Bad times for ex-presidents

The scandal that has haunted Carlos Menem since his presidency ended in 1999 will finally be aired in court when the ex-president (and current senator for La Rioja province) will be tried for his part in a secret arms deal that saw weapons sold illegally to both Croatia and Ecuador between 1991 and 1995.

Does this man look like a crook to you?

Does this man look like a crook to you?

The oral trial will be a drawn-out process, with 41 accused under investigation in the matter. Among them is ex-economy minister Domingo Cavallo.

Menem is accused of having signed three secret presidential decrees permitting the illegal arms sales. According to the accusations, Menem knowingly broke a United Nations arms embargo to aid Croatia in its fight against Serbian forces in the early 1990s. He then used the same trafficking network to send arms to Ecuador during a 1995 border dispute with Peru. Many Argentines find it particularly mortifying that Argentine weapons were sent to support Ecuador – not only because Argentina was acting as a mediator between Ecuador and Peru, but also because Peru was the only South American country to stick up for Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War.

Menem has eluded justice over the accusations for some time, and the question some are asking, though, is why now? Menem was detained and placed under house arrest on the same charges on 2001 but was acquitted (in a less-than-transparent process) due to lack of evidence. A case of double jeaopardy? And if not, why has the case taken seven years to be revisited? The timing has some saying it’s the Kirchners taking revenge on Menem – a fellow Peronist – for voting against their grains tax bill that saw farmers strike earlier this year. They do seem to have the power to turn – and halt – the wheels of justice, and the courts’ vigor in the case against Menem is a stark contrast to its lethargy when it comes to examining accusations of corruption against several serving Kirchnerite functionaries. In any case, when he stands trial this week, he will become the first democratically elected president in Argentine history to suffer such an indignity.

Ex-members of the military junta, on the other hand, have been seeing the pointy end of justice ever since the return of democracy in 1983 and it has only gotten pointier since the Kirchners have been in charge.

On Friday, ex-dictator, former president General Jorge Videla was moved from house arrest in the leafy and civilised Buenos Aires neighborhood of Belgrano to a military prison in the Campo de Mayo, just outside the capital.

Videla was convicted of crimes against humanity when Raúl Alfonsín, the first democratically elected president to follow the dictatorship, set up tribunals to judge the ex-military rulers. Videla enjoyed a few years of freedom after Menem handed out pardons for ex-repressors in 1990, but those pardons have been overturned by the Kirchners and since last year Videla has been stuck at home, much like any other 83-year-old man who finds himself heartily unloved by the majority of his neighbours and fellow citizens. But now instead of growing old and dying among family, he will be in prison – on the very site where many Argentines found themselves illegally held and tortured under his authority during the 1970s.

While serving out a life sentence, Videla faces further charges and will be called to give evidence in a number of pending cases, including an investigation into the widespread practice of “baby theft” – the policy of misappropriating the newborn babies of illegally imprisoned women, who were later “disappeared” and their babies illegally adopted by military families. He also faces kidnapping charges and is being processed for having participated in “Plan Condor” – a clandestine scheme by which the military governments of several Southern Cone countries (backed with training and tacit approval from the USA) helped each other by swapping illegally detained prisoners and exchanging information obtained under torture.

As for slippery old Menem – his get-out-of-jail-free card is still valid for a while. Serving senators are protected from imprisonment (possibly the main reason Menem has sought to prolong his political career), so even if found guilty, he buys some time until his term ends in 2014.


New books tell stories of the children of 70s radicals

Last Friday, myself and some friends, including two Mexicans and an Argentine who’d been living in Mexico City for the past several years, went to see a band called La Musical Mexicana (you can see a video of them performing live here). My new friend, Leo, the Argentine who’d been living in DF, told me the band was made up of three “argen-mex” musicians. This was a new turn of phrase for me, but apparently the number of Mexicans who are actually the children of Argentine parents, exiled in Mexico during Argentina’s Dirty War (1976-83), is so great as to merit its own moniker, especially now that their ranks have swelled to accommodate the many young Argentines who moved to Mexico City to escape the social and economic turmoil of Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis.

La Musical Mexicana

La Musical Mexicana

The band played a kind of south-of-the-border, retro-rock-country mix – or maybe that’s “neo-mariachi” – sung in both Spanish and English, with a mix of its own songs and some classics, which had my Mexican friend Cecy howling and singing along.The underground bar was decorated with Mexican paper-cut-out skeletons, like those used to celebrate the Day of the Dead. But the band members, the boys with their aquiline noses and mullet haircuts, and the tall blonde singer with her sharp outfit and lovely high-heels, had that hard-to-define yet impossible-not-to-recognise Argentine look about them.

During the 1970s, around 650,000 Argentines – mostly leftist Peronists or members of Marxist revolutionary groups like the Montoneros – fled their country as political exiles, escaping the brutal dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983. Around 10,000 Argentines settled in Mexico, mostly in the capital, Mexico City (or DF, for Distrito Federal). Many of those exiles stayed in Mexico for good, while others were happy to return after the restoration of democracy in Argentina. But an interesting new study (published as a book, El Retorno de los Hijos del Exilio or ‘The Return of the Children of Exile’) shows that the children of returned exiles – whether born in Mexico, France, or any other country that accepted Argentina’s political refugees – have been marked by having left their country of birth to live in an Argentina entirely unknown to them. In fact, the study showed that 17% of people interviewed said they had “no nationality.”

“Going ‘home’ was just another forced migration for many children of exile,” said Roberto Aruj, a professor at the state University of Buenos Aires and co-author of the book. “They were born or raised abroad, and after adapting to their own uprooting or that of their parents, they had to drop everything and return to Argentina on someone else’s say-so.”

Meanwhile, another recently published book, called The Rabbit House, is said to be the first account of what it was like to grow up with parents who were waging a guerrilla war against the state. Laura Alcoba, at only six years of age, knew how to keep a secret, and how to tell if she and her parents were being followed in the street. Her parents, who were Montoneros, moved the family around from one safe house to the next, but after Alcoba’s father was caught and sent to prison, she and her mother went into hiding, living in a derelict house that masqueraded as a rabbit farm. Alcoba left school and she and her mother rarely went outside.

“It might seem strange, but for a little girl in that situation being in hiding just becomes part of everyday life,” the author, who teaches Spanish literature at a Paris university, told the Guardian newspaper. “She learns very quickly that in winter it’s cold, fire burns and we could be killed at any moment. But it’s overwhelming for a little girl because of the seriousness of any little gaffe she might make that could put the group in danger. She doesn’t always manage what she is supposed to say and not say. It’s as if she’s in a costume that’s too difficult to wear.”

Later Alcoba and her mother went into exile in Paris. Her father was eventually released from prison but her parents’ relatinship did not survive. Nor did most of their fellow revolutionaries who shared the rabbit farm – nearly every last one was killed by the military.

“People have said this is a story of stolen childhood,” Alcoba told the Guardian. “But I think it would be obscene to complain of my lost childhood when so many people lost their lives. It was violent, but it was a childhood all the same.”

Abortion debate flares in Argentina

On Tuesday, a judge in the province of Mendoza declared that an abortion to be performed on a twelve-year-old girl, who’d been raped by her stepfather, would be illegal.

The child was taken by her mother to hospital in late August, after discovering she was pregnant. There, the mothers told medical staff that her daughter had been raped, was pregnant, and wanted an abortion. With strict exceptions (which are nonetheless open to interpretation) abortion is illegal in Argentina. So the doctors sent the matter to a judge to consider.

Article 86 of Argentina’s penal code says that abortion is illegal and cannot be performed unless (a) it’s necessary to avoid placing the mother’s life or health in danger or (b) the pregnancy is the result of a rape or an “assault on the purity” of a female who is mentally retarded or an “idiot.” This translation is direct and the statute’s antiquated language is evident. The first exception is clearly open to interpretation by doctors (for example – does the mother’s health include her mental health?), while the second is open to plenty of confusion. Does it say that abortion can be legally performed on any woman whose pregnancy is the result of rape, as well as on any woman whose mental condition places in doubt her capacity to consent to sex and/or raise a child? Or does clause B simply offer two ways of describing a rape, creating an exception only for raped/seduced women of diminished mental capacity?

In any case, it’s for the doctor to decide, and if the doctor sees fit, the abortion under these exceptions can be performed without referring the case to a judge.

Well, the judge in Mendoza decided that while he decided what to do, the child should be held at the hospital, and denied access to her mother, who he thought would unduly influence her in favour of the abortion. Meanwhile, the child received an unexpected visit from anti-abortion activists who showed her gorey pictures of aborted foetuses, begged her to go through with the pregnancy, and even offered the family (the girl and her family are very poor) money if the girl would agree to bear the child.

By the time the judge came to deliver his decision, the girl declared she no longer wanted an abortion.

Photo from Critical Digital

Photo of a random pregnant belly from Critica Digital - this is not a photo of the girl in the story

The case has opened up debate in this country, where teenage pregnancies are common and sex education patchy. Some 15 percent of births registered in 2005 were to mothers aged between 15 and 19, and more than 3000 babies are born each year to mothers under the age of 14. A study by the Argentine Society for Paediatric and Adolescent Gynaecology showed 34 percent of female teenage respondents didn’t use any contraceptive method the first time they had sex, while 7 percent opted for the dicey withdrawal method.

Virtually banned by the dictatorship and still opposed by the church (most Argentines are Catholic), sex education has been slow to arrive in Argentina. Only in 2006 did congress pass a law enforcing all schools to follow an established sex education curriculum – but the curriculum has not yet been established and the church is still claiming the right to teach about sex as it sees fit in Catholic schools.

But while abortion is banned, it’s readily available. Those who can afford an abortion can easily access a safe, albeit illegal one at a private clinic, while the poor are forced to opt for dangerous, unsanitary procedures. Around 500,000 abortions are performed in Argentina each year, while around 750,000 babies are born each year – that’s 1.5 babies for every abortion. Meanwhile, each day, 188 women are treated at public hospitals for complications arising from abortion procedures. It’s estimated that 20 Argentine women die for every 100,000 abortions performed (or roughly 100 women per year). To put these figures in context, Argentina has a total population of around 38 million – which, at a guess, includes under 9 million fertile women.

Last year, members of congress forming part of the “National Campaign for the Right to a Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion” presented a bill that would decriminalise the procedure (making it unpunishable in private clinics) as well as legalise it (making it permissible – and free- in public hospitals). The president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, has said “I’ve always been against abortion,” but added “I don’t think that those who lobby for the decriminalisation of abortion are in favour of abortion itself – that would be a simplification.”

10 million Argentine children at risk from pollution

Some 70% of Argentina’s children are at risk due to contact with pollution, according to a report released by the government agency Defensor del Pueblo de la Nacion (or Public Defender).

Children collecting recyclables in the streets (click on the video “Eliosa Cartonera” to your right to see images), city buses blowing clouds of CO2 in the faces of waiting passengers and poor families living on the banks of the super-polluted Riachuelo river are all facts of life in Buenos Aires.

But the report says up to 10 million kids risk their health as a result of poor environmental regulation. Diseases like leukemia and other cancers, foetal malformation, and infections that can affect the nervous system are all diseases that have been linked to contact between kids and environmental pollutents. According to teh World Health Organisation, some 83 of the 103 most common childhood diseases are contracted as a results of environmental risk, and end up taking the lives of four million children throughout the world each year.

Buenos Aires' Riachuelo - 42,000 people live on its banks.

The filthy Riachuelo - 42,000 people live on its banks

Argentina’s anti-pollution legislation is one of the region’s sturdiest but it’s so poorly enforced that it hardly matters. Recently a court had to order the national environment minister to clean up the filthy Riachuelo or risk fines that would have to be paid out of her own pocket, such is the lack of political action on matters environmental.

Dirty War generals condemned

On August 28, the trial of two retired generals ended, with both condemned to prison for the rest of their  lives for crimes against humanity, committed while they formed part of the military regime that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983.

Menedéz and Bussi, with their lawyer. Photo by JORGE OLMOS SGROSSO / AFP/Getty Images

Menendéz and Bussi, with their lawyer. Photo by JORGE OLMOS SGROSSO / AFP/Getty Images

Antonio Domingo Bussi and his colleague Luciano Benjamín Menéndez were convicted of kidnapping, torturing and murdering a senator, Guillermo Vargas Aignasse, who disappeared on the day of the military coup – March 24, 1976. The military’s story was that he was later released, but his familiy never saw him again.

Argentina stands out among its southern cone neighbours as the only country that has successfully brought former military rulers – who together were responsible for the extra-judicial imprisonment, torture and execution of tens of thousands of Argentines – to trial for crimes against humanity. At the moment, there are 1,200 cases related to human rights abuse during the dictatorship before the courts. These trials are thought to involve just over 1000 people. There are 403 people under arrest for the alleged crimes, 336 of these are in custody and 67 on bail. Some 28 ex-represors have been sentenced and are in jail, while 55 are on the run. But the trials are not universality supported and for many Argentines, they don’t really represent the closing of this ugly historical chapter as much as the re-opening of old wounds.

The trial was partially televised. Watching the two watery-eyed, white-haired old men read their personal testimonies – filled with indignation at what they call illegitimate and politically-motivated trials – was certainly an emotionally confusing experience. Bussi, whose lawyers had tried to declare him unfit to stand trial due to illness, spoke with plastic oxygen tubes attached to his nose and wept as he denied ever having laid eyes on Vargas Aignasse. Part of me wanted to feel sorry for these pathetic, wicked old men, with their sad old bodies and ill-spent lives. But the words they read recalled clearly that in the vigour of youth, these men used their power to stamp out the lives of others who thought differently from them.  They showed no signs of regret, resisting with every last breath the moral meaning of what they had done, and the consequences the dictatorship had for the country.

Menéndez told the court “Argentina flaunts the dubious merit of being the first country in history to judge its victorious soldiers,” he said. “They call the operations of the armed forces illegal repression.”

The wicked old men were not without their supporters. In one particularly action-packed (and televised) moment, when Bussi’s sentence was announced, prominent pro-military activist Cecilia Pando lept to her feet and started screeching, making throat-cutting gestures and swearing at Argentina’s secretary for human rights, also present, declaring that she would kill him with her own hands.

Cecilia Pando going berserk. Photo by DyN

Cecilia Pando going berserk. Photo by DyN

Pando later said she regretted her outburst, but objected, “They are trying them under the penal code when they should be trying them under the laws of war.” She has also argued that there can be no justice while only the ex-military are tried, and not those involved in the guerrilla movements that committed deadly acts of terrorism during the 1970s. Many share this view, while others argue that ex-terrorists and ex-statesmen cannot be held to the same standards. This view holds that state terrorism unleashed against the people is in a class of its own and is a crime against humanity, and what the terrorists did was not of the same magnitude in kind nor death toll. Pando singled out Human Rights Secretary Eduardo Luis Duhalde for his history as a left-wing activist during the ’70s.

The judges relied in part on jurisprudence generated at the Nuremburg trials, which condemned members of Hiler’s Nazi regime for crimes against humanity. The court declared:

“The implementation of a systematic plan, consisting of kidnapping, torture, clandestine detention, elimination and the hiding of corpses – all with a view to ensuring the impunity of the perpetrators – has been proven.”

The court decided the two were guilty of crimes against humanity, though not of genocide. There are some  in Argentina who believe the Dirty War, which saw some 30,000 Argentines forcibly “disappeared” and their bodies disposed of clandestinely, does indeed qualify as genocide. While no ethnic group or class was targeted, they argue that the generals’ plan was a sort of “ideological cleansing” designed to rid Argentina of certain modes of thought or ideology that the generals deemed “subversive.”

The sentence was greeted with cheers from human rights activists, but some protested violently at the house arrest sentence received by Bussi in light of his age (he is 82). Menéndez (who is 81, but in better shape than his colleague) will stay in the jail where he is already imprisoned for separate human rights violations.

Abuelas identify missing grandchild No 93

Last Friday, the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo (or Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, named for their silent marches around Argentina’s most famous square, protesting the disappearance of their grandchildren during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship) announced that another child of the disappeared had been identified.

This is the 93rd “grandchild” to have been identified through a combination of forensics and DNA identification since the Grandmothers began their campaign to “recuperate” all of the children who disappeared during the dictatorship.

When pregnant women were captured and imprisoned in the many clandestine detention centres operated by the military and police, or when female prisoners fell pregnant during their detainment, they were allowed to give birth before being executed – often by being drugged then thrown from planes into the sea in what have become knows as the “death flights.”

In the case of grandchild No 93, the woman in question was not seeking to discover her identity. Instead, the Abuelas provided the court with sufficient evidence to suggest she was a child of the disappeared, and the judge, in what is a relatively new and highly controversial measure, ordered that her DNA be gathered by collecting personal objects like drinking glasses, hair combs and toothbrushes. The National Gene Databank then analysed the material and found a match. The woman, whose name is Alejandra, has declined to meet her biological family.

Alejandra’s biological mother was 19 years old and a member of the Montonero guerrilla movement when she was kidnapped by the military in 1977. Her father, also a Montonero, was kidnapped at the same time. Neither of them was ever seen again. The remaining members of Alejandra’s family are hoping she will come to seek a connection with them.

The dictatorship, also known as Argentina’s Dirty War, saw the military fight leftist guerrillas, or revolutionary terrorists – but also various kinds of non-violent opposition – by way of extra-judicial imprisonment, torture and execution. While these facts are broadly known, the policy of illegal adoption is something that fewer outside Argentina are aware of.

In a sinister twist on what many now judge to have been a brutal campaign of ideological cleansing, the newborn babies of the disappeared were illegally or informally adopted by families loyal to or connected with the military, who raised them as their own, free of the “subversive” tendencies displayed by their true parents. Some were even raised by those involved in the torture and killing of their parents. The Abuelas believe there are up to 400 people who still don’t know their true identity as children of the disappeared.

The Abuelas’ campaign to recover their grandchildren, or at least to restore to them their true identity, became an important part of the campaign by human rights activists after the return of democracy. Unlike its neighbours, Argentina has sought to try its military leaders for crimes against humanity. The first post-Dirty War government, headed by President Raúl Alfonsín, set up an inquiry into the disappeared (which concluded that there had been at least 30,000 people murdered by the dictatorship, a far greater toll than any other Southern American country suffered) and the courts began to try the military officials responsible. Under immense political and military pressure, Alfonsín later limited the trials to the upper ranks of the military, and placed a deadline by which all cases were to be presented to court. When Carlos Menem won the presidency in 1989, a full amnesty was offered to both the military and those former guerrillas accused of terrorism.

It was under this amnesty that the Abuelas’ campaign became particularly important for human rights activists, as the illegal adoption or misappropriation of babies was not a crime that came under the amnesty. By proceeding with their investigations, the Abuelas could bring members of the military involved in the misappropriation of babies to trial.

When Néstor Kirchner became president in 2003, he revoked Menem’s amnesty, and since then the government (Néstor’s wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is the current president) has strongly supported both the Abuelas and their sister organization, Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) and has encouraged the courts to bring former military officials to justice.

In a landmark case earlier this year, 30-year-old Maria Eugenia Sampallo Barragán pressed charges against her adoptive parents for falsifying adoption documents and concealing her true identity. Her adoptive parents were sentenced to several years in prison.

Another case that came to light this year saw a brother and sister discover their younger sister. The two eldest siblings had been imprisoned in the infamous Naval Mechanics School, or ESMA (recently declared a National Monument and soon to become a public museum), with their parents – the brother, Marcelo Ruiz Dameri, was 5 years old and his sister Maria 3 years old. Their mother gave birth in the ESMA, after which the two elder children were abandoned at separate orphanages in distant parts of the country, while their baby sister was adopted by a military family. The younger sister, like Alejandra, was unwilling to give her DNA (which was gathered by way of a judicial warrant), and has not yet sought a relationship with her biological siblings.

The Navy Mechanics School, or ESMA (Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada)

The Navy Mechanics School, or ESMA (Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada)