On 24 March 1977, the first anniversary of the coup, the writer Rodolfo Walsh wrote a several page open letter to the military. Just hours after sending it to several media outlets, he was shot dead in the street. The letter, which is now displayed on huge glass panels at the ESMA Memorial, is one of the first analyses of military rule. By now the regime has been studied and evaluated by many different scholars.
The word “Desaparecido” (Disappeared) appears beneath the photos displayed by victims’ relatives in the former police prison of Rosario. It is followed by the portrayed person’s date of arrest. Human rights activists estimate that 30,000 people disappeared after their arrest. The Swiss historian Alexander Hasgall has analyzed the arduous struggle to have them recognized as victims of the military dictatorship. His thesis: One reason their struggle was successful was because it allowed society to absolve itself of its share responsibility.
The military called them “subversivo” (subversive). Many of those who were arrested and murdered in Argentina did, in fact, belong to violent leftist organizations. But over time human rights activists have been able to replace the military's derogatory term with a neutral word: "Desaparecido" (disappeared). Today, this rather vague term forms a key concept in the examination of Latin America’s past.
The historian Alexander Hasgall interprets this change in terminology as an expression of a “conflict of recognition”: The “identified” truth has become a “recognized” truth. How this came about is the subject of his extensive doctoral thesis.
In it, Hasgall describes in detail the struggle of relatives and human rights activists for the recognition of the “truth” of disappearances. After the military had long denied this practice, a hearing before the US Congress made it clear for the first time that these were not isolated cases. This military's effort to present itself at home and abroad as the “savior of the nation” has become increasingly implausible.
After the end of the military regime, the “recognition conflict” entered into a new phase: The first democratically elected president, Raúl Alfonsín, set up a truth commission in an effort to meet the demands of human rights organizations. The commission investigated the “disappearance” of nearly 9,000 people and published an extensive report in 1984. Leading junta members were subsequently tried amidst strong public interest. But to avoid provoking the military, the president allowed only a few perpetrators to be punished.
According to Hasgall, in the early 1990s, the demands for “justice” and “truth” came largely to a standstill. Instead, the new president Carlos Menem propagated a course of national reconciliation. Hasgall, however, sees the reparations programs decided at that time and the so-called truth trials as an alternative form of “recognition.” In a long legal battle in 1998, a mother won the right to have the fate of her disappeared children clarified in court. But in both cases, the Argentine state only gave in after an appeal was made to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CIDH).
In the last section of his study, Hasgall returns to the change in terminology in dealing with the military dictatorship. He notes that the concept of the “disappeared” had to assert itself not only against the language of the military. The militant fighters of the Montoneros and the Peronist youth also preferred glorifying the victims as “freedom fighters” and “revolutionaries.” It was above all the mothers of abducted children who established the term "disappeared" because it was more easily adapted to a broad solidarity movement. “The price of support from international human rights organizations was thus the posthumous loss of identity as militant fighters,” Hasgall says.
According to the historian, eventually the image of the “innocent victim” and the demand “never again” became central components of Argentina's national consciousness. The ambivalent attitude towards violence was replaced by a new unambiguousness that distinguished between the innocent Argentine society as victims and the guerrillas and the military as the responsible parties. This allowed the population to avoid a discussion about its own role in allowing the violence to escalate in Argentina.
To see the study by Alexander Hasgall, click here (German).
List of the disappeared in Argentina (Spanish)
After the Dictatorship. Instruments of Transitional Justice in Former Authoritarian Systems – An International Comparison
A project at the Department of Modern History at the University of Würzburg
Instagram: After the dictatorship
With financial support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development
The former members of the military junta look serious as they enter the courtroom in Buenos Aires in May 1985. Five of them received long prison terms in December. But in 1990, President Carlos Menem had them pardoned – a decision that would be reversed twenty years later. Human rights experts Pär Engström and Gabriel Pereira have studied the process of criminal justice in Argentina. They speak of an “ebb and flow in the search for justice.”
For a long time, those responsible for serious human rights crimes in Argentina were protected from prosecution by law. The authors describe it as unique that this protection was lifted decades later. Argentina was the first country in Latin America to repeal amnesty measures in this way. In their study, they examine how this came about and whether this path could serve as a model for other countries.
In the first part of their study, the authors document the efforts under President Raúl Alfonsín to limit prosecution to a few responsible individuals. In the second part, they describe how subsequent governments tried to end prosecutions altogether and replace them with reconciliation and reparations. This stood in opposition to the growing efforts of human rights organizations to counteract impunity through trials at home and abroad. In the last section, Engström and Pereira examine how Argentina’s amnesty laws came to be overturned. In 2003, the parliament had made a decision to this effect, followed by a similar decision by the Supreme Court two years later.
The authors identify five causes for this fundamental change: The existence of well-organized and strategically creative human rights organizations played a key role. Robust connections to international institutions and transnational networks have considerably strengthened their political position. A second factor was the political orientation of the respective president, which fundamentally shaped the highs and lows of the criminal justice process. Thirdly, the authors assign a key role to the courts as “arenas of human rights policies.” In their opinion, developments in national and international law also shape the normative environment in which political actors operate.
Another factor identified by Engström and Pereira is the support from other state agencies in Argentina. Without this, the resumption of prosecutions might have remained purely symbolic, since the judiciary was not sufficiently prepared. Finally, the gradual reduction of the military’s political power would have created a favorable context for trying to hold soldiers and police officers accountable for their crimes. The authors’ conclusion: Transitional justice is not a linear process, but rather a back and forth that depends on various factors.
Click here for the study by Pär Engström and Gabriel Pereira.