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Latin America: The Struggle against Impunity


In a rather dramatic move, the Argentinean Congress voted today (21 August) to invalidate two laws, passed by the same Congress in the mid-1980s, that exonerated lower-grade military from the crimes of the last dictatorship (1976-1983) and impeded new trials. This decision, encouraged by Argentina’s new President Néstor Kirchner, seems to mark a reversal of official policies in the last 20 years, and a vindication of almost 30 years of popular struggles for human rights and against impunity.

Immediately after the restoration of democracy in 1983, the leaders of the bloody military coup were prosecuted and sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Argentina was the only country in Latin America to carry out such trials, which promised to establish new standards in the struggle against dictatorship and genocide. However, under military pressure and after a new attempt of a coup, President Alfonsin forced the Congress to pass the laws invalidated today. Later on, the neo-liberal President Carlos Menem granted a special amnesty and released the leaders of the coup, thus inaugurating the age of impunity in Argentina.

The project to invalidate the so-called “laws of forgiveness” was presented by Deputy Patricia Walsh, representative of the Communist-Trotskyist alliance Izquierda Unida and the daughter of Rodolfo Walsh –the famous left-wing writer assassinated by the military during the last dictatorship. The numerous crowds gathered outside the Congress –including the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (línea fundadora), HIJOS (the association of the children of desaparecidos), and thousands of human rights campaigners, activists, piqueteros, etc– received the news as a victory, after years of struggle. Whether the judges will be able to reopen the trials against the military or not depends now on the will of the Supreme Court.

Other Latin American countries are also struggling to find a way to deal with the scars of their dictatorial pasts. In Brazil, the judicial power is trying to force the military to reveal secret archives of the last dictatorship, whose existence the Army denies. On the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of the coup against Salvador Allende, almost 70 officers – including 10 of the highest ranks – and collaborationists are being prosecuted in Chile. It is not clear, however, if the Chilean Supreme Court will allow these trials to continue.

The auto-Amnesty decreed by the infamous dictator Augusto Pinochet before the restoration of democracy is still considered legally valid. In any case, the trials are a formidable step forward in a country in which a good deal of the population still supports the military, and where the fact of the tortures and the existence of the desaparecidos and concentration camps had been denied until recently.

In Uruguay, the former president Juan María Bordaberry will be prosecuted for the military coup he conducted in 1973. If this trial is set up, it will be the first time Uruguay condemns a citizen for “crimes against the Constitution”. Bordaberry will also face charges for the death and disappearance of Uruguayans and, interestingly enough, for revealing “state secrets” when he joined other Latin American dictators in the “Plan Condor” –a plan to co-ordinate repression beyond national boundaries.

After two decades of official discourses of “reconciliation” for the sake of “national unity”, post-dictatorial societies in Latin America seem far from reconciled with their pasts. The return of the past and the seeming impossibility to close the military chapter in Latin American history, however, have reasons that go beyond mere principism, or –as the right-wing press sometimes argue– an immoderate “thirst of revenge”. The past returns because, in fact, it has not past: the impunity of the present is deeply rooted in that of the military age.

Take the case of Argentina. For the sake of a rapid transition to democracy, in the early 1980s the democratic government and the mass media established the “theory of the two devils” . According to this doctrine, the culpability for the horrific age of violence and state terror of the 1970s was to be ascribed to two extreme and vicious (but non-representative) sectors of Argentinean society: the guerrilla (the far left) and the military (the far right).

Whilst the former was responsible for the crime of using violence for political purposes without the consent of the rest of society, the latter were guilty of unleashing a totally wild and illegal repression, which eventually turned into state terrorism. According to this doctrine, the vast majority of the Argentineans were caught in the middle of this “madness”; they were, in fact, its victims. The moral of this tale was that, having no responsibility with regards to the past, Argentineans only needed to get rid of those “two devils” to become a “normal” and democratic society.

The “theory of the two devils” seemed to work for a while: the restoration of democracy was relatively successful and, after some years, the official discourse claimed that the past was over, and that it was time of reconciliation. Indeed, there have not been guerrilla groups in Argentina for more than two decades, and nobody fears today that the military may try to seize power by force again. The military forces have declared their commitment to democracy over and over again. And yet, “reconciliation” failed to materialize. In fact, popular hatred towards the military is as strong as ever, which becomes evident in the support President Kirchner raised when he announced that the trials against the military needed to be reopened two months ago.

Naturally, the victims of the dictatorship have very good reasons not to forget. However, the reasons for the persistence of popular hatred towards the military are to be found in the present, rather than in the past. As the Argentinean democracy proved more and more impotent to resolve the problems of the country, the discourse of “reconciliation” and the theory of the two devils started to be questioned.

Particularly in the last few years, it became more and more clear that wide sectors of Argentinean “civilians” encouraged and benefited from the last dictatorship. As banks and big companies pillaged the country, leading it to the political and economic crisis of 2001, more and more people started to remember that financial corporations had supported the military to the last minute. As people faced brutal repression whilst struggling against IMF neo-liberal policies, specially in 2000-2002, more and more of them started to think that, perhaps, there was a connection between the IMF neo-liberal policies implemented during the dictatorship and state terror.

Neo-liberalism was the link between past and present, the hidden continuity between hard and “low intensity” repression, between dictatorship and “liberal-democracy”. And impunity was the lubricant of the transition: thanks to impunity the military were free, but so were the brutal repressors of “democratic” periods, the politicians who received bribes in exchange of economic favors, and the corporations and businessmen who paid those bribes and demanded repression.

The connection between neo-liberalism, corruption, repression and impunity past and present was exposed with particular clarity in the case of the death of Gustavo Benedetto. A young man without political background, Gustavo was shot dead in Buenos Aires, while walking to the city center to join the rebellion of the 20th December 2001. He was killed by a security staff of the bank HSBC, who was literally shooting people dead from within the building of the bank, without any visible reason (the crowds were heading to the governmental house, and not posing any threat to the bank). As it later emerged, the killer had been part of the repressive groups of the last dictatorship.

It is customary that corporations in Argentina hire former military repressors as security staff, although there are laws against such practice. The bank HSBC, one of the corporations that benefited from the neo-liberal measures of Menem’s presidency, and stole the money of Argentinean savers shortly before the rebellion, tried to mislead the judicial investigation; but the evidence of CCTV was undeniable. The killer will surely be imprisoned for a long time, but it is unlikely that HSBC will face any sanctions, neither for stealing the savings of Argentineans, nor for killing protesters.

Gustavo became one of the symbols of the rebellion in Argentina. After his assassination, GAC –a collective of popular artists– started to organize rallies the 20th of each month in front of the HSBC. Each time, the GAC, friends and family of Gustavo would place posters in the walls of the bank and a memorial made of concrete, which, after one or two days, would invariably disappear. To the shock of public opinion, the Canadian documentary maker Avi Lewis unveiled the mystery few months later: it was agents of the Federal Police who, in an “unofficial” mission in the middle of the night, would take care of cleaning the façade of the bank and removing the memorial.

The case of Gustavo Benedetto shows the strong but unacknowledged links between repression past and present and corporate interests. Until now, these links grew stronger under the protective blanket of impunity. Thanks to the determination of human rights campaigners, that blanket is beginning to fall, and the wide network of interests behind repression is beginning to be exposed. The time will come when all those responsible of human rights violations in Latin America –including the IMF (which supported all dictatorships) and the School of the Americas (the USA military academy that trained Latin American repressors)– will pay for their crimes.

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