Billet de blog 19 mai 2013

Why Argentina will not cry for this infamous dictator

Argentina's former dictator General Jorge Rafael Videla passed away in his prison cell on May 17th. For most Argentines, he represented the ultimate icon of evil, writes Federico Finchelstein, an Argentine historian and associate professor of history at The New School in New York.

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Argentina's former dictator General Jorge Rafael Videla passed away in his prison cell on May 17th. For most Argentines, he represented the ultimate icon of evil, writes Federico Finchelstein, an Argentine historian and associate professor of history at The New School in New York.

Moreover, for them, the cell represented the right place for him.  After many trials and a presidential amnesty, he was at last at the place where he belonged. Videla was the leader of a military dictatorship (1976-1983) that killed 30,000 victims according to most human rights organizations. Official estimates range from 10,000 to 15,000 victims.  After many decades of denial, last year he admitted that his dictatorship had killed as many as 7,000 victims.

The Military junta systematically kidnapped, tortured and killed Argentine citizens as well as people of other European and Latin American nationalities. These killings were not random but carefully planned at the upper levels of the Military Government of which Videla was at the top.

Moreover, in several cases the Argentine military cooperated with other Latin American dictatorships in a transnational plot for kidnapping and murder called the Plan Condor. Plan Condor operated throughout the Southern Cone, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.

The words “desaparecer” and “desaparecidos” (to disappear and the disappeared) became euphemisms for state sanctioned assassinations of actual and imaginary enemies of the dictatorship. These assassinations were not acknowledged by the state and hence the use of the category of the disappeared who were officially considered as such by the state. In many cases, the victims were confined in concentration camps, tortured, executed and thrown into the Atlantic Ocean from military airplanes.

The ideology that provoked this state violence had both Argentine, European, North American and Latin American roots, especially the theory of national security in its French and American incarnations. Indeed, from Argentina to South Africa and Indonesia, these military soundings from the north were well received in the Global South. Argentines had a long history of appropriating and reformulating theories from both sides of the Atlantic, from fascism and Nazism to the Dirty War. American support for Videla’s dictatorship was a key feature for his Junta’s decision to engage in state terrorism. 

However, the main motivation for his actions was the defense of Argentina, as he understood it, as a totalitarian homogenous Catholic nation. In 1976, Videla claimed that the “guns” had to be used because Argentine “virile traditions” and “our sacred values” had been attacked by “an enemy without faith, without patria and without God.” For him, the attacker had to be annihilated in all its manifestations.

In Latin America, Videla is widely considered the Argentine version of Hitler. But unlike the German fascist dictator, Videla never thought that he was a god-like figure or the sacred leader of a fascist political religion. This does not mean that Videla was humble about his role. In fact, he thought of himself as God’s political representative on Argentine soil.  He was the leader of one of the most murderous dictatorships in world’s history but he considered these crimes as a means to bring Argentina back to Christian civilization.

Now most Argentines share with professional historians, the view of Videla’s dictatorship as the perpetrator of a devastating attack against one of Latin America’s most progressive civil societies. This collective negative view of the Junta was not always prevalent in Argentina.  At some points, Videla enjoyed different measures of popularity, especially during the first phases of the coup in early 1976 and during the celebrations of Argentina’s 1978 victory in the soccer world cup organized in the country.

Later, the 1982 war against Britain in the South Atlantic generated a great deal of support but Videla was no longer in charge of the Junta. Another General had replaced him in 1981.  Even after his departure from power, his legacy prevails. After Videla’s rule, Argentina was no longer the same. 

As a leader Videla combined extreme political repression with a wild version of austerity measures and economic de-regulation. When democracy returned to the country in 1983, Argentina was impoverished, defeated in war and longing for a society without the military presence in politics that Videla had represented so well. In his cell, he implied that he could never adapt to the democracy that had emerged after his iron rule.

Videla could never escape the totalitarian logic of his sacred ideology and he saw no place for himself in present-day Argentina.  The feeling was mutual.  Most Argentines did not miss his absence from politics and, in agreement with the historical record, they remember him for his responsibility in the mass atrocities perpetrated by his dictatorship. Argentina will not cry for its most infamous dictator.   

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  • Federico Finchelstein is associate professor of history and director of the Janey Program in Latin American Studies at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York. He is the author The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

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