Latin America

Argentina looks back at its tragic past for its current political strategy

President Fernández favors placing victims of Dirty War period in top government posts

Carlos E. Cué
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, during an exhibition dedicated to the late Eva Perón.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, during an exhibition dedicated to the late Eva Perón.YURI KOCHETKOV (EFE)

Unlike many other nations, Argentina is a country that uses its tragic past for political purposes.

“There are now more people who attend the marches on March 24, the day the dictatorship began, than in the 1980s or the 1990s,” says Juan Cabandié, a lawmaker with the government’s ruling coalition and a member of the powerful La Cámpora “Kirchnerite” youth movement.

There are now more people who attend the marches on March 24 – the day the dictatorship began”

“Instead of a fading memory, there is a movement that is growing in a counter-clockwise direction,” he says.

Cabandié is a symbolic figure from the Dirty War (1976-1983) period – he was born in the notorious Naval School of Mechanics (ESMA) in Buenos Aires, which was used by the military as a torture and execution center for many of its opponents.

After his mother disappeared from the ESMA, Cabandié was later given to a family for adoption.

Years after he discovered his real identity, he broke off all relations with his adopted family. Then-president Néstor Kirchner invited him to give the keynote address on March 24, 2004 at the ESMA in memory of the people who disappeared during the dictatorship.

President Fernández de Kirchner has appointed people who were stolen as babies as top advisors 

Cabandié has now become an influential member among President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s political circle.

Wado de Pedro, whose parents also disappeared during the Dirty War, was named secretary general of the president’s office during a recent Cabinet shuffle.

He is one of the founders of HIJOS, a 20-year-old organization that began with a few dozen people who would conduct door-stop protests at the homes of former military officials freed during a blanket amnesty granted under President Carlos Menem (1989-1999).

The amnesty was later revoked by President Kirchner.

“When we were conducting our door-stop protests, we never thought that one day we would form part of a government because the state was responsible for all the problems,” De Pedro explains.

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Kirchner died in 2010, and now his wife, President Fernández de Kirchner has promoted to top government posts a number of sons and daughters of those who disappeared or were forced to go into exile during the military’s National Reorganization Process following the 1976 coup.

Some are members of La Cámpora, the organization headed by her son Máximo Kirchner, while others are direct victims of the Dirty War.

In all of her speeches, Fernández Kirchner makes reference to the 1970s, which many analysts see as a well-planned strategy to attract leftist Argentineans, especially those in the cultural sector, who keep the historical memory issue alive.

Even the president has close ties to this period. The father of her pregnant daughter, Florenica, is Camilo Vaca Narvaja, the son of one of the founders of the ex-terrorist group Montoneros, which grew out of the left-wing Peronist faction before the coup.

Patricia Vaca Narvaja, the sister of the same Montoneros founder, is now the Argentinean ambassador to Mexico.

The sister of one of the founders of the 1970s terrorist group Montoneros is now ambassador to Mexico

Those who are connected to this period in some way – Cabandié, De Pedro or Martín Fresneda, another stolen child who now serves as secretary of state for Human Rights – believe that this appointment policy of the president goes even further.

Regardless of who wins the presidential elections in October – Fernández de Kirchner is barred by the Constitution from running for a third consecutive term – the historical memory movement will live on, especially among people who were too young to remember the dictatorship, they say.

“This isn’t an aesthetic movement or a trend; it is an ideological position that here to stay,” says Cabandié.

“This is already a state policy that cannot be revoked and one that gives Argentina a lot of international prestige,” adds Fresneda.

But many in the opposition, such as Deputy Patricia Bullrich, have criticized what Fernández de Kirchner is doing.

Bullrich, who is aligned with Mauricio Macri, the conservative presidential candidate in Buenos Aires, was also forced to go into exile during the dictatorship but she rejects how the president is using historical memory for political gain.

Many in the opposition reject how the president is using historical memory for political gain

She claims that Fernández de Kirchner is making amends for appointing in 2013 Army General César Santos Gerardo del Corazón de Jesús Milani – an officer accused of crimes against humanity – as head of the military chiefs of staff.

“Reparations, which are very important for society, are being used politically,” Bullrich says.“They have appropriated things from the 1970s without conducting any self-examination. In other countries, such as Uruguay and Chile, [former President José] Mujica and [President Michelle] Bachelet have conducted intelligent revisions of those dark years. But the ‘Kirchnerites’ have not because they need a history of heroes and villains.”

Both Cabandié and Fresneda acknowledge the allegations made against General Milani, but say that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. A prosecutor is looking into Milani’s wealth.

“The president has ordered me to file whatever complaint necessary against Milani before the courts. But we can’t step ahead of justice. Once the courts decide, the president will make a decision,” says Fresneda.

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