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Javier Milei’s running mate proposes dismantling museum in memory of victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship

Victoria Villarruel said during an interview that the former ESMA naval academy, the country’s largest clandestine detention center, should be ‘enjoyed by all the Argentine people’

Federico Rivas Molina
Victoria Villarruel Argentina
Victoria Villarruel in Buenos Aires, in August of this year.Erica Canepa (Bloomberg)

Victoria Villarruel, the candidate for the vice-presidency of Argentina on the ticket headed by the ultra-conservative Javier Milei, has once again taken a swipe at the country’s historical memory. On Tuesday, she complained that the largest detention and extermination center under the military dictatorship, the ESMA, has been operating as a memorial museum since 2015 and occupies “17 hectares that could be enjoyed by all the Argentine people, especially because at the time they were intended to be for schools, and what we need most are schools,” Villarruel said in a television interview. The ESMA — Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy — originally served as a military training center, but following the 1976 coup d’état, cadets attended classes while in the basements, detainees were tortured and murdered and pregnant captives gave birth in a clandestine clinic. The vision of Villarruel — the granddaughter, daughter and niece of military men, whose uncle was investigated for crimes against humanity — clashes with UNESCO’s decision last September to declare the museum a World Heritage Site.

The last military dictatorship, which ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983, operated 700 illegal detention centers throughout the country. ESMA was the largest of them. Located in the north of Buenos Aires, facing the La Plata river and surrounded by luxurious buildings, 5,000 people passed through its basements: some 4,500 died as a result of torture, or were thrown alive into the sea. ESMA also operated a clandestine maternity ward, where babies were handed over to their captors after the murder of their mothers. With the return to democracy in 1983, ESMA continued to operate as a naval academy. In the 1990s, then president Carlos Menem proposed demolishing it, but the courts reminded him that there were hundreds of pieces of evidence being used in open trials there and prevented him from doing so. Finally, the navy was evicted and in 2015 the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner opened a museum at the facility, which today is part of Argentina’s historical memory.

ESMA Argentina
The ESMA Museum and Site of Memory at the former Navy Mechanics School.

Villarruel has campaigned for what she calls “complete memory, a broad vision of human rights” that includes the victims of guerrilla actions against the dictatorship and the shelving of the dozen cases for crimes against humanity that are still open in Argentina. While Milei promises a radical change in economic policies, including dollarization and the closing of the Central Bank as a remedy to inflation, Villarruel champions a conservative revolution against abortion, sexual diversity and gender equality policies that have placed Argentina at the forefront of these rights in Latin America. Denialism of the dictatorship is the main banner under which Milei’s running mate is marching.

Villarruel used to visit former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in prison, and through the Center for Legal Studies on Terrorism and its Victims promoted the recognition of crimes against the repressors. In 2015, a judge prosecuted her uncle, former intelligence officer Ernesto Villarruel, for alleged kidnappings in the clandestine detention center of El Vesubio.

The “cultural battle” that Villarruel promotes mercilessly attacks one of the few consensuses in Argentine society on the 40th anniversary of democracy. The trial of the military heads of the dictatorship during the government of Raúl Alfonsín initiated a process of historical reparation that, with its ups and downs, remains an example in Latin America. Today in Argentina, 1,200 agents of the dictatorship have been convicted and 17 trials remain open, according to the latest statistics of the Human Rights Secretariat.

Villarruel considers those convicted to be victims of a “dictatorship of a single way of thinking” promoted by the left. At the top of her list of enemies is the 93-year-old president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Estela de Carlotto. Villarruel has in the past called her “a rather sinister character who, with that good granny look, has justified terrorism.” Carlotto said Tuesday that the idea of closing the ESMA museum was the attempt of “an unhinged woman who thinks she is a queen who can erase and insert [into memory] whatever she wants.”

“History is not going to be erased because that is what the [human rights] organizations and the Argentine people are there for,” Carlotto told Futurock radio.

Villarruel gained prominence in the final stretch of the extreme right’s campaign after the last debate among the candidates for president. Milei was hesitant and let himself be cornered by his rival, the Peronist Sergio Massa, and all eyes fell on the 48-year-old Villarruel, who speaks firmly and bluntly. This week, she publicly supported a video posted by a retired captain named Iván Volante showing a green Ford Falcon, like the one used by the military to kidnap opponents, along with the caption: “Seven [people] although a little uncomfortable, all fit in this trunk.” Volante also criticized Agustín Rossi, a former Minister of Defense and Massa’s vice-presidential candidate. “My support to the Captain and to all our men of the Armed Forces who suffer the demonization and mistreatment of Kirchnerism,” Villarruel wrote on social networks.

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