As part of our ongoing focus on world history, this edition’s article focuses on the oppressive period in 20th Century Argentine history known as The Dirty War. Between 1976 and 1983 between 10,000 and 30,000 people “disappeared”, victims targeted for their opposition to the military junta that had seized power.
This period of history has long been outside mainstream Western public consciousness, yet it is a story that merits consideration as it serves as a stark reminder of the possibilities of unchecked power.
Following the death of President Juan Peron in 1974 his wife and vice-president, Isabel Peron, assumed power. This was short lived, however, and in 1976 a military junta launched a coup d’etat against her, beginning a period of eight years of military dictatorship in which horrendous atrocities were carried out against opponents of the regime. It is important to note that the Peronistas were actually not above such tactics of profound political repression, which famously drove Ernesto “Che” Guevara from his homeland in the ‘50s, as is evident in the “annihilation decrees” of Isabel Peron that were recently uncovered; the scale of such atrocity, however, was unprecedented as that under the junta. As recently as 2006, an Argentine federal judge, Raul Costa, called for her testimony regarding the 600 disappearances and 500 assassinations that occurred under her government from 1973 to 1976. She was additionally arrested in 2007 in Madrid regarding the disappearance of the political activist Hector Aldo Fagetti Gallego under her regime, as well as the “annihilation decrees” that she authorised to wipe out dissident political elements in the country at the time. The relevance of the Dirty War today is beyond question and it is an episode which raises important issues regarding political freedoms as well as freedom of speech.
Two features loom large over the mind with regards to the Dirty War; the breadth of the purge that took place, and the foreign endorsement of the junta’s actions from the US government. In 2003 newly classified State Department documents obtained by the National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act showed that in 1976 the then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger (and other high ranking US officials), had lent their full economic and military support to the Argentinean junta in power. Indeed, their only concern was to ensure that the Dirty War was conducted quickly and effectively, even threatening the junta with reductions in military transactions should this not be done so. This should not come as a surprise to those with even the most rudimentary knowledge of US Cold War politics; in order to ensure the dominance of capitalism and prevent the spread of Communism, especially so close to home, American governments consorted with and backed those juntas and individuals who were willing to impose capitalism without any regard for the human rights of those who lived under such regimes.
Another striking feature of the events is the penetration of the Dirty War into ordinary society. As well as the targets that one would expect from a military dictatorship, the left wing activists, trade unionists, students, journalists, Marxists and alleged sympathisers of the previous Peron regime, there are reports of up to 500 missing children from the period, only of which around 100 have been found according to the Grandmothers of the Plaza De Mayo.
It is in this instance that the Dirty War takes on the tone of a Guillermo Del Toro film; the los desaparecidos (the disappeared) are eternally condemned to walk in the imagination of the Argentine people as a silent testament of this troubled period in their history. However, it must be stressed that only in a brief glance does it posses this quality; there are no other fantastical allusions to draw from this, only the very real tales and stories of the horrors of war and the human suffering caused by unchecked and unfettered power.