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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 03-06-2022 11:03

Collaborating with dictators

Those who are interested in what Alberto says and does attribute his fondness for unsavoury dictators to his desire to placate the Kirchnerite wing of the ruling coalition.PG 11: Neilson

President Alberto Fernández and the people surrounding him may not think that anyone who dares disagree with them deserves to be tortured or killed, but they are more than happy to back individuals who take a rather less lenient view of dissent and, by doing so, make it easier for them to continue murdering their opponents. Dictators, even ones as ferociously brutal as Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, have always been thin-skinned, and, like them, those who are still with us invest an impressive amount of money in propaganda designed to persuade the rest of the world that they are not as bad as they are painted.

For such despots, having the warm support of the government of a country which (thanks in large measure to Raúl Alfonsín) enjoys the reputation of being keener on human rights than most, is a very valuable asset. Encouraged by Alberto’s efforts on their behalf, Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro must be that bit more eager to jail, torture or put to death anyone who is bold enough to defy them. Though it is impossible to say just how many more have been cruelly persecuted because Argentina’s government is reluctant to criticise those responsible, it would be unreasonable to assume that its willingness to overlook gross violations of fundamental rights has made no difference at all.

As Alberto himself has no convictions of any kind, those who are interested in what he says and does attribute his fondness for unsavoury dictators to his desire to placate the Kirchnerite wing of the ruling coalition, which is unabashedly in favour of them. Some notorious militants go so far as to be fervent supporters of the Iranian mullahs as well as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, presumably because they take literally the old adage according to which “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,”, the enemy in question being the United States.

Though neither Néstor Kirchner nor his wife Cristina showed any interest in human rights when the military ran the country, after moving into the Pink House they decided to make the cause their own because, as Néstor explained to a senator and, for a couple of hours, president who expressed surprise at his sudden change of attitude towards groups which up to then he had despised, it would greatly please left-wingers, veterans of the Montoneros terrorist organisation and their sympathisers, the kind of people who, as is the case in much of the world, dominate what these days passes for culture.

It was a smart move which paid off handsomely, but it did entail a contradiction; both the old-style leftists and those attracted by a movement which had started on the Catholic nationalist right before steering sharply left had no more respect for human rights than had the military regime the latter had fought against. Like the uniformed thugs and their civilian abettors, many took dissidence to be a capital offence and, when they could, they behaved accordingly.

For hard-core Kirchnerites – including, needless to say, Cristina – the Cuban regime, like its ideologically laxer spin-offs in Venezuela and Nicaragua, is fully entitled to deal with its critics in whatever way it sees fit because they regard it as an ally in the low-intensity war they imagine they are waging against US imperialism, which is somewhat strange in view of their enthusiastic embrace of decidedly un-Latin American progressive fashions emanating from New York, California and Oregon. Does this mean that, given the chance, the Kirchnerites would behave the same way here? Perhaps not, but given the record of some of their leaders, it would be foolish to bet on it.

For over a century, it has been customary to see politics as a battle between left-wingers and right-wingers, with most public figures feeling obliged to take sides, but of late things have become much more complicated. For several decades, working-class people have been increasingly prone to adopt attitudes which were once assumed to be typically right-wing, while leftist movements have fallen into the hands of a thoroughly bourgeois professional elite which now has the support of the CEOs of a number of gigantic corporations.

This upside-down arrangement, with those on the top of the economic pyramid talking like leftists and the poor moving to the right, was not foreseen by the socialist prophets of yesteryear, so it is not surprising that the search is on for a better dividing line. One which is currently much favoured and has been taken up by members of Joe Biden’s administration, pits democrats against autocrats, believers in the freedom of each and everyone to make up his or her mind about what is going on in the world and those who think absolutely everything should be subordinated to reaching the goals set by a regime whose ideas they share. While democracy is compatible with a proper respect for human rights, autocracy – whether based on allegiance to an infallible leader or to the ideology such a prodigy claims to represent – makes abusing them mandatory. As ultramontane Roman Catholics nostalgically insist, “error has no rights.”

After the Soviet Union collapsed, in part because of its rulers’ contempt for human rights, many Marxists and fellow travellers cunningly appropriated what until then had been one of the democratic world’s most powerful weapons. Relieved of the need to defend the gulags, massive purges, mental hospitals for dissidents and the like, they set about denouncing the crimes, whether genuine or not, that were being committed by Western governments and by authoritarian Latin American military regimes which for years had employed the same methods as their ideological foes in the Communist bloc. Pragmatists to the bone, they took it for granted that whatever helped their cause was by definition good and anything that hurt it was downright evil.

Turning human rights movements against those who had first mobilised them in order to discomfit ruthless totalitarian states was an impressive feat of political judo, but as time went by, such flexibility discredited them. Even in Argentina, where few thought it odd when presumably retired terrorists and their friends declared themselves appalled by the illegality of the “dirty war” of the 1970s to which they contributed so much and went on to demand, and get, generous cash payments for what had happened to them or their comrades, human rights, which should have no political colouring, are coming into disrepute because of the blatant hypocrisy of activists and people like Alberto, who are quick to condemn anything done by individuals here or abroad they accuse of right-wing tendencies and overlook the vicious behaviour of the dictators who meet with their approval. 

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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