Did Donald Trump try to do the dirty on Jimmy Carter by kyboshing plans for a ceremony to present the former US president with Argentina’s highest honour? Or did President Mauricio Macri postpone the ceremony, in order not to upset his US counterpart? Those are just two of the explanations given for why there was such a long delay in holding the actual ceremony to award Carter with the Order of the Liberator General San Martín, for his defence of human rights during the last military dictatorship (1976-1983). The decision to award the honour was made long ago – it was approved early this year by the council that reviews proposed candidates and was announced in the Official Gazette on March 17.
It seems the most reliable report on this mysterious delay, although based on anonymous officials, was posted on the CNN enEspañol website. That report said that the reason for the delay in holding the ceremony was an attempt to “avoid conflict” ahead of Macri’s first official meeting with the then newly elected President Trump. CNN en Español also cited a second source, saying that Macri would not have had time to give Carter the honour because his visit to Washington was to be only two days long.
Rumours ran wild, however. It was even reported that the Trump administration had put pressure on the Argentine Embassy to rescind the award because Carter has criticised the US president in the past. On social media Trump was accused of bullying Macri – one blogger even set up a petition drive to get the award, a broad blue-and-white sash, gold collar and medallion, placed on Carter’s shoulders.
I went to Snopes.com – in my opinion the best factchecker there is – for their verdict on the alleged furore. And I agree that the accusation that Trump leaned on Macri to quash the ceremony are “non-proven.” Finally, a week ago, Carter was able to receive the greatest honour that Argentina can bestow on a foreign citizen. Human Rights Secretary Claudio Avruj flew to the Carter Center in Atlanta from Geneva to fill in for President Macri and give the award.
In a speech that lasted more than 20 minutes Avruj gave a detailed description of US policy under Carter during the dictatorship. He began by recalling how, as a teenager, he spent long hours collecting newspaper clippings and articles about Carter’s human rights policy. “Those articles became the basis, the catalyst of my vocation and dedication to human rights,” he said.
Later, in more formal remarks, Avruj recalled that “since 1983, the various democratic governments of the Argentine Republic have all expressed their gratitude to former president of the United States, James Earl Carter, for his actions in upholding human rights during the last military dictatorship.”
“Today,” he added, “we would like to go one step further: our nation is honoured on this occasion to bestow upon president Carter the Cross of the Order of the Liberator General San Martín, our nation’s highest recognition for a foreign official.”
Avruj noted that “from the very moment he began his mandate, president Carter, through both public and private initiatives, advanced multiple decisions in defence of human rights in our country, which as we all know, were grossly violated by the military dictatorship of that time.” He recalled how Carter provided the dictator, Jorge Rafael Videla, “with a list of missing persons.
Sadly, the list compiled by ‘Tex’ Harris at the US Embassy in Buenos Aires would contain the names of thousands upon thousands of illegally detained and kidnapped individuals.”
Avruj closed by saying that “with this decoration our nation wishes to honour and express its gratitude to president Carter for taking decisions that contributed to ending atrocities and saving countless lives; and for helping the Argentine people feel that they were not alone, during a time that has been universally acknowledged as being the darkest and most terrible in the history of 20th-century Argentina.”
I was able to watch a video of the ceremony and I think that Carter was moved by Avruj’s words. In expressing what seemed to me to be heartfelt gratitude for the award, Carter showed that he had total recall of his intense involvement with Argentina and his efforts to stop the torture and the killing. I was touched by his remembrance of his human rights team, particularly the two key people who worked on Argentina, Patricia Derian, “a true heroine” and F. Allen Harris, undoubtedly also a hero, who I know both risked their lives to save the lives of others. Patt Derian, who died in May last year, was chosen by Carter for the newly created post of assistant secretary of state for human rights because he knew her when she was a leader in the civil rights movement in the US South. She tapped “Tex” Harris, then a junior officer at the US Embassy in Buenos Aires, to apply and defend the policy in Argentina, when torture was routine and disappearances were at their height.
Carter said that when he became president he decided that human rights would be the basic premise of US foreign policy. He told how he personally instructed all his ambassadors and officials that the United States must be committed to the defence of human rights.
He closed his acceptance speech with words that call for a re-dedication to the cause he has given his life to.
“Looking at the world today,” he said, “we see human rights is at very low ebb, because many people have lost faith in the essence of human rights, which is to defend freedom, tell the truth and treat people equally.” Carter also emphasised the importance of recognising the rights of the indigenous peoples.
I don’t thing that there can be any doubt that what is needed is a re-dedication to human rights, both here and in the United States. The peanut farmer from Georgia, who became a nuclear submarine commander, the governor of Georgia, the president of the United States and today, still working with a hammer and nails to build houses for the poor, is an inspiration to us all.
It is wonderful that at the age of 92, having conquered an illness said to be terminal, he is still going strong. And it is fitting that Argentina has finally honoured him.
(*) Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1968-1979)