I was born in June 1976, only weeks after Argentina’s most violent dictatorship began. Early in the morning on a sad March day before I was born, my father was taken away by the military regime. He didn’t meet me for the first time until almost a year later.
I was lucky; thousands of children never saw their parents again. More than 30,000 individuals—Argentines and foreigners, students and workers, people with or without university degrees, politicians and non-politicians, activists and non-activists, even priests and nuns—were tortured, abused, raped, killed, and disappeared by a self-appointed dictatorship that launched a “national reorganization process.” In many cases, the captors would wait until captured pregnant women had their babies before they kidnapped the newborns and killed and hid the bodies of the mothers.
The leader of the 1976 military junta, Jorge Rafael Videla, died this morning at 87 years old.
I grew up watching my country go through a bumpy transition from dictatorship to democracy. I have a clear memory of the madness of the Malvinas War in 1982, the hope and happiness of the democratic restoration in 1983 and the Juicio a las Juntas (Trial of the Juntas) in 1985. I also have a vivid memory of the anguish created both by President Raúl Alfonsín’s Ley de Punto Final (“full stop”) and Ley de Obediencia Debida (“due obedience”) amnesty laws, and President Carlos Menem’s pardons that, in my view, ruined the progress made in the Trial of the Juntas.Despite the legal debate over the nullity of the full stop and due obedience laws and presidential pardons to the military, the judicial processes carried out against junta bosses that began in the twenty-first century gave Argentines the opportunity to close a dark period in our history. More than 30 years later, Videla and his colleagues have still declined to show any remorse whatsoever, some even recounting with pride their plan to exterminate people to “save the nation.” For most Argentines, the powerful image of civilian judges handing those dictators sentences made us feel as if we were a step closer to the close of the democratic transition.
Videla and most of his colleagues never asked for forgiveness for the atrocities that they committed—and never will. This makes reconciliation very hard to achieve. A couple of years ago, Estela Carlotto (a human rights activist and leader of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) gave a presentation to a group of students and alumni from a U.S. international affairs graduate school of which I was once a student.
After Carlotto delivered a moving speech, an African student talked about some of the reconciliation and forgiveness processes that had taken place on his continent and asked Carlotto if she was willing to forgive, and why she had not already done so. She took a pause and serenely responded that she might be willing to forgive, but that she has been looking for her grandson for 35 years, and in all those years no one has ever asked her for forgiveness. Again, this intricacy makes reconciliation very hard to achieve. Justice, however, helps to bring peace and hopefully will let us bring a long transition to a close.
A sinister dictator died today at 87. It is not an ordinary day for many Argentines who, like me, grew up in the middle of and in the aftermath of the dictatorship, when Videla’s actions weighed upon us continuously. For the country, this is an opportunity to reflect on what we have achieved in all these years of democracy, understanding that Argentina must never forget what happened and using this as common ground to move forward and start a new period in which we finally consolidate our democracy.