Argentina, Political

A Nation Built on Contradictions

Wednesday, March 24, 2010  

Today is a holiday here, as it marks a very important anniversary in Argentina. On March 24, 1976 a military coup took place, officially putting control of the country in the hands of a dictatorship. This is commonly known as the Dirty War. It is estimated that between then and the return to democracy in late 1983, 30,000 Argentine citizens were “disappeared,” murdered by their own government. Also, many were exiled, kidnapped, unjustly imprisoned, and tortured. When I first came here, it one day suddenly hit me at how recent this was, and the thought still gives me chills. After 5 years of living here, I am well aware of this period of history and see its effects to this day, but I am still learning. Here is what I understand.

Peronism, keeps on goingIt was a dark chapter obviously, but putting specific dates on it is a little misleading. Argentina has a history of several dicatorships, the one that began in 1976 being only the latest one. Also the brutality of the latest dictarorship began a while before the coup and its effects continue today. More obviously, there have been trials very recently against perpretrators in the Dirty War. Eerily, in 2006, at the conclusion of the trial of the head of the federal police during the Dirty War, the chief witness, Jorge Julio Lopez, was disappeared and never heard from again.

In 1945, another repressive dictatorship was ended by the dramatic rise to power of the populist Juan Perón and his second and very famous wife Eva. His legacy is enormous in creating a more democratic Argentina, with rights and support to all citizens regardless of class or race. This has shaped modern Argentina and made it a better place overall. Furthermore, politically, to be a Peronist is often a given, differentiated by being a rightist Peronist, a moderate Peronist, or a leftist Peronist.

The Juan Perón who became president for the third time in 1973 was very different, that time aiding the AAA (Anti-communist Argentina Alliance), a military group that began illegal detentions and killings of leftist Peronists during his presidency. Perón died in 1974 with his wife Isabel taking control and eventually officially handing over the country to the military junta on March 24, 1976. She currently lives in Spain while the Argentine government has been trying unsuccessfully to extradite her back to Argentina to stand trial for her complicity.

But more subtle effects of this live on today. Although the US government during the cold war had a hand in supporting the AAA and the military junta, in its fight against Communism, there was wide support from the public. At the time, the country was both in a severe economic and political crisis, and the public was sold on the dictatorship as a way to bring stability. To this day many people here are overly obsessed with public security and order, so I can imagine this happening. (Similar to when in the US when the invasive PATRIOT act and water boarding were so easy to swallow as tools against terrorism.)

Aparacion con Vida Jorge Julio Lopez, Demanding the return of the disappeared witnessWhen the dictatorship came to power, many believed that the new government would act in the interests of its people. Even when witnessing the arrest of neighbors, they believed that the police were bringing order and would treat the arrested fairly. Over time the public got wise, but also impatient with the government which did not bring prosperity but instead declared war on the British, leading to another massacre of people. Although not elected democratically, even dictatorships rely on public support, thus this dictatorship finally came to an end. Public support helped bring them to power, and the lack of it eventually removed them from power.

Argentina and Latin America has a history of oppression. But the brutality from the oppression has been woven into all levels of life. Such oppression began from the days of Columbus and continued through the days of the Spanish Viceroys and Catholic missionaries who had there way with all of the territory, killing and enslaving as they wished, and taking whatever resources they needed. In more modern times, the US manipulated Argentina and other Latin American countries, not only to exploit their resources, but as a tool in the Cold War supporting the emergence of monstrous dictatorships throughout. I see a lot of resentment toward the US, both overtly and not so overtly; and on the other hand a lot of enthusiasm for the music, movies, and products from the US. It is a dream of many Argentine people to visit Disney World, or to own an iPod.

After officially gaining independence in 1810, it wasn’t until some years later under the presidency of President Julio Roca, that Argentina really came into its own, and became the modern and sophisticated country it is know for. But on the other hand Roca was also responsible for wiping out almost all of the indigenous people. An example of this contradiction is the train station I see from my apartment, which is named after Roca, but through it commute daily thousands of people who have blood mixed with that of the same people Roca was trying to wipe out.

Today, Argentine people remain proud of Peronism. It is as important a word here as the word “liberty” is the the United States (though liberty is important here too). Even in talking about the Dirty War it is still difficult to talk about Perón’s role. Roca is known for his genocide but there are still memorials and streets dedicated to him. I don’t think this is such a bad practice, to recognize ones roots for the bad and the good. To accept where one comes from and hopefully to grow and not repeat the same atrocities.

Argentina has a well-educated, sophisticated culture. Although many artists and scientists left the country during the Dirty War, there is a high level of intellectualism and artists of all colors are respected. The babies of the Dirty War are now entering their 30′s, but still coming to terms with their dark roots. I have friends who are missing parents, murdered by the state. Others wonder if their family has some dark history that has not been revealed. I cannot imagine how I would feel or be able to function if I were in their shoes, but here you don’t play the victim, it’s just a given and part of coping with life in general.

On top of this the economic environment is very difficult, nearly impossible for many. No matter what your situation, you focus on the day to day tasks of moving along, and look for opportunities to enjoy life and to create. As much as some Argentine people can be xenophobic or overly concerned with crime, they can at times be truly be unusually concerned for the people around them no matter what the social difference, and very outward socially. And when opportunities emerge, you take advantage of them as fully as you can. This may be as simple as spending your last peso to go out at night, or to go on a vacation. But I am also talking about creative energy, with vibrant movements in the arts, design, writing, and music. With music, there’s more than just tango, but also so much activity in rock, folkloric, and electronic music. With all the ugliness, you would think people would shut down, but they don’t. They can’t.

The film industry is big too and does some great work, along with a decent share of trash. This year an Argentine film, El Secreto de sus Ojos, won the Oscar for best foreign film. This was the second time an Argentine production has won an Oscar, both times for films about the Dirty War.

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