Today, President Obama will stand in the Park of Memory in Buenos Aires, along the edge of the River Plate, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the day the military seized power in Argentina, beginning the Dirty War.
From 1976-1983, in a period of state terror and repression, tens of thousands were systematically tortured and killed for allegedly being “subversive.” The “disappeared” were tortured, many thrown from planes into the waters around Buenos Aires, and had their children, born in captivity, given to military families. Many scholars consider the seven-year reign of terror genocide. As he visits the Park of Memory, President Obama will find a wall of names–a wall reminiscent of the Vietnam War Memorial–of those disappeared by the state. Lining the edges of this space are signposts and maps detailing the terror of that time, as part of a broader landscape of memory in Argentina that includes memorials, museums, protests, and commemorations by human rights activists committed to sustaining the memory of the victims.
The significance of the president’s trip and its timing goes beyond another state visit. As Obama stands there, occupying these particular coordinates of space and time, he positions himself in a complex field of memory politics that have profoundly shaped Argentina’s civil society since democracy returned in 1983. Although that year brought an end to state-sponsored terror in Argentina, it did not bring justice. Yes, a historical truth commission (the CONADEP) did represent a step forward–clarifying through investigation and testimony the pattern of crimes and human rights abuses and becoming a model for what would later be understood as transitional justice. But, for the next 20 years, those responsible for so much of the brutality remained free and unaccountable for their brutality. Perpetrators walked the streets in a state of impunity, and it is those the same streets to which human rights groups turned to protest and demand truth and accountability, remembering the victims as they advocated for justice.
Over the past ten years, significant changes took place—amnesty laws were overturned and perpetrators were finally forced to face trials. And along with justice, came the official politics of memory. The Park of Memory was established along the River Plate, and the ESMA (the Navy School of Mechanics), a site of torture during the Dirty War, became known as the ex-ESMA, a museum dedicated to the memory of those dark days.
This is the first official state visit by an American president since these advances in human rights, and Obama’s visit to Argentina represents a new dialogue between the nations under the presidency of Macri.
However, there is a shadow cast over his decision to visit on the anniversary of the coup. Notes from a 1976 meeting between then Henry Kissinger and visiting Argentinian foreign minister, Admiral César Augusto Guzzetti revealed that the U.S. statesman advised the military officer “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly,”—a none-too subtle endorsement of the military’s brutal plans. Because of this, President Obama has not been welcomed by all Argentines, including many human rights groups and Nobel Prize Winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who penned an open letter asking Obama to postpone his visit. Yet, in looking at that history, as Uki Goñi reminded us, it is important to remember the full scope of the U.S. role, which includes—yes, at times supporting the authoritarian regimes but also challenging them, as President Jimmy Carter’s administration later did. That too is an important part of the history of the relationship between the two countries.
That history took a step forward yesterday when Obama announced the de-classification of U.S. intelligence and diplomatic documents related to the Argentine Dirty War. In response, human rights groups, including the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, welcomed the news, acknowledging what the documents could reveal about the victims and how they could assist in the ongoing trials.
But, despite this step, human rights groups still announced that they will not accompany Obama at the Park of Memory today. For this is still their day, in the end. And perhaps that has to be enough for this visit.
And yet, Obama’s presence in the Park of Memory, a park located on the edge of the same river where death flights threw bodies into the water 40 years ago, is important in its own right. As he stands there, he also plunges himself into a complex field of memory embedded in contemporary politics, and allows for an opening, of sorts. Although not directly answering a question posed at a press conference today about the role of the U.S. in the supporting the dictatorship, Obama acknowledged the significance of facing history and of accompanying the struggle for “never again.” While memory can be the space for reconciliation internally within a nation in the aftermath of political violence and human rights abuse, perhaps in this case, an acknowledgment of a shared history and memory that crosses borders can be just as vital for a renewed dialogue critical to the future relationship between the U.S. and Argentina.