The New York Times
April 19, 2004

Debate Rises in Argentina on Museum of Abuses

BUENOS AIRES - At the military academy here, the commander of the Argentine Army has removed portraits of two generals who presided over the last dictatorship. At the notorious Naval Mechanics School, the site of many of that era's worst abuses, not only have photos of victims been put up, but the entire complex is to be turned into a Museum of Memory honoring their ordeal.

President Néstor Kirchner has made the defense of human rights a pillar of his administration. He is doing everything from authorizing reparations to those born in clandestine detention centers to apologizing to victims in the name of the state. Human rights groups are finding it hard to keep up.

"We are used to chasing butterflies, so everyone was surprised when Kirchner accepted our proposal for a Museum of Memory," said Horacio Verbitsky, president of the Center for Legal and Social Studies. A debate has ensued about the content of the museum, he said, with sharp differences emerging among human rights groups. He called it "a dialogue without conclusions.''

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, for example, supported Mr. Kirchner's expropriation from the navy of the torture center, a 42-acre site on one of the city's main boulevards; some 5,000 people suffered at the hands of the military there.

But "we are not in agreement with this museum project," said Hebe de Bonafini, the group's leader.

"Museums mark the end of a story, and we haven't reached that point in Argentina yet," she argued. "It's much too soon to be setting up a museum, because the historical events in question are too recent."

Even the starting point of the history to be told has become the subject of contention. By choosing the anniversary of the military coup, last March 24, to activate the museum and apologize in the name of the state for what he called "the shame of having remained silent during 20 years of democracy," Mr. Kirchner, a Peronist, seemed to be suggesting that the focus will be on the military dictatorship that dominated the country from 1976 to 1983.

But non-Peronists argue that such a timeline would only distort historical realities. The policy of state terrorism associated with the so-called dirty war actually began earlier, many historians argue, under the government of María Estela de Peron, through a paramilitary group responsible for many early disappearances and killings.

Indeed, at the insistence of some human rights leaders, Peronist governors from five provinces stayed away from the March ceremonies.

When asked if abuses under the Peronist government would be included in the museum display, Rodolfo Mattarollo, director general of the government's Secretariat for Human Rights, replied, "The human rights groups and the bipartitite commission will decide that." But, he added, the principal focus "has to be on the last dictatorship because of the distinct characteristics of state terrorism that it employed."

Mr. Kirchner's insistent policy has ruffled the feathers of some in the military. In the days preceding the turnover of the Naval Mechanics School, two senior generals and an admiral resigned in protest, and another senior officer was quoted as describing Mr. Kirchner's actions "not a closure or a healing of a wound, but the opening of another."

But the navy's top leadership apparently thinks otherwise. In a speech early last month, the navy commander, Adm. Jorge Godoy, signaled his acceptance of with an acknowledgment of responsibility in which he called the Naval Mechanics School "a symbol of barbarity and irrationality" in which "aberrant acts, offensive to human dignity, ethics and law" had occurred.One thing seems clear: there will be no acknowledgement of what is known here as the "doctrine of the two demons," favored by the right. Gen. Carlos Alberto Rhode, commander of the air force, was chastised recently when he said that "there were errors and horrors by both camps," government and guerrillas.

Some conservatives have expressed reservations about the museum's focus, but Mabel Gutiérrez, a leader of the Group of Relatives of the Disappeared and Detained, said: "We are going to try to be as impartial as possible in telling the story, but if those on the other side don't like it, let them make their own museum. They have the money of the reactionaries of the right."

Even as the debate rages on, a group called Memoria Abierta is assembling an archive for eventual placement in the museum. The collection already contains more than 4,000 photographs and is to contain oral histories of survivors.

"We do not want this museum for ourselves, but for Argentine society," said Patricia Valdez, the director of the group. "It has to be a place that transcends the fluctuations of Argentine politics and lets the facts speak for themselves."