The weekend that the hemisphere’s Presidents met in Trinidad at the Summit of the Americas marked the same weekend that Cuba defeated the US in the Bay of Pigs invasion 48 years ago. At the Summit, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega recalled the invasion in a speech that rightly criticized US imperialism throughout the 20th century. President Barack Obama replied, “I’m grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old.”
However, as the US President, Obama inherits a bloody legacy that is still very much alive in today’s Latin America. Just weeks before the Presidents met in Trinidad, thousands of Argentines marched once again to demand justice for 30,000 people disappeared in a US-backed military dictatorship.
On March 24, 1976 a military junta took power in Argentina, and until 1981, General Jorge Rafael Videla presided over the country in a reign of terror, torture, surveillance, and murder.
On March 24, 2009, in Mendoza, Argentina, colorful marches filled the central streets of the city in remembrance of the coup, and to demand justice. The various banners and placards waving above the crowd were a testament to Argentina’s healthy political diversity in activism and politics — from Maoists selling their newspapers to Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo giving teary hugs to supporters and friends.
Though the march was organized around one central theme — justice, truth, and memory regarding the dictatorship — other themes arose in the crowd as well, including the negative impact of soy production, rising bus fares, and political corruption.
The march was a time to remember that Henry Kissinger gave his blessing to the Argentine military junta in 1976, saying, “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly,” and reassuring the torturing, bloody leaders thus: “I don’t want to give the sense that they’re harassed by the United States.”
Marches and protests in Buenos Aires on the same day were attended by the famous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a powerful human rights movement that for decades has been demanding the truth regarding the whereabouts of their disappeared children. One document read by some of the Mothers explained that still, after all these years, “the slowness of justice generates impunity and impunity only creates more impunity.”
A column by one leading Mother of the Plaza de Mayo, Hebe Bonafini, explained that her movement is also doing more than just marching and lobbying for justice. Their reach has expanded into all kinds of media and walks of life. They have opened a literary café and publishing house and hold seminars attended by 2,800 different students. Their “Shared Dreams” project provides housing in poor neighborhoods, as well as soup kitchens and daycare centers. Their radio station reaches into neighboring Uruguay and as far away as Brazil.
During the Buenos Aires mobilizations, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo spoke of the fact that “today there have still only been 44 sentences” for the authors of “a plan of systematic extermination” during the dictatorship. Therefore, the Mothers said, “we have to keep on fighting for truth and justice,” as there are 526 criminals of the dictatorship that still need to be tried. They demanded an “opening of the all of the archives of the Armed Forces and security to know to the truth.” They also called for the appearance of Julio López, the main testifier in a case against Miguel Etchecolatz, a repressor under the dictatorship.
Julio Lopez, a political prisoner during the dictatorship, was disappeared in 2006 a few hours before he was scheduled to testify against Etchecolatz. Lopez was last seen on September 18th, 2006. Journalist Marie Trigona reported that Nilda Eloy, another survivor of the dictatorship who testified with Lopez to convict Etchecolatz, said that “Most of the evidence suggests that Julio Lopez was kidnapped by the gangsters from the Greater Buenos Aires police force and rightwing fascists. . . .”
Outside Buenos Aires, other cities remembered these harsh times that still cast shadows over generations upon generations. But this March 24 was also a time of hope and reconstruction. In Cordoba, Argentina, La Perla (The Pearl), a detention and torture center run by the military dictatorship, was transformed into a “Space for Memory” and opened to the public. Emiliano Fessia, a member of the HIJOS human rights organization, said of the space: “This will now be a place of life, after being a place of death.”
Benjamin Dangl is currently based in Paraguay, and is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press), and the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.