Argentina’s Disappeared and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo

Elizabeth Bowman
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

When I think of Argentina, I think of tango, the dance, the music  –  the songs of Carlos Gardel and Daniel Barenboïm’s wonderful recent recordings.  But I cannot help thinking also of the collapse of Argentina’s economy in late 2001 – a result of 20 years of largesse to the rich and IMF-imposed privatization.  And I also think of the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 which disappeared more than 30,000 people, fully ten times Chile’s equivalent number under Pinochet.  Memories both of the collapse and the dictatorship weigh heavily on Argentina today.

This depressing weight is probably due to the fact that, despite the 18 years that separate the two events, memories of them are intertwined in the Argentine psyche.  When the country’s charismatic leader Juan Peron died in office in 1974, government leadership was left to his second wife Isabel.  With the usual claims of instability, the military overthrew her civilian government in a coup in 1976.  Many argue the US played a role.  Up to that point in the mid-1970s, progressive forces had been winning some battles for more democracy in much of Latin America and in Argentina.  On balance, workers were winning higher wages; students were gaining more say in universities; and minorities were expanding rights.  Argentina’s military government, encouraged by the oligarchy, began a systematic campaign of disappearing opposition leaders – union leaders, student leaders, intellectual dissidents –even pregnant young women.  Almost all were never seen again.  It was later learned that many had been raped and tortured, then murdered, while others were dropped live from helicopters into the ocean.  Babies born in prison to dissident mothers were given to childless military couples;  their biological mothers were later killed.

By 1977, a mere year into this dictatorship, the families of the disappeared began meeting.  The mothers began their weekly walk in front of the Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires, carrying pictures of their loved ones and demanding their whereabouts.

The Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, though now split into two groups, to this day march around the plaza every Thursday to protest the lack of legal action against those responsible. Since 1983 prosecutions have seen some successes but mostly setbacks, with Presidential pardons usually following convictions.  Even today Argentina remains the kind of place where rape victims must share public spaces with their rapists as if nothing had happened  –  as described by the writer Ariel Dorfmann and made into Polansky’s anguishing film Death and the Maiden.

As the years passed, from seeking the release of children and other relatives, the mothers and grandmothers now emphasize return of their stolen and illegally adopted grandchildren. And they want prosecutions.  The Grandmothers have documented disappearance of 250 babies though estimates range from 400 to 500.  Sixty have been identified.

Young adult children who were “adopted” are discovering that their adoptive parents supported the regime that disappeared and presumably killed their biological mothers.  They are often the children of the upper middle class whose biological families are the opposition to those in the same class that backed the junta.  Added to the 30,000 disappearances in what is called “the Dirty War” and the continuing dearth of prosecutions, the trauma of the kidnapped grandchildren is shattering.  Justice, the mothers and grandmothers insist, is the precondition of healing.

Memories of the dictatorship and of the economic collapse of December 2001 are intertwined because 1976 was really the first try at imposing the same corporate globalization that former President Carlos Menem successfully imposed in the 1990s  –  bringing on the collapse.  The familiar package includes: spending cuts, lifting protections of local industries, privatizing public goods, and opening the state’s coffers to the corporations.  The mothers won’t let us forget that the disappeared died fighting precisely this anti-human package.   And it is the disappeared themselves who would today have been the leaders of the social movements to salvage and heal Argentina’s economy and society.

The Center for Global Justice will host a presentation by Rosa Roisinblit, herself the mother of a disappeared young woman who was 8 months pregnant at the time.  She is a founder and current Vice President of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.  Her title is: “Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo:  Finding the Lost Children.”  In 2000, Roisinblit recovered her kidnapped and illegally adopted grandchild.  She will speak at 2PM Monday June 25 at the Teatro Santa Ana.

As context for Roisinblit’s talk, the Center for Global Justice will show two films on aspects of the dictatorship. The Official Story, 1985, will be shown 2pm Thursday, June 21, in the Teatro Santa Ana.  It is the story of Alicia, an upper middle class housewife in Buenos Aires, and her  quest to learn the truth about her adopted child.

Death and the Maiden portrays the chance encounter, after the dictatorship, between a rape victim, a dissident, and her rapist, who had gone on to become a respected professional.   It will be shown at 2PM Thursday June 22 at the Teatro Santa Ana.

Yet, these intertwined histories  –  the dictatorship and the collapse  –  are also of a piece with the tango.