Today, I feel old. It’s not just that I turned 40 earlier this year, bidding my last illusions of youth goodbye. In addition to age, my weary sigh comes with deflated resignation on this dark day. Videla, Massera, Viola, all of the pigs of the Proceso walk free. President Menem hasn’t released the paperwork yet, but the decision is final. My stomach turned today when I read that Videla left his already generous Magdelena prison cottage by helicopter.
Today, the hope I felt flushed with five years ago wilts. Alfonsin’s Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas published their Nunca Más report in 1984, bringing to public light many atrocities of the regime’s secret crimes. Riding that wave of justice, Argentina in 1985 marked the first time any nation in South America put former military rulers on trial while the armed forces were still intact. Pablo (who had just returned from the States) and I celebrated with abandon when the news broke that Videla had been sentenced to confinement for life. Finally, it felt like Argentina was taking real steps towards facing its pain.
Today, that momentum feels to have reversed. Instead of the lifetime he deserves, Videla walks after just five years. Five years for the thousands of lives extinguished. Five years for the many more thousands of families and friendships broken, exponentially for each individual desaparecido. Five years for the cultural torture he and Massera placed on all of our society, twisting language to their terrible ends and eroding the fabric of our communities. Five years.
Alfonsin’s lament today, “This is the saddest day in Argentine history,” resonated with me. I may not agree literally (surely the days in which the junta waged a war of death and disappearance were worse), but the sentiment strikes a melancholy chord deep within me. It feels like we have failed, it feels as if all the attempts at justice came to nothing.
Even so, I can hardly fault Menem. He himself was held as a political prisoner under house arrest by the military until 1981, so he lived at least some of Argentina’s terror from the inside as a victim. And as much as I share Alfonsin’s deep sadness, he is no longer in the presidential hotseat. Menem now sits in that pressure cooker, and he seems to have decided that the best way to heal Argentina’s wounds is to close the door on them. I wish I could have even a little hope that his strategy is the best one, but I see the pardons he has issued with cynical and tired eyes.The brief uprising against the government earlier this year, staged by new generation of military officers just days before a visit from President Bush, seems to have worked. The military again flexed their might for a political result…
Superficially, this wound-dressing may staunch the superficial bleeding of political discord. But don’t we live in a democracy now? Isn’t messy, contentious debate supposed to be the lifeblood of making collective decisions? I wanted to believe that Argentina was ready to make those tough decisions, to take the tough step of confronting ourselves instead of hiding from the past. Instead, Menem has decided today to prolong the reckoning we must eventually undergo. To stay sane, he says we must let go. But what are we letting go of? Is justice itself, seemingly within reach after 1984, disappearing through our fingers?