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23 September 2011

The Dirtiest of Wars

I would love to believe in the stirring verse originally sung by Chilean group Quilapayun-"¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!" (The people united, will never be defeated!).  This aphorism may eventually ring true because a united group of people are louder, more visible, and therefore powerful than a divided one, but it is the complicity of the general public during a struggle for power, rights, or equality that makes Quilapayun's phrase difficult for me to truly believe.

Recent history has demonstrated that it is during times of economic crisis that we must remain especially protective over our human rights and personal safety.  Keeping that in mind, it is now, more than ever, that we must remain vigilant, as the global recession gives cause to austerity measures, unemployment, inflation, mistrust, demagoguery, and fear.  Such "austerity" has been used as an excuse for recent funding cuts to health care, public education, infrastructure, and environmental protection, which not only serves to further the gap between the wealthiest and the rest, but will erode some of the very foundations of our societies.

Similarly, much of the rhetoric behind such atrocities as the Pinochet coup/ military government in Chile, and Argentina's "Dirty War" has been based on specious "economic" claims-i.e. socialist economic policies and social programs are ineffective, cause inflation, are not conducive to national industrial development or foreign trade, and/or are generally deleterious.  The people, as such military juntas of Chile and Argentina seemed to believe, would be better off under rigid discipline, privatized industry, and a "strong" (tyrannical) central leader (who were both covertly supported by the "democratic" United States government).

In the face of such claims, one must remember that global trade and the free market economy are inherently subject to fluctuations that can disproportionately affect certain regions of the world more than others based not only on domestic economic policies, but geography, national and international laws (like constitutions and international trade policies), diplomatic relations, amongst other factors.  The global economic downturn of the 1970's, coupled with the (sham of an) oil crisis compounded the ongoing governmental instabilities, massive inflation, financial uncertainty, and political fragmentation in Argentina and Chile.

Those of you uninterested in Latin American history must be wondering...'where is he going with this and why should I keep on reading?'  Besides attempting to draw certain comparisons between disparate historical epochs (South America in the 1970's and The US/Europe of the second decade of the 2000's), I want to discuss, in brief, an atrocity that very few of my friends know about-"La Guerra Sucia," or, "The Dirty War,"-its causes, its vestiges, and its involvement with "futbol."

Argentina has long been a place of political instability and social upheaval.  Beginning in the late nineteenth century waves of European and western Asian immigration brought a mixture of cultures and creeds to this new country south of the equator.   Migration and immigration from other South American countries and from Argentina's rural areas in the early twentieth century made the country's industrial urban centers like Buenos Aires, Rosario, Cordoba, Bahia Blanca, and La Plata swell.  By the early twentieth century Argentina was one of the world's foremost economic powers with the ninth largest economy by 1920.  However, the Depression of the 1930's brought an end to that and badly crippled an economy in advanced stages of industrial development.  With unemployment and inflation soaring, Argentina's government crumbled.  This period did witness the establishment of universal (male suffrage), but during the 16 years from 1930-1946 the country saw 8 different heads of state, including several military dictatorships. 

The Juan Peron governments of the late 1940s through mid 1950s, and then later in the early 1970s temporarily stabilized Argentina's volatile economy, while enacting numerous infrastructural improvements/modernizations (including railroad extensions, bridge and hospital constructions, the enlargement of the country's ports amongst others), pro-union labor reform, and the construction and updating of dozens of professional soccer stadiums.  The famous "Bombonera" stadium-home to the famed Boca Juniors Football Club, was funded by money from the Peron government.  The stadium improvement program was as much an infrastructural improvement campaign as it was apolitical move.  Always with an ear to the streets, Peron shrewdly recognized the power that soccer held over the masses and channeled much of his support from terraces and stands of the "estadios" around the country. 

Peron's government, however, a curious "third way," which existed somewhere in between capitalism and socialism, did not last.  The nationalizations and protectionist economic policies that defined much of his presidency isolated private investment and led to substantial debt.  Exports fell, and unemployment rose sharply from the mid 1950's onward.  Peron was also quite guilty of having illegally disposed of certain opposing forces.  During his first reign in power, he fired more than 1500 university professors who opposed him, including the famed writer Jorge Luis Borges.  Peron was deeply suspicious of both staunch conservatives and radical left wing factions.  Certain policies, such as his proposed legalization of abortion and prostitution, were too controversial for a mostly catholic country, while frequent clashes between the Socialist Party and Peronists became violent.  Peron was even excommunicated by Pope Pius XII in 1955. A Nationalist-Catholic coup deposed him that same year and he was exiled from the country for 18 years, during which the size of the economy doubled while inflation became a daily expectation for Argentinians.

By the time he returned from exile, Peron was in poor health, and by some accounts, even senile.  A series of debilitating heart attacks effectively ended his third term in 1974, the same year of his death, after which his third wife Isabel was put in charge of the republic until the dreaded military coup of 1976.

The events of 1976-1983 are probably the darkest in Argentine history.  General Jorge Videla head of the Argentine Armed Forces, and leader of a new military junta, easily deposed of the ineffectual Peron regime in a coup d'etat, privatized several state-owned companies, shut down the legislative branch while restricting freedom of the press, and initiated a campaign of state-sponsored terror via the euphemistically-coined "National Reorganization Process." 

From 76' onward the government initiated the "Dirty War" against its own citizens whereby marxists, trade unionists, students, and any citizens with suspected left-leaning sentiments were kidnapped, sent to detention camps, tortured, murdered, or raped.  At any given moment people could be pulled over by the police and beaten senseless without explanation, have their homes looted by soldiers, be drugged and forced to undergo the "vuelos de la muerte" (death flights) where they were drugged, forced into helicopters or fixed-wing aircrafts, stripped naked, and pushed into the Rio de la Plata or Atlantic Ocean to drown.  Among the most heinous human rights violation carried out by the junta was the stealing and redistribution of "children of the disappeared," whereby infants or very young children of apprehended individuals were given to families who supported, or at least complied with the regime.  (For a masterpiece narration of this subject see the heart-wrenching film "La Historia Oficial"-The Official Story.)

Below: An Abduction in Buenos Aires

It is estimated that between 9,000-30,000 Argentinians were forcibly disappeared between 1976 and 1983 and that up to 500 children were stolen from their parents.  Though some Argentinians resisted, such as the "Madres de la Plaza de Mayo," who continue to gather in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to demand knowledge of the whereabouts of their disappeared children,  (preceding this article is an iconic symbol of their organization-the white hood), the majority went about their daily lives.  How, one might ask, could the world stand by and allow this to happen after the atrocities of the Holocaust?  The answer, sadly, is a mixture of successful cover-ups, US-support for the anti-communist military junta (via Operation Condor), successful propaganda campaigns, and general international complicity or even coordination (in the case of Chile, Uruguay, and Bolivia).  

In the midst of the Dirty War Argentina hosted the 1978 FIFA World Cup under the watchful eyes of Videla and co..  The Montoneros, a Peronist and marxist guerilla group tried to disrupt the tournament by coordinating several bomb attacks, but were unsuccessful and swiftly crushed by the Junta.  Some of the teams that qualified, such as the Netherlands, initially considered not participating due to the Junta's rumored persecution of the people, but eventually relented.  In another controversy, FIFA allowed the Argentine National Team to play all of their matches at night, thereby giving them the advantage of knowing all previous match results.  

The Estadio Monumental, used for the World Cup, is located less than a mile from the infamous Naval Mechanics School in Nuñez, which was used as a concentration camp at the time, and has since been designated as a space for the "memory and promotion of the defense of human rights."  It is said that prisoners there could hear the roar of the crowd during matches.  An LA Times article discusses several disturbing details of the tournament...

"Surviving detainees have recalled Kafkaesque scenes of interrogators taking time out to root for the home team. Guards even encouraged shackled, hooded and half-conscious prisoners to join in the merry-making.  "We won! We won!" the lockup's notorious chief of intelligence, Jorge "El Tigre" (The Tiger) Acosta, shouted over and over, recalled Graciela Daleo, a survivor. "When he said, 'We won,' I was certain that we had lost," Daleo said in a seminal documentary film made here examining the "parallel history" of the 1978 championship. "And we did lose." (
Star forward Mario Kempes and the "Albicelestes" might have won Argentina's first World Cup, but the real beneficiary was the Videla regime who were able to maintain power for another five years while deflecting growing international attention to their bloody methods.  In this way, some have compared the 1978 World Cup to Hitler's manipulation of the 1936 Berlin Olympics that covered up his persecution of the Jews, Communists, and Gypsies.   After the ill-fated Falkland' War and growing international concern with the Junta, democracy was restored in 1983, but the vestiges of the Dirty War persist to this day-with the occasional news coverage of genetic testing of a child of a disappeared, the sporadic trials and convictions of former military leaders, and the frequent gathering of the Madres de la Plaza.

In the end "el pueblo unido" were not necessarily defeated, but they were unable to effectively mobilize and topple the regime, which fell for other reasons- mounting debt, high inflation, and the diplomatic catastrophe caused by the Falklands War.  During the Junta, isolated and small-scale anti-government violence was carried out mostly by divided guerilla groups.  The brutal repression and state terror inspired such fear in the populace that the impetus and unity required for an effective resistance, whether violent or non-violent, was never fully present.  Further dividing the people was the fact that the government mostly targeted leftists who they considered to be an ideological "threat" to their stability.  The Videla government is often referred to as "la ultima dictadura"-the last dictatorship; let us hope that it remains thus. 

You might wonder why I care so much about this topic, or why I am so concerned with what happens in Argentina.  Though I am not Argentinian, I did live there, and will always feel connected to that country.  The experiences of the "ultima dictadura" and the Pinochet regime in Chile should serve as eternal reminders of the dangers posed by volatile economic conditions and the opportunistic ultra-right wing politics that emerge during such times of crisis and who purport to treat such maladies.  While I do not believe that Argentina, the US, or any European entity are in danger of being toppled by new repressive autocracies, I do feel that the all-too-popular austerity measures and tax-cuts that are causing the slow erosion of the foundations of such western democracies could potentially give way to new tyranny, especially in light of the ultra-nationalist/religious and reactionary factions waiting in the wings to manipulate discontent with current governments.