REFUSING TO FORGET
October 16, 1997
A little over two decades have passed since a military junta overthrew Argentina's democratically elected government. During the junta's six year reign, nearly 30,000 people "disappeared" in what is often referred to as Argentina's "Dirty War." After a background report, Elizabeth Farnsworth leads a discussion on a nation trying to heal its wounds.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now three perspectives. Susan Bilello is director of the Freedom Forum's Latin American Center in Buenos Aires. Claudio Grossman, who is Chilean, is dean of the Washington College of Law at American University; he is also a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Joseph Tulchin is director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Thank you all for being with us. Joseph Tulchin, help us understand why President Menem declared the amnesty. He himself had been a political prisoner.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
October 16, 1997
A background report on the political history of Argentina.
October 13, 1997
A discussion of President Clinton's trip to Latin America.
February 26, 1997
A report on Chile's democratic status and economic revival.
December 30, 1996:
After 36 years of civil war, the Guatemalan government and rebels sign a peace agreement.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Latin America.
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo are a group of women with "disappeared" children and grandchildren in Argentina. (In Spanish)
Argentina Human Rights Information
President of Argentina
Consulate of Argentina in Chicago (in English) and the Embassy in Washington (in Spanish)
Why did Menem declare the amnesty?
JOSEPH TULCHIN, Woodrow Wilson Center: When Menem came to power, he assumed office five months early because the country was going through an episode of hyperinflation. The corrosive, socially destructive experience of hyperinflation convinced him that the reforms he wished to make, the economic reforms he wished to make could only be accomplished by putting behind him and his government at least for a while the nation's trauma of the dirty war. So he made a calculated political decision, and at that time, the polls indicate that it was the correct political decision. Today, almost a decade after he came to power, the consequences of that decision, the anticipated consequences which he was prepared to pay, are now coming home to roost, and the issues, which the film suggests, are every day more significant and more important in Argentine political discourse.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Claudio Grossman, explain why that's true. There was also a truth commission report in Argentina, which was very extensive, about what happened. So it's not like Argentina didn't do something about the past and yet, it's the country that has this large movement looking for accountability. Why in Argentina?
"Not possible to ignore these widespread atrocities."
CLAUDIO GROSSMAN, American University Law School: Well, Menem's predecessor created the commission to investigate the situation of the disappeared persons, but I'm not sure that President Menem's political decisions were right. I think that there is a continuum between issues concerning impunity and economic decisions as well. I think that whether these decisions were right or wrong are going to be seen in light of further developments. I tend to believe that it is not possible to ignore these widespread atrocities that took place in Argentina and resulted in around 30,000 disappeared persons there. We're talking there of a state organized during the military regime as a criminal enterprise, and I don't think that long term and strategically is possible simply to turn the page, not only because of a moral imperative but due to the impact that those decisions have a role in the organization of Argentinian society.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Suzanne Bilello, why do you think Argentina has this rather large movement of--for accountability where other countries who have had similar problems don't have that movement in Latin America?
The government vs. the press.
SUZANNE BILELLO, Freedom Forum: Well, the press is one of the institutions in Argentina that is functioning well in the democratic context. It has moved on. It has evolved. It has become democratic, and the--it is responding to what the society wants. I think the largest issue here is impunity. A photographer was murdered earlier this year and it reminded people that the dirty war is over but that the past is not that far behind. And there's a tremendous fear of returning to that past. There's concern about the lack of rule of law. There's a concern that there's an ambience of aggression that's being fueled, in part, from the government's intolerance of the media, and the concern is that the country cannot go forward unless these issues are dealt with.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Suzanne Bilello, why is the media such a target?
SUZANNE BILELLO: The media is a target, I believe, but it is very aggressively pursuing corruption. It's very aggressively pursuing the--what's lacking in the process of the democratic evolution of the country. I think that it's threatening to some people in power, and there's a lack of understanding of the media's role in a democracy. I mean, the press suffered tremendously during the dirty war. A hundred journalists were disappeared and murdered. Also within the press during the dirty war it wasn't the proudest moment. There was overt censorship on the part of the military dictatorship and a lot of self-censorship. And the press is one of the few institutions that has made a decision to break with that past and to fulfill its role and also to respond to what the society wants. There is a sense of anxiousness among the society to realize the promise of democratization, and it's been slow in coming in these last 14 years. And that's basically what the society wants and what the press is trying to provide.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Joseph Tulchin--I should say, by the way, we did ask the Argentine embassy and the UN mission to provide guests for us but most people were in Argentina because of the President's visit. But Joseph Tulchin, what is the relationship between the acts of intimidation now and the past? I think President Menem would say they're not really related, that these current problems are very different.
Economic success vs. political signals of discontent.
JOSEPH TULCHIN: I think the President would make that assertion but most people in the country wouldn't believe him. I think the film clip makes perfectly plain that there is a widespread malaise or uneasiness on the part of voters in Argentina today that perhaps the kinds of impunity to which Suzanne referred to just a moment ago is, indeed, closely related to the use of the state as a dirty enterprise. I think, however, two points have to be added at this juncture: First, that when Menem came to office, he felt the only way of moving the country forward, to pull it out of this dizzying spin of hyperinflation, was to focus on economic reform. He did that.
And you might say in a jocular fashion, if you can allow a slight--some levity--that Menem's become captive of his own press releases, and that in reading the "Wall Street Journal" over the last five years, which has been singing the praises of the Argentine economic miracle, Menem and his closest advisers have come to believe that he could disregard the political signals, the malaise about corruption, about police impunity, and about these attacks. And let's not forget unfortunately or fortunately perenism has an historic past that includes these episodes of violence. And Menem came to power with his muchachos. And he's put them aside but they are there. And whether they acted in concert with elements of the state, or whether they acted independently of it in a kind of Beckett fashion is irrelevant. The point is that the President is now caught in a trap that he, himself, set, and he has to move very quickly on judicial and police reform; otherwise, I'm afraid his government will suffer the consequences.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Grossman, do you agree with that, that the President is caught in a trap that he himself set?
CLAUDIO GROSSMAN: Well, I think there is a lot of truth in that assertion, and I think that the future of Argentina will depend a lot in moving ahead in terms of--with the past, the reform of the judiciary is also important--and again not only due to an ethical imperative between justice to the atrocities that took place in the past but an economic system and its--civility of functioning and honest judiciary--I think is very important also to perch the police--particularly the provincial police--there is a widespread perception in Argentina that the same people who make people disappear in the past now are engaging in corruption and certainly continue with the methods used that are not proper at all in a democratic environment.
The chances for democracy in Argentina.
I would like to say, however, that it is very important to consider that the current situation in Argentina is not today as it was during the military dictatorship but that moment there was a state policy they erected towards extermination of human beings. Now, the elections and existence I would say of a critical mass of people who complain--who go to the streets--creates a space that really has a promise that things are going to go to a different direction. That democratic culture that exists among the masses of the Argentinians and as a result of the experience is certainly something that we need to value and value in a positive way.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Suzanne Bilello, there are elections coming up and this whole question of impunity is a major issue, is it not, so this continues at the fore of Argentine thought.
SUZANNE BILELLO: It's definitely at the fore of the society's thoughts, and there are expectations, you know, that the elections will provide more diversity within the legislature. But the press is keeping this issue alive, and in many ways has made it--put it at the top of the agenda--and, again, it's something that the society wants, and it's an effort to make government accountable.
What should the U.S. do?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Joseph Tulchin, what should the United States Government be doing about any of these issues, if anything?
JOSEPH TULCHIN: The United States Government should try and be balanced in its dealing with Argentina, as with the rest of Latin America. The United States, I think, has been very fair in trying to get the Argentine government over the last five or six years to understand the importance of these issues, which in Spanish translate into English, our judicial insecurity, as well as corruption. Amb. Chic while he was in Buenos Aires was a very powerful and outspoken advocate of judicial reform, as well as police reform. Of course, as you know, we don't have an ambassador in Buenos Aires, and perhaps that's an answer to your question. One of the first things we should do is Mr. Clinton should nominate and send to the Senate for confirmation an ambassador in Buenos Aires. That would help enormously.
The second thing--and I think Mr. Clinton is doing that--in speeches during his trip--that is to de-emphasize the economic side, not without devaluing it. That's an important success of the Menem government, but it's not the only success. The Menem government must now focus its attention on these issues that we've talked about tonight. And in fairness to what's been said to both critics and supporters of the government, up until very recently the government turned a cold shoulder to its critics on this issue, but very recently a close friend of the president, who was ambassador in Washington--was named minister of justice, and I can only hope that that nomination will indicate an aggressive stance on judicial reform. I have to say, however, that our friend, Raoul Granigio, has not accomplished a great deal in his short tenure, and I hope this show helps to spur him on a little bit, keeping the focus on these issues in the international community as broadly as possible, journalists and others, is what the United States can do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay.
JOSEPH TULCHIN: It's not just economics but democracy is much more.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much, all of you.