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ARGENTINA | 22-11-2023 11:37

Victoria Villarruel, the first vice-president to play down dictatorship’s crimes

By presenting herself as a militant of "complete memory," the La Libertad Avanza vice-president-elect has constructed her political figure around the controversial “theory of two demons,” equating left-wing killings with state terrorism.

The political ascent of president-elect Javier Milei was in part based on relativising the crimes of the military dictatorship with a newly updated version of the "two demons theory." And the meteoric rise of his running-mate, Victoria Villarruel, in public life has carried with it the demand for a review of the consensus laying the bases of Argentina’s democratic pact: Nunca Más (“Never Again”). The woman who will soon be Argentina’s second-in-command looms as the nation’s first vice-president to relativise state terrorism, placing once again the spotlight on the political violence of the 1970s and pushing a denialist discourse which over the years has served as her political platform.

Villarruel, 48, found a political loophole within human rights, a non-partisan banner but one that is intrinsically linked to Kirchnerism and Radicalism in the collective imagination. By presenting herself as a militant of "complete memory," the La Libertad Avanza vice-president-elect constructed her political figure around the controversial “theory of two demons,” equating left-wing killings with state terrorism. She has chosen to take her stand as a disruptive figure and even "politically incorrect," just like her political boss.

With spotless oratory Villarruel, a skilful lawyer with an Army family background, has shifted the nub of the discussion to raise her voice on behalf of "the other victims" – i.e. those who died in the attacks of guerrilla organisations. She has sought to mingle concepts, placing the victims of those attacks on the same footing as the victims of state terrorism during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship (including baby-snatching), atrocities which were later considered crimes against humanity and therefore beyond the statute of limitations.

"There were armed terrorist actions on such a scale as to make denying that a war was incomprehensible," Villarruel maintained in an interview with Eduardo Feinmann in 2016. "I’d like the judiciary to be really independent and judge those people just as they judge those state agents who violated human rights, I’d like to see parity and not feel that some people are second-class citizens."

Villarruel does not acknowledge that the guerrilla activity in the years preceding the March 24, 1976 coup did not involve the occupation of territory nor that the guerrillas were quickly dismantled by the military junta.

In a 2011 speech to the Oslo Freedom Forum, Villarruel thanked her hosts for “guaranteeing freedom of speech and for allowing thousands of people who have disappeared from the Argentine social memory to have a voice.”

“When people talk about Argentina they talk about only a part of the facts that took place,” she began.

“The powers in Argentina have chosen which part of the history it will choose to tell and which part it will choose to hide,” she says, going to explain that the “de facto government” was involved in a “dirty war.”

Admitting that the dictatorship “suppressed terrorist organisations,” she argues that “the history which is told also includes the legitimisation of terrorist acts because they opposed a dictatorship.”

She goes on to accuse the Argentine state of “promoting impunity” for terrorists active during the era of state terrorism and “discrimination” against victims.

Even if she has denied the accusation of being a denialist on several occasions, her proximity to various convicted leaders and security officers, including Jorge Rafael Videla and Miguel Etchecolatz, bring her closer to such a stance. 

During the final vice-presidential debate against her Unión por la Patria rival Agustín Rossi, Villarruel’s (until then) ambivalent posture confronting the consensus concerning the dictatorship again became evident when she avoided answering whether she "is in favour of freeing genocides," despite her opponent's insistence on posing the question. She also affirmed that the desaparecidos missing "were not 30,000," seeking to discredit one of the banners of the policy of Truth, Memory and Justice.

"In the Parque de la Memoria on the Costanera [in the north of the city of Buenos Aires], there are 8,751 names: Where are the others?" asked Villarruel, citing the figure from the CONADEP truth commission count. She failed to acknowledge the numerous dictatorship-era repressors who have never detailed what they did with the desaparecidos, or those who never dared to denounce disappearances for other motives such as fear or shame.

Further proof of the denialist strain is the banalisation of the role of the former ESMA Navy Mechanics School clandestine detention and extermination centre, which today is a museum of memory, emblem of state terrorism and was this year named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

"A terrain like ESMA... of 17 hectares could be enjoyed by the whole Argentine people," she stated on television prior to the run-off, before going on to suggest that it could be turned into a school.

Villarruel went on record in the run-up to the PASO primaries to say ESMA functioned as "the museum of the loss of memory" while rubbishing the concept of "state terrorism" in an interview with La Nación (in 2010), an expression which she termed "not only unfortunate but also confusing."

As a vice-presidential candidate, Villarruel plunged into another controversy when she defended Iván Volante, a retired military officer who had criticised Rossi’s handling of the Defence Ministry.

"My support for the Captain and all our men of the security forces who suffer the demonisation and mistreatment of Kirchnerism," posted Villarruel.

Beforehand, emboldened by the context, Volante had published the image of a green Ford Falcon, the infamous car used by police and security officers during the dictatorship era to abduct people. With military music in the background, a video was also published with a threatening message, for which Army court-martial proceedings were started against him as a former military officer.

Prior to her popularity, the heiress of the Army family never openly denied the crimes of the military junta and does not like being accused of doing so, as she has been on various occasions, repeating that it is a "highly unjust criticism." 

"They tag me as a denialist, a defender of genocides. I am not and never have been a lawyer for anybody in uniform accused of crimes against humanity," she told José del Río. She even recently charged that those who accuse her of being a denialist "are the relatives of terrorists" – a reference to government officials such as Horacio Pietragalla and Victoria Montenegro.

When asked about the work of the famous Madres de Plaza de Mayo and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo human rights groups, Villarruel has often resorted to a tried and tested technique – changing the subject. She often criticises the organisations alleging that "at no time did they repudiate terrorism." She has also cast suspicion on the restoration of identity, questioning the decades-long search for relatives whose identities were stolen by the dictatorship. "There are grandchildren who are registered as having been recovered and yet were with their families, according to the same page of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. I think they should explain that to society."

The libertarian vice-president-elect has not defended the actions of the dictatorship during that dark era, but she has trod a winding road during her long militancy. When pushed with direct questions, Villarruel stays ambiguous, but looks to question the consensus that has persisted over the past four decades. Her actions permit the expansion of a denialist wave which could undermine the bases of Argentine democracy in the 40th anniversary of its return.

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