On Argentina (February 2011)

On the morning I arrived in Argentina, I could tell something strange was going on. Roads in central Buenos Aires were blocked off. Taxis weren’t running. In the first few hours of the day, as I walked round the city with my backpack, crowds of people began to line the streets – holding placards and flags, but standing serenely, as if waiting for something.

I bought a paper. Ex-President Nestor Kirchner had died the day before. Today was his funeral.

I didn’t know much about him, to be honest. I knew that he had dominated politics for the last decade. I knew that his wife Cristina was currently the President. I had the impression that he was a gently corrupt, nepotistic, oligarchic smoothie. But he didn’t seem like someone who Argentineans had taken to heart, or would be likely to mourn or miss.

And yet, the day was proving me wrong.

Buenos Aires came to a standstill. People gathered along the windy streets, waving Argentinean flags and improvised banners with messages like “Thank you, Nestor,” and “Fuerza, Cristina.” Balconies and windows filled with people looking down at the crowded streets, breathing the air of national event. The gates of the Presidential palace filled with Diana-style bouquets of flowers, posters and cards of love and adulation. Hard-hatted construction workers came down from their scaffolds to form neat lines by the side of the streets along the route his hearse was expected to take. All the TV channels seemed to be showing chat shows mourning the man and analysing his legacy. The state channel would go on to show over-precious documentaries about his life on repeat, for days afterwards. Even hours before his coffin had started making its way towards the cemetery, the TV had started to show the rain-swept route it was about to take, from multiple angles, like grand prix coverage without any cars. When it finally went on its way, it was mobbed by so many passionate mourners that orange-shirted police had to move in to help it pass.

I sat, jet-lagged, in a restaurant. As his car passed by the window, most of the diners spontaneously stood up to get a better look, or to pay their respects. Even though the best view of the car outside was on the TV in the room right in front of me, I found myself standing up too.

At least in death, it seemed that Kirchner was massive. For one day at least, this man, who had been almost unknown ten years earlier, was an Argentinean idol. He was Maradona, Evita, Gardel, Peron. He was all of them, rolled into one. He was above the allegations of mismanagement and corruption, above politics, above Argentina.

What was going on? Why did so many people hold this man in so much reverence? Clearly, Argentineans saw something in him which I didn’t understand. Over the next few weeks, I was to solve the puzzle, and in the process, learn a few things about the heart of the country’s identity.

Phone photo of the TV in the bus station on the day I arrivedPhone photo of the TV in the bus station on the day I arrived

 

The Argument of the City

Another thing which puzzled me about Argentina was its place in the world. Is it a developed or a developing country? In the great playground-style scramble for status between countries, where does it stand?

It’s not as idle a question as it might sound. Economist Simon Kuznets, one of the founders of development economics, used to say that there were four kinds of countries: developed, developing, Japan, and Argentina. Certainly, these are questions which seem to preoccupy Argentines themselves a great deal.

Over six weeks, we spent some time in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Bolivia. The Brazilians we met were mostly full of confidence that Brazil is a rising, developing country. Bolivians, on the other hand, had no problem with the idea that their country is poor, nor Uruguayans with the knowledge that theirs is small.

But Argentineans, it seems, didn’t seem to know where Argentina stands. Certainly, it has many of the qualities of a fully developed, rich, stable, peaceful, sophisticated nation. But they coexist alongside other characteristics of a developing, unstable, sometimes even despotic, banana republic.

As I got to know Buenos Aires over the next days and weeks, I began to see that tension written into its streets and monuments. As if Buenos Aires was the argument that Argentina was having with itself about its place in the world, expressed in city form.

At first, it feels like you haven’t left Europe.

It’s Paris: elegant street cafes, wide boulevards, an expanse of parks, a metro system adorned with art nouveau, and even a designated square for protests.

It’s Rome: cute ice cream parlours, immaculate pizzerias, even a monthly designated Day of Gnocchi. People from Buenos Aires are called Porteños because so many got off the boat and settled in the port. Many migrated from Italy, and it shows – when they talk their arms swing around charismatically, and their Spanish sings just like Italian.

It’s London: In the Victorian era, Britain mentored Argentina, and that shows too. Stand in the main rail terminus, Retiro station, and you may as well be standing under the grand Victorian roof of St Pancras. Retiro was actually built in Liverpool and then reassembled in Argentina. In the square just outside it is a British clock tower. And the Puerto Madero neighbourhood was explicitly modelled on London’s Docklands, and recreates its distinctive combination of brick, water, and finance. Also, for some reason, polo is massive.

But it’s also Washington DC: the National Congress looks just like the US Congress, only slightly grubbier, and the architectural centrepiece of the whole city – the Obelisco – is a dead ringer for the Washington monument. (Although Americans would never let the Washington Monument wear a giant pink condom. That, I suppose, is the joy of having a city populated by monuments with American-style design but people with an Italian-style sense of humour).

With its wide boulevards and handsome parks, it was as if the whole city was designed by people expecting the country’s moment of greatness to come any day soon, and wanting its capital to look the part. As if it was eager to convince the visitor that Argentina is a developed, rich, successful country. ‘Anything you can do’, it says, ‘we can do too’.

And it can. There is impeccable cuisine, good theatre, great comedy, and all the culture you could want. There are even far more psychoanalysts per head than any other country in the world – surely one of the more underrated measures of a country’s development.

There are also some peculiarly Latin American institutions, like the transitorio – a pay-by-hour hotel room for young couples old enough to have a hot date but young enough to still live with their parents.

Or the ubiquity of cosmetic surgery. It seems like everyone’s wearing a body part they weren’t born with, and everywhere you go, you see women with brand new noses or lips which make them look like cartoon fish. In this respect, Presidenta Cristina Fernandez is a true woman of the people.

But there are also the parts that it doesn’t want you to see. Jog a few blocks round the back of the central rail terminal, and you see the start of the poverty-stricken barrios which stretch for miles and miles around the city. The centre of Buenos Aires might be Paris, but its outskirts may as well be Bolivia.

 

Recoleta Cemetry

By pure luck, we wangled a flatswap in Recoleta, Buenos Aires’ answer to Saint-Germain-des-Pres. It’s a neighbourhood where dapper old men sporting trilby hats, pressed trousers and handkerchiefs – ironed and tucked into their breast pockets – shuffle daily to the post office or take an afternoon coffee under the sun, and tall, elegant women strut down the streets like they’re catwalks, looking like they hope to be photographed for one of the country’s innumerable celebrity magazines.

The neighbourhood contains one of Buenos Aires’ most famous attractions: Recoleta cemetry, a city-within a city of big marble mausolea, with its own manicured streets, trees and lamp-posts – a sort of gated community of the dead. A place where you can die like a king.

Buried here are the great and the good, the civic-minded, the statesmen and their wives. But also, the merely very wealthy. You could almost smell the nail polish on the corpses. Rich people who, having done nothing to merit society’s fond recollection, decided to at least buy a big mausoleum, so that decades after they died and would otherwise have been forgotten, tourists could come, look and point. There is, of course, a waiting list.

Recoleta is a good tourist attraction. Also, it’s a cemetry; I shouldn’t mock it too much. But its problem is that each grave seems to be trying to be more dignified than the last. Collectively, this gives the place an air of undignified social competition. It smells of an overriding concern to get the biggest tomb, the most expensive marble, the best-known architect, in short: a comical kind of posthumous social climbing, as if these people saw no reason why death should interrupt their lifelong jostle for status.

Often, looking at another gaudy grave, I found myself wondering whether there was any living person, any real flesh and bone in the country, who recalled its occupant as fondly as the grand stones in front of me wanted me to believe.

This concern for status is Argentina in miniature.

It has always been a country with big dreams for itself. Even its idols are typically people who make Argentines feel that their country can be more, bigger, more important than they currently are: Maradona, latterly persuading Argentines they can win the world cup again or deifying a mundane handball as ‘The Hand of God.’ Or Evita, with little more than world-class glamour and a social conscience to offer, loved by her followers for uttering such grandiloquent vacuities as “If I fall, look out for the crash. There won’t be anyone left standing.” Is it a surprise that Argentina’s idols tend to be verbal alchemists, people who take hot air and turn it into potential, grandeur, hope? Whatever anyone else says, in its heart, Argentina knows that its destiny is to be a prosperous, respected, premier league country.

 

Potential

But you can see why. Its potential is awesome.

Firstly, it’s big. It’s the eighth biggest country in the world by area, almost the size of Europe. It’s not hard to imagine Argentines in the nineteenth century looking at their country on the map and feeling that surely in the twentieth, its time would come to dominate the south of the continent economically in the same way the United States would dominate the north.

Secondly, it grows a lot of food. A nineteenth century Argentine President said “it would be fun to make an offer to England, just to see how much … cotton it would give to own these plains of Buenos Aires.” It must have seemed that as long as there were people in the world to buy and eat its bread, beef, sugar, and soy, Argentina would always be rich.

Thirdly, it has been a rich, proud, fully developed country in the past. By the early twentieth century, immigrants were pouring in, it had been a constitutional liberal democracy for fifty years, and the average Argentine was richer than the average Frenchman or German. Like China today, Argentina felt that it was destined to power its way up the league table of wealth and development, and that surely it was only a matter of time before it took its rightful place among the big players of the world.

But it didn’t happen.

 

The Argument of History

That same argument that’s written in the streets of Buenos Aires – the push and pull between developed and developing, democracy and autocracy – is also written in the story of Argentina’s recent history.

In living memory, Argentina has been rich and poor, a poster-child for both the global right and the global left, a horrifically repressive dictatorship and a beacon of democracy. It’s as if the country has tried to wipe the slate clean and start again from scratch almost at the rate of once per decade, in a cycle of increasingly desperate striving for self-improvement. Like a Russian doll, each government’s attempts to solve the problems of its era only revealed a new set of problems.

In the early seventies, armed guerilla groups looted, bombed, kidnapped, and assassinated, in a blur of militant leftist, anti-authoritarian, and sometimes nihilist rhetoric.

In March 1976, a military junta took power. At one o clock in the morning, the President, Peron’s widow, found herself looking into the face of a military general, and being told “Madam, the Armed Forces have decided to take political control of the country, and you are under arrest.” “The majority of the population,” according to historian Luis Alberto Romero, “received the coup with immense relief and high expectations.” The junta believed that Argentina’s problem was that it was a democracy. It was democracy which had wrought chaos, and it would be dictatorship which would bring order. They argued that only when ‘the cancer’ of dissent was cut out, could Argentina finally show the world it was ready to take its rightful place as a respected, fully developed nation. The 1978 World Cup in Argentina was the perfect propaganda vehicle. Its slogan was the tellingly eager “let’s show the world what Argentineans are like.”

But the regime’s method of bringing this ‘order’ was by ‘disappearing’ people who it saw as enemies. Guerillas, radicals, union leaders dissenters – even, at one point, a group of schoolkids who had protested that their school bus fares too high – were a target for disappearance. Soon, there were families all over the country with a vacuum where a dad or a sister should be.

Slowly, the country’s image began to erode. The regime’s good friend Henry Kissinger was replaced by new President Jimmy Carter, who talked with ominous warmth about human rights. A UN resolution condemned the disappearances, and so on. The dictatorship was finding that the methods they had used to try to normalise Argentina in the eyes of the world had only isolated it.

In 1981, General Galtieri became the new leader of the junta. He was a man who believed that the regime’s problem was that it was unpopular, Argentina’s problem was that it was seen as weak, and that capturing the Falkland Islands would solve both. As he saw it, taking the Malvinas – as they are known to Argentineans – would unify the country, make it the standard-bearer of anti-colonialism in the region, but most of all: prove that Argentina had the cojones to rank as a first-rank power. The invasion was all the aspirations of the country in microcosm.

Incredibly, it seems that Galtieri wasn’t actually expecting the army to need to fight; the possibility of meeting resistance didn’t occur. The military strategy, if it can be called that, was simple: send some soldiers there, have them stand on the rocks. That’s it.

And, for the first fifteen days afterwards, he seemed to have succeeded. There were crowds in the streets singing the national anthem. For those two weeks it seemed that Argentinean history would record that Galtieri was the man who brought Argentina to its destiny. His speech to a jubilant crowd in front of the Presidential palace spoke of recovering Argentina’s national honour and showing America the strength of Argentina’s will.

When Britain did recapture the islands, Galtieri was so discredited that he had to resign. The regime fatally weakened, his successor gave in to the national clamour for elections, and Argentina was a democracy once more.

And so, in 1983, Raul Alfonsin was elected President. He was a man who believed that Argentina’s problem was that it had been a dictatorship. Democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and national reconciliation were the solutions which would bring Argentina closer to its destiny in the ranks of the free, developed countries of the world. He is best remembered for his quote that ‘the house is in order’; this time around it was dictatorship which represented chaos, and democracy which represented order. But Alfonisn didn’t just advocate democracy – he embodied it. Brazil, Peru, and Uruguay were also making transitions to democracy in the eighties, and Argentina’s President became a symbol of democratic aspirations all across the region.

But with democracy came freedom to petition the government, and nobody was shy about using it. Half of business wanted less intervention – a freer market – and the other half wanted more intervention – bigger subsidies and cheaper loans. Both threatened to eject Alfonsin at the next election if they didn’t get what they wanted. The unions wanted bigger wage increases, and launched thirteen general strikes in just four years.

And with money flowing freely to business and labour, everyone knew that people had more to spend, and started putting prices up fast, to take advantage. In 1985, inflation averaged 100% per month. “It was no longer possible,” wrote Osvaldo Soriano, “to buy anything at night for what it had cost that morning.”He described how you would get to the end of your taxi ride, and have trouble figuring out whether the fare was millions or hundreds of millions.

The fighting factions, the inflation, the coups, and the strikes together made for a new kind of chaos. Democracy, it seemed, was not the panacea Argentina had hoped for.

 

In 1989, Alfonsin lost the Presidency to the corrupt, philandering, and depressive Carlos Menem. He was a man who believed that Argentina’s problem was that it was too closed. Its destiny as a developed country lay, as he saw it, in calming the inflation and opening up the economy to the rest of the world. His solution: one Argentine peso would from now on always equal one US dollar. Argentina couldn’t want a better symbol of its aspiration for parity with the superpower.

And in the early years, it worked: prices calmed down. And over the nineties, as Argentina cut spending for the poorest, sold its state-owned industries, and let its companies struggle to survive against better-organised international competitors, Argentina became the darling of the neoliberal right. It was growing, inflation was down, and loans were pouring in from international financial institutions. Every right-wing economist, every financial brochure, and every besuited bond trader looked to Argentina as an example of how to get an economy back on track.

 

But the problem was that once again, the very plan which symbolised Argentina’s newfound status – having one peso always equal one dollar – undermined it. The dollar went up. So the peso went up. So Argentinean goods got more expensive. But at the same time, Argentina’s competitors got cheaper. By the end of the decade, the rest of the world was asking itself why it should buy from newly expensive Argentina when it could buy from newly-cheap Mexico or Brazil?

Alongside this, all the money which the dollar-eyed global financiers were lending the Argentine government began to add up. The bigger the debt got, the more it looked like Argentina wasn’t ever going to be able to pay it. The more it looked like Argentina wasn’t going to be able to pay it, the riskier it became for financiers to carry on lending it money. The riskier it became to lend to it, the more money Argentina had to promise the lenders in the form of promises of ever higher interest rates, to get them to carry on lending. But the higher the interest rates it promised, the more money it cost to repay the debts it already had. It was a vicious circle. By the early noughties, everyone knew that Argentina wouldn’t be able to pay back its debts… except Argentina.

Like the Falklands fiasco, the crash back down to earth was sudden and devastating: in 2002, it defaulted. It was the biggest default in the history of the world. The dollar-peso equivalence was abandoned, and in days the peso fell to an eighth of its value. Unemployment and inflation skyrocketed, and riots broke out; 20,000 people started looting shops and destroying restaurants and banks in Buenos Aires.

I met a Spanish woman who said she’d been working in Buenos Aires at the time. She said she’d never seen queues like the ones she saw that week – round blocks and down streets. People were desperate to get into their bank and get their money out as soon as possible, to change it into dollars. For every moment they queued, their savings were worth less and less. Peoples’ life savings were decimated to an eighth of their previous value in days – and they wanted to get them out of the bank and buy dollars, before they got any poorer.

 

And in 2003, Nestor Kirchner beat Menem to the Presidency. He was a man who believed that Argentina’s problem was that it was too open. Open to borrowing foreign money, open to letting foreign companies buy Argentinean ones, but most of all: open to foreign neoliberal ideas about how to run an economy. Its destiny as a fully developed country lay, as he saw it, in turning inwards.

He renegotiated the country’s loans to much less than what they had been and paid them off in one go with a flourish. Whereas in 1995, Argentineans had seen their big borrowing as a symbol of how the world trusted it to repay, just like a proper, fully developed, world power, ten years later they saw their big repayment as a symbol of how they could stand on their own two feet without needing foreign loans, just like a proper fully developed, world power.

Over the noughties, Argentina became the darling of the antiglobalisation left. Every left-wing economist, every radical pamphlet, and every hash-smoking idealistic student around the world looked to Argentina as an example of how neoliberalism can ruin a country. And Argentina played the part. It started to take better care of the poorest in society, nationalised some of its companies, and tried to keep money inside the country by making it difficult for its companies to trade abroad. Whereas in the nineties, Argentina had borrowed from the IMF, now it borrowed from Hugo Chavez.

And once again, it thrived. For a while, Buenos Aires offered Parisian living standards at almost Guatemalan prices. Argentina’s sudden cheapness bought investment and tourism, and it grew fast.

 

I hope that nothing undermines Argentina’s current bid for fully developed country status this time around. But despite its progress, the menu of problems which might do is long. Cronyism, corruption, weak rule of law, bad enforcement of contracts which discourage new investment, the government’s habit of taking peoples’ pensions money, and assaults on the freedom of the press, are just some of the possibilities. Kirchner’s government, followed by that of his wife, seem to have a nasty habit of helping their friends’ companies to trade but making it hard for their enemies’. And when inflation started to return – I had never before seen a restaurant menu with a sticker on it saying “please add 25% to all these prices” – Presidenta Cristina tried to fight it by simply asking the Office of National Statistics to release fake figures in the hope that people would think that prices weren’t really going up. That’s like trying to fight climate change by changing the numbers on the thermometer. I don’t know how, exactly, Argentina gets from here to the world status it dreams of. But it’s not like that.

So today, Argentina’s position in the world is much as it was a hundred years ago. The tensions in Argentinean identity are written as much in its recent history as in the Buenos Aires streets. It is a country which still has to measure its progress not by its achievements, but by the diminution of its problems.

Why? What is it doing wrong? What’s the constant factor which explains its status as the world’s perennial underachiever? Why has it never quite been able to convert its assets into sustained wealth or power like other countries did?

The Spanish woman on the plane had her own theory.  “The problem with Argentina,” she said, leaning in closer, “is the Argentines. If you give an Argentine one peso, he’ll spend two.” I liked the line. But blaming a country’s problems on the people that live there is a bit too deterministic for my liking.

The real answer, as with all these things, is complicated and messy. Argentina originally allocated land only to a small elite, it didn’t industrialise fast enough, it opened up to international competition before nurturing its companies to competitiveness, it has a crazy regional budgeting system which keeps its government in debt… Every economist, historian and taxi driver can give you their own answer and be partially right.

But I think that part of the problem is its culture of belief in the quick fix itself. All too often, the quick fixes designed to bring order have brought chaos, the ones designed to make the country richer have made it poorer, and the ones designed to make it more independent have made it more dependent.

Argentina wants a strong currency, but why, it thinks, should it spend decades nurturing its economy to competitiveness when it could just peg its currency to the dollar? It wants stability, but why should its government consolidate a solid set of political institutions when they could just buy friends? It wants higher public spending, but why should it pay when it can borrow? It wants to stop inflation, why not just fix the figures? Like its inhabitants, it goes for the cosmetic surgery every time.

And in this way, it remains the aspirant, the contender, forever falling just short of the premier league status it has dreamed of for over a hundred years.

———

The Disappeared

But even after we had been in the country for nearly three weeks, if I was honest, I still didn’t feel that I completely understood the place. Then, something happened which led me towards finally making sense of the puzzle.

A few days before we left, another man who had dominated national life was also buried. The contrast with the burial of Nestor Kirchner couldn’t have been starker. His funeral was empty, details kept from the public to avoid protests. I didn’t notice anything of it on the news or in the papers. In fact, I only heard about it at all from an obituary in an English-language magazine.

But this obituary chilled me. With facts alone, it hit deeper than any poetry. The picture it painted was to change how I viewed the country, the people, even the buildings.

Like Kirchner, Emilio Eduardo Massera had been at the apex of power in Argentina. He was the Commander In Chief of the Navy and the most forceful member of the three-man military dictatorship. When it became apparent that people were going missing from families up and down the country, somebody must have put the question of what was going on to the head of the dictatorship, Jorge Videla. “They have disappeared,” he responded, and the name stuck.

In one way it was an accurate description: the people were gone, and would not be coming back. But it was also woefully inadequate: its passivity and its vacuity don’t begin to describe the reality of what happened. The victims didn’t just disappear. At some moment of some day, someone made the decision to murder them. Someone who exercised the absolute power of a dictatorship of a modern state, with its military behind them, appointed himself prosecutor and executioner at the same time, safe in the knowledge that any possible appeal for mercy could only be considered also by himself – in his additional role as judge.  The victims were not ‘disappeared’ by some impersonal force, as Videla implied, but by the conscious decision of a man who sat next to him each day, who took the explicit decision to abduct, to arrest, to torture, and finally to kill. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that for these years in the nineteen seventies, this proud country was run by psychopaths. And Emilio Eduardo Massera was their leader.

Privately, General Videla had said that “as many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure.” But it was Admiral Massera who decided that the victims must be tortured too, and who took it upon himself to become the state’s torturer-in-chief. Soon after the junta was installed, he went down to the cells himself to show his fellow naval officers how it should be done. At the time, of course, this was a secret. The ‘disappeared’ were just absences: colleagues, friends, relatives; faces suspended in family photos, forever dressed for 1977. But now we know enough about what happened to them to be able to paint quite a full picture.

Imagine you’re on an empty street, pavement reflecting grimy yellow light from the streetlight. You share the street only with a green Ford Falcon which crawls a few paces behind you. In 1970s Argentina, this was a sign that you were about to be abducted, bundled into the back of the car, and driven away. For most, it was the last they would ever see of the outside world.

The victim was then taken to one of the three hundred and forty ordinary buildings around Argentina which the dictatorship had turned into secret military prisons. The most notorious was the Navy School of Mechanics, a smart white building in Olivos, a well-to-do neighbourhood in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. It is said that passers-by – like Jorge Luis Borges, who lived in the neighbourhood – could hear the screams from the basement as they went about their business. And that when Argentina won the World Cup final at the River Plate Stadium a kilometre away, the victims in its basement could hear the crowd’s cheering over the agonised howls of the prisoners.

Under Massera’s direction, the dictatorship turned this building into a torture laboratory, a human abbatoir, a little suburban Auschwitz.

 

Do you remember the film Marathon Man, in which Laurence Olivier’s sadistic dentist has Dustin Hoffman tied to a dentist’s chair in a dank room underground, held down, and then leans over him, asking him questions he doesn’t understand, with the everpresent threat of a brutal dental ‘operation’ if he gives the wrong answer? In the same year that American cinemagoers were squirming in their cinema seats at it, thousands of Argentineans were experiencing something very similar for real. Victims were left in solitary confinement, without water to wash or access to toilets, certainly without the possibility of seeing a doctor. They were often stripped naked, hooded so they could not see, and systematically beaten. Many were sexually abused, made to swallow electric beads which shocked horrifically inside the body, or wear an electrode-studded helmet. They were often held for months. Sometimes the naval officers charged with the torture would pretend to be about to execute them, or play them tapes of their children, husbands or wives pleading for mercy. The aim was simply to impress upon their crushed minds that there was nobody to save them.

The officers gave the rooms in the Navy School of Mechanics pet names, like ‘The Operating Theatre’ or ‘The Room of Happiness.’ Many of them carried on eating and sleeping in the building, even while the torture was going on.

Familiar objects of Argentine daily life were twisted into gruesome symbols of torture. The green Ford Falcon – then one of the most popular family cars in the country – became a symbol of state terror, a macabre ambulance-in-reverse. The submarino – a drink of hot milk and dunked melting chocolate – became a way of holding a victim’s head under scummy water so he thought he was drowning. The parilla – barbecue – became the name of the metal rack to which victims were shackled. And the electric cattle prod – common in a country with so many cows – became an instrument of torture, used to cut and burn the body, often on the victims’ genitals or teeth, to cause the maximum agony.

The Navy School of Mechanics even had its own ‘maternity unit,’ as it was known, on the third floor, where pregnant female prisoners were brought to give birth. Officers developed the practice of stealing the newborn babies from their mothers as soon as they were born, taking them away, and giving them to military families to bring up. In this way, hundreds of babies were stolen, redistributed, and left to be brought up by the colleagues of their parents’ torturers.

And then there was the administration of death itself. Those prisoners who died under torture, (what their executioners called “staying on”), would sometimes have their corpses burned in ‘barbecues’ on nearby sports fields, or left in a pile in the street as a warning to the rest of the population. And those who didn’t were the victim of the regime’s final act of psychopathic creativity. They were taken to the ‘medical ward’ and drugged until they were barely conscious, tied to concrete blocks, and then loaded clandestinely into planes. The pilot would then fly them out of Buenos Aires, out over the cold dull expanse of the Atlantic ocean, open a hatch in the plane’s underbelly, and drop them down into the water, to sink to their deaths.

All in all, the dictatorship murdered about 30,000 people. It was genocide.

 

——

The dictatorship ended in 1983. For the next twenty-two years, Argentinean politicians fought over a question as basic as whether or not these mass murderers should be brought to justice. This was worse than a fight over the rule of law: it was a fight over whether murdering someone by, say, putting them in a plane and dropping them into the sea should even be considered against the law.

The democratic government set up a military tribunal which sentenced Massera and the other leaders to life imprisonment. The army repaid him by trying to launch coups to regain power three times. But a few short years later, the next President, Menem, pardoned them all and let them out of prison.

And it was only in 2005 that President Nestor Kirchner allowed Massera, Videla and the rest of the ringleaders to be tried again, and punished for what remained of their lives. Thanks to him, the development of the court cases of those who remain alive is now a regular feature of Argentinean news. A few weeks after we left, the dictator Videla himself was sentenced to spend the remainder of his life behind bars.

And it was this, I think, which explains the puzzle of the rapturous reception of Kirchner’s funeral hearse on the streets of Buenos Aires on the day I arrived. Kirchner, like most Argentineans, knew that as long as these genocidal crimes went unpunished, their country could never be ‘normal.’ How could it be? Some of those sweet old men taking afternoon coffee in the Recoleta sunlight could have been the ones who, thirty-odd years ago, flew the planes full of woozy near-corpses to their deaths over the South Atlantic. Perhaps the many psychiatrists aren’t a symptom of sophistication at all, but of having so many who still have so much to confess. Every so often, in households in far-flung corners of Argentina, another man or woman of about my age learns that not only were they adopted, but also about the part that the people they’ve been calling mum and dad all of their lives played in the dictatorship. And so the national trauma plays out as a human trauma, in private, through into the present day.

One of the best remembered images of his era is Kirchner presiding over the ceremony to take down Videla’s picture from the Navy School of Mechanics. And I think this is the solution to the puzzle. The reason the streets were full for his funeral was because he took the country one important step towards the normality it craves. In this respect at least, he represented a part of their recent history of which Argentineans can be proud.  For all his faults, Nestor Kirchner took Argentina closer to exorcising its demons.

———–

I was inspired to write this first and foremost by Ann Wroe’s shocking obituary of Massera, the best obituary I’ve ever read. I also recommend this piece by football writer David Winner about Argentina’s dubious victory at the 1978 World Cup under the dictatorship.

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