Consequences of the Military Dictatorship in Argentina

In this essay, I will be looking at all I have learned during the course of this program to determine whether or not there will be national reconciliation in Argentina. Between 1976 and 1983 Argentina was ruled by a military dictatorship. Any opposition resulted in the secret disappearance, torture, and death of anyone suspected of supporting the left-wing agenda. During the length of this dictatorship, an estimated 30,000 people were murdered. People lived in fear for their own lives and in grief for their friends and family who had been disappeared. After their defeat in the Falklands War in 1982, the discredited military allowed a freely contested presidential election in 1983, which was won by President Raúl Alfonsín. The country has had trouble moving on, and an association called Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children were among the ‘disappeared’ coined the phrase ‘never forgive, never forget, never reconcile’. Reconciliation involves complex processes to rebuild relationships within societies left fractured by war or repression. There have been many barriers to reconciliation which I will attempt to explain in this essay. Although some attempts have been made to help people heal from the events that took place, the people of Argentina want to know what has happened to their relatives and loved ones that have disappeared. Some would argue that the very attempts made to try to deal with what happened only served to stir up old wounds. 

For the country to move forward it would be very beneficial if everyone were to forget about it but the uncertainty of not knowing what happened to someone close leaves people unable to move on and constantly thinking of the past. After eight years of military rule, on December 10th, 1983, Alfonsín was inaugurated as president. He put forward two main goals. Firstly, to ensure the consolidation of democracy and to deal with the human rights violations that had taken place during the previous regime. Secondly, he wanted to try to bring about economic recovery. The first step towards reconciliation by dealing with the human rights abuses was the setting up of La Comision Nacional Sobre Ia Desaparicion de Personas (the National Commission on the Disappearance of People). Conadep was an organization put in place by President Alfonsín during his first week in office, to investigate the fate of the victims who had disappeared, presumed killed by members of the military or by the police. Their report entitled Nunca Mas (Never Again) explained their findings in great detail. While president Alfonsín thought this investigation would help the matter, it only went ahead and confused people as to what had happened to their relatives. It also made more people aware of the extent of the atrocities carried out under the dictatorship and generated even more anger across the country. Alfonsín was pressured by groups of people to lift the amnesty of the military and put major military leaders on trial. Nine of the most powerful generals were charged. 

Alfonsín started off well in his presidential role and prosecuted several high-ranking officials as well as the generals. Through the trials of the generals, they were seen to be accountable for what had happened and heir punishment helped the reconciliation for many. The military was not happy and later he came under hostile pressure from them in the form of armed revolts in 1987 and 1988. Under this pressure, he pardoned most of the convicted officers and put more investment into the military even though the country was in an economic crisis with high inflation and a devalued currency. He was trying to please everyone but resigned six months before the end of his term of office. In May 1989 Carlo Menem was elected president and he managed to bring the economic stability back under control however he was criticized for pardoning many of the military and guerrilla members who had violated human rights during the dictatorship. Also, he did nothing to progress the reconciliation and in 1989 it came to a standstill. The people were furious about this as the military was now seen to have done nothing wrong. Hopes of reconciliation after the dictatorship seemed almost impossible due to the ‘Final Document’. This was issued by the military before the end of the dictatorship, in April 1983. It was written to safeguard them from being punished for their crimes. In the document, they deny the kidnapping and torture and the existence of secret detention centers. Further to this, they made many fake and dubious excuses for the disappearance of thousands after they had been arrested. The people were angry with the cover-ups that the military tried to make to ensure that they wouldn’t be punished for the extreme things they did. 

In August 2003, the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws which had blocked the prosecution of crimes committed under the dictatorship were overturned, and the military members could now be put on trial again. In 2006, the trials were finally reopened. So far, the Argentine state has conformed to the international commitments in relation to the crimes of the past. From the viewpoint of the victims’ relatives, there is still much more to be done but important progress has been made in the treatment of the past. Another stage of the reconciliation process is to find the remains of loved ones. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team also known as the EAAF is an organization based in Buenos Aires the capital city, that looks into mass disappearances. They combine both human biology and archaeology to identify humans from remains found in burial sites across Argentina. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team has over the years returned many bodies to their families, and so far has identified about six hundred missing persons using DNA from surviving family members. 

The task is enormous and ongoing as exhuming the bodies and identifying them can be painstakingly slow and can take anything from a few weeks to many years. There were almost four hundred detention camps throughout Argentina where prisoners were tortured and murdered for any suspicion of being against the regime. They were similar to Nazi death camps where some prisoners were given work and were allowed to watch films, while others were tortured in the next room. Some of the prisoners were drugged and weighed down and then were taken on 'death flights' out over the Atlantic Sea and dumped into the deep ocean never to resurface. Other bodies were burnt and so there is little chance that they would ever be identified either. The identification of these victims has given the opportunity for their families to grieve and to mourn them properly at last and then to find closure. The military took extreme measures to cover up and hide the bodies that were tortured and murdered, and many will never be found. Only about 6 percent of all the officially recorded disappearances in Argentina have been solved so far. Most relatives are still waiting to hear the news as scientists continue to examine the many thousands of fragments of human remains stored in the EAAF laboratory. 

Memorials made to remember those that disappeared give relatives a place to grieve but also act as a reminder that their lives meant something and so people in the future will not commit such atrocities again. During the dictatorship, many parents were detained and murdered in the detention camps, their children were either murdered, adopted by childless military families, or had to be brought up by their grandparents. After the regime ended there were only a few rare cases of children being reunited with their actual parents. Many parents and adopted children are still searching to this day. As the dictatorship was so recent, within living memory and with more trials happening to the present, it is still fresh in people’s memories. In 2017, however, a public opinion report was published that showed that fifty percent of the people now trust the military. This shows that the people of Argentina are re-building their trust with the military. If this is the case, we might see a reconciliation fairly quickly (within the next century) as the military members are being replaced, and people will no longer be afraid of the new ones. 

The survey, however, also identified the public feeling that although the military is seen as a protective establishment it is still thought to be a threat to them as well. Having looked at all this information, in my opinion, I believe that there will eventually be a reconciliation in Argentina. As people move forward with their lives they tend to live in the present. Many won’t know that their grandparents’ were tortured and even if they do each generation becomes further removed from the events and the impact of it decreases in time. In another half-century, many will have probably even forgiven the military for what they did. I am sure, however, that nobody will actually ‘forget’ the torture, death, and disappearances that took place under the dictatorship. It has already become a historic event that will be taught about in schools and colleges, It will be remembered through public memorials and museums made from the old prison camps and even memorial tiles placed on pavements where the victims once walked. Another example of this is the German Holocaust, it will never be forgotten but, seventy-four years later, the country has long since reconciled its past even though the genocide was on a much larger scale, involving many more countries. Back to present-day Argentina, it could be argued that the public poll from 2017 stating that fifty percent of people now trust the military means that people are already moving forward and forgetting the horror and severity of the crimes committed and are gradually reconciling the past. I believe that the reconciliation of Argentina will probably be complete within the next fifty years, although the people will never and should never forget. 

07 July 2022
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