In a country that has long struggled, but has always failed, to confront the legacy of a “dirty war” as brutal as any in the history of the hemisphere, and after the country’s disgraced military supposedly had accepted a now more moderate mission, the recent revelations involving the Argentine Navy should come as no surprise. Even 23 years after the end of the withering military dictatorship that gripped the country, the disclosure was made that elements in the Argentine navy maintained an active domestic spying program against officials, journalists, and leading celebrities in the arts and sciences.
The espionage case, which involves surveillance operations by naval personnel targeting politicians and activists, underlines the fact that, despite the return of democracy after years of military rule, elements of the armed forces are still brashly defiant of civilian rule, and believe in its impunity, a right which it has held for so long. This attitude on the part of Argentina’s military establishment reveals the missed opportunities of the two decades when successive Democratic and Republican administrations in Washington failed to effectively propel the development of constitutionally-bound armed forces throughout the hemisphere, and in effect were complicit in sanctioning a dangerous “re-militarization.” When it came to the conduct of Argentina’s armed forces during the dirty war (1976-1983), both the Reagan, Clinton and both Bush administrations have been eager to be accommodating to the military, with the Democratic president preaching that the country’s civic leaders should sweep the excesses of the military junta under the rug, and the Republicans urging a strategy of “getting on with it,” and no longer dwelling on the bleak memories of military rule.
The story broke last Friday when police raided the intelligence office at the Almirante Zar naval base in the southern province of Chubut, according to EFENews. That base had been the scene of unspeakably vile crimes during the dirty war. The investigation was sparked by a complaint filed by the famed Argentine human rights NGO, the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), which later revealed that the Naval office maintained a number of dossiers on Argentine groups and individuals ranging from unions to indigenous rights movements. The apparently comprehensive spying program reportedly included such high profile targets as Néstor Kirchner (who was active in Patagonian politics prior to winning the presidency), and Defense Minister Nilda Garré.
Twenty six folders were seized, and according to the governor of Chubut, Mariano Das Neves, the dossiers contained information that was typical of the “ideological control” of past eras, and that “30 years ago [it] would have resulted in people [secret agents] coming to your house.” Reports suggest that the files went into extensive detail, and Das Neves noted that they included “analysis about the children of officials, elements of their private lives, even about alleged addictions to drink or personal relationships.”
It is this strain of fascist obsession that continues to inform the marrow of much of Argentina’s national life, and which led to the systematic repression of the highly regarded cultural and philosophical Buenos Aires discussion group, BAYS (The Buenos Aires Yoga School), which consists of some of the capital city’s most distinguished intellectuals and artistic figures – many of them Jewish (thus prompting the anti-Semitic ire which is a military habit). Many of those individuals may have been subjects of the same genera of spying that was undertaken by the dissident Patagonian naval officers.
In reaction to this evocation of the bad old days, when upwards of 30,000 Argentines were tortured, murdered, and then disappeared by agents of the secret forces, Kirchner’s government has moved quickly and aggressively on the issue. The judge managing the case, Jorge Pfleger, has pledged to investigate the entire chain of command, and Defense Minister Nilda Garré quickly sacked the head of navy operations, Vice Admiral Eduardo Avilés, and head of navy intelligence, Rear Admiral Pablo Rossi. Furthermore, all naval intelligence offices have been closed down while the investigation is carried out. Head of the Navy, Admiral Jorge Godoy, assumed full responsibility for the violations, but denied that it was anything more than an “isolated incident,” although he was prepared to acknowledge that more officials were involved beyond those already identified.
A Military Unchecked
Godoy’s demurrers, however, may ring hollow, and knowledgeable Argentine sources strongly believe that Godoy will not be able to long survive the scandal. Indeed, the case seems to firmly imprint an institutional culture of impunity and excess. Das Neves is to be commended for brushing aside Godoy’s lame effort at damage control, and has asserted that the case seemed to represent “an intelligence operation of national magnitude,” and that he did not “believe that what we see is an isolated event, peculiar to some group of officers in Chubut.”
Yet even a single incident of this nature could have fateful implications. The case sharply recalls the bleak years of the dictatorship, when tens of thousands were “disappeared,” and hundreds of thousands more were terrorized by a paranoid and venomous junta. During this period, the Navy was fully engaged in atrocities, as was reflected in the heinous actions of Captain Alfredo Astiz and naval officer Adolfo Scilingo, murderous assassins who, among other exploits, pushed several drugged French nuns and human rights activists out of a plane flying above the ocean off Argentina, a tactic which concealed the tortured bodies of the victims. Das Neves comments that the newly uncovered files were eerily reminiscent of dirty war dossiers, and suggest that a hard right officers’ cabal persists in the armed forces, and has not been eradicated, even by a left-leaning government like that of Kirchner that has sought to address such past crimes.
Argentines are right to be wary, and Kirchner would be wise to seek a full investigation of the intelligence services of all military branches. As the country begins its baleful commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the start of the military dictatorship this Friday, this case serves as a chilling reminder that Argentina’s military is still not prepared to be accountable for the reverberations from its deeply embedded neo-Fascist past. The government must move to confront the military over this issue, and this event could provide the necessary impulse for more profound reform. The good people of Argentina deserve better than permissive governments and abusive militaries.
Washington Woos the Latin American Military
Yet much of the blame for this recrudescence of anachronistic extreme rightwing military lodges can be pinned on Washington, which has failed to effectively push for human rights prosecution in countries where the military ran rampant – often with the backing of U.S. policymakers of the day, with Henry Kissinger very much in mind. It is a matter of fact that the Clinton Administration missed an opportunity to help in a major way with the establishment of truth commissions to confront questions of past abuses throughout Latin America, a decision which reinforced the military’s non-compliance and its belief about its own impunity, thus vindicating the obnoxious decree that there can be crime without punishment.
The Bush Administration has taken the appalling step of renewing weapons shipments to Latin American militaries, ranging from cooperation with the Paraguayan and Guatemalan armies, to supplying Chile with a fleet of F-16s, which clearly will tempt the Peruvian, Bolivian, and Argentine air forces to follow up with an arms race. The recent Washington visit of the Guatemalan defense minister, Francisco Bermudez, and his meeting with Donald Rumsfeld, serves as example enough that the Pentagon is tightening its bonds with regional militaries, and is eager to be their munitions salesman, despite their bloody histories. The Guatemala meeting followed the resumption of military aid to that nation, support which had been suspended at the end of that nation’s civil war owing to the appalling brutality of the armed forces in that conflict.
While much of the new aid is cloaked as anti-drug or joint cooperation agreements, it is tantamount to an exoneration and re-legitimization of the region’s armed forces whose defining mark was their systematic brutality, and is far from the sort of benign assistance that could be described as helping Robin Hood to safely cross the street. Clearly, the public has mixed thoughts concerning the military’s utility. Several years ago, the UN commissioned a public opinion poll that established that almost 60% of all respondents were prepared to submit once again to military rule if it would mean that their standard of living would be raised.
Rumsfeld as Seneschal
Underscoring Washington’s role in rehabilitating unrepentant Latin American militaries, today marks the first anniversary of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s meeting with his Argentine counterpart in Buenos Aires, an event at which Rumsfeld praised that nation’s military – even singling out the Navy – for their participation in global security operations. Indeed, Rumsfeld has single-mindedly spearheaded the push to rebuild the region’s armed forces. The secretary has made several tours of the region, including visits to Guatemala, Brazil, Paraguay and Peru, and has convened several major meetings of regional defense ministers and their senior serving officers.
These personal visits are hardly hollow gestures on Rumsfeld’s part: military aid to the region has steadily grown over last decade and a half, and at $908 million for 2006, now almost equals the United States’ economic assistance to Latin America. Further evidence can be found in the Pentagon’s joint cooperation arrangements with the Paraguayan military, that include the use of an airbase in the west of that country, and a likely expansion of existing arrangements in Ecuador. These suggest that Rumsfeld is dedicated to the principles of military applicability in a region whose sensitivities on the subject he appears to not register at all, and where the lethal capacities of the armed forces have often resulted in horrendous abuses and near genocide.
Democracy has taken some steps forward in Latin America since the start of the new millennium. Yet the White House has consistently failed to help Latin American nations tame their monstrous militaries once and for all, and in not doing so, has ensured that the threat of a revanchist return to the dictatorships of the 1970s remains ever present, if the right set of circumstances emerge. The Argentine domestic espionage case only underscores this fact, and reaffirms the reality that the regional armed forces would be only too willing to assume their old role as brutal “protectors of the nation.” The Latin American military can never adequately assure the public that it has now purged itself of the notion that it is a legitimate government-in-waiting in case the civilian authorities falter on the job. For democracy to survive, only a small military force should be tolerated, and it must be made permanently aware of the fact that it is perpetually on probation.