Argentina’s Stolen Children and National Narratives of Recovery

By Brenda Werth

Bruno Piatti / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Bruno Piatti / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Argentina’s National Day of the Right to Identity (October 22) had special meaning this year because of the recovery in August of Guido Montoya Carlotto, the 114th grandchild to be found, but hundreds of cases remain unsolved.  The day honors the tireless efforts of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo to recover the identity of the approximately 500 grandchildren who were stolen as babies during the dictatorship and raised in most cases by collaborators of the military regime.  Guido is the grandson of the group’s longstanding president, Estela de Carlotto.  In June, 36-year-old Guido, who grew up in the province of Buenos Aires as Ignacio Hurban, voluntarily submitted a blood sample for DNA testing that confirmed that he is the son of Laura Estela Carlotto and Walmir Oscar Montoya, Montonero militants who were kidnapped and disappeared during Argentina’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983).  Guido subsequently learned he had been born in captivity on June 26, 1978.  He was allowed to stay with his mother for only five hours before being handed over to the couple (whose involvement in his kidnapping is still unclear) who would raise him.  His mother was executed two months later.

The heavy media coverage of the recovery of Guido – who prefers to be called Ignacio Guido – has revived discussions in Argentina about identity narratives  surrounding the stolen children in the wake of dictatorship.  The most prominent human rights organizations to emerge since the mid-1970s are structured along familial lines:  the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, and the H.I.J.O.S.  (Children for Identity and Justice, Against Forgetting and Silence).  As a result, the recovery of each and every grandchild is inextricably and symbolically linked to national recovery.  Moreover, due to a leak to the press, Ignacio Guido’s reunification with his biological family did not take place in an intimate, private setting but instead unfolded publicly in the national spotlight through a series of highly publicized press conferences and interviews, culminating in a meeting with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.  His recovery has generated an outpouring of support and an unprecedented sense of national unity among Argentines.  Politicians, celebrities, and sports figures alike have hailed his identity restitution as both a personal and national triumph.  Due to Estela de Carlotto’s stature as a world-renowned human rights activist and her close ties to the Kirchner government, this case, perhaps more than any other, illustrates how the personal, familial story of recovery can acquire a public dimension and give a push to the national commitment to resolve remaining cases of the stolen children.

Yet it is often during these moments of perceived national consensus when underlying tensions reassert themselves as well, and these tensions have manifested themselves institutionally, specifically in the areas of science, the law, and the Catholic Church.  At the height of the media storm surrounding Guido’s recovery, representatives of the National Genetic Data Bank held a press conference to restate their disapproval of the official decision to transfer the laboratory, including over 20,000 DNA samples, to the Ministry of Science and Technology.  Another tension emerged in the judicial sphere after the judge presiding over the case, María Servini de Cubría, was accused of leaking Ignacio Guido’s identity to the press before he could be reunited with his biological family – creating a rift with the Grandmothers.  In a meeting with Pope Francis on November 5, Carlotto and her grandson presented him with the iconic white handkerchief, which is a symbol of the Grandmothers’ mission, and a sculpture representing the fight for truth, justice, and memory.  Carlotto also took the opportunity to acknowledge that she had committed an error in linking him to the dictatorship in public statements soon after he became Pope in March 2013.  Their gifts were intended to enlist the Church’s support for full disclosure of evidence relating to the stolen children’s identity.  It was also a gesture of reconciliation between human rights organizations in Argentina and the Church, which failed to defend human rights during the dictatorship.  The meeting also strengthened the tight allegiances that President Kirchner has cultivated between her government, human rights organizations, and the charismatic figure of the Pope.  However halting, such moves could ultimately help resolve the cases of the hundreds of stolen children.

November 17, 2014

Haiti: Plus ça change …

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo credit: a-birdie and Free Grunge Textures / Flickr / CC BY

Photo credit: a-birdie and Free Grunge Textures / Flickr / CC BY

Haiti buried Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier last week, but his and his father’s ghosts continue to haunt Haitian politics and keep institutions so weak that, after two decades of operations, the United Nations decided to renew its mandate there yet again this week.  Duvalier didn’t get the state funeral his family and closest supporters wanted, but his sendoff was dignified enough to demonstrate that political elites have forgiven his excesses – including thousands of extrajudicial killings and unbridled corruption – or were at least nostalgic for his version of “law and order.”  President Martelly tweeted that Duvalier was “an authentic son of Haiti” and sent his personal friend and counternarcotics chief, Gregory Mayard-Paul, to the service.  While a small group of protestors outside the church demanded justice for the dictator’s abuses, several hundred of Haiti’s economic and political elite applauded the eulogies for Baby Doc, who was forced into exile in 1986 and returned in 2011.  Duvalier outlived by three months the first president to be elected after his removal, Leslie Manigat, who himself was overthrown in a bloodless coup after serving less than six months in office (1988).  The next democratically elected successor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was ousted in two coups (1991 and 2004) and last month was put under house arrest for alleged corruption.

Institutional weaknesses dating back to the Duvaliers’ rule and before continue to stymie progress in Haiti.  Because the government is unable to provide even basic police services for  the people, this week the United Nations Security Council again – for 20 years in a row – authorized an extension of a mission to provide either peacekeeping or “stabilization” support.  The vote was unanimous and, according to the UN’s own press report, the MINUSTAH mission would continue “for another year, until 15 October 2015, with the intention of further renewal.”  Like past resolutions, this week’s called on Haitian political leaders “to work cooperatively and without further delays to ensure the urgent holding of free, fair, inclusive, and transparent [elections]” at the legislative, partial senatorial, municipal, and local levels.  Senate elections are three years overdue, perpetuating the sort of political crises that have long plagued the country.  Officials’ reassurances to U.S. Secretary of State Kerry and others last week that elections will be held this month lack credibility in the absence of an electoral law and the complex preparations necessary for voting.

It would be inaccurate and unfair to say that Haiti has made no progress since Jean-Claude’s ouster almost 30 years ago.  The vicious and corrupt Haitian military has been disbanded, and – although the Tonton Macoutes that the Duvaliers deployed to force the population into submission were never brought to justice – vigilantes no longer roam the streets terrorizing entire neighborhoods.  Haitian elections have been messy but, in many observers’ estimation, clean enough to give Presidents and legislators a good bit of legitimacy.  But the tragedy of Haiti that keeps repeating itself is one of unfulfilled aspiration.  Individual Haitians are deeply committed to education – sacrificing huge portions of family income to keep children in school – and, when jobs are available, work as hard as anyone in the hemisphere.  Despite billions in aid, the country’s institutions are too weak, and the elites’ interest in keeping them that way is too strong, to move the country faster.  The politically and economically powerful who prospered under Duvalier surely hope that any responsibility they had for his excesses was buried with him, and if Haitian history is any guide, they’ll get away with it – while the UN and international community keep internal Haitian tensions in check and help provide basic services.

October 16, 2014

September 11 Coup in Chile: Global Ramifications

By Eric Hershberg

Chilean Grape export photo by Dick Howe Jr CC-BY-NC Flickr / Indictment of Pinochet, Photo by a-birdie CC-BY-NC Flickr

Chilean Grape export photo by Dick Howe Jr CC-BY-NC Flickr / Indictment of Pinochet, Photo by a-birdie CC-BY-NC Flickr

In Washington last week many events recalled the bloody coup of September 11, 1973, which overthrew the Popular Unity government of Chilean Socialist President Salvador Allende and ushered in a dictatorship that, even by South American standards of the time, stood out for its brutality.  Discussion about “the other September 11” highlighted the human cost of the coup, the role of U.S. government agencies in undermining Chilean democracy and encouraging the military’s actions, and the memories of the coup and dictatorship that remain deeply embedded in Chile today.  These and similar gatherings around the world and in Chile featured demands for the full truth about the dictatorship’s crimes – the fate of some thousand of the disappeared remains unknown today, according to the Human Rights Observatory of the Diego Portales University – and to hold those who committed them fully accountable.

The coup led by General Augusto Pinochet destroyed Latin America’s longest standing democratic regime and ended a unique experiment testing the proposition that electoral democracy could catalyze a transition to socialism.  In Chile, the coup initiated 17 years of military rule grounded in state-sponsored violence, but it also resonated far beyond that country’s borders, marking a watershed in global affairs.  To this day how people around the world conceive fundamental issues of political change, economic development and human rights is affected by September 11, 1973.  These broader legacies were the focus of a panel discussion at American University, co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Washington College of Law, this week.  (Click here for details.)

We can now see three large sets of consequences that the Chilean coup had far beyond its borders. 

Political:  Across Southern Europe, it reverberated powerfully, undermining the confidence of sectors of the Left that believed fervently a socialist transition could be effected through victory at the ballot box.  After the coup, Eurocommunists in Italy and Spain came to believe that victory would require an alliance with Christian Democrats or other centrists, lest a coup coalition akin to that in Chile bring down democracy altogether. For much of the Latin American left, the Chilean experience would over time prove a wake-up call, alerting those aspiring to turn the world upside down that democracy was not a mere bourgeois luxury and suggesting that “second-best” options – more gradual change –were preferable to maximalist goals that would likely jeopardize democracy.

Economic: The coup paved the way for “neoliberal” policies that would shake the foundations of conventional thinking about development for nearly three decades.  They were prescribed across Latin America.  It would not be until the emergence of ALBA in the mid-2000’s that the region would again witness a faith (however misguided), in the capacity of import-substitution and inward-oriented redistribution to achieve lasting economic advance in the region. 

U.S. policy:  Finally, the coup set in train levels of violence and human rights abuses so abhorrent that they drove major changes in U.S. human rights policy and international jurisprudence.  In the United States, advocacy organizations, progressive majorities in Congress, and the Carter Administration introduced unprecedented legislation aimed at preserving democracy and curbing human rights abuses.  Well beyond Washington, numerous international regimes put in place to combat impunity were motivated and influenced by what had taken place in Chile and the imperative of ensuring that it not happen again.  

Just as the cataclysmic event that took place in the U.S. on 9/11/01 opened the door to extreme and ongoing changes felt around the world, so too did the Chilean tragedy that began on 9/11/73.

Pope Francis I: The First Latin American Pope

Pope Francis | Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis | Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

What will the first Pope from Latin America mean for that region, home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholics?  Leading scholars – several of them participants in a multi-year research project at American University* – offered insights recently in The New York Times.  Among many factors that they point to as conditioning the leadership of the newly elected Pope Francis – Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires – are how the Church meets the challenge of Evangelical Protestantism and deals with its own past in the region.

With their remarkable rise in recent decades, Evangelicals have broken centuries of Catholic monopoly and made Latin America far more pluralistic religiously than ever before.  Professors Virginia Garrard-Burnett and Daniel Levine underline the limitations of the strategies for renewal employed by the last two Popes – the return to traditional pieties, the adaptation of Pentecostal spiritual practices by “charismatic” Catholics, and the embrace of what Garrard-Burnett calls “neotraditional” organizations such as the elite, secretive Opus Dei.  Levine singles out various Evangelical strengths: churches that “work well with new media, have local leaders close to the community and provide expanded roles for women and minority groups.”  Perhaps the Evangelicals’ most fundamental advantage is their success in making religious faith relevant and real to the millions of Latin Americans that have swelled the region’s violent cities and experienced wrenching social change.

Latin American Catholicism will also be shaped by how it faces its own past in a region where democracies have replaced the dictatorships of old.  The personal story of Pope Francis illustrates different dimensions of that past: an “option for the poor” that took hold after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) together with a long history of ecclesiastical accommodation with repressive regimes.  The Argentine hierarchy as a whole was seen as supportive of the military dictatorship during the massive violation of human rights in 1976‑83.  Bergoglio’s personal role is unclear.  His supporters hold that he combined pastoral concern for his flock with quiet humanitarian diplomacy toward the junta. His critics argue that he failed to protect several left wing priests and his silence constituted complicity with the regime.  Like many other clerics who rose to dominate today’s Latin American hierarchies, he did not publicly defend human rights.

As Pope Francis, Bergoglio’s personal style and pastoral simplicity already mark an important signal to his Church that it must be committed to the poor.  In Latin America it has a historic opportunity to stand for their dignity and foster their empowerment.  Public identification with their cause is vital, but so is living and working with them to overcome the poverty and violence of their communities.  John XXIII, Paul VI and notable Latin American bishops after Vatican II saw this as a matter of securing their fundamental human rights.  This is an enduring legacy of their leadership during dictatorships that Francis and his Church should build on in the democracies of today.

* 2012-13, with the support of the Religion and International Affairs Initiative of the Henry R. Luce Foundation