Argentina: About time

23 March 2006

On the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of Argentina's military coup, it appears as if the door to the past may finally be opened to all.

Defence minister Nilda Garre today announced a decision to make public the secret records of the military.

It is about time.

Over twenty years after the end of a military-led "dirty war" in 1983, justice has still not been served for many of the  relatives of the 30,000 dead or missing. This despite the fact that proof exists of state-led crimes against humanity including torture, rape and the illegal adoption of children born to political prisoners.  

The Argentine military suffered from that typically Latin American disease of bureaucratic fastidiousness. Every prisoner, every transfer, every act of barbarity committed in the quasi-religious cause of protecting the purity and security of the nation was recorded and filed away.

However, with such records locked away from the public realm the deseparecidos (disappeared) continue to exist in an "in-between" space, located neither here-nor-there, neither then-nor-now. Their names may be read aloud followed by cries of "Presente!" (present!), but without concrete knowledge of their whereabouts the mourning of relatives can never be adequately "worked through".  

Since President Menem's granted the military a full amnesty (in a post-Franco Spain style pacto de olvido [a pact to forget]) Argentine cultural and civil society have continued to force open the doors of remembrance, reconstructing narrratives of the past to ensure that "never again" means what it says.  Under the fly-overs of Buenos Aires rows of crosses mark unnamed graves. Every Thursday afternoon the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo walk round the central square with pictures of their disappeared loved ones.

However, as the writer Yosef Yerushalmi once asked, "is it possible that the antonym of 'forgetting' is not 'remembering', but justice?" Can only justice heal the wounds of the past?

Precedents in the practice of international law, as well as reforms of the Argentine domestic courts and a new generation of military personnel have begun to reopen spaces for the pursuit of justice for crimes of the past. The secret military records could prove decisive in this quest.

It remains to be seen how free any access to the files will be and how much Argentine society wants to revisit events long consigned to history in the minds of the majority. It will no doubt be painful, especaially for children of the dictatorship who might discover they were among those taken from "subversives" and given to pro-military families.

The release of the secret files has long been overdue. Will opening this door in the dark corridoors of Argentine history be the only way to gain a final closure on the past?

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