Survivor of Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship. Daughter of Esther Careaga, one of the three Mothers of Plaza de Mayo who were kidnapped and disappeared in 1977 by a Navy death squad. Psychoanalyst. Author. Former director of the Space for Memory Institute. Mother. Grandmother.
It is hard to know where to begin when describing Ana María Careaga – a woman who, despite the devastation present in her life story has become a symbol of strength and professionalism with the human rights movement.
She sat down with the Times to reflect on the state of human rights in 2017 discussing the recent ESMA mega-trial, the Santiago Maldonado case and the friendship her late mother shared with the man known today to the world as Pope Francis.
There were rumours that the defendants in the ESMA trial would receive lighter sentences in relation to the outcomes of previous human rights trials. Were you satisfied with the sentences handed down?
Yes. But we must put the sentences in a broader context, in which the Judiciary investigated and tried the perpetrators of crimes which happened 40 years ago. Often, because of the nature of these human rights violations – like the disappearances that took place – the type of evidence that is needed [to prove the crimes took place] presents serious difficulties for the prosecution.
There were some doubts in the ESMA trial about how the court was going to qualify the evidence presented against the [Navy] pilots accused of carrying out the so-called “death flights.” [One of the three surviving pilots was found not guilty.]
We know that the Armed Forces’s methodology was to involve everybody within its reach in the so-called “National Reorganisation Process,” which in effect was a criminal organisation. This created an esprit de corps and sealed their pact of silence. Personally, I believe that all of the pilots should have been sentenced.
What do you make of the release from jail of former Buenos Aires provincial police investigator and convicted criminal Miguel Etchecolatz into house arrest?
The president of the Supreme Court [Ricardo Lorenzetti] once said that the trials over human rights violations committed during the dictatorship constituted part of a social contract among all Argentines. Any attempt to undo these processes jeopardises the possibility of achieving reparation; it rolls back acts of justice including the trials and sentencing of these people; and it reinstates in our society the risk of impunity being granted to these repressors, who are dangerous people. It’s very concerning.
Do you think the human rights movement has been jeopardised by its association with former presidents Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner?
I think it would be reductionist to put it in those terms because the human rights movement has its own history, one which transcends politics, even when it might participate in or comprehend any given political situation. It’s undeniable that under the Kirchners many of the movement’s demands were enshrined into policies. This meant that what was once an alternative position – one that had been marginalised, regularly and throughout a period of many years – became an institutional position.
I think one has to analyse it from that perspective, regardless of political or partisan processes, where in any case there needs to be a greater tendency toward building policy in spite of our differences.
In the wake of Santiago Maldonado’s disappearance in August, 2017, the human rights movement was strongly criticised for the accusation of forced disappearance it levelled against the Gendarmerie (Border Guards). Why has the movement stood by that accusation, now using the definition of forced disappearance, followed by death?
The national Gendarmerie was responsible for carrying out the security operation against the protest [which Maldonado was participating in] and Santiago’s disappearance took place within that context. Investigations are still underway but there are witnesses who indicate that the Gendarmerie acted violently that day and that Santiago Maldonado was trying to preserve his physical integrity. Any circumstances that led to his death are undeniably tied to the responsibility that the Gendarmerie has in ensuring the safety of those present during its operations.
Should the human rights movement begin transitioning toward a broader idea, both conceptually and practically, of human rights? I would point to the case of Rafael Nahuel (shot dead by police during a takeover of indigenous land near Bariloche) which prompted a much softer, at least unperceived, response from the human rights movement, despite its parallels with the Maldonado case just weeks earlier.
With regards to the dictatorship era, there are still many people looking for answers and justice, grandmothers looking for their stolen grandchildren, etc. and this struggle should not end.
On the other hand, we cannot underestimate the impact the human rights movement has had on other resistance movements whose work is also linked to human rights — not only in the formation of these movements but in the way the historic human rights movement, with its strength and effectiveness, is often called on to intervene in other areas.
There are many groups like SERJAP [Service for Peace and Justice] and CELS [Centre for Legal and Social Studies], which have accompanied and continue to accompany these struggles, including the indigenous community and its struggle for land rights.
Have you been surprised by the shift in public opinion in Argentina regarding Pope Francis?
No, because under Francis there has been a shift in the Catholic Church’s discourse. The Pope travels around Latin America asking for forgiveness for the crimes committed against indigenous communities, calling on peoples to be protagonists of their own destinies. One might choose to analyse it as the Church wanting to avoid losing more followers. But what’s certain is that his discourse has brought him closer to the people, in defence of the people, against poverty. He has a strong position about the redistribution of wealth which is in line with demands for human rights and access to more rights. It also signifies a significant step away from the traditional discourse of the Vatican and its popes.
You met Pope Francis for a second time in Paraguay in 2015. Was he able to share any information about your mother that you hadn’t already discovered?
Nothing in the way of details but he did tell me that she had told him about the situation I had been through when I was kidnapped. To hear that she had told him meant hearing about a moment, a scenario, an anecdote involving my mother that I hadn’t yet discovered.
Forty years have passed since your mother’s disappearance. Given how time affects our perspective, our wellbeing, our concept of life: Do you feel that she is closer or farther away?
It’s an interesting question, a hard one to answer.
Throughout my life there have been many things about her that have become my own and which have enriched me. Perhaps at an earlier stage of my life I wouldn’t have been able to elaborate on this. But today, I see that there are things about my life that bring me closer to her, which allow me to identify with her. I’m very respectful of this process.