As in 1977: Argentina in a time warp?

Historical revisionism, censorship and war on memory. The language and the policies – though not the means - in Macri’s Argentina are eerily reminiscent of the dark days of Videla’s dictatorship. Español

Arturo Desimone
30 June 2016

General Jorge Rafael Videla in 1978. AP/Eduardo Di Baia. All rights reserved.

1977 was, by many accounts, the worst year of the military dictatorship of Rafael Videla. “The Process of National Reorganization’’ (El Proceso) was the term favoured by the regime’s apologists then, to name their campaign of state terror and economic reorganization. In that year, the Argentinian investigative journalist Rodolfo Walsh used alternative, clandestine media to publish his Open Letter to the Military Junta. The country he describes, painting a Bosch-like hell with facts and figures, is a charnel house. Dissent was intolerable for the regime, and many Argentines who tried to get by unnoticed as public employees or as workers in the private sectors today can recount having been supervised by armed military police to enforce ‘’productivity’’.

In his letter to the Junta, before moving on to economics, Walsh briefly summarizes the government’s program of disappearances, constitutional and human rights violations. “The censorship in the press, the persecution of intellectuals, the raid on my house in Tigre (the river delta of Buenos Aires) the murders of my dear friends and the loss of my daughter—who died while fighting you—are some of the factors that force me into this form of clandestine expression, after almost 30 years in which I had freely given my opinion as a journalist and writer.” He goes on to tell the Junta ‘’what you call certified facts are errors, what you are willing to admit as errors are in fact crimes, and what you omit are calamities”. Walsh interprets the Junta regime as an abrupt consolidation of an unjust and repressive state mechanism put into practice under the government of Peron’s widow, Isabel Martínez, whom the gentlemen in the Junta overthrew in March, 1976. The results of the first year of that coup were devastating, as Walsh states in naked, meticulous numbers: “(…) 15.000 disappeared persons, 10.000 prisoners, 4000 dead, many tens of thousands expropriated from their lands, these are the naked ciphers of this terror’’. He condemns the building of countless make-shift prisons, the secret trials, “the concentration camps where no judge, lawyer, journalist or international monitor may enter”.

Disappearances were the means by which the military succeeded in stripping the civilian as well as the militant hostages of all their legal rights: once turned into non-entities, and declared “missing”, these young accused people could not appear in court (as was customary even in previous dictatorships in Argentine history.) The alleged non-existence of the hostages allowed the Junta to revive archaic, “medieval” methods of torture, reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition, or of the methods used in the 19th century genocidal campaigns by the Argentine military against the Mapuche desert-dwelling tribes.

Walsh’s Open Letter does not stop at attacking the armed, brutal campaigns of subordination and counter-terrorism that were aimed at “subversive elements” (The “subversives’’ were, typically, young Argentines who in some way managed to come across as nonconformist in the eyes of informants, and were then marked by the secret police as agents of clandestine revolution.)

But Walsh goes on to describe what he considered an even greater crime:  the economic policy of structuring socio-economic misery and deliberately impoverishing millions. “In only one year you have reduced the gross wages of workers by 40% and diminished their participation in the national income (GDP) by 30%, which has resulted in a lengthening of the workday from 6 to 18 hours for any worker supporting a family. This policy has revived forms of forced labour that are non-existent even in the last remaining colonial settlements.”

It is in this part of the Open Letter where the differences between the economic behaviour of the 1970s police state and the economic plans of Cambiemos (“Let’s Change”) – the recently democratically elected government -, become smaller, uncannily similar. The current government takes political prisoners, such as Milagros Sala, an indigenous activist now imprisoned in her Northern province of Jujuy - just one example. But the current political prisoners are detained with indefinite, arbitrary evidence, and go through trials that linger despite scant evidence, held by party-member judges whose careers would be deemed unimpressive in the eyes of most of their peers.  Today’s ideologically motivated right-wing judge is someone like Claudio Bonadio, who recently started proceedings against the Argentinian independent film-makers who received some funding from the previous government’s Ministry of Culture, charging them with “misuse of public funds”. The shenanigans of Bonadio, or those of his ally, the current Minister Culture Darío Lopérfido, who caused shockwaves by publicly insisting there were never 30.000 disappeared, are often the stuff of satires in the monthly humour magazine Barcelona (a sort of Argentine Charlie Hebdo), which was a subversive rag even during the more dangerous 1970s. Barcelona’s chief editor Ingrid Beck was herself recently dragged to court by a pro-military activist and chairwoman of the officers’ wives club, Cecilia Pando, who sued the magazine for 70.000 pesos on charges of defamation for a cartoon. (Pando won, to the great consternation of free speech advocates and legal practitioners, and came away with 40.000 pesos granted her by a simpering judge, Susana Nóvile.)

Stifling dissent and detention during the 1970s was, to the contrary, secret and without trial – which allows fewer comparisons with the present-era Latin American coups that are characterized by mass media conglomerates egging on mediocre judicial spectacles and crusades by the corrupt “against corruption”. Luckily, the current entourage of fright-inducing names - Temer and Macri, Lopérfido, Nóvile and Bonadio - does not compare to the Franco-like warrior caste of the military juntas. Macri and Temer possibly resemble more closely the repressive regime of Isabel Perón. But the heirs of those military dictators - today either getting off their trials for crimes against humanity, or receiving huge pensions from the state, or both - are still waiting in the background. The militarists are not in charge now, but they are optimistic, and fond of their many new rights, privileges and profits for which they can thank the neoliberal management-oriented governments such as that of Cambiemos. These parties can in turn thank the media monopolies (such as Clarín and Globo) for actually doing their election campaigns. And the media conglomerates, in turn, are serving the interests of the Patricians, the rural landowners of Argentina (who, in turn, owe their power and benefits to the main buyers of their commodity exports from under-industrialized South America.)

How are we alike? The use of “sincereing’’ in 1977 and 2016

Economic policies and official discourses on finance, as expressed by the Argentinian military dictatorship in 1977, bear a striking resemblance to many features of the current Argentinian economic programs. Though the methods of access to power are unlike those of the 1970s dictator, the official language and the resulting economic misery are uncannily similar.

“Rationalizing the economy” and the frequent use of a non-existent term “Sincerement’’ or the verb ‘’to sincere” (the economy) is the lingo of contemporary neoliberal discourse (disturbingly, this verb was even approved by Peruvian author and art-critic Mario Vargas-Llosa, of all people). It is not, by any means, “new”: the same mantras were first spread after the military overthrow of Isabel Martínez, Perón’s widow. In the democratic 1990s, “rationalization” was brought into effect by Carlos Menem’s government, preparing the backdrop for the crash of 2001.  Most recently, “rationalization” is the icing on the cake of Macri’s election victory. More than 150.000 workers in both the public and private sectors have been fired between December 2015 and March 2016. An excessive celebration, it seems, after such a narrow election victory for the Right.

The economic “rationalization” policies reported by Walsh in 1977 describe what could be a factual Argentinian economist's forecast by looking at the policies of the present Ministry of Economy and attempting to see through his economists’ crystal ball into early 2017.

Walsh described a “historic” unemployment rate of 9% in 1977. Economist Claudio Lozano is predicting that Argentinian unemployment will rise to two-digit figures by the end of the year, thanks to the government’s measures (Lozano is cited in the INDEK report and on the website of the Buenos Aires city government).

Public healthcare is under attack, and consumption of food and clothing among the poor is diminishing drastically. In 1977, as in 2016, this was called “Rationalizing the Economy”, a term used by Argentinian and Chilean neoliberal economists and cheered on US financial television channels like  Argentinian labour unions today are rallying to demand a 40% raise from President Macri and Congress, so as to return salaries to pre-2016 normalcy.

Priests in poorer urban areas are insisting that government officials cease to use Macri’s cynical campaign-slogan “Zero Poverty” (which rhymes with “Coca Cola Zero’’) as the poor are increasingly losing their capacity to feed and clothe themselves satisfactorily. A whopping 700% increase in the cost of utilities, announced earlier this year by a sneering Macri as part of the “sincerement”’ is likely to leave many more families either on street - unable to pay for their utility bills - or living in streetlight-less slums, subject to health hazards. Police violence is, meanwhile, as boundless as ever, particularly against street-children. The human rights lawyer Julian Aixát, who takes on cases of police homicides against delinquent and street youths in La Plata, has pointed out in newspaper articles in Pagina12 that Catholic priests and the Church are increasingly acting as mediators and protectors of underage and poor children who are being persecuted by the police, while the State remains aloof or ineffective. Though such murders are common-place, they are little discussed (on the other hand, there is much widespread public consternation about the neglect by state authorities of women who experience domestic violence, a lack of interest that often has led to deaths).

What would the fate of Rodolfo Walsh had he lived in 21st century Argentina, in a parallel never-world where he would not have been detained and executed in 1979? Would Walsh’s Letter and arguments have reached a large Argentinian audience today? Possibly, though it is unlikely that his subversive books of investigative journalism would have been a success in the current context of media saturation and consumer-oriented literature.

Rodolfo Walsh was one of Argentina’s most important investigative journalists, and he is often referred to as “the Argentine Truman Capote” because of his book Operation Massacre about crimes under Juan Carlos Onganía’s dictatorship (1966-1970). Today it is claimed that Walsh foreshadowed the now trending “literary nonfiction” genre, well before Capote – something that is probably true in his long-form works, not so much in a factual report such as the Open Letter, though even there Walsh’s virtuosity is evident in his depiction of darkness. He gets to the true face of darkness and evil, unlike the dictatorship’s apologists such as Lopérfido or Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Ildebrando Pascarelli, who was fond of saying that “The struggle that we have unleashed recognizes no moral limits and no natural limits, it realizes itself beyond good and evil”. 

Two years after publishing his Open Letter, Rodolfo Walsh was shot and arrested on San Juan Avenue in Buenos Aires. He joined the Disappeared. A memorial for him remains, on this street today marked by many small, make-shift mausoleums: monuments cemented together on both sides of the avenue, inscribed with the names of mostly very young Argentinians who were abducted and eventually executed. The monuments are faded by the sun, by rain and with different kinds of rubbish besides them: the plastic cups, wrappers and cigarette butts, the canine feces, all adorn the memorials for such fallen youths. These damaged, faded and neglected monuments are perhaps quite representative of the historical and political memory of Argentine society today.

Though it is impossible to ascertain what Rodolfo Walsh would have undergone in an era other than the one that made and executed him, today we can go by examples of journalists and intellectuals who experience censorship or anti-democratic repercussions for their views in Argentina.

The state’s silencing of Pedro Brieger: a case of censorship

Pedro Rubén Brieger, an award-winning journalist, sociologist and professor of Middle Eastern studies who has written for publications such as Le Monde Diplomatique, was the host of his own successful and popular TV show on Visión 7 Internacional. He was warned by Hernán Lombardi, the new Minister of Media and Public Contents that he should alter the contents of his show, or else. Brieger did not concede. He announced his dismissal on live television in March 2016 and received the support of Argentine Nobel Peace Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel in his struggle against Lombardi’s propaganda ministry. Telesur, the Latin American channel that has typically supported the left, and which broadcast a show reporting on the firing of Brieger, was dropped from the Argentinian cable-television system, to be replaced by CNN in Spanish.

Before the pressuring of Brieger to exit public television, Argentinian opposition journalist Roberto Navarro had been removed from Channel 5 and replaced with reporters who seem less threatening to the current ruling coterie.

Questioning the Chilean Miracle : Brieger’s unforgivable sin?

Among the views Brieger aired on his popular TV program, were his insights as to the real cause of Chile’s economic success, widely hailed as the “miracle” of neoliberalism in Latin America. Brieger explained to his vast audience how Chile’s economic success was entirely dependent on the export of one single product, copper. Chile’s single-industry already existed, in fact, during the Allende years and the prosperity of Chilean mining was the major driving force behind the Chilean workers’ demand for a wider distribution of the copper-export revenues, preferably through the nationalization of that lucrative industry - a process that Allende had pioneered. Such a singular reserve as this will eventually become exhausted as it continues to prop up the country with its international sales: the social-democrat plan of the executed president’s government was, precisely, to develop a more varied and complex local industry that would sustain the country in the long term.

The censorship and persecution of Brieger by Lombardi for having questioned the miracles claimed by the neoliberal economic programs (whether in Chile, in Argentina or in any of the several countries Brieger commented upon) shows that it is an economic model grounded in a religious attitude, not akin to democratic principles. His persecution invites its comparison with that of religious dissenters who were once persecuted for disbelieving the dogmas of Catholicism during the Counter-Reformation.

Yet another economic “miracle” similar to Chile’s in the priestly Pacific is that of Australia, which results also from a towering mineral-extraction industry. Australia’s economic growth since the 1990s is due to the exports of this natural resource industry. And the growth it has provided, unduly associated with the neoliberal, de-industrialisation (which rhymes with the currently fashionable “decolonialisation”) model, has also come with the hubris and boastfulness of Australia’s mostly neoliberal, right-wing political environment, who also shows a fondness for historical revisionism and amnesia towards the “disappeared generation” and the wars of extinction waged by settlers against the aboriginal tribes. Historical revisionism, censorship and a war on memory seem indeed to accompany the so-called “rationalizing” experiments in any country where the nefarious method is applied.

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