Remembering Argentina’s Dirty War

I didn’t need the implications, widely reported over the past few days, that Pope Francis might have had a role in Argentina’s Dirty War to recall the horrors of that gruesome period. I’ve crossed paths with reminders everywhere since I arrived in the world’s seventh largest country nearly eight weeks ago: on sidewalks, in parks, in front of schools and on large murals in Buenos Aires; graffiti on dead end streets in Ushuaia; on the brickwork of a public square in Bariloche.

The memorials are to the point and dispassionately matter-of-fact, simply listing a person’s name and the date they were detained or disappeared by el terrorismo de estado, or state terrorism. This one, and several others like it below, sit in Plaza Almagro, the spot from where these disappeared were secuestrada, or kidnapped. Today it’s a busy and clean neighborhood park with live music, open air dance and theatre performances.

Buenos Aires 073

The Dirty War was indeed officially sanctioned state terrorism, a violent paranoid purge by the right-wing military dictatorship that claimed the lives of upwards of 30,000 people between 1976 to 1983. Among the targeted were ‘subversives’ real or imagined, trade unionists, students and left-wing organizers, who were routinely held for months at concentration camps and tortured before being killed. Especially insidious was the treatment of some pregnant woman who were among the kidnapped. The women were murdered after giving birth, their newborns given for adoption to military families.

The accusations hurled at Pope Francis stem from his time as the head of Jesuits in Argentina, a period that coincides with the Dirty War. A week after he dismissed two priests for being too progressive and out of line with Jesuit teachings, the pair was kidnapped, held and subsequently tortured. The charges aren’t new and have surfaced from time to time; a 2005 lawsuit based upon the allegations was dismissed. Further charges, that he was actively complicit in their kidnapping, lack any credible evidence.

It is generally agreed upon that the church in Argentina did little to oppose or stand up to the dictatorship during the Dirty War. Argentine bishops admitted as much as recently as October 2012. At the very least, they’re being forced to remember.

Important to remember too is that the U.S. was a key supplier of the dictatorship at the time, with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger an unapologetic supporter.  Some details:

The U.S. was also a key provider of economic and military assistance to the Videla regime during the earliest and most intense phase of the repression. In early April 1976, the U.S. Congress approved a request by the Ford Administration, written and supported by Henry Kissinger, to grant $50,000,000 in security assistance to the junta. At the end of 1976, Congress granted an additional $30,000,000 in military aid, and recommendations by the Ford Administration to increase military aid to $63,500,000 the following year were also considered by congress. U.S. assistance, training and military sales to the Videla regime continued under the successive Carter Administration up until at least 30 September 1978 when military aid was officially called to a stop within section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act.

In 1977 and 1978 the United States sold more than $120,000,000 in military spare parts to Argentina, and in 1977 the US Department of Defense was granted $700,000 to train 217 Argentinian military officers. By the time the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program was suspended to Argentina in 1978, total US training costs for Argentinian military personnel since 1976 totaled $1,115,000. After the onset of the US military cutoff, Israel became Argentina’s principle supplier of weapons.

This first set of photos, murals and sidewalk memorials, were all taken in Buenos Aires.


This second set is from the Civic Center Square in Bariloche, a memorial officially sanctioned by the municipal government.


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