Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).
When diehard Kirchnerites and their leftist fellow- travellers stage rallies, they hold up iconic portraits of Santiago Maldonado, the young man they still insist was a victim of the brutal Mauricio Macri dictatorship even though all the available evidence tells a very different story; it seems the tattoo artist was drowned while trying to wade across a Patagonian river without a gendarme in sight. For antigovernment campaigners, however, truth matters far less than symbolism, so no doubt Maldonado’s saintly features will continue to reproach us for many years to come.
In a similar fashion, the unexpected reappearance of a now elderly nuclear scientist, Antonio Gentile, whose name had long been included in lists of people who were allegedly killed by the military regime but who, it turned out, is alive and well and living in the United States, is being busily exploited by those who are fed up with zthe blatantly politicised behaviour of so many “human rights” activists, especially the ones who explode with fury whenever anyone points out that what has become the official number of missing persons, 30,000 is a deliberate exaggeration.
For saying this, Graciela Fernández Meijide, a lady whose record on human rights puts to shame those of most of her contemporaries, whether progressive or not, was cast into outer darkness as a heretic by much of the left.
Gentile, who apparently thinks it was amusing to have people believe he died over 40 years ago, is the subject of front-page stories in the local press not just because his case is noteworthy, but also because it puts on the back foot dubious individuals such as Hebe de Bonafini and Eugenio Zaffaroni who are far too fond of reminding the rest of us that they occupy the moral high ground.
The underlying message, which outside cyberspace is rarely made explicit, is that there are plenty of other “missing persons” like Gentile who – after evading capture by the military – went abroad and decided to stay there without informing anyone of their whereabouts, so nothing said by representatives of “the human rights industry” should be taken seriously. Not content with reducing the number of permanently disappeared to about 10,000, as was registered by Conadep and is presumably as correct as it would be reasonable to expect, they insinuate it could be whittled down much further by removing from the lists not only those who died while fighting the police or the Armed Forces, or were murdered by comrades for violating some sectarian rule, but also those who simply went underground for good.
Some say that as far as they are concerned even one disappeared person is one too many and it would therefore be wrong to suggest they are questioning the quasi-official statistics because they want people to think the military junta was, given the circumstances, remarkably benign, but whether they like it or not, that is the impression the more outspoken are giving. Along with campaigners who, quite justifiably, condemn Argentina’s most recent dictatorship but are indignant when anyone says a harsh word about Cuba’s, they are less interested in trying to make a more or less objective assessment of the country’s past than in winning adherents for their own point of view.
None of this is very helpful. There was nothing black and white about the bloody conflicts which made the 1970s such an unpleasant decade. Quite soon, half a century will have gone by since the “dirty war” petered out, so it might be thought that enough time has passed to allow investigators to make an honest attempt to separate hard facts from propaganda, but the chance of this happening remains slight.
Debates over the precise number of disappeared, let alone over who was responsible for what happened, quickly degenerate into slanging matches which still tend to be dominated by ideologues who are emotionally committed to the number 30,000 and to the notion, which is rejected in zother parts of the world, that, in countries ruled by “right-wingers” at any rate, state employees such as soldiers and policemen who commit murder are infinitely worse than terrorists with totalitarian leanings who commit identical crimes. The standard view is that the former are genocidaires who should be jailed for life, while the latter deserve to be amnestied and then, if persistent enough, be rewarded at the taxpayers’ expense for whatever inconvenience they may have suffered.
When the Soviet Union was still with us, extreme left-wingers had little time for sentimental bourgeois rubbish about “human rights,” but after that socialist experiment got dumped on history’s scrapheap, they appreciated that it would be in their interest to take over the business. They managed to do so with remarkable ease. In country after country, including Argentina, organisations that were originally formed to defend the rights of all vulnerable people regardless of their ideological preferences, as well as a plethora of new ones, quickly fell into the hands of people determined to rain blows on capitalism, bourgeois democracy and other manifestations of evil. The Islamists also got into the act; in many Western countries, anyone who criticises their behaviour or beliefs is liable to be accused of a “hate crime” and then sent to jail or, if really unlucky, forced to attend sessions of “diversity training.”
Not surprisingly, the transformation of human rights organisations into battering rams used by individuals who are determined to demolish the established order, which the more enthusiastic say is simply a monument to white supremacy, neoliberal capitalism or something equally nasty and therefore merits the fate they have in store for it, has brought the entire movement into disrepute. This is unfortunate. Unless the ideologues of one kind or another are removed from the positions they have wormed their way into, there will be nobody with moral authority left to protest against the abuses that will continue to be committed by political or religious fanatics who, given the chance, are only too happy to kidnap, torture, murder or blow up anyone who happens to stand in their way.