Argentina's National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice, or Memory Day, should be an ideal topic for a column based on newsroom memories except that those memories do not stretch back that far, commencing at the tail end of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship and not its start. The 1976 military coup thus commemorated came to my notice when I was dining at an Indonesian restaurant in the southern Dutch town of ’s-Hertogenbosch while en route to an art museum weekend in Amsterdam. Only the scantiest of information from a minute or less of television news but it sounded exotic enough – a lady president (far from common half a century ago) whisked away by helicopter by a mutinous junta seemed to fit all the Latin American stereotypes of magical realism, a genre already coined in 1949. The last time Argentina had come to my attention (apart from its unimpressive performance in the 1974 World Cup) had been the 62 percent Perón-Perón pushover of September, 1973, an exceptionally massive win even by landslide standards – that memory had me wondering how things could have gone so pear-shaped in just 30 months with zero knowledge of what had happened in between.
Mention of that overthrown lady president raises the question of why she is so infrequently mentioned in the massive media coverage of Memory Day when she was theoretically at the centre of the tumultuous events 47 years ago. As it happens, the last of the officers arresting her, Retired Vice-Admiral and Coast Guard chief Pedro Santamaría, died last weekend in his 97th year, thus leaving Isabel Perón (who turned 92 last month) as the only survivor of her destitution. And yet she is almost the last person anybody thinks of.
While the 1976 coup long predates my newsroom memories, the same cannot be said of Memory Day itself, which was instituted earlier this century. Kirchnerism is so jealously possessive of the Día Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia (to give it its full name) that it insists on claiming authorship – their official story will tell you that it was established in 2006 by Law 26,085 during the Néstor Kirchner presidency, but in point of fact the commemoration was introduced in 2002 by Law 25,633 under the despised Eduardo Duhalde caretaker administration. Duhalde performed yeoman services for Néstor Kirchner in not only gifting him the 2003 presidential nomination but also doing much of the dirty work on the economic front to permit his protégé to ride the global commodity price boom so successfully. Yet there is no gratitude in politics with the Kirchner dynasty monopolising the Memory Day patent in most eyes. A pity that Argentina, 1985 did not win its Oscar a fortnight ago because more people would have been reminded that the 1976-1983 dictatorship was brought to account long before either 2002 or 2006.
One thing both Laws 25,633 and 26,085 had in common was that March 24 meant March 24 and could not be conveniently shifted to either end of a weekend for the benefit of local tourism like many other public holidays (even if this year Memory Day happens to dovetail very neatly into a long weekend). People are supposed to spend the date recalling all the horrors of military dictatorship instead of taking off to the beach. Yet the temptation of turning the first few days of autumn into summer has not been the only distraction from the pristine purpose of this commemoration with numerous marchers interpreting the most important human rights as those of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner against “lawfare” – the appeal of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo President Estela Barnes de Carlotto to stick to the core purpose of recalling the dictatorship fell on many deaf ears.
While the Kirchners plagiarised the authorship of Memory Day, it is true that they have virtually monopolised its celebration – of the 21 commemorations so far, they have presided over 16. Duhalde was still the president for the first in 1983 but very much of a lame duck with only two months left in the Casa Rosada. The other four non-Kirchnerite Memory Days were all under Mauricio Macri in the years between 2016 and 2019. While lacking enthusiasm for human rights (whose organisations he once infamously dismissed as a “racket”), Macri at least thought that the day might serve for the third of his three main priorities of “zero poverty, defeating drug-trafficking and uniting Argentines” – his message on that day was invariably along the lines of “This is a date for us to unite and say: Never again.” It goes without saying that the other 16 Memory Days were celebrated with infinitely more vigour by a Kirchnerism so rooted in the 1970s.
As the years go by, memory becomes ever more important. The film Argentina, 1985 was deemed valuable because around three-quarters of the population had no memory of the juntas trial – when it comes to the 1976 coup, the number of Argentines without memory would rise to almost 40 million. If Poppy Day is still going strong over 100 years after the First World War (the subject of the international film which did win Oscars), then there is every reason to keep Memory Day alive for generations to come.