Javier Milei, the presidential candidate of Argentina’s ultra-right wing, has turned the consensus that has kept Argentina’s democracy afloat for 40 years on its head. He intends to end public education and health, defund universities, and opposes abortion and egalitarian marriage laws. Part of this “cultural war,” as he terms it, involves a condescending re-reading of the country’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983) and state terrorism. At the forefront of this denialism is Milei’s vice-presidential candidate, Victoria Villarruel, the granddaughter, daughter and niece of military personnel who has campaigned for what she calls a “complete memory” that includes the victims of guerrilla actions against the dictatorship and the shelving cases for crimes against humanity that are still open in Argentina. Her discourse, however, has not gained the backing she anticipated in the barracks. The new generations of military personnel, some of them born in democracy and all of them educated in it, consider that putting the issue of illegal repression on the agenda goes against years of efforts to clean up their image.
The Armed Forces controlled Argentine politics for more than 50 years. In 1930, with the first coup d’état, it initiated a long series of attempts to repress first the Radical Civic Union (UCR), and then, from 1955 onwards, Peronism. By the time power was handed over in 1983, the military had forcibly removed five democratic governments from the Casa Rosada, not counting changes of command within the presidential palace. The president of the transition, the radical Raúl Alfonsín, tried the dictatorship’s leaders in 1985. In 1991, a Peronist, Carlos Menem, pardoned them. However, under Menem, a process of de-financing the Armed Forces and the withdrawal of troops to the barracks also began. Today, the Argentine military wants nothing to do with politics. And the democratic consensus around “Never Again” neutralized any attempt to rewrite history or politically glorify state terrorism. Until now.
When Milei was questioned about the dictatorship during the first presidential candidates’ debate, he repeated the words of Admiral Emilio Massera during the trial of the leaders of the military junta. He said that in the 1970s there was “a war” in which “excesses” were committed, but never an illegal systematic plan of extermination. He was the first presidential aspirant who dared to say as much, and the first who did not lose votes as a result. Villarruel goes further still. She intends to put an end to the trials for crimes against humanity, to turn the Museum and Site of Memory that stands on the location of the largest detention and torture center of the dictatorship, the ESMA, into a place for the enjoyment “of all Argentine people” and to purge the pension program received by the victims. Villarruel also denies that the number of disappeared people under the dictatorship was 30,000, as human rights organizations claim, but “only” the 8,961 recorded by the Truth Commission set up by Alfonsín at the beginning of his administration.
Villarruel’s discourse resonates among retired military officers, who held positions during the dictatorship and many of whom were convicted of crimes or have open proceedings against them for crimes against humanity. But not among current officers, trained in democracy. “We are another generation and we are upset,” says a navy source on condition of anonymity, as military personnel are prevented by regulation from expressing any political opinion. “Those from that era [the dictatorship] have already paid, they were convicted. Why return to a discourse that continues to work against you after 40 years?”
The same question is asked by Argentine political scientist Victoria Murillo, director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University. “Parties like [Marine Le Pen’s] National Rally in France initially sought to influence the public policy agenda. Once the public policy agenda changes, it is easier for them to accumulate votes. When an issue becomes normal, the extreme party becomes less extreme,” she explains.
Villarruel, in fact, has crossed several red lines, such as proposing that the Argentine Armed Forces carry out internal security tasks on a par with the police or the gendarmerie. Today, they are forbidden from doing so by an Alfonsín-era law that guaranteed the submission of the military to civilian power. “The Armed Forces, after the dictatorship, do not want to get into that game, which made us lose credibility, funds, properties”, says the same navy source. The government also considers that the military does not want to get involved in the fight against drug trafficking or common crime. “There is a lot of rejuvenation, with batches of young professionals. Nobody wants to get involved in national security issues, because they consider it a problem and know they are not prepared for it,” says an official source familiar with the sector. For Villarruel, the reluctance makes sense, because in the cases in which the army has been involved in internal security “corruption has increased.”
“And who are the military officers who publicly support Villarruel? They are early retirees who do not collect retirement benefits, individual cases with little internal ascendancy,” say government sources. This reticence, however, did not prevent many of them from voting, eventually, for Milei. Villarruel has promised this sector of the military a significant increase in the budget if she and Milei reach the Casa Rosada. It remains to be seen if this will be enough to gain support in the barracks.
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