His ancestors went back to colonial Spanish times. Some had fought against Spain in the war of independence, and in the civil wars that had followed. Borges was born in 1899; he had memories, from his childhood, of the building of the great new city of Buenos Aires. His early poetry had been about his ancestors, and death, and the creation of a country. As a young man he had been an Argentine patriot, he said in 1972, much more of a patriot than his father. “We were taught to worship all things Argentine.”

But then, when he was only in his early forties, the Peronist upheaval had occurred; and the country, hardly created, had begun to unravel. Borges had been humiliated in the Peronist period; he had been made to give up his modest job in the municipal library. Now, twenty years on, Peronist guerrillas were active in the city; armed policemen were in the streets; and Perón was about to return. The only way Borges had of coping with this new twist in Argentine history was to ignore it. The very name of Perón, he said, was too shabby to be used in public, “the way in poetry one avoids certain words.” His work was his consolation. “We can look forward to a Trojan ending.”

Some of his sadness came out in a short poem he addressed in this year, 1972, to the writer Manuel Mujica Lainez—a distant relation of Father Mujica’s. Mujica Lainez (1910–1984) lived in English country-house style in a small town in the Córdoba hills. His large, gloomy, well-furnished house in a damp little valley had something of the atmosphere of Stephen Tennant’s Wilsford Manor in Wiltshire. The Conquest of the Desert, and the prodigious expansion of Argentina in the late nineteenth century, had brought wealth, education, and even a kind of old European style to a number of old colonial families, together with an idea of Argentina as something achieved, something correctly celebrated in the public statuary of Buenos Aires.

In 1934, in a poem in English, Borges had written about the public statues of his ancestors: “I offer you my ancestors, my dead men, the ghosts/that living men have honoured in bronze.” Now, in 1972, the poem Borges wrote to Mujica Lainez ended: “Manuel Mujica Lainez, we both once had a country—do you remember?—and we have both lost it.”

Manuel Mujica Lainez, alguna vez tuvimos
Una patria—¿recuerdas?—y los dos la perdimos.

Two years later, in 1974, the other Mujica, the Third World Priest in the Palermo shanty town, expiating guilt and (as Ricardo said) the old idea of Argentine history, had been shot dead. He, too, had been on someone’s list. Perón by this time had come back; he was very old and about to die. He had turned against the guerrillas who had helped to bring him back; so at the end the Peronism he—and his terrible court—had brought back was as plundering and murderous as it had been twenty years before. For a day or two, perhaps for a week, no more, posters displayed the name of the killed Mujica. It was hardly honor. The walls of Buenos Aires were scrawled over with many different names and slogans. Those walls were the visual equivalent of a constant public din. There were too many martyrs now, too many enemies; the revolutionary causes had become indecipherable.

Two years later, the army was to take over again. They were to tear down all the posters and whitewash all the walls, and they were to start killing the guerrillas. Within a year they had destroyed the various movements; and the white walls of the city—old scrawls showing faintly through—were to speak of an eradicated generation, educated people who had, like their patron Mujica, converted high religious and political ideals into elemental. Argentine-Spanish ideas of the enemy, and physical punishment, and blood.

This is the first of two articles.

  1. 1

    See “Argentine Terror: A Memoir,” The New York Review, October 11, 1979.

  2. 2

    See Nunca Más: The Report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986). The book’s introduction, by Ronald Dworkin, was published in these pages, July 17, 1986.

  • Email
  • Print