Erasing traces of ArgentinaÕs dictatorship: 30 years later

Argentina recently marked the 30^th anniversary of the military coup and the ensuing methods of imaginable terror. Record number of protestors, some estimate 100,000 marched to Plaza de Mayo on March 24 this year to commemorate Argentina’s disappeared.

The military coup took power at exactly 3:20 a.m. on March 24, 1976. The dictatorship immediately released an ultimatum warning that if military or civil police witnessed any suspicious subversive activity they would administer the “shoot to kill” policy. Some 30,000 activists were kidnapped and murdered during the military junta dictatorship which ruled Argentina from 1976-1983. Along with the support from the U.S. the military junta leaders set out to wipe out “communism” and install a new order and economic model in Argentina.

According to Manuel Gonzalez, who since the age of 19 suspected that his military parents abducted him as a baby, the dictatorship used disappearances not just to terrorize the opposition but also to put the current neoliberal economic model in place. “It has been 30 years since a bloody dictatorship took power in our country. Where 30,000 men and women were tortured, shot, killed, and disappeared—and also 500 babies. The military junta used the sinister mechanism of terror to implement the neoliberal economic model in our country. And this is why they needed to disappear our parents. They tortured them in clandestine detention centers. They made our mothers give birth to us in places like this, a hospital that served as a clandestine detention center.”

The military coup had a clear target: of the 30,000 disappeared, 80% were workers. The dictatorship wiped out an entire generation of working-class resistance, which the nation decades later is still recovering. In the 1970’s leading up to the coup, Argentina’s working class struggles thrived. Workers formed internal union delegations outside of traditional unions to demand better salaries and better conditions. Groups of militants had taken over factories and other forms of direct action. However by 1976, unionists were sorted out and disappeared in factories and workplaces.

The military transformed the agricultural province of Tucuman and the Buenos Aires industrial belts into hunting ground for so-called subversives. Since 1974, one year before the coup, right-wing Peronists signed the Independence Operative to hold military operations in the Northern Tucuman province. This became the first testing ground for torture tactics. The operative supposedly targeted left-wing guerillas operating in Tucuman’s mountainside. However, the military junta kidnapped and tortured workers from the region’s sugar fields. They terrorized entire villages to make sure that no workers complained of the semi-slave working conditions in the sugar cane fields and mills.

Dozens of disappearances occurred at many single work-places. Some factories even served as clandestine torture and detention centers for the military. At the Ford Motor’s General Pacheco plant 25 union delegates were detained and disappeared inside the plant’s very own clandestine detention center for days, weeks, or months until they were secretly transferred to the local police precinct transformed into a military cartel. Pedro Troiani was a union delegate for six years in the Ford plant in the Greater Buenos Aires district of Pacheco until the 1976 coup. “The company used the disappearances to get rid of unionism at the factory,” said Troiani. Ford management even donated vehicles, such as the chilling Ford Flacon, to transport prisoners to clandestine detention and torture centers.

The Mercedes-Benz plant was also transformed into a clandestine torture and detention center. The exact number of workers who were disappeared from the Mercedes-Benz plant in Argentina is still unknown. Estimates say at least thirteen, but the number is most likely close to 20. Over 375 clandestine detention centers operated in Argentina. Many times workplaces and government buildings serving as clandestine detention centers were situated in the middle of /barrios/.

The 1976-1983 military dictatorship ushered in unimaginable methods of terror—drugging dissidents and dropping them from planes into the Atlantic Ocean in the “vuelos del muerte,” using electric prods or “picana” on the genitals of men and women who entered the clandestine detention centers, raping women and forcing husbands, wives, parents, brothers, and compañeros to listen to the screams of their loved ones who were being tortured.

Rodolfo Walsh wrote the “Open Letter to the Military Junta” on the first anniversary of the military coup in 1977 reporting the tortures, mass killings, and thousands of disappearances. He also reported on the planned misery of the neoliberal model. The political writer was murdered on March 25, just one day after publishing his famous letter. “With its economic policy this government is not only looking to explain its crimes but also the worst atrocity it has committed—punishing millions of human beings with planned misery.”

“In a year the real salary of workers has dropped 40%. (They are) freezing salaries with the butts of rifles while prices are going up at the point of a bayonet, destroying any form of collective demands, prohibiting internal labor assemblies or commissions, making work hours longer and raising unemployment to the record level of 9%. When the workers protest, the dictatorship characterizes them as subversive, kidnapping entire delegate commissions. In some cases the bodies turn up dead and in other cases they never turn up.”

At least 46 workers from the Buenos Aires Provincial Bank offices were disappeared, singled out for their union organizing activity. Workers who today are organizing an internal union commission outside of the traditional union held an act to commemorate the 46 disappeared from the Buenos Aires Provincial Bank. They read the names of the 46 and inaugurated a plaque reaffirming the struggle that the disappeared workers left behind.

Over 1,500 workers from the Rio Santiago Ship Yard in Buenos Aires commemorated the ship yard’s 48 disappeared. “This is the first time in 23 years that the workers have come together to commemorate the 30,000 disappeared. I want to thank the /compañeros/ who in the 70s gave everything, even their lives to defend their ideals that were little more than improving the work and social conditions of workers,” remarked a worker during this year’s commemoration. The workers built a massive steel sculpture and inaugurated a plaque with the names of each of the 48 workers.

Osvaldo Valdez was one of the 48 workers disappeared from the Rio Santiago Ship Yard. “Ten hooded men entered my house. They put us in separate rooms and questioned me. They tore apart everything looking for information. Then they took him away,” says Cristina Valdez, Valdez’s wife. “It’s amazing to think 15 days of checking criminal history turned into 30 years. We won’t rest until we know exactly who participated in these crimes and until every last murderer is put in jail.”

During the Dirty War in Argentina, much of the population remained silent due to the censorship imposed by the military government. Those who did not stay silent risked being disappeared themselves. This year, in factories, universities, high schools, and /barrios,/ activists organized local events to keep history alive and defend human rights so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Human rights groups H.I.J.O.S. and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have worked for over 10 years to find the whereabouts of the estimated 500 babies born while their mothers were in illegal captivity. Thanks to their work they have found over 82 of Victoria Donde Perez, daughter of a disappeared woman sent a message to her parents. “We want to tell our dear disappeared /compañeros/ and parents not to worry because we are here and we will find your children. Today we are 82 but soon we will find all of them. Along with your children we are recovering the dreams of the disappeared, their dreams of life, their dreams of freedom, because that’s who our parents were, they were builders of courageous dreams.”

Fellow workers commemorated their disappeared with the best homage possible-promising to continue the disappeared activists’ legacy of struggle against exploitation. Many traditional human rights have criticized social organizations’ declarations and demands to end today’s human rights abuses: end to impunity for ex-military officers responsible for torturing and murdering thousands, the release of political prisoners currently held in Argentina and an end to policies causing joblessness, poverty and hunger. Despite conservative sectors of human rights NGO’s position, the struggle for all human rights (social, economic, political and cultural rights) is alive along with the struggle for historic memory in Argentina.

30,000 desaparecidos presente!

The author can be reached at [email protected]

Watch coverage of the 30^th anniversary commemorations online at www.agoratv.org

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