What the military coup’s 40th anniversary means for Argentina

The defence of human rights in Argentina can continue to be an example to the world if the country remains alert, active, and critical in controlling all governments. Español

Cecilia Milesi
29 March 2016

Disappeared actors memorialised by outlines filled with their names (Photo: Beatrice Murch. All rights reserved)

Every anniversary provides an opportunity to re-formulate questions and aspire to receive new answers. It is an occasion for reflection, and a chance to seek out new ways to construct our collective history in an always-changing political context. In this case, the 40th anniversary of Argentina’s last military coup comes at a time of important political transformations both within the country and abroad.

A few months ago, Argentine citizens chose Mauricio Macri as their new president. His Republican Proposal (PRO) party – centre-right or conservative, depending on who you ask – has, at certain times, not hesitated to disregard some of the human rights policies in Argentina. The party has also shown worrying tendencies in its security policies and attempts to control social protest.

Against this backdrop, a question emerges: does the recent acceptance of PRO’s socio-economic and political proposals denote the failure of the ‘memory, truth, and justice’ programme supported by the Kirchner governments and, long before, by dozens of human rights groups? Here we argue that this is an opportunity to reaffirm Argentina’s human rights gains and amplify the integral vision of human rights for all. It’s a chance to value and promote human rights as something more expansive and transversal including economic, cultural, social, and political rights. Argentina can continue to be an example to the world if we remain alert, active, and critical in controlling all governments.

Memory, Truth, and Justice under Macri

During the Néstor and Cristina (Fernández de) Kirchner governments of the last 12 years, Argentina achieved some remarkable results in terms of human rights, and is held up now as an example for the region and the world. In 2003, President Kirchner obtained a ruling from the Supreme Court to allow extraditions in cases of crimes against humanity. The same year, Congress repealed the so-called ‘Full Stop Law’. And in 2005, the Supreme Court determined that laws protecting military officers accused of crimes were unconstitutional.

Now, hundreds of ex-officials have been convicted and hundreds more are being investigated, including the ‘Operation Condor‘ trial, over the regional links that allowed systematic repression across Latin America. At the same time, probes have begun into the role of certain local and international private companies that supported the dictatorship. And memorial spaces have been opened to publicly share the truth that is being uncovered.

PRO’s victory in the last elections has raised broad concerns over the potential for reversing these gains. It’s a fear not entirely unfounded: representatives of the new government have made public statements linking human rights to a “curro” (something exploited for personal gain), questioning the number of disappeared during the last dictatorship, and suggesting that victims were driven by the desire to obtain compensatory subsidies. Some media outlets, intellectuals, and academics close to the ruling party are constantly stating the need for “reconciliation” in Argentina: in the past, this reconciliation has meant pardons, amnesties, and “forgiveness” for criminals who have never shown remorse or cooperated with the judiciary. Today, workers at some of the memorial centres are been fired, generating tension.

However, the rapid mobilisation of human rights organisation and citizens in general seems to have ensured that the government has little room to backtrack on the search and respect of truth and justice. Both Macri and Buenos Aires provincial governor Maria Eugenia Vidal have met with the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and guaranteed that these policies would continue. Macri even used the symbolic phrase “Nunca Más” (Never Again) in his speech to open Congress, while his administration has highlighted the diplomatic success of the US decision to open secret archives that could reveal the links and support Washington provided dictatorships in Argentina and across the region.

Moreover, today Macri and the US President Barack Obama visited the Parque de la Memoria and paid homage to those disappeared, killed, and persecuted during 1976-83 by military trained by the US and France. These gestures suggest that there is no turning back in an Argentina that is still committed to being a global example both in the pursuit of justice for crimes against humanity and the in the promotion of human rights.

At the same time, there must be a constant supervision to ensure these initial positive gestures are sustained, especially in terms of the long-term financing and support of policies and programmes seeking ‘Memory, Truth, and Justice’. As it has been in the past, the mobilisation and actions of organisations to protect institutions and legal rulings in the defence of human rights will be crucial.

All Human Rights: Past, Present, and Future

The challenge now is to expand this active memory of the past into the present. By this we mean preserving human rights policies related to the last dictatorship, while at the same time looking critically at the visible steps backwards taken by Macri’s government in security policy.

Developing a bigger and better democracy requires ensuring the participation and security of citizens, while respecting the right to free expression and protest. Recent proposals for national security, such as a possible militarisation under the excuse of “fighting drug trafficking” and new military and intelligence agreements with the US, should put us on alert.

Handing the military more power in internal security affairs implies undoing the achievements of the previous government when it guaranteed civil powers had control over the investigation and fight against drug trafficking, defence, and national security. The ‘National Defence Law’ approved under President Kirchner guaranteed that the Armed Forces would only operate in cases of external aggression, while it also reduced the power of the military leaders and brought them firmly under the control of civilian authorities. Turning away from this would put Argentina on a path towards the militarisation of public space, which has not had positive results in other places such as Mexico or Brazil.

The new government has also sent negative signals in terms of reducing the space for citizens’ participation. For example, the ‘security protocol’ designed to control street manifestations has been criticised for restricting the right to protest. There have also been threats and repressive action against protesters, as well as officials dismissed from distinct government organisms because of their open support for the previous government. The controversial and relatively obscure arrest of Milagro Sala, who is dismissed by high-level PRO officials as part of the group of “useless political activists”, could also be seen as an attempt to criminalise protest.

With this in mind, we know that for the advances in human rights to be preserved, all of society must unite to protect and value all the rights, principles, and legislation that make our democracy strong. ‘Memory, Truth, and Justice’ means investigating, remembering, and seeking the truth about our sad history. But it means also ensuring that security and participation based on freedom, dignity and human rights are sustained without exception and in all areas and institutions of the country.

To conclude, in this new era, “Nunca Más” is also “no more police repression”. It is no more restrictions on the freedom for all to participate politically and to protest. And it is to stop perceiving security as extreme control, repression, being ‘tough on crime’, and the militarisation of the country. “Nunca Más” is valuing human security based on freedom and socio-economic inclusion.

Faced with the new challenges at this 40th anniversary, we must unite to ensure the message of human rights – the pillar of a strong democracy – is understood and owned by the people. Citizens, organisations, and social leaders must think of democracy beyond museums, homage, and urban memorial centres (without forgetting them either). We must revitalise the debate over rights and democracy in schools, the media, and across all neighbourhoods, especially with the new generations who didn’t suffer the pain of the dictatorship directly but suffer unemployment, violence, and a lack of opportunities today.

More than ever, we must expand social, economic, cultural and political rights. Argentina can be an example if we are alert, active and critical in controlling this and all governments, while putting our efforts into improving our institutions, laws, and democratic spaces.

If this is what we yearn, then every year, every anniversary, is an opportunity to commit ourselves again to keeping this memory active and timeless, to maintain a democracy in which human rights are part of the past, present, and future.


This article has also been published by The Argentina Independent


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