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

Performing the Pope

By Brenda Werth

Photo credit: presidencia.gov.ar | Creative Commons

Photo credit: presidencia.gov.ar | Creative Commons

The pope is a populist par excellence – Pope Francis has proven to be no exception – and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) is trying to harness some of his unprecedented approval for her own ends.  Since his election in March 2013, supporters of Pope Francis have credited him with changing the tone of the Catholic Church, renewing its relevance, detracting attention away from intractable issues (abortion, gay marriage), decrying capitalism and refocusing efforts on fighting inequality and poverty.  “Who am I to judge?” he famously responded when asked to comment on gay priests.  And yet, in his previous life as Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, his judgments with regard to gay rights, specifically his strong condemnation of gay marriage, are what then caused the substantial rift between him and CFK’s government.  The Argentine government has passed some of the most progressive gay rights legislation in the world, making same-sex marriage legal and awarding full adoption rights to same-sex couples in July 2010.  CFK called Bergoglio’s stark opposition medieval.  What is surprising, then, is the conciliation that has taken place between the President and Bergoglio as pope.  It has taken place over the last year in the form of public rituals and urban iconography, bringing the Pope and CFK together in a symbiotic performance of national identity and Peronist imagery.

Given their past differences, their newly fashioned bond conjures a kinship not based solely on shared political views.  CFK has drawn public attention to certain rituals and events that link the two through the construction of familial intimacy.  Perhaps the most stunning example of her attempts to incorporate the Pope into the big happy Kirchner family is in her party’s use of a photographic collage juxtaposing Juan Perón, Néstor Kirchner, CFK, and Pope with the caption, “Mirá pibe a dónde llegamos” (Look, kid, how far we’ve come).  In May 2013 the collage appeared on a gigantic banner covering the façade of the Central Market in plain view of motorists on the heavily transited Riccheri highway.  In June, she broke protocol when she discarded the recommended template and wrote an informal letter to the Pope in honor of the Day of the Pontiff.  Discussed at length in the press, the missive was personal and colloquial in tone and closed mysteriously with Fernández urging the Pope to “take care” and “drink mate.”  When the President’s first grandchild was born a month later, images of the President accepting the Pope’s gift of baby shoes circulated widely in the press, together with her exclamations of “Look what the Pope got me for Néstor Iván.”  And in August, the Perón-Kirchner-Pope collage appeared blazoned on the side of a van deemed the Argentine version of the “Pope mobile,” unveiled by the Kirchner party in support of Frente por la Victoria candidates.

The collage captures perfectly CFK’s campaign to include the Pope in the big happy Kirchner family, but more importantly, it positions CFK herself as a key member of this influential family as she seeks to consolidate not only her own legacy, but also her political future.  With Juan Perón positioned top left and Néstor Kirchner top right, the collage resembles a family tree, in which CFK and the Pope are both direct descendents of a conflated Peronist/Kirchner genealogy.  Recast as founding fathers in this familial image, Juan Perón and Néstor Kirchner look down at CFK and the Pope from an atemporal, mythological realm, their solemn gaze directed at the newfound alliance between CFK and the Pope, solidified through the handshake between two of the world’s savviest of populists.  Dictatorial and democratic regimes alike have manipulated family discourse in Argentina to achieve political means.  The almost imperceptible image of the National Congress Building that constitutes the background of this collage is a reminder of what this performative family portrait ultimately seeks to achieve.  The Pope’s enthusiasm to play the familial role is unclear; a sign of wariness might be detected in his decision to postpone his first official trip to Argentina until 2016.  This date, ostensibly chosen in order for the Pope to participate in the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps more conveniently allows him to avoid the intense campaign period preceding general elections in 2015. 

The Catholic Church as a Field Hospital after Battle

By Alexander Wilde

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

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

Pope Francis is presenting a fresh and personal vision of the Catholic church and Christian faith that seems likely to breathe new life into the church in Latin America.  In a long interview released last week, he couched his message in terms appropriate to his global responsibilities, but it reflects how this first Pontiff from Latin America reads the recent history of his native region and its church. “I see the church,” he said, “as a field hospital after battle.” Having lived through several generations of often bitter conflict and traumatic violence, he clearly believes that the church must, in his words, “heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.” This dramatic, arresting metaphor of the church’s role in ministering to the human condition as he sees it today suggests that he aims to chart a fresh course – in the church and in society – after the divisions that marked the papacies of his two immediate predecessors. “The image of the Church I like,” he said in language that echoes the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and Latin America’s Liberation Theology, “is that of the holy, faithful people of God…on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows.”

This vision seems firmly rooted in his own experience as Jesuit Provincial and Archbishop in Argentina, where despite controversies over his actions or inactions during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, he is universally admired for his dedication to pastoral ministry. With this fundamental focus on those wounded by life, Francis will build on a foundation that already exists in Latin America today. Despite the notorious purges of liberationist tendencies in church structures that began in the 1970s, priests, nuns and lay people can be found throughout the continent living out pastoral vocations amidst new (and old) forms of violence at the grassroots. Francis will almost certainly, like his predecessors, affirm most doctrinal orthodoxies, such as the intrinsic value of even unborn human life (“I am a son of the Church”). But already his pastoral emphasis is a clear break: “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must … be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.”

Francis thinking is permeated by concepts and practices that come from the Council, Liberation Theology and the pastoral experience of the Latin American church. He clearly hopes to move beyond old divisions and draw from what that church has learned to meet the regions challenges today. Those include a challenge to convey the churchs deepest truths of salvation in ways that Evangelical Protestants have done so successfully in the region. And it is not coincidental that he urges, We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner. He will, undoubtedly, be opposed by conservatives that dominate the church’s ecclesiastical structures (resisting, for example, new paths of policy advocacy by the faithful on issues of poverty and inequality). His new appointments to gatekeeper roles such as nuncios and bishops will be closely watched. He has also inherited an institution shamed by sexual and financial scandals that will demand much of his time and energy. But in just a few months Pope Francis has changed perceptions among Christians and non-believers alike of how the Catholic church may again become a vital force in our world today. In Latin America a new emphasis on face-to-face pastoral ministries among the poor could well move its moral voice for social justice behind already visible popular pressures against growing economic inequality.

Alexander Wilde directs the Center’s two-year project on Religious Responses to Violence in Latin America with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

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