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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 30-03-2024 06:38

A sacred cow under attack

It often seems that until all those who were physically or emotionally involved in it have departed, it will continue to be difficult to look at that unhappy period.

For over 20 years, most public figures have taken it for granted that it would be in their interest to agree, sincerely or not, that at least 30,000 people had been killed by the military dictatorship after being made to “disappear.” They knew that if they made the mistake of pointing out that the number had little to do with the known facts, they would be furiously assailed by mobs accusing them of being in league with genocidal criminals, so with few exceptions they kept their doubts to themselves. What elsewhere is called a “cancellation culture” and is designed to silence those who are rash enough to dissent from the “woke” verities that are currently in fashion, has been around here for so long that for most it seems part of the natural order of things.

This is why Javier Milei’s willingness to stir up a hornet’s nest by distributing a video demanding that the country take a less biased and more honest look at what happened in the 1970s surprised many who are well aware that the Kirchnerite version of the recent past is based largely on distortions and outright lies, and that some organisations that purport to defend human rights degenerated long ago into propaganda outfits so they could be  generously financed by a singularly unscrupulous political faction. 

Though many years have passed since the “dirty war” ended, it often seems that until all those who were physically or emotionally involved in it have departed, it will continue to be difficult to look at that unhappy period in an objective and dispassionate fashion.

These days, hardly anyone thinks that what Argentina needs is a leftist tyranny brought about by murderous gangs of urban guerrillas, but there are plenty of people who sympathise with those who thought this way two generations ago. And the most opposed to the notion that it would be beneficial for Argentina if a stern military dictatorship took charge are the leaders of the Armed Forces, who know perfectly well that it would have disastrous consequences not just for the men in uniform but also for the country as a whole. Nonetheless, their refusal to even contemplate a coup does not prevent Kirchnerites and others from telling us that all governments that do not meet with their approval are military dictatorships in disguise. By implying that violent resistance to such governments would be morally justified, the rhetoric of those who say there is no real difference between Milei or, for that matter, Mauricio Macri and Jorge Rafael Videla has dangerous implications.

In an article that was published in April 1979, I wrote that, sooner or later, Argentina would have to face up to a huge problem which, at the time, most people (including journalists working for the big dailies) still preferred to overlook but which would haunt her for decades to come; the one posed by the “disappearance” of approximately 10,000 people. While by then the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights had recorded 4,500 as genuinely missing and not, as the regime’s spokesmen said, were on the run, it struck me as reasonable to assume that there were at least twice as many. Given the marked reluctance of members of the judiciary to do their duty, the friends and relatives of people who had been kidnapped in broad daylight were often confronted with a wall of silence.

As the years passed, just how many men and women were done away with by the military and their auxiliaries would become a matter of dispute, but to judge from the evidence which has been made available, the number I reached almost half a century ago was, if anything, a bit too high. The official statistics, which were compiled when Cristina Fernández de Kirchner occupied the presidency, suggest that under the dictatorship far fewer (7,300) were captured and killed by the Armed Forces or equally murderous pioneering groups such as the Triple-A of Juan Domingo Perón and José López Rega which, to fight terrorism, had adopted terrorist methods and the mentality that goes with them. For its part, CONADEP, the body which was set up by Raúl Alfonsín to investigate fully the human rights abuses that were committed under the dictatorship, says there were 8,961.

These discrepancies would be of little interest to those who were not immediately affected by the “dirty war” the Armed Forces had been ordered, by the constitutionally legitimate government of first Perón and, after his demise, his widow Isabel Perón, to wage against a number of extremely dangerous terrorist organisations, had it not been for the decision taken by a representative of the most important of them, the Montoneros, to insist that the missing totalled 30,000.

According to a penitent former Montonero chieftain, Hugo Labraña, he himself invented the claim because friendly Europeans, who were accustomed to death tolls in the millions, were unimpressed by his allusions to four or five thousand victims of the military purge. Apparently, 30,000 was considered enough for what happened to be called “genocide,” a word which was originally coined to describe the elimination of an entire ethnic group, not the massacre of members of a political movement, something which has happened time and time again in Europe, but which is now used almost as freely as “fascist” by people who are determined to draw attention to their own suffering and stress the vileness of their enemies.

For many activists, 30,000 is a sacred number, what Plato called a “noble lie,” which must be sustained because it is supposedly in the national interest to make people believe in it. This is why they reacted with incredulous outrage to the decision by Milei’s government to broadcast under its auspices a short, and notably sober, video, in which it requested a less politicised look at the country’s recent history.

This is the last thing the activists want. For decades many presumably reformed terrorists and their offspring have prospered by peddling the idea that the Montoneros, the ERP and other violent groupings had been fighting on behalf of democracy, respect for human rights and other good things, and not, as was certainly the case, in an effort to replicate here a Cuban-style dictatorship which would surely have required the summary liquidation of many more people than were brutally murdered by the military regime. 


[Editor’s note: The Times does not normally use the US phrase “dirty war” to refer to the 1976-1983 dictatorship era given its inaccuracy, but given that the views expressed here are Mr Neilson’s, we have opted not to change his copy.]

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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