Escape From Torture
issue 179 - January 1988
Escape from torture
In the 1970s Argentina and Uruguay became symbols
of state terror, exporting torture techniques to the world.
Now the generals are back in the barracks where they belong.
Mike Rose retraces one of the worst periods in South
American history - and explains how it came to an end.
They were among the most unlikely rebels the world has ever seen. A group of elderly women sombrely dressed in grey and black, all wearing headscarves. Like doom merchants prophesying the end of the world, they carried placards. But here the placards had pictures on them of women, men and children, with their names lovingly written underneath. These people had all disappeared into the bowels of the state security machine, most never to be seen again.
These anguished women kept up a vigil outside the presidential palace in the Plaza de Mayo (May Square), at the heart of the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires. In the pink stone building a three-person junta headed a brutal military regime, whose crimes could still only be guessed at. It was 1980. Few people dared to speak out. The Mothers and Grandmothers of May Square were a courageous exception. And the worldwide attention they attracted made it difficult for the regime to move against them.
Across the River Plate in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, a much smaller but equally courageous group of women also held a regular vigil for their missing relatives. Mingling with both groups of women brought home to me the full tragedy of the decade of terror Argentina and Uruguay had suffered.
Up until the great depression of the 1930s, Argentina and Uruguay boasted among the highest living standards in the world. Argentina was the more dynamic because of its size, population and vast natural resources. But Uruguay was the more stable. By the 1920s, Uruguayans were living in the world's first capitalist welfare state. One foreign diplomat hailed Uruguay as 'an economic and political Utopia'. It became known as the Switzerland of Latin America.
When Wall Street crashed in 1929, Uruguay sailed through almost unscathed, its democracy largely intact Across the River Plate, it was a different story. A weakened and increasingly inept civilian government was overthrown by a military coup, initiating a chaotic half century in Argentina, which saw military rule alternating with demagogic rulers like the Perons, Juan, Evita and Isabelita.
But it was not until the 1970s that the military took full control of both countries. The 1960s had, as in Western countries, been a time of growing popular dissent Uruguay's Tupamaro guerillas gained considerable support for a largely nonviolent campaign of bank raids and kidnappings which was dramatized in Costa Gavras' film, State of Siege. But by 1972 the army had crushed this resistance and muzzled the press, assuming formal power the following year. In Argentina the guerilla groups were more violent and were accompanied by a wave of mass unrest Terrorism became widespread as right- wing death squads sprang up to combat the leftist guerillas. When the armed forces took power in 1976 'to restore order', many Argentinians welcomed the move. Little did they know what was in store.
The terror of the 1970s was unlike anything either country had ever experienced. Each had its own characteristics. The 'Switzerland of Latin America' became the 'torture chamber of Latin America'. Uruguay earned the dubious distinction of having the highest ratio of political prisoners to population in the world: 7,000 out of a population of just three million. Few escaped torture. Techniques like electric shock treatment were refined in Uruguay, then exported to dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Bolivia.
The magnitude of the Argentine disaster was even greater. In its zeal to eradicate the leftist guerillas, the military junta unleashed a whirlwind which developed its own horrific momentum. Intellectuals, trades unionists, teachers, students and journalists were rounded up and taken to one of the 340 secret detention centres dotted around the country. Most were tortured, murdered, then buried in rubbish dumps and secret graveyards.
Then the friends and acquaintances of the victims were taken away. Then friends and acquaintances of the friends and acquaintances. People with grudges anonymously condemned their innocent antagonists to death for 'subversion'. Most of the children who disappeared were parcelled out for adoption, though some were almost certainly murdered. The Mothers of May Square estimate that 30,000 Argentinians disappeared, the vast majority completely innocent of any crime.
The nightmare must have seemed never-ending. But what pulled both countries out of this pit was economic failure. The military men might have been experts at killing and torture. But they were far less able economic managers. In the late 1970s they followed dictates of Friedmanite monetarism, as both Chile and Britain were to do later. This delighted international financiers who were prepared to ignore the social cost of plummeting living standards for the majority wages fell by half in five years and health, education and welfare budgets were slashed.
But by the early 1980s even establish-economists were unable to hide the that the rot had set in. As wealthier people in both countries began to feel the I effects of recession, the clamour for change grew. The shibboleth that only strong-arm methods would ensure economic success was shattered.
Short of committing genocide, the two regimes had little option but to seek an escape from their economic failure. The Buenos Aires junta sought relief in an old nationalist cause which they hoped would give them immortality and a few more years in power. Amid much flag waving and fanfare, they invaded the Falkland Malvinas Islands, neighbouring territory which was disputed with Britain. This precipitated an equally jingoistic response from Britain's Thatcher government, whose victory inadvertently helped Argentina to send the soldiers back to their barracks, tails between their legs.
Encouraged by their neighbours' success, Uruguayans increased the pressure on their military overlords, who gave way to elections on condition that some of the most popular politicians were banned from participating. When President Julio Sanguinetti took office in 1985, it continued South America's encouraging drift back to civilian rule, a path already trodden by Bolivia, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador as well as Argentina. Only Chile, Paraguay and Surname still endure military dictatorship, and the continental trend away from repression has encouraged even Chile's brave but disunited opposition.
Argentina and Uruguay let their hair down when their civilian governments returned. Mass demonstrations of triumphant, chanting people filled the streets, singing of greedy generals, brutal brigadiers and silly soldiers. And not surprisingly - for these are Latin America's two most literate nations - an explosion of artistic expression followed. Great protest singers like Mercedes Sosa and Juan Manuel Serrat again echoed from a million radios. Neruda, Garcia Marquez and Marx reappeared on both sides of the River Plate. Dozens of political and satirical publications flooded the bookstalls and the mainstream press once again had bite.
On the surface, this seems like a happy ending democracy has returned with a vengeance. But underlying the euphoria is the painful reality of a still powerful and largely unrepentant military. Uruguay offered its former tyrants an immediate amnesty. And while Argentina brought its junta leaders to trial before the eyes of the world, only the most prominent went to prison increasing unrest among senior officers forced President Alfonsin to draw a line, letting hundreds of torturers and murderers go free for 'just obeying orders'. One pragmatic friend told me, 'to have a future, we can't dwell on the past'. But the women of May Square argue that unless justice is done, Argentina's future won't be worth having.
Mike Rose has just completed doctoral research on the political economy of Argentina.
He is a journalist and researcher specializing in Latin American Issues.
Amnesty received reports of torture in no less than 62 countries in 1986, compared with just 34 countries in 1981 - though like all statistics this figure should be treated with caution, since Amnesty's intelligence-gathering is more efficient and comprehensive today than it was five years ago.
Votes of censure
South Africa could hardly have a worse reputation for state terror. But the most recent State of Emergency, in operation since June 1986, has brought with it a worrying escalation in the detention without trial of black people considered to be a threat to the Government. Many of these detainees are children, some as young as 11 years old. When NI went to South Africa in March 1987 to make its film Girls Apart every one of the 16 child detainees we interviewed had been routinely tortured by electric shock treatment. By the end of 1986 more than 20,000 people had been detained under the emergency regulations.
In Sri Lanka the Tamil minority has long complained of discrimination and maltreatment by the indigenous majority, the Sinhalese, who dominate the Government and the State apparatus. But since 1983 the Government's repression of Tamils agitating for the independent state of Eelam has been extreme. Amnesty received hundreds of reports that people arrested by members of security forces had disappeared without trace. The intervention in 1987 of the Indian Army - supposedly to keep the peace - seemed as we went to press to be adding to the violence rather than reducing it.
In Indonesia the mid-1980s have been the worst period for state violence since the mass murder of thousands of supposed Communist sympathizers after the military coup in 1965. In 1983 and 1984 there was a rash of mysterious killings on the main island of Java. Amnesty believed that 'there was strong evidence of security personnel involvement'. Amnesty was also particularly concerned in 1986 about 'the imprisonment of hundreds of political detainees, including prisoners of conscience'. Reports of torture, arbitrary arrest and even extrajudicial executions were widespread in the territories of East Timor and West Papua, where the Government faces strong opposition from independence movements.