Tuesday, March 24, 2009

March 24, 1976: Welcome to Hell


Today is a holiday in Argentina. It’s a controversial one. There are people who say the event that prompted it should be forgotten. There are others that say it should be remembered the way the Nazi holocaust is, not by marking a date, but by never ever letting anybody forget what happened, so that it will never be repeated. And there are still others who say that it should be recalled and vindicated as the heroic stand of ‘true patriots’ who put the country to rights when things had gone wrong. Luckily, nowadays, this last opinion is, for the most part, held only by a handful of moribund dinosaurs who are destined to shortly disappear…naturally, mortally, humanly, not as they made so many others ‘disappear’.

Those who favor this holiday, explain that it isn’t a ‘celebration’, but a commemoration, a day of remembrance to mark perhaps the darkest chapter in Argentina’s history, since it was on this date in 1976 that the Argentine armed forces seized control of power and unleashed a bloodbath that put an end to 30,000 lives and directly affected tens of thousands more.
I was a witness to that coup.


How It All Began. On the eve of the coup that ended Isabel Perón's government and marked the starting point for the bloody 'National Reorganization Process', a little man called Goyena - who, officially speaking, was 'our man in Government House' for the Buenos Aires Herald, the English-language daily I worked for, but who was really more of a quasi-government bureaucrat who delivered official press releases to us and carried gossip back to the Information Secretariat - walked into our already frantic newsroom. Addressing the general clamor and clatter of the newsroom he said, "Buenas tardes." Then he walked over to where Managing Editor Robert Cox was reading cables as they chattered out of the teletype machine, and in a loud clear voice, authoritatively said: "Hi, Chief. I just want you to know that not even a fly is stirring."

A couple of journalists who heard him guffawed. We had known for some time that a coup was in the offing and by that late hour on the eve of the rightwing revolution, everybody in the media knew that tonight was the night. Cox just turned slowly and looked at the bearer of this news with an expression of something akin to awe on his face. He kept staring at Goyena for a brief moment and the question on his lips was surely, "How in bloody hell can you hang around the Government House newsroom all day and have no idea what's going on? Or are you just an incredible cynic?" But he didn't ask it. Always the English gentleman, he took the little envelope full of official press releases Goyena extended to him and, with a pained look on his face, said: "Thank you, Goyena. Thank you and good night."

Goyena, with the serenity of a simpleton said, "Good night everyone," and was off for home, mission accomplished.

But his reaction was not a lot different than that of the rest of the country. Since General Juan D. Perón's death, the country had been divided into a them-and-us mentality by which there was the government and its entourage – which, although ostensibly elected, ruled like a band of village tyrants – and the people, who ruled nothing, and the trick was simply to try to avoid becoming a victim of the government. People lived their lives despite the government and sought ways to get around whatever ridiculous new action the State decreed while avoiding the eyes of its thugs that randomly roamed the streets in plate-less Ford Falcon Sprints, four or five to a car, door-to-door goons with sawn-off pump shotguns bristling from the windows. All they needed to change your whole life forever — or to end it — was an excuse and any excuse would do, even looking at them the wrong way. They reminded me of the gang of bandoleros in the western classic "The Magnificent Seven", heavily armed, ignorant scum that terrorized a little Mexican town until the city fathers finally had had enough and scraped up sufficient money to hire seven very scary American gunslingers to settle the score. Except that these guys were terrorizing a whole major city, an entire country, and had a whole government, the police and, yes, even the Army behind them. You weren't going to stop them by hiring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and company, no matter how fast they were on the draw.


A de facto state of siege was in place even before acting President (and Senate leader) Italo Luder made it official in 1975. In the vacuum left by Juan Perón’s death, his widow, ‘Isabel’ (María Estela Martínez de Perón) was a half-hysterical, tragi-comic figurehead, who was being mercilessly manipulated by a band of Peronist trade union hoodlums, in league with a sort of secret society of fundamentalist killers of fascist extraction.

The “wet work” was the province of the government’s eminence grise, former Federal Police Corporal José López Rega, Perón’s long-time bodyguard and confidant, known as “El Brujo” (the warlock), because of his links to Umbanda occultists. As Social Welfare Minister and Private Secretary first to Perón and then to Isabel, he wielded considerable power even in public life – enough, for instance, to name himself comisario general, the highest rank in the Federal Police, over the angry protests of a lot of the real cops. But the power he held behind the scenes was staggeringly greater. When the right wing Iron Guard of Peronism decided to “purify” the ranks of Peronism of “Marxist infiltration”, it was López Rega who eagerly leapt to the task, forming what was to become known as the “Triple-A” (Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance), a clandestine association of mostly former cops and military men, formed into death squads whose job it was to kill off leftwing leaders and thinkers. But under López Rega’s command, the Triple-A became a lot more: A private army of hit men whose aim was to silence any dissent, no matter where it came from.

So the trick, as I say, was to avoid them.

A Learning Experience. I had learned my lesson early on, a few years before the coup, when I was still quite green. My wife and I had gone to a movie and when we came out of the cinema on stylish Avenida Santa Fe, one of these sinister Ford Falcons, heavy with goons and hardware was coasting slowly along the curb. All of the occupants but the driver were looking toward the crowd coming out of the cinema. The two closest to the curb leered out the front and back passenger windows at the girls in the crowd. I realized that they were 'cruising chicks' more than patrolling the streets. It wasn't as if they really believed they could pick one up on their own merit, but so what? They had the power to pick up whomever they pleased! If they saw a young woman they 'fancied' they could always take her in for 'questioning' and if her male companion protested, he could always end up 'resisting arrest'. At any rate, when I noticed that the two on the curb side of the car were looking my wife up and down while making barely veiled rude gestures and noises, I stopped, turned and stared at them as coldly as I could. I don't know what on earth I was thinking, but I was young, not long out of the U.S. Army, with my head full of North American ideas about citizen's rights, about the invulnerability of American citizens abroad, about never backing down no matter what the odds, and so I tried to stare the thugs down.


Well, that obviously didn't work. My wife was tugging at my sleeve and warning me in English to move on. "Don't look at them! Come on, let's go!" she hissed. But it was too late. All but the driver were suddenly out of the car, shotguns at port arms or 9-millimeter pistols in hand, hustling me up against a store front.

"Documento!" one of them shouted as they spun me around and muscled me up against the wall face first.

"He doesn't understand anything," my wife was saying in Spanish. "He's American. He doesn't understand what's going on. He didn't know you were policemen. He's American," she kept saying, more than anything else, I think, for the benefit of the little crowd that was gathering on the sidewalk around us, perhaps so that if we got hauled away, someone might call the American Embassy. I don't really know. It all happened very fast and was quite confusing but I didn't have an Argentine permanent residence ID yet and handed them my U.S. passport. It seemed to cool them down somewhat, as did the crowd of witnesses on busy Santa Fe, who were waiting around to see the outcome. After making us stand there for a few minutes several of the plainclothesmen started slowly making their way back to the car. On their way they addressed the bystanders saying, "What are you looking at? Move on! Circulate! Nothing's happening here."

Nothing was ever happening anywhere but things happened every day and when they did, people disappeared or died.

The one that remained behind, turned me back around and stood toe to toe with me, obviously looking at the full beard I had only recently grown after leaving my job at a hotel, where beards had been strictly forbidden. He got close enough to me that I could smell his sweat and said, menacingly, "If I see you with that beard again, I'll burn it off. Get rid of it or we might mistake you for a guerrilla." He slapped my passport up against my chest. I took it and he turned on his heel and went back to the car, which roared off up the avenue.

Boots in the Night. I was reminded of that frightening personal experience on my way home that night in 1976, after I had headlined the March 24 Herald 'Tanks Roll Toward Buenos Aires' and put the paper's coup edition to bed. By the time that I saw the paper off, and hit the street, Isabel Perón had already been arrested and flown away from Government House by helicopter. That had happened at half past midnight, less than an hour before the paper was coming off the press and I left for home with a copy in my briefcase.

Already the downtown streets were firmly in the grasp of the Armed Forces. There were troops and trucks and jeeps on practically every corner. Soldiers in full combat gear, and slung with light automatic weapons were stopping cars and pedestrians and checking their identity papers by the beams of their flashlights. Those who had apparently failed to identify themselves properly were being herded aboard 5-ton trucks fitted with benches in their beds and with their backends covered by canvas tarps. The Army had also commandeered some city buses that were being loaded with prisoners. In my young mind, it was a scene that was far too reminiscent of the World War II movies I had grown up on, in which the Nazis would raid an entire neighborhood, loading Jews, Gypsies and other 'undesirables' onto trucks similar to these, to drive them off to God-knew-where for extermination.

I was on foot, unable to find any sort of transport to take me home, and while it was an incredible opportunity to observe the movement in the streets in the early moments of the military takeover, I couldn't help also having an intuitive sense of sheer survival that kept urging me to cut and run in panic. The term 'bloodless coup' didn't at all prepare one's mind for the overwhelming military force that was out in the streets and the effect was chilling to say the least. I remember feeling glad that I was wearing a suit and tie and looking as respectable as possible and that I had my identity and permanent residence documents in order. I ended up having to make my way on foot for at least 20 blocks, during which I was stopped and frisked and asked for my papers no fewer than four times, also having to show my Herald ID to back my story about being out in the wee hours because I was a journalist and had just got off work. But I was eventually able to slip onto the side streets and catch a rogue cab that took me the rest of the way to my mid-town neighborhood.

State of Siege. In the frightening days of lawlessness in high places prior to the coup, people liked to console themselves with the thought that it (abuse of power) couldn't happen to them. That if they stayed clear of 'politics' they would be safe. Hence the brilliant line of a character accused of leftist sympathies in a novel by the late Osvaldo Soriano, who lived out the dictatorship, like many other Argentine artists and intellectuals, in exile: "I've never been involved in politics," says Soriano's character. "I've always been a Peronist!"

When someone went missing whose disappearance they couldn't explain, people sought to ease their own minds by, saying: "Well, if they disappeared, they must have been 'into something'." If that was a common attitude in the pre-coup days, it became broadly prevalent after the March 24, 1976 takeover.

The fact was, however, that the process by which people in Argentina 'disappeared' in those days of the 'state of siege' was vicious and often random. And it turned even more random with the advent of military rule. Long before that time, Herald editors Robert Cox and Andrew Graham-Yooll had already begun to keep lists and to receive relatives of the missing at the paper’s offices in order to document the cases. They still believed in the courts. And we all continued to cling to Justice as our last hope throughout the nearly eight years that the military dictatorship lasted. The judicial system was indeed flawed, but it was better than nothing and could sometimes be used to the disadvantage of the country's rulers, who were otherwise untouchable.

In order to at least vaguely protect themselves and the newspaper, Bob and Andrew required that the relatives who appeared at the paper to state their missing family members' cases file a writ of habeas corpus with the court before the Herald would publish a line about it. It was a tenuous maneuver at best under the state of siege in which all constitutional guarantees were suspended, but it was a way to at least be able to claim that the case was official and, thus, public knowledge. The Herald could avoid being accused of publishing false reports, since the information was culled from public court records. It didn't matter that, in point of fact, the process worked in reverse. Indeed, sometimes the filing of the habeas corpus functioned as the peg on which our story hung. Furthermore, it was a way of making the State, through the courts, recognize that people were going missing, even if nobody was going to do anything about it. The Herald, then, without really wishing to, became more than just a newspaper. It gradually turned into a kind of ombudsman for the missing and their families, or at least a sort of 'scorekeeper' in what was to become known as the 'Dirty War'.

Cox never saw it that way, however. I once said something to him about the Herald's being 'a century-old institution'. He winced and said, "The Herald is a newspaper, not an institution. It's our job to report and if we can't do that, we might as well pack it in. But please don't call it an institution, Dan. Every time something gets called an institution, it's because it's already dead."

I stood corrected and on deeper thought, took that as my own credo: Who was the government, any government, to tell me what I could or could not say, if it was the truth? If I was a journalist, a chronicler, a writer, I was duty-bound to tell the truth as I saw it and report what I knew. Otherwise I had best shut up altogether.

Truth, obviously, was in very short supply both before and after the coup. The three-man Junta, made up of Army General Jorge Rafael Videla, Air Force General Orlando Agosti and Admiral Emilio Massera of the Navy, led the country to believe that they were a stopgap. Videla, leader of the strongest force and soon-to-be-president of the country, acted as the official spokesman for the Junta, assuring local and foreign journalists alike that his government was “pro-democracy”. He said that the situation had been intolerable under Isabel Perón’s chaotic government, that democracy had been severely endangered and that the purpose of the Junta was to shore up the country's damaged institutions, repress subversive activities and return power to the people's elected representatives, where it belonged. Considering the dire and dangerous times in which the country had been living prior to the coup, this sounded highly reassuring to practically everyone, and particularly to major local and international businesses. It was precisely what the country needed, big businessmen contended — to get reorganized, to change its faltering image, to get serious and buckle down, to get the trains running on time, so to speak.

Videla himself was, he suggested, a professional soldier and a patriot, a man bound to serve his country in any way he could. And the sooner he could do this job and get back to barracks, the better.

People believed him. Even Robert Cox believed him, saying upon first meeting him that Videla seemed like “a decent man”. But it was all a lie and Cox’s opinion – and the paper’s – would soon change radically. The military were to remain entrenched in power for the next seven and a half years. In “protecting democracy” (presumably from itself), the National Reorganization Process – El Proceso for short – would create a State terror machine that would grind up the rights of an entire nation in its cogs. The Proceso would be responsible for some 30,000 “disappearances” (read: murders) and torture would become standard operating procedure at every military installation, police precinct and “safe house” in the country. The atrocities and abuses were endless and the stultifying effects of life under the absolute power of a dictatorship that claimed a ‘moral’ as well as political agenda infected every level of society. It would take involving the country in a war with a major world power and promptly losing that confrontation to debilitate the Proceso to a point at which it became untenable for it to remain standing, and democracy was finally restored - but that's another story for another day.

And that’s why this day is commemorated - lest we forget, that no matter how seemingly intolerable and undemocratic a democratically elected administration may seem, democracy can only be corrected by due democratic process. Anything else is tantamount to having the wolf guard the sheep.

3 comments:

Lilly said...

Geez! That morning is so clear in my mind! I must have been about 14 years old. We had moved into our San Isidro house the day before. The house was chaos but no excuse was good enough to miss school.
My sisters and I rose early as usual and guessed our way into our school uniforms completely oblivious of anything but the fact that... "Ufa! School again...". As we steered our sleepy selves into our parent's room for a good morning kiss, my father's radio alarm clock broke off with a strident military march ripped through our lethargy... "Comunicado número 1..."

Kendra said...

Excellent. For those of us not living in Argentina at the time, your vivid account is much appreciated. I want to read more!

Sylvia said...

A bit late, but here I am leaving an overdue comment (I'd already read your article, believe me!). And yes, I find no fault with what you've written. Things were precisely so, even tho' I must confess to thinking it was 'a good thing' when Isabel/López Rega were toppled. Along with about 90% of the population, who nowadays absolutely deny ever having been in favour of the "Reorganización..." during its first term. I remember folks proudly proclaiming that Argentina was masterly at 'bloodless coups'....oops, what a ghastly, incredible mistake. I recently read a review on a novel "The Kindly Ones", by Jonathan Little, in which the author explores how normal people become mass killers... throughout most of history! The book is just out and highly controversial, but in France it's hailed as a 19th. Century "War and Peace" (probably because the narrator reads Flaubert and savours French claret, while seeking justification for genocide in Plato). What I'm trying to say, is that the most difficult question of all is not about the victims, but about the killers...human beings, like it or not.
Your last paragraph is an important up-to-date warning, considering the present state of affairs in Argentina.
Thank you for an excellent report.