On Wednesday, Argentina will pause for a public holiday to mark the Día Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia ("National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice"), as citizens across the country remember the victims of the brutal military dictatorship – the self-styled "Process of National Reorganisation" – which usurped the state and government between March 24, 1976, and December 10, 1983.
The objective is the collective construction of a day of reflection and critical analysis of recent history, in an attempt to try and understand the true scope of the grave economic, social and political consequences of the crimes committed to the junta, while underlining the defence of the rights rights and guarantees established by the National Constitution and the democratic political regime.
The national holiday was officially established in the year 2002 under the Eduardo Duhalde presidency by Law 25,633, whose first article reads: "Establish March 24 as the National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice in commemoration of those who resulted the victims of that process beginning on that date in the year 1976."
Since that time Argentina's governments have had different kinds of relationships with the nation's human rights organisations, apart from making that policy area more or less central during their administrations.
The Néstor Kirchner presidency (2003-2007), for example, featured a strong human rights policy with symbolic gestures profoundly appreciated by human rights groups, with whom he sealed a close relationship that has endured to this day, in spite of his passing.
The most iconic date for the late president was March 24, 2004, with two key developments. The first Néstor Kirchner’s decision to take down the portraits of genocidal ex-presidents Jorge Rafael Videla and Reynaldo Bignone at the Colegio Militar academy. "Proceed," Kirchner famously told then Army chief-of-staff Roberto Bendini, ordering their removal.
The second happened that same day, during a ceremony at the ESMA Navy Mechanics School to announce the former clandestine detention centre’s restoration as a Space of Memory and Human Rights.
Kirchner then became the first Argentine president to request a pardon, in the name of the state, for the errors committed.
"You have to tell it like it is and if you permit me, I come here not as a comrade and a brother but as the President of the Argentine Nation to ask for a pardon on behalf of the state for having said nothing about so many atrocities during 20 years of democracy," said Kirchner.
At that ceremony a young Juan Cabandié (who today serves in the Alberto Fernández administration as Environment minister) spoke for the first time in public and told his story – how he had been born at ESMA with his mother just one of the estimated 30,000 people who went missing.
Kirchnerite human rights policies, maintained during the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner presidency, also set a propitious stage for advancing the trials of crimes against humanity.
According to official data, last month the total of defendants convicted in the trials of crimes committed during the last dictatorship reached the 1,000 mark.
Tensions with Macri
Former president Mauricio Macri (2015-2019) did not have the same close relationship with Argentina’s human rights organisations, and prior to his electoral victory one phrase of his seemed to mark the future of the ties between the two.
"My [City Hall] government has defended human rights, the freedom of the press and access to health and education. Now human rights are not Sueños Compartidos the Shared Dreams housing scheme[ and the rip-offs they’ve invented. With us all those rip-offs will end," he assured an interview in late 2014, a year before taking office.
Soon after taking office, he also questioned the number of those who had lost their lives at the hands of the junta during an interview with Buzzfeed, much to the anger of human rights groups.
Raising tensions even further, the first March 24 of Macri’s government coincided with the visit of outgoing United States president Barack Obama and the two leaders shared the 40th anniversary of the coup with a ceremony at the Parque de la Memoria.
Save for this joint ceremony with Obama, Macri never again staged an official event on March 24 and the distance with the organisations widened.
In 2018, after years of separate marches, the Grandmothers and Mothers (Founding Line) of Plaza de Mayo and Encuentro Memoria, Verdad y Justicia decided to rally together.
On that March 24 they warned the Macri government that they would not permit "a single genocide to walk free," criticising the benefit of house arrest granted to some of those who had been convicted for crimes against humanity and being evaluated for others.
In the Alberto Fernández era, March 24 remembrance has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic – the 44th anniversary came up in the very first days of strict quarantine (Aislamiento Social Preventivo y Obligatorio or ‘ASPO’) last year so that there were no mass events due to the risks posed by the pandemic.
Although some groups say they will take to the streets for smaller rallies, this year there will not be any mass marches due to Covid-19 either. However, the relationship between the state and human rights organisations has dramatically improved, thanks to the change of government.
Last Saturday, President Fernández headed a tribute to workers who went missing in the last dictatorship together with Taty Almeyda of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and the virtual presence of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo leader Estela Barnes de Carlotto, among others.
"The denialists sow hatred and those with memory sow love," affirmed Fernández at the ex-ESMA.
More than 1,000 convictions
Attention has also turned to the courts, which have already convicted over 1,000 repressors for crimes committed between 1975 and 1983.
According to the data from a report issued by the Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Humanity, up until the end of last year 3,448 people had been indicted with 250 verdicts convicting 1,013 people (276 of them beyond appeal) and acquitting 164. Of the total investigated, 904 died during their trial, 692 before hearing their sentence and 212 after being convicted or acquitted.
At the same time 25 people accused of crimes against humanity are still on the run with a price on their heads ranging from half a million to a million pesos (US$5,600-US$11,200) in reward money.
The road towards truth and justice was opened by the Junta Trials of 1985, which convicted the top brass of the dictatorship.
Trials were also opened against hundreds of lower ranks but this process was interrupted by the Due Obedience and Full Stop laws pushed by ex-president Raúl Alfonsín between 1985 and 1986 which prevented the trial or conviction of repressors.
The pact of impunity was perfected by the presidency of the late Carlos Menem, who signed pardons in favour of the military regime members who had committed crimes against humanity.
It was only in 2005, during the term of Néstor Kirchner, that the Supreme Court declared Alfonsín’s "impunity laws" unconstitutional and the trials were renewed.
With 1,013 convictions until now, the requests for house arrest have grown in recent years, mostly due to the advanced age of the accused, joined last year by the argument of the possibility of contracting coronavirus in jail.
Little thought will be spared for the perpetrators today, however, with the focus very much on the thousands of victims who lost their lives.