Argentina, Hard


Wednesday, November 14, 2007  

War and the suppression of basic liberties are never nice things. Today there are few people who believe that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t a big horrendous mistake. Even the greatest advocate of the war, the current president of the USA, is looking for a way out of the mess. And the US public is just beginning to get wise that suppression of basic laws of privacy and habeas corpus are also a bad thing. Still, in the faint hope that we don’t repeat these mistakes in the future, it helps to point out a parallel between current events and somewhat less current events.

Memorial to Dirty War at site of former clandestine detencion centerI have been living in Argentina for three years now. I arrived a few days after that arrogant US president who invaded Iraq was reelected. It was embarrassing to be seen as a part of all that. (Fortunately there are intelligent people anywhere who see me for who I am, rather than as a generic representative of my government.) But at the same time, I could point out to any Yanqui-hater that Argentina has not so clean a history, with a recent military dictatorship which kidnapped and murdered 30,000 of its own citizens. Though the “Dirty War” here was largely enabled by US administrations of Ford, Carter, and Reagan, it was primarily a homegrown operation.

In my three years in Argentina I am still learning about this dark chapter in time, and part of the lesson is that this chapter has not been completely closed. And the way the military dictatorship came to power here was not of brute force; it was openly supported by the mainstream population as a way out of an economic and social mess, and as a way to protect the country from a perceived threat of terrorists, communists, and disorder. The majority of the public trusted what the regime said and tolerated its sacrifices on liberties as a way to rescue the country. Only when they began to realize that those rumors of torture and assassination were more than just rumors did their support wane, and eventually the dictatorship failed seven years later.

Iraq Today vs. 1980′s Argentina

Yesterday I visited an exhibit of photojournalism, the winners of the World Press Photo awards. Amongst photos of soccer players and wild animals, were numerous images of conflicts in Africa, Asia; and more specifically, Iraq.

At the World Press exhibitIn particular, I was impressed by a series of photos of US soldiers conducting night raids of homes of suspected insurgents. I could not help but compare what I was looking at to the stories I have heard in Argentina about the military coming to homes under the same pretext, and taking sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers away to never return. They would be taken to clandestine detention centers to be tortured and killed. Today, the US government openly admits that in Guantanamo Bay the prisoners do not receive due process, so I can imagine that “detainees” in Iraq continue to suffer in secret many things at least as bad as what has been exposed in Abu Ghraib.

One set of statistics I read at the exhibit struck me:
3,000: Number of US military dead by the end of 2006
300,000: Average estimate of Iraqi’s killed in war through 2006. (estimates range from 55,000 to 650,000)

And in the Dirty War:
30,000: Number of Argentine citizens killed in the Dirty War

One final parallel: I hear daily the current US president defending the invasion of privacy and restrictions on the rights of detainees within and outside the country in the name of national security. Better to give up a little now to combat the threat of global terrorism. Well, a similar reasoning has been made by many powers in history, more than just by the Argentina dictatorship and President Musharraf in Pakistan.

My favorite from the World Press exhibit: Street dancers in Paris

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