The author would like to thank COHA Director Larry Birns and recently appointed COHA trustee, Henry Raymont (formerly with The New York Times and the International Press Service), for their cooperation and sharing their extensive, first-hand expertise of Argentina’s Dirty War. COHA Senior Research Fellow Frederick B. Mills deserves thanks for his editorial support.
According to Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), Argentine General Jorge Rafaél Videla personified “the absence of civic virtue” in an Argentina where “people did not want to recognize the magnitude of evil that was happening in the country”—an entire society had become paralyzed by corruption, fear, and death. Birns said, “there were no doubts that Videla was the most hard-hearted of the all the members of the Argentine military government that took power in 1976.”
On Friday, May 17, Argentina’s notorious symbol of genocide and its military dictatorships was found dead of natural causes in his prison cell at Marcos Paz, where he was serving out a life sentence. Videla (age 87) is the first dictator to die behind bars in Argentina. This essay details some of the highlights of COHA’s persistence when it came to denouncing the worst dictatorship in the history of Argentina, the long struggle of the pueblo to attain justice by punishing those accountable for the bloodshed, and some of the political implications of Videla’s death for current Argentine society.
The Crimes of the Videla Dictatorship
Army General Jorge Rafaél Videla was the mastermind behind Argentina’s longest running de facto military regime that ruled from the Casa Rosada (the equivalent of the United States’s White House). Alongside Navy Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera and Air Force General Orlando Ramón Agosti, he was responsible for the country’s Proceso de Reorganización Nacional—a national strategy that successfully aimed at stigmatizing the then-Peronism (officially known as the Partido Justicialista) and to further the division among social classes by siding with the country’s conservative military, oligarchy, and even many of the country’s Catholic leaders. He peremptorily disbanded political parties and shut down the National Congress. Furthermore, Videla effectively silenced an entire generation in Argentina with his systematic, brutal campaign to “eliminate” the guerrilla movements that he claimed were in the country and which included the mass murder of non-combatants suspected of supporting the armed struggle; an endless stream of thefts of infants from alleged leftists; disappearances, flights over Mar de Plata pushing enemies of the regime out of airplanes, and brutal torture sessions that took place in a number of clandestine detention centers, such as the ex-ESMA (Navy School of Mechanics, sometimes referred to as the “Auschwitz of Argentina”). He even authorized the use of sports, namely fútbol and the 1978 World Cup, to hide the illegal crimes of the state, successfully muffling the screams of torture victims held in the ESMA, just meters away from cheers for goles at El Monumental stadium (just as Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin). Under Videla, not a single corner of Argentine society was safe and few sectors were left unblemished by the murderous campaign to extirpate traces of leftist rule from the country. Between March 24, 1976 and December 10, 1983, the entire population lived in fear during this era of bloody violence, irrationality, intolerance, and state-terrorism.
COHA Exposes the Crimes of the Junta
Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, reflected on the meaning of the death of this dictator: “History will not be kind to Jorge Videla, nor will it revere the role that key U.S. figures and institutions played during the Argentine military junta’s rule. Key U.S. figures were slow to acknowledge the extent of the brutality of the Argentine armed forces or how deep they were mired in the country’s prevailing structural fascism.”
The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) had been founded shortly before the 1976 coup against the regime of President María Estela Martínez de Perón. COHA was one of the few U.S. institutions, which at the time understood the full lethal danger posed by the Argentine dictator that was far from being just another Latin American de facto authoritarian regime. Videla even made a statement during the Carter administration bitterly observing that COHA was “capable of convoking anti-Argentine sentiment around the world.” Furthermore, one of COHA’s former trustees happened to be former Congressman Douglas Fraser (D-Minn.) who chaired the House of Representatives Congressional Sub-Committee on Human Rights, where, at the time, several victims of the military regime provided damning testimony of the true nature of the military rule in Argentina. No figure in the Videla-led junta was more directly implicated in the crimes of the military regime than Videla himself. He posed a particular danger to exiled political rights victims, who had fled from their own repressive environments to nearby Argentina to seek political asylum. While Videla was the de facto supreme leader (1976-81), Buenos Aires fully collaborated with the surrounding military regimes under Plan Condor, including Chile under General Augusto Pinochet, Uruguay under General Juan María Bordaberry, Brazil under General Ernesto Geisel, Paraguay under General Alfredo Stroessner, and Bolivia under General Hugo Banzer. If in the past Argentina had provided hospitality to victims of nearby dictatorships, political exiles now became hunted victims of a dramatically transformed regime, which ushered in the most horrendous rule ever known to the country.
Conditions were so terrifying during this period that COHA threw all of its limited resources into exposing the transgressions of the military regime. At one point, COHA’s longtime director, Larry Birns, was under the surveillance, both in New York and Washington, of the Argentine military intelligence, which was later discovered by the FBI. COHA’s archives from that era were considered to be so valuable to understanding the Dirty War that the Green Library of Stanford University packed up 100 crates of documents from COHA in Washington and transported them to Palo Alto, California. Some of these papers, unearthed by the COHA office, revealed that David Rockefeller, then Chairman of Chase Bank, had close ties to the Videla regime and that he went to great lengths to cultivated them. This included a debate with Birns at Princeton University on whether or not Videla was a war criminal; the Wall Street banker enthusiastically defended the military junta. The last meeting held by Rockefeller before his retirement took place on Argentine soil and thus serves as a testament to Rockefeller’s substantive involvement in support of Videla’s junta. In addition, throughout the years COHA has been steadfast in its resolve to expose other U.S. officials who were closely involved with the Argentine dictatorship, including late General Vernon Walters, who was a hellish man and ambassador-at-large during the Reagan administration.
The military regime brutally sanctioned the murders, torture, and disappearances of around 30,000 Argentine citizens, known as desaparecidos—or those who were kidnapped—including children who were forced into adoption. Videla was not a particularly talented person, but he was enigmatic and driven by evil. Veteran journalist of Latin American affairs (with The New York Times and International Press Service) and new COHA trustee, Henry Raymont, said, “what was sinister about Videla was that he came off like a civilized person when in fact he was responsible for a large number of deaths. [For example, he had] the habit of drugging students and throwing them into the ocean.” Raymont further explained that, “Videla was one of those people who thought they were saving Argentina from bolchevism, but that was not the case.”
As almost everything in Latin America arrives late, so did the effects of the so-called “Hitler-Stalin Pact,” which Raymont explained as, “the communists supported the Nazis in order to help the fall of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat’s rise to power. But, Hitler took control instead.” In Argentina, much of the middle class originally welcomed Videla, since the left (revolutionaries who supported Juan Domingo Perón) and the extreme left (represented by militant, radical groups such as Montoneros) made the country feel quite insecure. The Argentine middle class wanted to end extremism and erroneously believed that the military would be capable of ensuring democracy. Therefore, the military coup was its way of trying to destabilize the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, they severely misjudged Videla, whose regime ended with tens of thousands of disaffected citizens being victimized, mainly young adults and those of Jewish descent. Raymont concluded by reflecting that, “the medicine [was] worse than the illness.”
Director Birns also emphasized that “under Videla, unspeakable atrocities were committed, and…those who served on his side were always aware that Videla’s rule of terror—the hard-line option—never ‘disappeared’ and that the anti-humanitarian alternative was always ominous, always favored.”
In Pursuit of Justice: Convicting Videla for His Crimes
During the presidency of Raúl Alfonsín in 1985, Videla and the other members of the military juntas were found guilty of the historic Causa 13, or a plethora of homicides, illegal imprisonments, brutal tortures, thefts of babies, falsification of individual identifies, forced servitude, extortion, coercion, fatalities resulting from torture, and kidnappings of minors. This was the first life sentence that Videla received and the only one that never allowed for any possibility of appeal, given that in 1986 the Argentine Supreme Court ruled on all charges, effectively convicting all the indicted junta leaders. Unfortunately, Videla only served five years in prison, since in 1990 former President Carlos Menem (1989-99) believed in forgiveness, pardoning and releasing the monstrous dictator.
In 1996, a new case was opened against Videla to investigate multiple instances of babies stolen from their mothers who had been held captive in clandestine detention centers, and in 1998 he was convicted for crimes against humanity and received a second life sentence. However, Videla returned to jail for less than 30 days, because the Justice Department decided his advanced age (over 70 years) allowed him the comfort of house arrest at his home in the Belgrano neighborhood of Buenos Aires. In 2003, the late President Néstor Kirchner repealed various amnesty laws, allowing for the prosecution of former military leaders and collaborators. And in 2006, Kirchner’s campaign to promote human rights finally and definitively withdrew the house arrest privilege and transferred the asesino to the military base, Campo de Mayo.
In 2010, the Supreme Court declared the impunity laws enacted by former President Carlos Menem to be unconstitutional, and sent Videla to serve out his life sentences at a civilian prison (Marcos Paz). At that time, he was also tried in the province of Córdoba and sentenced to yet another (third) life sentence for the shootings of 31 political prisoners, who had been forced by military officials to fake their escapes in order to create a justification to kill them. On July 5, 2012, Videla was further sentenced to 50 years in prison, added to his previous punishments, for authorizing the nationwide theft of babies born to detained subversives.
Videla, side by side with another junta leader, Reynaldo Bignone, last appeared in a Buenos Aires court last Wednesday, May 17 (less than two days before his death) and once again refused to testify about his involvement in Plan Condor—an intelligence strategy of cooperation between the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Latin American dictatorships of the Southern Cone (Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia) to eliminate all leftist subversive movements in order to avoid a repeat of the Cuban Revolution, and to condemn, by creating a state of fear and extreme violence, any form of hemispheric alignment with the Soviet bloc. Through maintaining the “code of silence,” Videla took his secrets, and names of victims, with him to the grave. This selfish act has now made it even more difficult for human rights organizations to attain justice. Similarly, early analyses have speculated that the Plan Condor case has lost Videla, the main figure responsible, among the 25 accused, and it may now never be possible to reach a conclusion.
The Political Implications of Videla’s Death for Argentina Today and the Road to Recovery
Thankfully, Videla will not receive any special military or burial treatment according to legislation passed in 2009 by former Minister of Defense Nilda Garré that now prohibits funeral honors for all members of the armed forces who were involved in human rights violations. This means that Videla’s body will not be on display in the National Congress, as were those of late heads of state, Raúl Alfonsín and Néstor Kirchner.
The death of Videla is not just cause for grim celebration, but for remembrance of the darkest time in Argentine history, particularly with thousands of victims still unaccounted for. It is a reminder to the country’s current administration and its general population that only through recalling the violence perpetuated by the military junta can such human rights abuses be prevented from happening again. Just because one evil, monstrous man—an enemy of civil society—has passed away, does not mean that justice has been achieved.
Thus, Argentina must work even harder to attain justice and truth by reconstructing the country’s historical memory. However, this task is not without complications, given the constant struggle between collective memory and oblivion. The process of memory reconstruction not only enables justice, but also ensures that the state-sponsored terrorism is not ever replicated and that the national culture of secrecy is exposed. Specifically, Argentina relives its shared trauma through massive demonstrations, the creation of memorials such as the Museum of Memory (located in the ex-ESMA), the recovery of all the identities of Argentines who were kidnapped as babies, and extensive coverage by independent media outlets—all of these acts help Argentines to not easily forget.
Nevertheless, this year’s March 24 mass protests for the national holiday, El Día de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia (Day of Memory, Truth and Justice), in Plaza de Mayo, as well as across the nation, displayed all too clearly the country’s still fractured society. Left-leaning and Kirchner supporters marched separately to the Casa Rosada, and one Kirchner organization, Unidos y Organizados, was accused of blocking the path of other populist movements. Even human rights groups currently find themselves divided along political party lines.
It will be interesting to see how President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) responds to Videla’s death, especially since last March the former dictator attempted to encourage opposition members from his jail cell to publicly resist the left-leaning president. Videla accused CFK of misusing the human rights movement to increase her own political influence over the marginalized masses (similar to how she used her husband’s death to gain the country’s sympathy vote for her 2011 reelection). Videla was, in fact, a nationalist, or a product of his time, culture, country, same as the Kirchner government—although it continues to promote authoritarianism through non-violent means (e.g. controlling the country’s institutions).
Legislator Ricardo Alfonsín, son of former President Raúl Alfonsín, told the Argentine newspaper El Clarín that “the repressor died while serving a life sentence in prison which demonstrates in Argentina justice was obtained through democracy and with punishments established by law.” Nevertheless, it is a shame that Videla died without ever giving the grieving families justice by refusing to release the locations of their missing loved ones. Juan Cabandié, a Buenos Aires legislator and grandchild recovered by Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo, said, “[Videla] took away from me the opportunity to be hugged by mother and held by my father.” Hence, with his death, Videla controls the “copyright de la verdad” (in English, copyright of truth). His complicit, permanent silence, as well as the disinterest of Argentina’s youth, continues to create obstacles to the reconstruction of Argentine memory and protection of democracy. But, Argentines will soon learn that without justice the reconstruction of their country’s economy will occur long before a similarly rebuilding of its soul occurs.
Kimberly Bullard, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
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