Javier Milei’s extreme right threatens to break consensus on Argentina’s military dictatorship

The presidential candidate’s party has taken part in a tribute to the ‘other victims’ of the regime, which human rights groups say threatens the ‘basic agreements’ of the past 40 years of democracy

Dictatorship Argentina
A protester against a tribute held in honor of the victims of leftist groups during the military dictatorship.EFE/JUAN IGNACIO RONCORONI (EFE)

Argentina’s far-right party La Libertad Avanza (Freedom Advances) is threatening to break the consensus on the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, which killed an estimated 30,000 people. For the past 40 years, political parties from both the left and right have staunchly opposed the dictatorship and vowed to prevent its return. But the far-right group, led by Javier Milei, has started to challenge this state policy.

Victoria Villarruel, Milei’s running mate in the upcoming presidential elections, is trying to shift the focus to the “other victims” of Argentina’s dirty war. On Monday, Villarruel — who is the daughter of soldiers — held an event in Buenos Aires in tribute to those killed by leftist groups. The 48-year-old lawyer argued that “the state violates human rights” by “guaranteeing impunity for a group of violent people.” “For 40 years, the victims of terrorism were disappeared from memory,” she added.

The event was attended by Lorenza Ferrari, the mother of Laura Ferrari, who was murdered by the left-wing Peronist guerrilla organization Montoneros in 1975; Graciela Saraspe, the daughter of Oscar Saraspe, who was killed by the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) in 1974; and Arturo Larrabure, the son of the Argentine soldier Del Valle Larrabure, who was kidnapped by ERP for a year until his death. Larrabure’s captors said he killed himself, while the Argentinean Army said he had been murdered. The three argued that they had been forgotten by the state, and expressed their support for Villarruel.

Victoria Villarruel
Victoria Villarruel, during the protest against the event to honor the victims of armed leftist groups during Argentina's last dictatorship.AGUSTIN MARCARIAN (REUTERS)

Hundreds of people gathered outside Buenos Aires City Legislature Palace, where the event was being held, to protest the revisionist tribute. Demonstrators carried signs with messages such as “Never Again,” and “Fascism is not honored, it is fought.” “Authoritarianism is outside,” responded Villarruel.

“Those of us who are older and lived through the dictatorship know what state terrorism did,” said Beatriz Olhasso, a retiree, who attended the protest. “It is no coincidence to me that [Javier] Milei’s candidate for vice president is reaching out to very young kids, who didn’t live through that moment, and who feel that they are owed something from these 40 years of democracy because they have precarious jobs and live poorly.”

Some protesters tried to tear down the barricades that blocked the road leading to the Legislature Palace. “Just like the Nazis, wherever they go we will go looking for them,” they chanted, in reference to those guilty of crimes against humanity in Argentina. The mayor of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, was also accused of protecting Villarruel and supporting her ideas.

Villarruel questions the trials for crimes against humanity that took place following the dictatorship, criticizes the work of human rights organizations such as the Grandmothers and Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, which is still searching for those who went missing during the dirty war, and says she will review the compensation received by victims of state terrorism.

In 2006, Villarruel founded the Center for Legal Studies on Terrorism and its Victims (CELTYV), the group that organized Monday’s event. The organization brings together the relatives of people murdered by guerrillas in the 1970s, and promotes the so-called “two demons” theory, which equates state violence with that committed by armed groups. “I would like the judiciary to be truly independent and judge these people [the guerrillas] just as it judges the agents of the state who have violated human rights,” Villarruel said in 2016.

Villaruel, who made the leap into politics via her work at the center, is threatening one of the few state policies that have endured in Argentina regardless of the government in power. With the return to democracy, in 1983, Argentina opened the so-called Trial of the Juntas, a judicial trial of the crimes committed during the dictatorship. A total of 1,189 people have so far been convicted of crimes against humanity, and Argentina has become a reference point for its policy on ensuring the crimes of the dictatorship are not forgotten.

Buenos Aires evento organizado por Victoria Villaruel
People line up outside the Buenos Aires City Legislature before entering an event organized by Victoria Villarruel, the running mate of presidential candidate Javier Milei.AGUSTIN MARCARIAN (REUTERS)

Up until now, repudiation of the dictatorship went unquestioned, at least in public. In 2013, for example, when dictator Jorge Rafael Videla died in prison, his body was buried under an unmarked tombstone after several cemeteries refused to accept his remains. In Spain, by comparison, the dictator Francisco Franco remained buried in a mausoleum built by his prisoners until 2019. The site was often visited by supporters of the Franco dictatorship, who expressed their desire for a return to the undemocratic regime. That, in Argentina, would have been unthinkable.

While Villarruel says she is not a “denialist,” she has visited prisoners convicted of genocide. She maintains that she is fighting “for those who do not have human rights.”

Monday’s event has sparked concern among human rights groups, which say it is threatening “the basic agreements” of 40 years of democracy. That debate seemed to be over,” Victoria Montenegro, the president of the Human Rights Commission of the Buenos Aires Legislature, told EL PAÍS after the tribute. “In Argentina, there were not two demons. There was a terrorist state that kidnapped, tortured and disappeared people, that stole babies,” she said. “This discourse [from Villarruel] is confusing. There is no doubt that each life is unique and unrepeatable. But there is an enormous difference between the actions of militant groups and the role played by the state.”

The event comes as the Argentina Armed Forces enjoy high approval ratings, with a survey by the consulting firm Poliarquía finding that the military is ranked above the justice system, Congress and political parties. Villarruel has said that if her party wins the election, she will increase the military budget from 0.6% of gross domestic product (GDP) to 2%. She said she will achieve this by redirecting funds from the ministries that Milei intends to eliminate: Health, Education, Labor, Environment and Women.

Villarruel’s party Freedom Advances won the primary elections in August, securing one third of the votes. The possibility that the group may win the presidential election has sent alarm bells ringing. Carlos Enrique Pisoni, the son of leftist militants who were disappeared during the dictatorship, expressed his concern on Monday. “This is revenge. After 40 years of democracy, we cannot have a vice president who does not defend the values of democracy. She says a lot of atrocities that we cannot normalize,” he told the Buenos Aires Legislature.

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