This year, on the 45th anniversary of the March 24, 1976 coup d'état, human rights organisations in Argentina once again reiterated their demand that the truth be known about the fate of the disappeared and the babies kidnapped during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
Over the past four and a half decades, many of those who committed crimes against humanity during that dark period have failed to provide crucial information to the authorities that could help identify missing grandchildren or the final resting place of thousands of the dictatorship’s victims. Despite this, and contrary to public opinion, former military officers have not remained silent on the issue.
For the past few years, CONICET researchers Valentina Salvi and Claudia Feld have led a group of 10 investigators through an exhaustive study analysing statements from key figures in the military dictatorship. The team’s findings have just been published in a new book, Las Voces de la Represión (“The Voices of Repression”), which features contributions from experts Enrique Andriotti Romanin, Paula Canelo, Diego Galante, Santiago Garaño, Luciana Messina, Eva Muzzopappa, as well as Feld and Salvi, who edited the collection.
The Times met with the duo to discuss public statements made by those commonly referred to as “represores” (“repressors”) and what political and ethical challenges they pose for Argentine society as a whole.
Why is it that, despite the fact that there have been public statements by repressors, there is a perception that they have remained silent?
VS: We sustain the hypothesis that the military talked and talked from 1983 until now, although they did not always provide [key] information. They have talked a lot, to do different things. Some have spoken at the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (Conadep), others have spoken publicly. Always a minority. In general they have spoken to influence public debates. Our idea is that these public statements were a decisive factor in the justice process in the country.
CF: The idea that the repressors did not speak has to do with certain expectations that are produced every time they do speak. What interests us is to compare the different scenarios and conditions of possibility, in order to understand not only what they say but also with what framework of interpretation and with what expectations they talk about when they do speak.
What role did the media play?
CF: The media is one of the most interesting scenarios we analysed. The first moment is when the media start to publish the first news about disappearances – a moment that has been called “the horror show” due to the sensationalist and macabre tone that all these publications had in general, mostly focused on the discovery of ‘N.N.’ [unmarked] graves in cemeteries. In that framework, there is a threshold of what can be said when former Navy Corporal Raul Vilariño was entitled to say almost anything, providing absolutely lurid details of what happened at ESMA [ex-Navy Mechanics School, a notorious clandestine detention centre], without any voice being able to play down his statements.
Ten years later, when there is another central episode, which is [ex-Navy officer Adolfo] Scilingo's statements and his acknowledgment of his involvement in the death flights – the media have another way of dealing with this. But it is interesting because there is a debate that appears on whether or not repressors can be given the floor, and if it is necessary not to listen to them and in what way they are listened to.
What about today?
CF: I believe that there is a very clear threshold about the responsibility and guilt of these people.
VS: The media also functions in certain socio-political contexts, although the editorial position of a medium is an important factor. It is not only what they say but how what they say is heard. If you analyse Adolfo Scilingo, the great frame of interpretation is repentance. However, Scilingo does not regret anything and the media mostly interpreted those statements in terms of repentance. How a media is going to publish those statements in a context of impunity, where it is up to the free will of the media, the journalist, and the editorial of the media to frame those statements – it is not the same as in a context in which justice has already acted, where there is already certainty, knowledge, proof and a sentence regarding the criminal responsibility of those actions.
CF: There is a point that is central to the role of the media, which is to call attention to this issue in moments of closure, as in the case of Scilingo. In 1995, when Scilingo made his first statements and [journalist] Horacio Verbitsky published it in his book. Very soon after, [journalist] Mariano Grondona does a prime-time interview with him. At that time, it was very important to call attention to the impunity of these people.
I have made a whole analysis about how the media tried to attenuate that impunity by presenting them as repentant, but even so, it did not have that effect. This is a moment when the issue was reopened, [when] human rights organisations started to make judicial requests that led to the trials for the truth and [the human rights organisation] HIJOS was created. It is good to think about those effects, although many times those effects do not go beyond the spectacle.
Can the statements [ex-junta leader] Jorge Rafael Videla made before his death be read as self-criticism?
VS: Every time they [repressors] speak, their statements are always interpreted as a confession, even if they do not say anything, even if they do not confess anything. Videla modulates his speech very slowly because he is very conservative, but in the last interviews he gave to [journalist] Ceferino Reato and to a Spanish medium, in order to keep on playing the role of interlocutor he cannot keep on saying what he said in 1976, he cannot keep on saying that the disappeared are in Europe. He incorporates something that can be considered as a self-criticism within a framework of possibilities, which are the criticisms that his comrades make to him. This also allows him to reposition himself before his comrades before he dies. He does not say it was a crime, he says it was a mistake.
CF: He says it from prison.
Is it still possible to think that they could contribute to learning the truth about what happened?
VS: The truth is a social construction where not only their sayings are at stake, but also who listens to them and how they listen to them. There is a common sense that says that since they keep the truth [to themselves], every time they speak there is an expectation that they will tell the truth. However, truth is not a substantive, essential dimension that they carry and keep and that if they speak, the truth is there. The truth is a social construction, which cannot be thought of without a long-term historical process that begins with the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, which continues with the trials, which continues with the struggle of the organisations reconstructing evidence. The truth is not something that they keep and only they hold. Something becomes socially true when we all together construct a truth that has not only an information dimension – which is what they supposedly retain – but also an ethical dimension. If they speak, what do we do with what they say?
CF: There is a tension between the past and the present. There is always an expectation that the person who speaks is different from the one who committed the crimes and that is why this idea of repentance or confession appears very strongly. It is assumed that this repressor, who at such a moment committed such terrible atrocities, could undo something of what he did or repair in part what he did at least by telling or repenting or asking for forgiveness.
There is a case analysed by Santiago Garaño, that of the border guard Omar Torres, who is initially considered a repressor and then becomes a witness. How did he achieve this change?
CF: The role of witness is a socially constructed role. Not just anyone who has lived through something necessarily becomes a witness. This former border guard positions himself and identifies himself with the human rights movement and begins to speak as if he were part of the movement. There is also something about the language that identifies them with the repressors. Vilariño seemed to want to "collaborate with democracy," but he speaks of the people they killed or tortured as objects and the language of repression appears clearly in every statement he made.
There are some repressors who also intervened in public debate through the publication of books, such as Scilingo, former police commissioner Miguel Etchecolatz, dictator Reynaldo Benito Bignone....
CF: These are attempts to install their version of the facts. Etchecolatz gladly goes to Mariano Grondona's TV programme and there is an idea that those facts can be debated as if there were not a truth already legitimised in the courts, as it had been in the Trial of the Juntas. What this programme shows is that there is no debate with the perpetrators, we cannot debate what happened, they are not facts subject to debate. That version of the facts in 1997, with full impunity, is not the same as now when they are being tried and when many are already serving sentences.
VS: In this context, the idea of complete memory is being put together. Military memories can no longer deny the crimes; what they do is to publicly emphasise the crimes committed by the armed organisations.