Friday, October 29, 2010

Néstor, Cristina and the Isabel Connection

The death of former (and virtual) President Néstor Kirchner this week places Argentina once again at an institutional crossroads. For some time now the parallels between the last government of populist icon Juan Domingo Perón and the fast deteriorating popularity of the musical-chairs administration of Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, have been apparent to anyone willing to see them. But this comparison has been conspicuous by its absence from the opinions of most political analysts, in observing the ‘royal Kouple’s’ falling ratings and their desperate attempts to regain control of power.

Caption: Cristina and Néstor Kirchner (Government House photo).

With Kirchner’s sudden death on Wednesday, at the age of 60, however, these parallels have suddenly burst to the forefront of many people’s thinking. And rightly so, considering the vast power that both men wielded and the instant vacuum resulting from their sudden demise. While there are indeed great differences between the situations then and now, I would almost dare suggest that they are more a matter of degree than of nature.

At the time of his death in 1974, Perón was already having trouble controlling rival left and rightwing factions within his political movement. And these rivalries expanded into a war of tit for tat violence when he died and was succeeded by his third wife, María Estela Martínez (better known as ‘Isabel’), who was manipulated by a covey of far rightwing handlers, the most ubiquitous of which was former police corporal and Perón bodyguard, José López Rega, alleged founder of the clandestine Triple-A death squad. The Kirchners too have been facing increasing rebellion and unrest in their party and its circle of influence. In the same way that Perón made use of the Montonero guerrilla movement as a shock force to help clear the way for his return from seventeen years of Spanish exile, Kirchner sought to utilize the piqueteros—a lower class protest movement whose primary methods include prolonged roadblocks and camp-ins—to expand his power base. But just as happened to Perón, this erstwhile alliance backfired on Kirchner when the radical group turned their disruptive and sometimes violent protests against him and his wife. Internal violence among opposing factions is also threatening to boil over now, as then—if, as yet, to a lesser degree—as witnessed by the handgun slaying earlier this month of a twenty-three-year-old leftwing activist in a clash between rival union groups.

The deterioration and self-destruction of Isabel’s government in the two years following her husband’s death is a major chapter in Argentina’s contemporary history and too long and intricate to detail here, but the chaos that this process of decay wrought eventually led to the military coup d’état that took place in March of 1976 and the consequences of which Argentine society is still paying today. It is interesting to note that as the situation worsened and that government’s popularity plummeted, Mrs. Perón’s administration resorted to ever-increasing attacks on the media, opposition politicians, the legislature, the courts and the country’s powerful agricultural sector. These are the very same sectors of society that the Kirchners have been attacking ever since it became clear to them that political power was slipping inexorably through their fingers.

There is a parallel too in the fact that, like the K administration, as Isabel Perón’s popular power base eroded, her government became ever more autocratic, with Isabel acting as a puppet for the interests of her handlers (and Cristina for those of her husband and his close circle of friends) and ruling to an ever increasing extent by executive decree.

In Isabel’s case, however, she was eventually sent away “for a rest”, while Senate leader Italo Luder temporarily took over the presidency and declared the country under ‘state of siege’—a modified form of martial law in which most constitutional rights are suspended and the Executive Branch is provided with almost unlimited power. Abusive use of the state of siege—and abuse of power in general—was precisely what brought the institutional breakdown that followed and was the tool used by the military in order to usurp power “in the name of democracy” from the people’s representatives for most of the next decade.

It can be (and is) argued that nothing like this could happen today, that the Argentine military is now too small, as well as too professional, to ever again contemplate taking over the government in the face of a power vacuum. In an otherwise excellent editorial with which veteran journalist Jorge Lanata began his program (DDT) last Wednesday night on Channel 26, he opined that “no one can cast doubt on institutional continuity” in the Argentina of today. He added that “Argentina will never again have a dictatorship.”

But while Lanata’s statement is very likely true with regard to any sort of military takeover in the wake of Kirchner’s death and the eventual consequences of the power vacuum that this has created in an administration under which separation of powers has clearly been undermined, it seems somewhat politically naïve, in my opinion, to affirm with such assurance that institutional continuity is a given. The fact is that just a decade ago, President Fernando De la Rúa was forced out of his post midway through his term, plunging Argentina into one of the worst institutional crises that it has ever suffered. This was not the result of a military coup, but of an apparently orchestrated and singularly violent civilian uprising. And institutional order was indeed altered, bearing in mind that, following De la Rúa’s fall, the country had no fewer than five presidents over the next year and a half (with at least one serving less than a week).

Another commentator and long-time investigator of the K empire, Luis Majul, has pointed out that at the time of his death, Kirchner was facing the possibility, for the first time since he began his career as mayor of Río Gallegos in 1987, of running for election as president in 2011 and losing. For any normal everyday candidate, this would only signify the agony of defeat, but for Néstor Kirchner, according to Majul, it opened up the possibility of his losing political immunity and being investigated (and very possibly convicted) for alleged illicit activities ranging from misuse of power for personal gain to heading up an illegal association. Majul, who has closely followed the Kirchners’ meteoric rise to the pinnacle of wealth and power, questions why a man who was capable of mounting such extraordinary ambitions would fail to pack a parachute for the day that his career almost inevitably crashed and burned. To me, the answer seems clearly to be that the couple were convinced that they would be able to pass the chains of office back and forth between them for years to come. And more recent polls showing that their popularity is dwindling fast have been the determining factor in their ever more autocratic style of government and the increasingly strong pressure they have brought to bear on their critics, not the least of whom, certainly, has been the CEO of the Clarín news group, Héctor Magnetto. Majul claims that Kirchner was heard among his closest associates to say, on more than one occasion, that if he didn’t put Magnetto in jail first, Magnetto would put him in jail.

Majul quotes “an important ex-minister”, who once, but apparently no longer, formed part of the Kirchner entourage, as saying that the former president and eminence grise behind his wife’s administration had final say on the most minute details of government, from “the price of the dollar to monetary aid for a city councilman in the greater Buenos Aires area.” But according to Majul, the unnamed former official also added that “now Kirchner doesn’t know how to keep himself from being investigated, tried and eventually sentenced, since he never imagined he’d have to face such a situation.”

Lanata observes that, now, “the forbidden word is ‘Isabel’.” This savvy newsman clearly defines the situation that Cristina Kirchner will face once her husband’s funeral rites are over: “An opposition vice president and a divided Peronist Party, one year before elections.” He adds that it is hard to tell on whom the President will be able to depend for any genuine support, pointing out that Planning Minister Julio de Vido is having health issues of his own, that Cabinet Chief Aníbal Fernández is more bark than bite, that Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman has proven more of a political and diplomatic liability than a plus and that the presence of CGT union leader Hugo Moyano is tantamount to having “the enemy within”.

Clearly, Cristina Kirchner is not Isabel Perón—who basically lent her husband’s name to the office of president while doing what she was told to do by those who were really in charge, no matter how disastrous the advice might have been. There are striking differences in the two women's personalities and levels of preparation. Furthermore, Cristina is often defiant and opinionated in her own right, which could work to her advantage in resisting some of the advances of the country’s more nefarious power brokers (like Moyano). But, be that as it may, she has, in the past, demonstrated herself to be patently unyielding to the opinions of really knowledgeable advisors like Martín Redrado whom she forced out of the Central Bank by decree, despite the fact that the policies he set were largely what kept the peso and international reserves stable and kept Argentina from falling victim to the international crisis. In fact, both she and her late husband have systematically removed the soundest of technical personnel from key posts, preferring to replace them with yes-men/women, who will do their bidding, which has been equivalent to doing whatever it takes not to lose their grip on power.

The death of Néstor Kirchner has, however, rendered any plan for continuing to foster a musical-chairs presidential succession between the current president and her spouse, ad infinitum, a moot point. The looming question that remains is, what next?


NOTE: I'd like to clarify, since several people have made similar comments, that I'm not comparing - as I state in the article - Isabel Perón and Cristina Kirchner in terms of their personalities or their preparation for the post of president. What I'm indeed comparing is a political situation in which extremely powerful men have sought to use their wives as a guarantee of their own continuation in power - Perón had already done so with Evita and wanted to repeat the experience with Isabel (who obviously also wasn't Eva Perón). Kirchner emulated Perón's formula with Cristina - obviously with better fortune in the first case and with a much higher-quality political partner in the second.

That doesn't change the fact, however, that the deaths of both men created, in one case, and will create, in the other, a huge power vacuum. If you look into the statements of people who have worked closely with the successive K administrations, you'll find that Néstor Kirchner has continued to wield enormous power since his wife replaced him in office, to the extent of being practically a co-president and sort of CEO of the empire. And there can be little doubt either that the couple's idea had been to continue to pass power back and forth between them for as long as possible, since few will deny that, had he lived, Kirchner would have been a candidate in the next elections.

The point is that history has shown that power vacuums have a way of getting filled. How they get filled depends on who comes out on top in the political game of King of the Mountain. This is why, after the experience of the orchestrated civilian coup that ended Fernando De la Rúa's government less than a decade ago, it seems to me to be politically naïve to simply assume that institutional continuity will be a given.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

The best-laid schemes o' mice

an' men / Gang aft agley
Robert Burns

As Robert Burns has frequently been paraphrased, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Writing is, by far, the most important thing that I do in my life. Or at least it is to me, personally. And although for much of my adult life I have, indeed, kept the lights on and put bread on the table with the written word, it is also true that the most creative kind of writing that I do hasn’t always been what paid the rent. Especially when, like now, I’m involved, whenever time permits, in creative writing projects of my own that take a long time to develop and the future success of which is anything but certain.

But you keep on writing, because that’s what writers do. We can’t help it. We might torture ourselves for years, asking ourselves why we do it. But that won’t stop us. It’ll just make us impossibly neurotic and hell to get along with, until we finally come to terms with the fact that what isn’t worthwhile is not the writing, but asking ourselves the ‘why’ question.

If we writers had no other place to do it, we would write in the dust, on rocks, on the back of our hand, all the way up our arm until we got impossibly lost in our own armpit, or perhaps we’d just write on the back of a shovel with a piece of charcoal, Abe Lincoln-style. Our legacy was bequeathed to us by those first primitives who sketched pictograms of the things they saw on stone overhangs and in caves. They too were different from the others—crazier, the others probably thought, just as they still think now. Those ancient scribes couldn’t help themselves either. They just had to make a ‘written’ statement, communicate what they observed. Others must have shrugged and said, “Why bother? The antelope’s standing right over there, bozo! We see it! What do we need a symbol for?” And our writer ancestors might well have said, “Ah, yes, you see it, friend, but do you see it?”

But I digress. I was talking about plans going awry. My plan, since I started blogging a couple of years ago, has been to get to the place where I’m organized enough to be able to give my readers (whom I thank from the bottom of my heart for their patience and loyalty) a specific day on which each of my three different theme blogs will come out. Say like, Translator’s Handbook every Monday, A Yankee at Large every Wednesday and The Southern Yankee every Friday. Or some other, perhaps less demanding arrangement, but something that readers could count on.

I realize all too well that this is the only way to build a respectably large and loyal readership. Because, in the end, when you decide to write for the public—no matter what you write, be it print, electronic, daily, monthly, quarterly or what have you—you make a tacit commitment to your readers (even if they number no more than a handful) to produce. This said, I also realize that no matter how much I beat myself up over not ‘normalizing relations’ with my readers and providing them with a specific blog on a specific day, thinking that I can may well be a case of operating on the strength of my own vivid imagination.

And here’s where Robert Burns and his mice come in. My failure, so far at least, to be able to make this kind of regular commitment as a blogger has been a matter of survival. I’ve had the extraordinary good luck of having been able to make my living as a wordsmith, in one capacity or another—reporter, editorialist, op-ed writer, feature writer, translator, style editor, etc.—ever since I decided to turn my writing from a hobby into a profession, thirty-six years ago. For two decades, I did this as a staffer and stringer for a variety of magazines and newspapers, while also translating on the side. Admittedly, there was a certain security in this because there was always a paycheck at the end of the month.

Free-lancing is tougher. Whether or not you work (and eat) depends entirely on you. You can decide to take the day off, the week off, the month off. But ultimately, if you don’t circulate, if you don’t promote yourself, if you don’t actively seek out clients and consistently prove your expertise, you’re dead in the water. But having made my living this way for over a decade and a half—actually, more like eighteen years, now that I think about it—I would never want to go back to working for someone else. I sometimes have nightmares where that’s precisely what happens, where I’m back in an office working for somebody else and everything is going wrong, and even though none of it is my fault, I know I’ll be to one who is blamed because I’m in charge. Actually, in real life, that was pretty much how things used to work. So the dreams come as no surprise. However, once I sit bolt upright, wet with sweat and heart pounding, I can always reassure myself that, yes, it was a just a nightmare and, no, that’s not happening again, ever. I’ve been my own man for eighteen years and will continue to be until my shadow sets me free.

But, admittedly, this freedom thing has its ups and downs. One of the downs came recently, in the wake of the worldwide economic crash. Weeks, months went by, with nothing much but the sound of the crickets to accompany me. But for once in my life, I didn’t worry. I spent the time well: writing, reading, what else? And that included trying to turn out better- and better-quality work for my blogs.

Then suddenly, one morning everybody seemed to get up, open the window, look out at the sunshine and say, okay, enough of this depression crap. Let’s get to work! And in a matter of a week, I, all of the sudden, had numerous projects for which to post bids. And one of the two best ones immediately came through: working as part of the research team for an author with whom I had already worked previously as a translator. The job consisted of reading books, lots of books, and reporting on them. I could do the hell out of that job!

But no sooner had I started on that assignment, than the other best option came through: the translation of an important book for a major international publisher. Let me just say that, despite how lackadaisical I might appear, with respect to my blogs at least, I’m a workhorse. From the time I was very young, workaholism has often been one of the vices I have fallen into. And although I no longer have the sustainable energy to make a steady diet of it, I do tend to go on rampaging binges from time to time. These last few months have been one of those times, since I blithely told myself, “I want both of these jobs. Relax, everybody,” I said, “I’ve got this!” And a I did and do have it. And, in fact, have completed one of the jobs—the book translation—and can now take a deep breath and continue, much more serenely, with the other one.

But this is precisely what brings me to my point about best laid plans. Professional that I am, I have been conditioned to believe that whatever I am assigned or contracted to do should take priority over everything else (even including weekends, holidays, normal workdays schedules…literally, everything). This said, what I want you, as my treasured readers, to know is that priority is one thing and importance another. And when I’m writing a blog entry, I don’t figure there is anything more important in the world than making that the best piece of writing I’m capable of at the time. Nor is anyone more on my mind at those times than the reader, whomever he or she might be, and no matter whether my readership numbers one or a thousand and one.

This, by way of explanation—and apology—for my long absence. I’ll try hard to reserve a bigger chunk of myself for both of us in the future.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tearing Down the Wall

Caption: US Border fence at Brownsville (Courtesy Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

The immigration debate is everywhere. Not just in the United States, where it is focused, but worldwide as well. All eyes are on the country, especially now, with Barak Obama as President, to see if it will remain true to its liberal past of freedom and justice for all, to its immigrant history, to its long struggle to impose respect for universal civil and human rights, to its sense of humanitarianism, to the blood with which it drenched its own soil in order to abolish the enslavement of one race by another and to so many other shining examples of its vocation for often hard-fought, but eventually effective self-criticism and for simply doing the right thing, which, surprisingly enough, is also often the most expedient thing as well.

Quite frankly, after eight long and grueling years in which the administration of George Bush (The Lesser) systematically violated, suspended, ignored and banned rights and principles that had always been considered basic to US-style democracy and decency, a lot of people elsewhere aren’t expecting much of us Americans anymore. Worse still, some Americans even had time during the Bush years to get used to the US thumbing its nose at “corny notions” like multilateral decisions on world security, due process, rule of law and respect for human rights, and started almost finding it ‘cool’ for their leaders to talk like Dirty Harry about such things – about smokin’ out the evildoers and killin’ ‘em – which, in their eyes makes Barak Obama “a wimp”.

But hopefully, the current administration – in spite of a jittery economy, a radically hostile opposition, two wars that are looking more and more like an even longer and more pernicious nightmare than Vietnam, the worst oil disaster in the history of the world and a churlishly impatient public that apparently expected President Obama to soar in like Superman and, with a wave of his hand, fix everything that was not just broken, but utterly demolished, overnight – will find the time and energy to go out of its way toward restoring the battered image of the United States as the intellectual as well as material leader of the Free World.

Like it or not, and whatever your personal stance may be, the immigration debate forms part of this context. It has for some time now, but it recently has been shoved to the forefront as a result of the unilateral decision of Arizona to impose its own rules which – despite all of the skewed logic with which the public is being bombarded by far-right commentators – are tantamount to racial profiling.

Clearly, at this moment in its history, the United States has an immigration problem. And it is, for the most part – though not entirely – an Hispanic problem. Let me hasten to say that what I mean by this is that the main problem is in how the United States will deal with the influx of immigrants from that ‘ethnic’ group (whatever that means, since they hail from highly varied backgrounds), and not that the problem is theirs. The problem is, strictly speaking, a US problem.

An Immigrant Nation

The United States is an immigrant country. While the majority of the US population is made up of whites, it cannot really be said that there is anything like a “typical American”. Unless, of course, you are only speaking of those who have descended from the 53 people who survived out of the 102 passengers who left England in 1620 aboard the Mayflower, bound for Virginia, drifted off course and ended up settling in Massachusetts. If not, then the vast majority of Americans are of immigrant stock and, technically, the first settlers were immigrants as well. The fact is that the only authentically “typical Americans” form less than one percent of the population and are not white, but ‘red’. All the rest of us are the descendants of “intruders” – though I am proud to say that some genuine native blood does flow in my veins, thanks to my great-grandfather, Job Cavinder, who was half American Indian.

Caption: My great-grandfather, Job Cavinder, was half Indian. My Great-Aunt Ruth (standing behind Job) demonstrated clear Native American facial features. Seated with Job is my great-grandmother, Mary Landis, and behind her, my Great-Aunt Edith.

But now, this is where our insistence on placing everybody in neat little pigeonholes gets messy and confusing. My wife, Virginia, for instance, is an Argentine national. She was born in South America and speaks Spanish as her first language. Back in the days when we lived in the United States and she needed a visa, she was pigeonholed by the Federal government as “race: Latino”. (Back then, the Federal government didn’t care about the gender concerns of the Spanish language, so for them, there was no such thing as Latino/Latina: immigrants from “south of the border” were Latino Male and Latino Female). In point of fact, however, Virginia is not latina, or at least not in the American sense of the word, which refers to peoples of Hispanic origin. Both of her grandfathers – Mel and Carlucci - emigrated from their native Italy to Buenos Aires, one from Salerno, the other from near Milan. One of her grandmothers was also of Italian descent – Scoltore – her father having emigrated as a boy to Argentina. Hey! Does that mean Robert De Niro is Latino too? Granted, one of my wife’s grandmothers was of Basque descent. So, yes, that part of her family did indeed come from what in the Roman Empire was referred to as Hispania. “See there! See there!” the racial profilers might shout with glee. “That’s ‘Latino’ blood, then…or Hispanic…or whatever.”

Right, so what am I, then? Somewhere way back, part of my family (the Newlands) came over from Scotland, another part from Germany (the Webers and the Leningers), still another part from Ireland (the Cavinders). My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Henry and the other side of her family were the Hamiltons. So, English, then? But wait: The name Henry, if you check back, is Norman and the Normans were originally Norsemen (Vikings), who settled in France. So, French, then? But then there’s that other part, the British Isles part, what about that? Well, let’s simplify: The British Isles were originally settled by Germanic tribes (Anglo Saxons). And then there’s that other part of my family that’s German and the Norsemen were the originators of the Germanic tribes, Teutonic peoples all. So, okay, if we’re going to racially profile, then I’m Teutonic, right? I mean if I were just now moving to the USA and they wanted to figure out which pigeonhole to place me in, “race: Teutonic”, wouldn’t it be? But wait just a darn minute, now. I get to the States and who do I find there, since…um, forever? My Native American great-grandfather’s maternal family. So what the heck am I doing immigrating, since ‘we Indians’ once owned the place. But then, that racially profiles me too, doesn’t it? Yes, definitely, unquestionably, Teutonic-Celtic-Native American…I think.

We’re All Africa

My point here is that there is no such race as “Latino”. Race is all about skin color – and implicitly profiles people anyway, since there is no race but the human race, with the rest being a matter of complexion and environmental adaptation. Trace us back far enough and, if noted paleontologist Richard Leaky is right, we all started out black, on the plains of Africa. As Shakira puts it, we’re all Africa (waka-waka). This thing of classifying people from ‘south of the border’ as “race: Latino” is just the Federal government’s ‘secret’ code for, “This person speaks Spanish and comes from ‘someplace down there’. Nor should it be an issue in the decision to grant or not grant a visa, since just by placing a race-heading on a visa application, the government is implicitly discriminating by bringing a piece of data into the mix that will permit those making the final decision to decide on the basis of skin color/‘ethnicity’. We are all, then, mixed-race, in a sense…well, except for (if Leaky is right) the purest of African tribes.

The population of Argentina as a whole is a good case in point. Argentina, like the United States, is an immigrant nation, a melting-pot, if you will. Just as in the States the most common ethnic combination is Scots-Irish, English and Germanic, in Argentina, the majority of the population is made up of people of Italian and Spanish origin. Another large segment of the population is made up of people of criollo descent (the mix of Spanish and Amer-Indian bloods). These last are people who would immediately be profiled as “Latinos” because of their dark hair, eyes and complexion, if they were to try to move to the United States. The others would have to speak before their “race” could be determined.

Since Argentina’s history with its natives is much like that of the United States – the Indians were, as in North America, systematically removed, driven out, pushed westward, pursued and slaughtered in order to take their land away and give it to white European settlers – there is only a small pure American Indian population. Most of these people would probably also immediately be considered ‘Latinos’ by US Immigration (and curious police officers in the state of Arizona), since they are dark, speak Spanish and come from “south of the border”. But Argentina also has an eclectic mix of other ethnicities: The country’s quintessential literary figure, Jorge Luis Borges, once quipped: “The Mexicans descended from the Aztecs, the Peruvians from the Incas and the Argentines from boats.” I have known Anglo-Argentines, German-Argentines, Czech-Argentines, Irish-Argentines, Scottish-Argentines, Welsh-Argentines, African-Argentines, Rumanian-Argentines, French-Argentines, Basque-Argentines, Slovenian-Argentines, Austrian-Argentines, Armenian-Argentines, Syrian-Argentines, Lebanese-Argentines, Russian-Argentines, Greek-Argentines, Turkish-Argentines, Japanese-Argentines, Chinese-Argentines, Korean-Argentines, and so on. I am willing to bet that most of these would be profiled as “race: Latino” because of their nationality and language were they to try to immigrate to the United States – with the exception of the “Orientals” (many of whose families have lived for generations in Argentina) since, despite speaking Spanish and having Latin American passports they don’t “look Latino”.

People who are “tough on immigration” but who don’t want to give the impression of being racist will argue that the problem isn’t immigration as such, but the ‘illegals’. (That they are talking about Hispanics is a given). But at the center of mainstream calls for ever-tougher immigration measures in the United States is a fear not just of undocumented immigrants of Hispanic descent or from so-called ‘Hispanic countries’, but also of the exponential expansion of the Latino community in the United States. This segment of the US population has increased more than four-fold since 1970 and is up 22% since the start of the 21st century. Predictions are that by 2050, nearly one in three Americans will be Hispano-American.

The fear that is motivating demands from the fundamentalist right for the deportation of all Hispanic 'illegals' (this is the height of racial profiling) and radical measures to ensure that no more get into the country has little to do with either the lax immigration policies or the shaky border security that they cite. At its core, the issue is about the mainstream white population’s fear of its eventual loss of supremacy.

Parallels with the Past

I'm old enough to have grown up in the so-called civil rights era. I was reared in a predominately (98%) white Midwestern town where there were no blacks. (I see from the latest Census that this has changed: African Americans now form 0.19% of the town’s population – or approximately 18 people out of a total of 9,474). So I can recall hearing the facile racist arguments of white supremacist fundamentalists who, upon hearing of protest marches, riots and other disturbances taking place all over the United States in the 1950s and ‘60s, as blacks sought to back demands that their civil rights be respected, would snarl, “If they don’t like it here, we can always ship ‘em back to Africa.” In many cases, this suggestion was being made about people whose presence in North America pre-dated the arrival of the Mayflower, since African slave labor was already present in the then-Spanish colony of Florida in the mid-1500s. And Dutch slavers first traded African captives to the pre-Mayflower Virginia settlers in 1607. Historically, then, these African people were more American than the European ones who signed the Mayflower Compact. They just weren’t white Americans.

Nor should we forget that during the country’s long immigration history, the push by rightwing fundamentalists to close the gates to certain types of immigrants is nothing new. Today it’s the “Hispanic problem”. Yesterday it was the “Polish problem”, the “Italian problem”, the “Irish problem”, the “Chinese problem”. And the problem has always been a two-way street: people from countries in political or economic turmoil seeking a new home and new horizons in combination with greedy economic interests only too happy to exploit the cheap, sometimes bordering on slave labor that these mass movements of desperate people could provide.

The fact is that many of those who are the staunchest opponents to Hispanic immigration today are the descendants of people who came in droves to the United States and stayed by any means they could a century and a half ago. To hear these descendants tell it today, their families were welcomed with open arms and were respected and well treated because they knew how to appreciate what America offered them and America knew how to appreciate what they had to offer. It’s a nice story, and perhaps there were some cases like that, but generally speaking it is exactly that – a story. The fact is that every new immigrant group has had to carve a place for itself in American society. Typical of mass movements of any kind, the first ones to arrive have quickly staked their claim, fenced off their territory and then tried to keep any new aliens from coming in and messing up a good thing.

The Irish (an ethnic group that today forms about 12% of the US population) are a case in point. Although Irishmen had formed part of the original colonies almost from the outset, the huge waves of Irish immigrants who arrived in the 19th century, and especially during the Great Irish Famine of the mid to late 1840s, arrived in the United States destitute and desperate. They, like many unskilled immigrants from the Hispanic community today, took the jobs that no one else wanted – hard, poorly paid jobs involving grueling manual labor. Notably, they were hired at starvation wages – beggars couldn’t be choosers – to do the grunt work in the building of much of America’s rapidly expanding infrastructure. They dug canals, laid rails, built ports and did any other task where picks, shovels, sledges and a strong back were required. They were often exploited and mistreated. During the civil war, the US government also exploited this wave of largely English-speaking immigration, drafting penniless Irishmen, with the promise of US citizenship, directly off the boat into the Army to serve as new cannon fodder in mounting massive offenses against rebel forces in the South.

As Irish workers building the railroads became more consolidated and banded together to try and form unions, they were unceremoniously cast aside for newly arriving Chinese labor that would work for even less pay. The lot of 19th-century Irish immigrants in the United States was so grim that, following the civil war, they considered the wave of recently emancipated former slaves that migrated northward to be a competitive threat and there are reports from those times of blacks being attacked by Irish-immigrant mobs who beat, clubbed and stoned them. Problematic Irish immigration was, then, also a problem of desperate foreigners fitting perfectly into the exploitative designs of greedy business interests – the same problem as today’s, but with a different ethnicity.

Can’t Have It Both Ways

There appears to be a growing tendency among far-right thinkers today to consider the plight of the undocumented Hispanics as being their problem. It is of little importance to such anti-immigration activists how long these undocumented aliens have been inside the United States. If they don’t have the proper papers, these people say, they should be thrown out at once.

Caption: The Border Fence at Tijuana (Courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons)

This stance tends to see ‘illegals’ as lawbreakers who have whimsically and maliciously skulked across the border in flagrant contempt for sovereign US authority, so the ostensible solution is to round them up and send them packing. But to look at it this way is an oversimplification of the facts: the fact, for instance, that although it is illegal for them to be in the United States, certain American employers – traditionally in the agricultural and textile sectors but elsewhere as well – gladly hire them at starvation wages; the fact that lax policies in the past tacitly permitted undocumented workers to stay and make a home (albeit humble) for themselves in the USA despite not having a green card; the fact that precisely because they have family members who have lived legally in the States or have been born there, it ends up being, irrationally, next to impossible for them to get permanent residence visas, and so on and so forth.

Therefore, the problem isn't theirs, at least not completely, but a problem that the United States government must address in some more rational and humanitarian way. As for those who claim that cleaning up the illegal immigration problem will create a new problem for the business activities that use ‘illegals’ as cheap labor, I can only say that, first, my heart absolutely bleeds for those shameless and unscrupulous exploiters, and second, that you can't have it both ways. You can’t hire undocumented workers as dirt-cheap labor and then turn around and not want to see them on the street. Nor can you clamor for the cheap goods and services that their labor provides but then expect them not to have a life beyond the fields or the sweatshop walls. This kind of hypocritical double standard is unethical and immoral and is a mindset that should have gone out with the Civil War and, if not, then at least with the advances fought and won in the civil rights era. Because there can be no kidding ourselves: Although they may be paid, if miserably, for what they do, the exploitation of the undocumented status of ‘illegals’ makes them the modern-day slaves of industrialized white America, and it makes their bosses the supremacist slave-drivers of the 21st century.

‘Tear This Wall Down’

Caption: President John F. Kennedy and his entourage survey the Berlin Wall. "Ich bin ein Berliner," JFK declared.

As I am writing this, an image keeps popping into my head of John F. Kennedy standing before the Berlin Wall and declaring: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” I was a boy at the time, but already a thinking, conscious human being and I recall feeling a thrill of excitement and pride at this admirable statesman’s declaration of war on that wall and on the totalitarian mentality on which it was constructed.

Built by the repressive Soviet Bloc in 1961 to separate East and West Germany from one another, the Berlin Wall was the quintessential symbol of the Cold War. But it was also the symbol of the darkest kind of fundamentalism, of an archaic mindset that actually believed that an ideological line could be drawn in the sand and a material wall erected to separate one culture (political in this case) from another, that barbed wire, searchlights and machine guns could keep ideas and advancement from spreading, that harsh repression was a viable way to impose a system or that such repression was sufficient to suppress people’s natural desire for freedom, progress and a better, happier life.

I was a quarter-century older and a politically savvy newsman when an American president again stood before that wall. I was no longer an innocent and had serious issues with this leader, but I still couldn’t help but identify when Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and challenged: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear this wall down.”

Now when I see footage of our border with Mexico, I can’t help asking myself how the same nation that fought so hard, so long and with such sound reason against the ideological more than the material symbol of the Berlin Wall can now be supporting the building of just as horrendous and futile a wall between it and one of its two closest neighbors. A political cartoon is taking shape in my mind that makes me sorry drawing is not one of my strong talents: It shows America’s “Berlin Wall” manned by armed Border Guards along the Río Grande. On the other side of the wall, standing waist deep in water are Mexican immigrants clamoring to come over. On their shoulder stand other immigrants and on their shoulders, still others. A dialog balloon coming from a guard’s mouth says, “We gotta make it taller!” Behind the guards, facing the American side of the wall, wringing their hands, their faces wrenched with fear and worry, are a crowd of white Americans led by Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. A dialog balloon coming from a frightened-looking Beck says “Gosh fellas! I sure as heck hope it holds.” And while all of their eyes are on ‘The Wall’ the tide of change continues with the birth of a million North American Hispanics a year behind their backs.

Caption: A wall of our own, and every bit as futile and odious as the Berlin Wall. (Photo by Omar Bárcena. Courtesy Creative Commons. Public Domain.)

Because this is precisely what’s happening. The point that the anti-immigration (e.g., anti-Hispanic) fundamentalists are too self-obsessed and too obtuse to understand is that building a wall between themselves and the Hispanic world is as idiotic and futile an idea as the Berlin Wall was. While they are desperately seeking to plug the leaks in the illegal immigration dike with their fingers and toes, the inexorable trend toward a changing face (a pan-American face, if you will) for North America continues unabated. There were 9 million Hispanics and North American-born Latinos living in the United States in the 1970s. Today they number over 40 million or about 14 percent of the population. And the current birth rate among the Hispanic community in the United States totals over one million babies per year. This is a trend that isn’t going away no matter how scared fundamentalist white supremacists might be of losing their grip on power.

The worst thing that could happen is that the immigration issue should drive an ever-increasing wedge between the white and Hispanic communities. Should that happen, the future scenario could only be one of increasing tension between the two. The violence, disruptions, riots and bitterness that marked the white versus black integration clashes of the 1950s and ‘60s need to be established as a lesson learned in this respect. The Obama administration has the singular opportunity to take strides toward avoiding this kind of scenario, not by bowing to pressure for a “bigger and better wall”, but by studying creative ways to develop more rational immigration legislation and to take advantage of the extraordinary potential of a multi-racial, multi-cultural America.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorial Day 2010 – The War We Were

CAPTION: Tombstones of the American fallen in Arlington National Cemetery. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Yesterday was Memorial Day in my native United States. The day when we honor those who died fighting in our nation’s wars.

When I was a kid, it was hard to think of it as anything but a holiday – the day after the last day of school, the day we hoped and prayed it would be warm enough for the public swimming pool to open, a day for picnics with the family or when Mom would drive out to the greenhouse to buy some flowers to set out. It was a day of parades with brass bands playing stirring patriotic marches and with middle-aged and old men dressing up like soldiers once more to join uniformed National Guardsmen and other troops in carrying the colors to the Veterans Monument at the Courthouse and then out to the cemetery in tearful remembrance of their fallen brothers.

But for us, as kids, it was just the first exciting small-town event to kick off the wonderful, lazy days of small-town summer.

The problem is that this childhood Memorial Day illusion is only that. And since it appears impossible for the United States to get through a single generation without a war, each generation has its own. And as the realities of those wars end up touching us as a generation and, indeed as individuals, no matter how hard we may try to ignore them, Memorial Day eventually takes on a new and sober meaning.

My grandparents’ generation had World War I, my parents’ generation, World War II. My parents’ younger siblings had to face the Korean War. My generation’s war was Vietnam. The current generation is embroiled in combat on two fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sixty million combatants are estimated to have taken part in the First World War. In the four years that the fighting lasted, 16 million people died and nearly 35 million suffered some form of permanent physical disability. Those figures don’t include the millions who suffered permanent mental or emotional trauma. World War II. Despite the Great War’s have supposedly been the “war to end all wars”, a quarter-century later, we found the world at war again, and this time as many people died (62 million from 55 nations) as combatants that took part in the First War. And there are no accurate figures to calculate the millions upon millions of people injured, disable or mentally traumatized in this second modern instance of wholesale worldwide butchery.

In just the two major conflicts that our current generations have lived through (…or not…), then, approximately 100 million people died. Think about it: That’s more than three times the size of the total population of Argentina or Canada. Imagine every man, woman and child in those countries slaughtered, and pile another twenty-five or thirty million mutilated cadavers on top of those. Imagine one out of every three men, women and children in the United States dead, every two mourning the tragic death of a third. That’s how many people were ground up in the gnashing cogs of just those two world conflicts, not to mention the thousands upon thousand and millions upon millions who died in other “minor” conflicts that many of us have no idea ever took place.

One such “minor conflict” was the Korean War. For many years this war was referred to, especially by the United States, as “a police action.” In the three years that this “police action” lasted, somewhere between, 1.2 and 1.5 million people were killed. (Imagine the city of Cleveland, say, or La Plata, wiped out entirely). The United States alone lost 33,686 combat troops, as well as non-combatant personnel numbering 2,830.

Then there was my generation’s war. Official figures in the Vietnam War place direct American casualties at 58,148 dead and 300,000 wounded. But this doesn’t take into account the thousands upon thousands of conscript soldiers who returned with broken hearts, broken spirits and broken minds to a life of chemical dependencies, chronic depression, severe mental illness, neurological trauma from chemical agents and other conditions that kept them from ever recovering control over their own destinies or caused them to die young from any number of unnatural causes. Just among my immediate circle of acquaintances, I can think of several who died in combat before their 21st birthdays, one who came home and hanged himself in his garage and another who came home in 1970 and to this day remains incapable of facing life without the dulling effects of severe alcohol and drug abuse (to such an extent that the last I knew of him, he no longer was getting out of bed to drink and “get high”…if you can call it that). People can say that he and all the others should have gotten over it, gotten on with their lives. But that’s like saying a person should “get over” child abuse, rape or other forms of severe victimization.

Yet, nothing compares to the ravages of war. Because, let’s not kid ourselves, in dirty wars such as these – wars like Vietnam, like Afghanistan, like Iraq, wars of attrition against a scarcely identifiable enemy, where the lines between friend and foe are patchy and guerrilla fighters work the no man’s land between uniformed combatants and civilian populations – nothing, no amount of gung-ho training, no amount of psychological readiness, no amount of discipline, can prepare these men and women for what they will see, what they will be ordered to do and what they may well do on their own as a result of the in-combat stress and trauma they suffer. Already, well over a million of today’s American soldiers have had to face this.

Nor do the cold figures that measure the effects on our own troops take into account the tidal wave of suffering left in their wake. Our South Vietnamese allies in that other conflict lost 5 times as many troops as the United States did and their number of wounded was never determined. But more tragic still is the fact that, the number of South Vietnamese dead, including the nearly quarter of a million troops killed, came to an estimated two million (men, women, children) in a country with a total population of just over 5 million. A conservative estimate of deaths among the Chinese-backed North Vietnamese in that war comes to something like 2.8 million, with two million of those also being civilians. Less conservative estimates claim deaths on both sides were more like 7 million, with another two million people being injured or mutilated.

Beyond tragic and into the realm of horrifying are the 7 million tons of explosives that the United States made use of during that war, or the chemical, biological and bacterial agents that Washington liberally rained down on the Vietnamese people in clear violation of the Geneva Convention that Washington has so often cited in criticizing the inhuman behavior of other nations. This was over 3 times the quantity of explosives used in aerial attacks on all sides during World War II.

In Iraq, despite the US military’s frequent boasting about the effectiveness of its technology and the possibility of “surgical bombing” with its joystick-operated, camera-carrying weaponry, in the last estimates I saw, somewhere between 90,000 and 105,000 civilians had died. No matter how much we want to debate the “human shield” theory, there comes a moment when somebody has to punch the button or pull the trigger that murders non-combatant men, women and children. And no matter how professional a soldier may be, only a heartless, mindless mercenary (e.g., a sociopath) could go home and sleep well after doing that. So the vast numbers of returning veterans who now require and will continue to require treatment for not only their physical but also their mental trauma should come as no surprise to anyone.

And with all of the experience that the United States has in the scars that wars leave, it should really be prepared to deal with this phenomenon. But indications are that we have learned little from the tragic experience of Vietnam. Conservative estimates indicate that beyond the tremendously high numbers of mutilated soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the US can expect at least (and this is a conservative estimate) half a million veterans of these two latest wars to return suffering from post traumatic stress disorder before the combat ends. And there are also telling indications that not nearly enough of them are getting the help they need. In wars such as these, in which the causes are hazy and the methods questionable, no matter what one’s view of the war itself may be, the post-combat support system is clearly lacking.

The US custom of honoring its fallen on Memorial Day is a noble one. But perhaps we Americans and people everywhere should start looking at war from a different angle.

We need to honor these dead by rejecting, rather than embracing and glorifying war. If we re-read the statistics above, it becomes clear that what we should be looking into is not more effective ways of waging war, but rather, the most effective ways possible of avoiding and preventing it. Perhaps this will mean a revolution in diplomacy or witheringly preemptive multinational action. Anything to keep two sides from dignifying their conflict with false partiotic fervor.

War is not noble, no matter how noble the intentions of those who actually fight the wars may be. Wars are not, as most leaders would have us believe, honorable or winnable in any real sense other than in that of achieving the political and economic ends of those in power. War is hell. War is merely the wholesale slaughter of one people by another for reasons that have little or nothing to do with why we are told we must fight them. And as war becomes more “effective” the number of civilian casualties grows relatively greater all the time, threatening to become exponential.

The best way, then, to honor our war dead, is by seeking to ensure that war becomes the most unthinkable of all means to an end. No society that rejects homicide as a heinous crime should find war logical…and much less, glorious.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Iron Mothers

This past week, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo celebrated the 33rd anniversary of the first time they defied the Argentine dictatorship known as the National Reorganization Process by gathering in Plaza de Mayo, the main square in the City of Buenos Aires, to protest against the disappearance of their children at the hands of the former military regime.

Caption: The Mothers' white head scarves have become a human rights symbol. Here it is painted on the tiles of Plaza de Mayo - tiles worn by the Mothers' 33 years of resistance marches.

The importance of this group in drawing local and international attention to gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity under the “Process” cannot be overstated. It has clearly and consistently been the most high-profile and active of social institutions in defense of human rights in the country and even to this day, its leaders have refused to relegate to the forgotten past the issue of what happened to the thousands who “disappeared” during nearly eight years of military rule. Nor have they abandoned their struggle to see the perpetrators of that massacre brought to justice, despite legislation like the “full stop” and the “due obedience” laws passed under successive democratic administrations in attempts to assuage the military rebellions that marked the early years of democracy following the fall of the Armed Forces regime.

The Mothers are known worldwide and their cause has been immortalized in books, songs, photographs, documentaries, biographies and feature films. Their emblematic white head scarves bearing the embroidered names of their missing children have become an internationally recognized symbol of persistent resistance to tyranny and of the unflinching bravery of women in defending their families.

Caption: A poster from a documentary film about the Mothers by Lourdes Portillo and Susana Muñoz.

Admittedly, as often happens with grassroots protest movements, aims can become denatured and skewed as these loosely formed groups start to become “established institutions”. And the Mothers, at least in part, have been no strangers to this phenomenon. In fact, this was precisely what would eventually lead to an inevitable schism, which took place in 1986, three years after the country’s return to democracy.

By and large, this controversial politicizing of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo has been taken out of context. The most vocal and radical of the two separate lines within the movement, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Association, has come to be considered, among many people at a local level, the “true face” of the Mothers and has thus served to discredit the movement as a whole. At an international level, most people have no idea that there are two separate lines within the movement, and therefore, she who shouts the loudest is seen as the face and voice of the Mothers. That would be Hebe Bonafini, head of the radicalized, extreme leftist Association, and a woman who has become such a caricature of far-left revolutionary ideals that she has lost all credibility as a serious defender of human rights and of peaceful protest. Although often profiled as a simple woman with an eighth-grade education, Bonafini has shown herself to be a canny developer of contacts and positioning, a skill that, combined with her often incendiary comments, has helped her to maintain a position of predominance, in the eyes of the public, in detriment to the traditional Founding Line of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. This second group advocates peace and non-violence, rule of law and respect for human rights and, paradoxically, it is probably because of the very decency of their endeavors that theirs is the lesser known of the two factions.

The Mothers emerged in April of 1977, a year after the coup that brought the Armed Forces ‘Process’ to power, and in the midst of the bloodbath that followed. At the time, it was not, by any means, a formal organization. It sprang, rather, from the decision of a tiny group of women to band together, in order to draw strength from one another and to find creative ways to draw attention to their plight. All of them were seeking information on the whereabouts of members of their families who had been abducted by paramilitary hit squads for having alleged ties to leftwing terrorism, subsequently falling through the intentional cracks in the “justice” system and simply “disappearing”.

The dozen women who took part in the first quiet protest in Plaza de Mayo were: Azucena Villaflor de Vicenti, Berta Braverman, Haydée García Buelas, Delicia González, Pepa Noia, Mirta Baravalle, Kety Neuhaus, Raquel Arcushin de Caimi and four sisters – María Adela Gard de Antokoletz, Julia Gard, María Mercedes Gard and Cándida Gard. Their original organizer was Azucena Villaflor. In her rounds of different government offices, where no one wanted to talk to her, she started bumping into other women who were also looking for missing family members. She convinced them that they were never going to get anywhere on their own. She said that they needed to band together if anyone were ever to take any notice of them.

They had no real plan for that first protest other than drawing attention to themselves and their call for information about their missing children. So where better to do it than under the noses of the Junta, in Plaza de Mayo, in front of Government House, and across from the Metropolitan Cathedral, headquarters of a Church hierarchy that had thrown in its lot with the military government? Azucena Villaflor’s idea was that if they could get enough women to gather each week in the Plaza, there would come a time when the government could no longer ignore them. That was the strategy, pure and simple. And her immediate goal was to get a meeting with the head of the Junta, Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla.

Nor was that first protest meant to be a “march”. But when Federal policemen standing guard in the square saw the women gathering, they warned the Mothers that they would either have to “circulate” or leave, because under the dictatorial decrees of the military regime the right to public assembly was revoked and they could be arrested for holding a public gathering. And so they started circling the central pyramid in the Plaza, the revered symbol of Argentina’s May 1810 Revolution.

And the next week, they were back again. By simple word of mouth their number had grown and one of the Mothers who was at that second meeting was Hebe de Bonafini from the provincial capital, La Plata, who was to eventually become the firebrand leader of the group. Before long, it had become widely known that the Mothers met every Thursday afternoon from 3:30 until 4:00 in Plaza de Mayo and walked around the May Revolution Pyramid.

The first person to make sure that this was widely known was my boss at the time, British-born newsman Robert J. Cox, editor of the English-language daily, the Buenos Aires Herald. Bob not only wrote about the Mothers (who, in the trans-Atlantic jargon of our paper became known as ‘The Mums’), but also started going as often as he could to the Plaza, to lend his moral support to the women. He encouraged those of us who worked with him to do the same. It was easy enough to do, since it was mostly a matter of just being there. At the time, the women’s gatherings were a great deal like the way migratory birds start flocking together in the autumn. At around 3:30 each Thursday they would enter the Plaza one at a time until a handful of them got together and started walking around the May Revolution monument, and then the others would join in. Most of us younger Herald staffers went from time to time. Some occasionally interviewed the Mothers, or even became friendly with them. Others, like myself, simply went to add strength in numbers to their cause and sat on park benches nearby, watching the movement grow in importance and effect, week after week, and seeing how we could work them into the stories we wrote for the foreign publications we were ‘stringers’ for.

Each week there would be new mothers and wives and brothers and sisters of missing people and each week there would also be new supporters who showed up to look on or to join in the march. Eventually, someone in the movement came up with the idea of the headscarves, first just white, then later with the names of the missing embroidered on them. Some of the Mothers also carried pictures of their missing children or wore images pinned to their blouses or wraps. This set the Mothers apart from the rest of the passers-by in the Plaza, and wherever those easily distinguishable scarves were, a handful of other people also gathered and risked being photographed by government agents that passed themselves off as reporters.

And there were indeed reporters. As the movement grew, so did coverage. And as he had done from the outset with the plight of the ‘disappeared’, Cox sought every opportunity to get the Mothers into the international media. His theory was that the more people around the world who knew about what was going on, the harder it would become for the ‘Process’ to keep grinding lives up in the cogs of its counterterror machine. So whenever international correspondents would pay a courtesy call to him at the Herald, he would ask if they had heard about the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and encourage them to visit the Plaza on Thursday.

By late 1977, the Mothers had managed to draw enough attention to themselves as to have the Junta take notice of them. But not the attention they were clamoring for. On December 10th (International Human Rights Day) the group published an ad listing the names of all of their missing children. That same night, a paramilitary death squad snatched Villaflor from her home in Villa Domínico (Avellaneda). Two other founding Mothers, Esther Careaga and María Eugenia Bianco, were also abducted. The military denied knowledge of their whereabouts. Like their children before them, they had joined the ranks of the ‘disappeared’ – the growing thousands of missing people that a sinister and cynical General Videla would describe by saying: “The missing are just that, missing. Neither alive nor dead. They’re not here. And if they’re not here, they don’t exist.”

Caption: On International Human Rights Day, December 10, 1977, Villaflor and two other Mothers joined the ranks of the 'disappeared'.

That, of course, was a lie. They did indeed exist, in over 300 concentration camps and safe houses around the country. And if they weren’t there, they were dead. But alive or dead, they still existed, every Thursday afternoon in Plaza de Mayo, when the Mothers and their supporters turned out to ensure that the public knew of their existence and to be a reminder to everyone that the same thing could happen to them or to their loved ones, that the greatest threat to the citizens of the country was their very own government. You didn’t have to be an armed terrorist to ‘disappear’. You only had to incur the wrath of the military or any of its powerful friends. Sometimes you didn’t even have to do that. Your name on the lips of a torture victim, your street and telephone numbers in the address book of a detainee were enough to earn you a blindfold and a ride in a government-issue Ford Falcon with no license plates.

Unlike many of the missing, who vanished without a trace, Azucena Villaflor’s fate, and that of the other two mothers who ‘disappeared’ with her, was found out. In 2005, the famed Argentine Anthropology Team (best known for having discovered the long lost body of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia, where he was summarily executed in 1967, thirty years before), on a search mission to find the bodies of Argentina’s ‘disappeared’, discovered three corpses, which they were later able to identify as those of Villaflor, Careaga and Bianco. All three presented the kind of bone fractures consistent with death by falling from a great height. Further investigation has led to the conclusion that they were probably detained at a clandestine torture and holding facility that operated at the Navy Mechanics School on posh Avenida Libertador in Buenos Aires, before then being placed on one of the regime’s so-called “death flights” in which prisoners were drugged, stripped and heaved out of aircraft into the ocean. Early on in the ‘Process’ bodies were also disposed of in the wide River Plate Estuary that separates Argentina from Uruguay, but prevailing currents meant that the corpses kept washing up on the Uruguayan shore and some less scandalous way had to be found to get rid of the mounting number of cadavers. The death flights over the Atlantic were one such solution, as was nocturnal incineration in the city crematorium at the sprawling Chacarita Cemetery.

That same year, at the Mothers’ 25th Annual Resistance March, Azucena Villaflor’s ashes were interred at the foot of the May Pyramid in Plaza de Mayo on her daughter Cecilia’s orders. Cecilia said: “Here is where my mother was born into public life and here is where she must stay forever. She must stay here for everyone.”

In looking back and commemorating the 33rd anniversary of the founding of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, I feel this is the point I want to make: that the founding idea of Azucena Villaflor and the women that joined her on that first march and the idea of the Founding Line of the Mothers never was one of specific political ideologies, of vengeance or of militancy under the flag of any political color. Their cause, and the one that made the Mother’s famous worldwide was that of decency, human rights and rule of law. Each woman to form part of the movement surely has had her own convictions and political bent. Only women of a strong and vibrant nature could have stood up to the years of abuse, arrests, threats and persecution that they had to endure to make their cause known. But just as surely, most of them have adapted or put aside the individual political axes they may have had to grind in order to be of undying service to their greater cause.

Caption: Hebe Bonafini

This has unfortunately not been the case of Hebe Bonafini. While no one can justly question the fearlessness, motivation, energy and strength she has shown in her three decades as a leader in the movement, she can indeed be almost solely blamed for the criticism of which the Mothers as a whole have become the target in the years following the end of the dictatorship. She has consistently alienated even many of those who championed the Mothers previously by being the first to believe in her own bigger-than-life status and believing that it gives her the right to state her own personal beliefs as if they applied to the Mothers as a whole. She has sought to align the Mothers with autocratic leaders like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, merely because they peddle ‘Marxist’ rhetoric while repressing their own people in much the same ways that the ‘Process’ did while supposedly “defending Western and Christian ideals”. She has distanced herself from the movement’s original humanity by publicly stating her satisfaction at hearing about the nine-eleven attack that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York killing thousands of innocent people, implying that it was a just act considering the thousands of civilians killed in successive US incursions into the Middle East. And so, through her, the discourse of the Mothers would appear to the general public to call for an eye for an eye, rather than rule of law and respect for human rights.

She has further created an almost ‘carnal’ union between the governments of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner and the Mothers Association, thus aiding and abetting the almost flagrantly autocratic Kirchners in waving the flag of human rights in the face of the world at large, while, at home, using gang tactics and boss rule to try and muzzle freedom of expression and distract attention from the rampant corruption that has been the hallmark of their reign.

The saddest part of this is not that Bonafini has discredited herself as a true defender of human rights, but that, in the process, she has sullied the reputation of one of the noblest institutions to emerge in Argentina’s recent history.