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OPINION
Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

Videla’s dirty war

It is imperative to remember the cynicism with which Argentina’s dictatorship dispatched its invisible victims

It all began on March 24, 1976 when the junta of commanders-in-chief headed by General Jorge Rafael Videla took power in Argentina. The armed forces took over the state and began thousands of secret arrests and murders. The Process of National Reorganization was the official name. It was state terrorism, pure and simple, without precedent in Argentinean history, although there had been six military coups in four decades.

Bodies were left in the streets, buried in unmarked pits in cemeteries, burned in mass graves, or just dumped in the sea. There were never any official executions, only clandestine killings. From 1976 to 1983 people did not die, they just disappeared.

Most of the disappearances happened in the first three years. Almost 30,000, according to the human rights organizations. Workers, students, intellectuals, professionals, people known for their social and political commitment, but also many who were mere relatives of all the above, people who were informed on by others, people whose name came up in torture sessions... First they were taken away from their homes, normally at night, in operations that often included pillaging of their domiciles. Then they were tortured and, if they survived, were kept in army or police cells. Most were later "transferred" for execution somewhere else to avoid witnesses.

Disappeared, or missing, was the euphemism used for the victims of that dictatorship. Videla himself provided a definition in 1979 in response to initial international pressure about the repression: "A person who has disappeared cannot have any special treatment; he is an unknown, he is missing; he is not dead or alive, just missing." This cynical view of the extermination program was shared at the time by the military officers, some politicians of the major parties, and many businessmen, churchmen and journalists. "They have gone underground," said one general, Alcides López Aufranc, to reassure a commission of worthies who had inquired about the activities of certain union activists.

A person who has disappeared cannot have any special treatment; he is an unknown, he is missing"

This dictatorship, like many other more or less bloody rightist regimes, was not lacking in public support. Much of this support was from the usual suspects: the economic and financial powers and the Church hierarchy, which, with some exceptions, blessed the repression, sanctifying it as a "crusade for the faith," and obtained substantial material benefits in return. But this episode of "political barbarization and degradation of the state," as the Argentinean intellectual Hugo Vezzetti puts it, would never have been possible without the support and approval of wide sectors of the public. "They must have done something," said many when neighbors were arrested. "I supported the Process, but I didn't know it had gone so far," said others when evidence of the massacre began to appear. Fear, silence, complicity, and also a conviction that the order of dictatorship was preferable to the "chaos" of violence and kidnapping that preceded it.

After the dictatorship fell, the demand for information, truth and justice, and the refusal to settle for oblivion, became signs of one's political identity in the transition to democracy. Thirty years on, this dictatorship of some seven years' duration still looms as an example of state terrorism, of "administered massacres," in the words of Hannah Arendt.

There is plenty of incontrovertible proof about this campaign of extermination, which took some care to cover up its tracks and leave as little proof as possible. This month's death of Videla now brings it back to us. And it cautions us once again that, in the face of general oblivion and indifference to organized terror in the fairly recent past, the only possible answer is a public policy in favor of historical memory based on archives, museums and education. To teach the next generation these facts of recent history, and to transmit to young people the values of tolerance and liberty is about all we can do.

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