Now the Dirtiest of Wars Won't Be Forgotten
By LARRY ROHTER
BUENOS AIRES, June 17 — In an inaugural address notable for its promise of change, it was President Néstor Kirchner's insistence that he intended to exercise power "without rancor but with memory" that most struck Argentines. "I am part of a decimated generation," he said, referring to the victims of the 1976-83 military dictatorship here, "and I do not believe in the axiom that when you govern you trade convictions for pragmatism."
In less than a month in office, Mr. Kirchner has proved as good as his
word, forcing the long-dormant issue of justice for the estimated 30,000
disappeared during that "dirty war" to center stage. Not only has he purged the military high command, he has also announced his willingness to allow the extradition
of human rights violators wanted in other countries and made it clear that he wants the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional a series of amnesty laws and
pardons that have been in effect for more than a decade.
The new government's determination has left the relatives of the disappeared
and human rights groups here and abroad surprised, gratified and even a
bit baffled. Mr.
Kirchner, a 53-year-old Peronist who became president by default when former President Carlos Saúl Menem withdrew from a runoff vote, has acute political
instincts and would seem to gain nothing by picking at a scab that refuses to heal.
"You are not going to win an election in Argentina by invoking or using
these issues," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the
Americas Division of Human
Rights Watch in Washington. With the country still struggling to recover from the worst economic crisis in its history, he added, "human rights questions are not at the
top of the agenda, or even popular."
"On the contrary," he said.
But Mr. Kirchner seems to be responding to a growing clamor for what
is known here as "an end to impunity." That means honesty, accountability
and transparency in
government and the liquidation of a system of privileges and corruption that has allowed the relatives, friends and political associates of those in power to steal and
even kill without fearing the consequences.
In the presidential election, two other candidates who performed strongly
also emphasized the importance of probity in power. One, Elisa Carrió,
was on the left,
while the other, Ricardo López Murphy, was on the right. But like Mr. Kirchner they came of age during the military dictatorship and have emphasized clean
government and the rule of law.
"This is not just any generation" that is coming to power for the first
time in the person of Mr. Kirchner, said Horacio Verbitsky, a prominent
writer and human rights
campaigner here. "It is one that wanted to change this country, rebelled against what was rotten, made mistakes, paid dearly for them and after all that still wants to
govern on an ethical basis."
The devastation inflicted on that generation, and on Argentina, by the
dirty war is hard to overstate. A large proportion of the 30,000 who "disappeared"
and idealistic young people who were often singled out because they were leaders, and therefore the most threatening.
As a result, the long-term damage done to Argentina far surpassed that
in neighboring countries like Brazil, Uruguay and even Chile. Argentines
complain of a lack of
fresh and capable leaders in their country and look enviously at the new government in Brazil. But the harsh reality is that Brazil's left-leaning president, Luiz Inácio
Lula da Silva, and his advisers would probably have been killed had they lived here.
To redress the terrible wrongs, Mr. Kirchner, a former student radical
who was briefly jailed himself by the dictatorship and had friends disappear,
society's resistance and indifference. During the mid-1970's, the obelisk here that is Argentina's equivalent of the Washington Monument was draped with a large
banner containing the Orwellian phrase "Silence is health," and even today there are those who talk approvingly of a campaign to perpetuate that silence.
"It's not by chance that television, with its mass audience, hasn't
touched this subject, because it is a forbidden theme there, even though
a mini-series would draw high
ratings," said Marcelo Pineyro, the director of "Kamchatka," a recently released movie that tells the story of a family forced into hiding in the early days of the
dictatorship. "The French have examined their own behavior during the Nazi occupation, but we haven't done the equivalent here because there are still forces in
society that don't want that to happen."
With the passage of time, the events of "The Process," as the dictatorship
liked to call itself, are also starting to fade into history. There is
now a whole generation of
people in their 20's and 30's who grew up under democracy, were educated in schools that step gingerly around the dirty war, and thus know relatively little about
what happened and may not even care.
After the dictatorship fell, Argentina's civilian government started
with great energy to identify and punish those responsible, convoking an
and putting members of the military junta on trial. But then as now, the country was soon plunged into a series of economic and political crises and the focus of
By the time Raúl Alfonsín left office in 1989, a pair
of laws decreeing an amnesty for human rights violators had been approved,
followed by Mr. Menem's pardon of
those found guilty in the earlier trials. The statute known as "the law of due obedience" went so far as to put into effect the defense that had been rejected at
Nuremberg: "I was only following orders."
Both laws were "extorted with a bayonet at our throats and a gun to
our chest," said Estela de Carlotto, a director of the Grandmothers of
the Plaza de Mayo, a
leading human rights group here. As a result, Argentina was never able to finish confronting its past and settle accounts in the manner that Mr. Kirchner and others
clearly yearn for.
"So long as justice is not obtained and we do not know what happened,
this is not just an issue of the past," Mrs. de Carlotto said. "We are
also talking about the