On Friday, seeing as we had our brilliant friend and Argentine native Gabriel Uriarte on hand as a docent, we headed along to the Remembrance and Human Rights Centre, a museum on Avenue Libertador devoted to the memory of victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-1983).
During the dictatorship, it belonged to the Escuola de Mecanico de la Armada (ESMA)—the naval mechanics’ school. This is a sprawling complex of buildings on 17-hectares of pretty ground: tidy lawns, flowering pink hibiscus and tall trees where parrots flit and squabble. The façade of the school building itself is grandly neoclassical, with tall half-columns and an official coat of arms in the gable. It all seems stiff and institutional but pleasant enough, in spite of grim concrete watchtowers, especially on a fine summer’s afternoon.
During the Dirty War, this pleasant spot was the site of a clandestine torture center. Although throughout Argentina about 30,000 people were secretly tortured in about 500 centres, ESMA is the most notorious. While unspeakable things were happening in the basement of the officer’s mess hall, the complex continued to be used as a military school. Officers and their families lived in nearby buildings, and had barbecues on nice days, and students even sat exams in the schoolhouse.
The National Reorganization Process (1976-1983)
In the 1970s, Operation Condor spread its fell wings all across South America; a US-backed campaign of political repression and state terror was waged right-wing dictatorships against civilian population. The idea was to eradicate Soviet and communist influences and ideas by silencing (killing) dissidents, which included leftists, union and peasant leaders, priests and nuns, intellectuals and suspected guerillas. Cooperative governments included Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil, all of which received technical support and military aid from the US government.
In Argentina, May 1976, President Isabel Peròn was overthrown and a military junta installed in her government’s place. The leaders of the junta were Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera and Brigadier-General Orlando Ramόn Agosti. They took the name of the National Reorganization Process, (Proceso de Reorganizaciόn Nacional), later known simply as el Proceso.
Admiral Massera, who many consider the mastermind of el Proceso, was in charge of the terrorist repression at ESMA. Gabriel’s father Claudio Uriarte wrote a book about him that is considered a masterpiece in Argentina, Amirante Cero: Biografía no autorizada de Emilio Eduardo Massera (1992) (Admiral Zero: Unauthorized Biography of Emilio Eduardo Massera) (unfortunately not yet available in English).
El Proceso was much grislier than the bureaucratic term makes it sound. In fact, it was so horrendous that even Henry Kissinger was nervous about its excesses. In this declassified memcon verbatim transcript from October 7, 1976, Kissinger urges Argentine foreign minister Admiral Guzzetti to hurry up and get rid of the opposition before human-rights types made a stink about the massive abuses occurring:
“Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed. I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported. What is not understood in the United States is that you have a civil war. We read about human rights problems but not the context. The quicker you succeed the better… The human rights problem is a growing one. Your Ambassador can apprise you. We want a stable situation.We won’t cause you unnecessary difficulties. If you can finish before Congress gets back, the better. Whatever freedoms you could restore would help.“
The junta’s favorite targets were young professionals, high school and college students, trade-union members and workers. Sixty students were arrested at Belgrano High School just for joining their school council. Victims were arrested summarily, often without being formally charged, taken to the nearest detention centre, tortured and kept hooded until it was time to die. Some prisoners died in mass shootings, others were thrown drugged and naked from planes over the Atlantic Ocean. Because a lot of the victims disappeared without a trace, they are now known as Los Desaparecidos – the Disappeared.
Walking through the city, it is impossible to miss the colorful plaques on the pavement that commemorate the sudden kidnapping of someone from that very spot.
In the main hall there were hundreds of photographs of survivors, plaques featuring testimony of torture, and artwork devoted to the victims. One excerpted statement from a survivor brought home the discomfort and pain experienced by so many:
“You were in the ‘hood’ without moving, without speaking, without knowing who threatened or hit you or how to defend yourself, without having the slightest idea of your situation and fate, without having interlocutors to ask. You could only be alone, breathe, feel around; once a day you were allowed to go to the bathroom (and, sometimes, clean yourself up) and sleep.”
An infamous aspect of el Proceso was the detention of pregnant prisoners until delivery, at which time the baby would be appropriated and given to a family with more tolerable political views. About 500 of these babies were born in the detention centre, their mothers handcuffed and hooded during labor, then murdered soon after. Most of the babies grew up without being aware of their real origin until well into adulthood. At least one child was adopted by a man involved in torturing and killing her biological parents.
Even during the dictatorship, two groups were especially vocal in wanting the truth to be revealed, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who wanted to locate the dead bodies of their children, and the Abuelas or Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who wanted to find their living grandchildren. The Abuelas became a powerful force and, thanks to their work, a national genetic bank was established that would allow people to match DNA with surviving aunts and uncles. Mandatory testing is sometimes enforced. Some people don’t want to get it because they don’t want to be responsible for sending their adoptive parents to jail, in other cases the parents threaten their children. One particularly high-profile example of the anguish, disruption and reluctance to uncover the truth when it comes to stolen babies is evident in the story of the Clarìns heirs Marcela and Felipe, who were both adopted in 1976 but have not so far been identified as children of the disappeared. And if you want to watch a real tear-jerker of a documentary, watch this account of how families have coped with learning the truth.