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.