Controversy erupted this week after it was confirmed that a new 5,000-peso bill is in the works – though not for economic reasons.
Given the economic crisis, runaway inflation, weakening of the peso and money-printing, Central Bank officials said recently they will introduce a new high-denomination bank note in June, confirming that the notes had already been printed.
Announcing the stars of the cinco-mil bill, however, was instantly controversial – in a nod to the coronavirus pandemic, officials said it would feature two prominent doctors in Argentina’s history, Cecilia Grierson and Ramón Carrillo, on the front and the ANLIS-Malbrán Institute on the reverse.
Grierson was the first woman to graduate as a doctor in Argentina and the Malbran has been central in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. It was the choice of Ramón Carrillo, the doctor who accompanied Juan Domingo Perón as health secretary during his first two terms in office, that angered some sectors of society.
The local Jewish community in Argentina reacted with outrage. Israel’s Ambassador in Argentina Galit Ronen criticised the move on Twitter.
“When we say 'Nunca más' ("Never again") in reference to the Holocaust, there is no point in commemorating someone who at least sympathises with this ideology,” Ronen wrote.
The Latin American chapter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center slammed the choice of Carrillo for the new banknote.
“In the midst of this pandemic and a national financial default, the Argentine government is issuing a new 5,000-peso note with the effigy of two prominent doctors, Cecilia Grierson and Ramón Carrillo,” it said.
“Carillo, in addition to being an admirer of Hitler, created the concept of the ‘ideal soldier’ who would reject conscripts who he considered as racial and gender "oddities," the Center added.
“He also provided refuge to the Danish fugitive, Buchenwald camp doctor, Carl Peter Vaernet, allowing him to continue experiments with homosexuals to "heal" them. We emphatically reject the choice of such a character, that will sully Argentina with his image on its highest denomination banknote," read the statement, written by Drs Shimon Samuels and Ariel Gelblung, Directors of International Relations and for Latin America of the Wiesenthal Center, respectively.
Not all of the community immediately condemned the move, the DAIA umbrella group said it would wait until official confirmation before commenting.
Carrillo's relatives hit back at the criticism on Twitter, saying their father was never a Nazi and that he had good relations with Israel, sharing photos of a gift given to the doctor in 1954 by Israel's then-health minister Yosef Serlin.
Facundo Carrillo, his son, alleged a “smear campaign” was behind the controversy.
“Someday the truth about this smear campaign will be known and we will know who originated it and for what purpose," he said.
"My grandfather was one of the Peronist officials who most promoted the establishment of
diplomatic ties with Israel,” added Facundo Carrillo, the health secretary’s grandson.
Even Vaernet’s relatives commented on the furore.
"I hope that all the mistakes made will help our generation and those of the future to prevent crimes against humanity and the discrimination or persecution of people based on their religion, skin colour or sexuality," said Cristian Vaernet, the Danish Nazi’s grandson.
Reputation and relationship
Carillo has a strong reputation among the medical profession locally. As well as being Argentina’s first health secretary, he was a neurosurgeon who is remembered for his brilliant public health campaigns which helped to halve child mortality in Argentina, eradicate malaria and significantly tackle tuberculosis. During his eight years as minister, 244 hospitals were opened, according to reports.
Controversy remains, however, over his views on eugenics and the idea of a “perfect soldier.”
Vaernet is remembered largely for his experiments at the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp, through which he claimed he had "cured" homosexuality by inserting testosterone-releasing implants. His brutal techniques came to light after the war. Having fled back home to Denmark and realising he faced prison, he escaped to Argentina, where he would go on to work directly under Carrillo.
Journalist and author Uki Goñi, who detailed the work behind the Nazi “rat-lines” that saw many arrive in Argentina in his book The Real Odessa, confirmed through his research how Vaernet worked for the Peron government.
“On April 28, 1947, Carrillo and Vaernet signed a five-year contract whereby Vaernet would work in the then Public Health Secretariat as a “medical physiologist," he wrote in an article this week, describing the move as a “strange idea.”
“On March 8, 1948, Carrillo signed a new resolution for Vaernet, placing him under ‘the direct orders of the undersigned’ with the objective of ‘informing frequently and directly about the scientific specialisation possessed by the contracted technical official, Doctor Carlos P. Vaernet.’ This contract between Carrillo and Vaernet still lies today in the archives of the Public Health Ministry, numbered 11,692, in its Personnel File,” wrote Goñi.
“During the research for my book I also found the work certificate which Carrillo extended to Vaernet to request his Argentine citizenship, which was speedily granted in 1949,” he added.
Among those who came to Carrillo's defence was current health minister Ginés González García. In an article for Clarín, the official praised the work of his predecessor, saying that dealing with Carrillo's family was one of "the greatest honours of my life." He must "be excluded from the miseries that are unfortunately so frequent in partisan disputes," wrote González García, who praised the late doctor's "humanist values."
"These days, a new wave of public condemnation against Carillo has emerged. For obvious reasons, I was thinking of staying out of this debate, but I am obliged to write these lines due to the fact that this time, not only have the usual fools participated, but also diplomatic representatives from other countries," he wrote.
"His magnificent work still stands and is a source of pride for the Argentine people," declared the minister.