31 January 2007

The secrets of Isabel Perón

If you've been following the news, you'll undoubtedly know that judicial proceedings are being started (or resumed) to investigate and punish criminals of the Dirty War, particularly a number of military and police officers that did such nice things as running illegal detention centers, overseeing and conducting torture sessions of political prisoners, and the like. The first of these was Julio Simón, aka "El Turco Julián"; the second was Miguel Etchecolatz. The trial of Cristian Von Wernich, a torturer priest and chaplain, is another example, as well as the arrest of the former Navy officer Alfredo Astiz, "the Blond Angel of Death".

The Dirty War, however, did not only include the crimes committed under the dictatorship that began in 1976. Its preliminaries can be located already under the third term of Juan Domingo Perón, which began in 1973 after his return from exile and was interrupted by his death in 1974. Peronism had a populist-corporatist ideology that could and did host extremely diverse factions, ranging from the far-right to the leftist-Catholic Montoneros. Perón played the political game with these factions more-or-less easily, even as he became old and physically weak. When he died, however, government was left in the hands of his wife Isabel Martínez, a spineless idiot who was easily manipulated by the dark characters in Perón's inner circle.

To cut a long story short, as the rule of Isabel unfolded, right-wing death squads (beginning with the AAA or Argentine Anticommunist Alliance) took their conflict with left-wing movements and their fight with politically subversive elements to the streets. The result was (from both sides) bombings, kidnappings, and a general sense that the country was going nowhere — since Isabel was incapable of handling it. Thus, the solution: a coup d'état, led by the military, supported by the upper classes, the right-wing nationalist Catholic establishment, and the forces in Argentina and abroad that feared Socialist/Communist expansion, such as the local landowners and the U.S. government. The lower classes were persuaded by the threat of increasing violence, and later distracted using the circus of the 1978 FIFA World Cup, among other things.

After the restoration of democracy, the military have often demanded that "the others" be judged as well. In truth, the misleading word "war" in "Dirty War" was coined by them, implying that the military and the police (the forces of order) were conducting a war against a formally defined enemy, the subversives (the forces of anarchy and lawlessness). The term has stuck, even though it's incorrect, and even as the left has often directed its verbal attacks toward supporters of the so-called "theory of the two demons". It's clear that this wasn't a war, but a systematic plan of extermination of dissidence and a scheme of state terrorism to subdue the masses (getting to that "officially", out of the mouth of a judge in a formal sentence, took no less than 30 years). "The others", the leftist insurgents that blew up buildings, kidnapped, tortured and assassinated people, had been in some cases tried by justice.

The news here is that a recent investigation has been directed at the role of Isabel Martínez de Perón in the beginning of the "war" against insurgency. Not long after Perón's death, Isabel and her cabinet signed a decree ordering Argentina's security forces to "annihilate" subversion. In view of some, this was a thinly veiled authorization (and certainly a clear post facto legitimation) of the illegal repression that ensued. The decree did not mention the AAA, of course, though its ties with the Peronist establishment were notorious. However, it's interesting that the military who overthrew Isabel pretended to do so not for ideological reasons (anti-Peronism, as in 1955) but under the guise of bringing back order that Isabel was "unfortunately" unable to maintain; that's why they dubbed their dictatorial rule "National Reorganization Process".

Since Isabel signed the decree and it was José López Rega, one of Isabel's ministers who organized the AAA, judges are now investigating her responsibility. In Argentina, the Constitution expressly forbids using the Armed Forces to repress breaches of law and civil unrest; the military exist to provide defense against external threats. Isabel's decree, besides violating that principle, in a way equalized internal violent dissidence (which it was) with a threat to the state (which it definitely wasn't).

Isabel Perón lives in Madrid, Spain, since she chose to exile there. Two different judges are investigating her, on a forced disappearance case that took place before the coup and in connection with the Triple A. One of the judges has required that she be extradited to Argentina. As an interesting (if pathetic and depressing) display of Argentine political culture, signs with the inscription NO JODAN CON PERÓN ("DON'T MESS WITH PERÓN") have appeared in Buenos Aires; they're attributed to a certain Peronist labour union, whose leaders are offended by the idea that anything related to their unofficial saint patron, Juan Domingo Perón, could be tainted by association (or proof of involvment) with the extremists of the beginning of the Dirty War.

Quite tellingly, the national government, led by a leftist-populist Peronist who has consciously rejected the liturgy of Peronism (big posters with the faces of Perón and Evita, constant quotations of Perón's sayings, untuous expressions of loyalty to Perón's mythical figure), has stayed almost silent on the matter. This is an executive branch that has an opinion about everything, even if it means notoriously intruding in the turf of other branches of government, but it's understandable. With the re-opening of old, unhealed wounds of Argentine history, Kirchner's administration has also re-kindled political debate inside its own party; better wait and see what that can of worms holds.

PS: An interesting article by Héctor Olivera in La Nación, 2 Feb 2007: En los años de plomo, no hubo dos demonios ni santos inocentes. I'm not sure what to make of it, but it's worth a read.

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