March 24, 1976
Forty years ago today, a Coup d’ Etat changed Argentina’s modern history. From 1977 to 1980, a U.S. ambassador experienced that country’s longest and darkest night.
The last time a U.S. president set foot on Argentinian soil before Barack Obama arrived in Buenos Aires on Wednesday, things didn’t go too well.
In November of 2005, while promoting the economic initiative known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), during a summit held in the city resort of Mar del Plata, George W. Bush had to sit through his Argentine host, then president Néstor Kirchner, blasting that agreement.
Tens of thousands of people had also protested days before. And with Kirchner’s wife Cristina Fernández following in her husband’s footsteps and becoming president in 2007, relations between both the United States and Argentina would reach new lows.
The visit by Obama, his first to Argentina, after a historic yet controversial trip to Cuba, sought to launch a new relationship with the South American nation and to support the recently-elected Argentine leader, center-right, pro-business impresario Mauricio Macri.
Although the tour has been mostly positive for everyone involved, there have been some serious protests. Argentines are marching in anger at the role the US played in the 1976 Coup. To avoid an ugly scene, Obama chose to pay his respects at a memorial in honor of the disappeared, the , rather than tour what was once the most notorious torture center, the (Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, or Navy Mechanics School), now turned into a museum and space for remembrance.
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According to , one of the key figures in securing the Obama trip was U.S. ambassador to Argentina, , whose nomination was questioned by many for having had no discernible experience in Argentine or Latin American affairs. Instead, Mr. Mamet was known for being a top Democratic fundraiser, not a career diplomat.
The 1976 Coup and The Dirty War
Sanguinary Dictator General Jorge Rafael Videla-Image Source: Wikimedia
On March 24, 1976, when a military coup squashed the weak and corrupt but democratically elected government of María Estela Martínez de Perón, or Isabel, and installed a repressive regime that would last until 1983, the then top American official in Argentina faced a much more different scenario from today’s.
Ambassador Robert Hill was a Republican who, much to his credit, and as declassified documents and Argentina expert and journalist Martin Edwin Andersen have shown, rang alarm bells at the highest spheres of the U.S. government about the bloodbath being unleashed by the state against subversives and anyone suspected of being one.
The eradication campaign, with a green light from then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, would become known as the “,” and would claim the lives of thousands of people, most of them eliminated by forced disappearance, hence the term coined “Desaparecidos.”
A few months before Bush’s 2005 visit to Argentina, I was living in Buenos Aires, finishing a Master’s degree in journalism. The issue of how Argentine governments, first democratic, then a de facto, had both subverted laws to combat terrorism and succumbed to becoming the aggressors themselves, fascinated, horrified, and perplexed me. Most of all, since I had read that there had been foreigners caught in the web of state terror, I wanted to find out if any U.S. citizens had become casualties of the conflict. They had.
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The Disappeared US Citizens
One of the US citizens, John Patrick Egan, honorary U.S. consul in the city of Córdoba, had been killed by the leftist guerrilla group known as Montoneros in 1975. Later, under the right-wing dictatorship, three Americans disappeared, and to this day, neither the U.S. government nor the Argentine has been able or willing to provide any answers: Jon Pirmin Arozarena, Billy Lee Hunt, and Toni Agatina Motta.
Perhaps now, with the announcement that, as a sign of good will towards the Argentine people, and in response to requests from human rights organizations, the United States government will declassify files from the military and intelligence agencies of our country, some information may finally come to these families.
Back during the time of their disappearances, the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires informed of their cases, and a few journalists, like Andersen, covered the news. In spite of the valiant efforts of their relatives, and of the interest of congressman Ted Kennedy and of human rights groups, however, their stories were soon forgotten.
Almost 30 years later, I came across their names by examining the more than 4,500 documents available online related to the dictatorship and whose declassification and release had been executed by President Bill Clinton in 2002. These three cases would become my academic thesis and the basis of a novel that I’ve been working on for several years now.
In the process, I befriended surviving relatives of the victims; met former U.S. diplomat F. Allen “Tex” Harris who, aided by his secretary, compiled lists of Argentines imprisoned, tortured or disappeared, and even managed to get some people out; learned of the efforts of dedicated and decent public servants like Patricia Derian, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs from 1977 to 1981, who stared down the generals and demanded answers; admired the heroic work of English journalist Robert Cox, former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, the only news outlet in Argentina that dared report the state crimes and disappearances perpetrated; and tried to understand the role played by the United States, having then pivoted under President Jimmy Carter to a foreign policy that emphasized human rights.
Entering Former American Ambassador in Argentina, Raul H. Castro
The U.S. ambassador in Argentina, Raúl H. Castro (center), accompanied by security personnel on the grounds of the American Embassy residence in 1980 – Image Source: University of Arizona/Raúl H. Castro Collection
Thus, I came to meet American Ambassador Raúl H. Castro, the successor of Ambassador Hill.
A county attorney, court judge, Arizona’s first Hispanic elected to serve as governor (1975-1977) and a seasoned diplomat (ambassador to El Salvador, 1964-68, and to Bolivia, 1968-69), Castro, tapped by President Carter, would serve as ambassador to Argentina from 1977 to 1980.
Almost 10 years after our first phone conversation, I spoke with him again. I called him at his then home in Nogales, Arizona. Ambassador Castro and I spoke a week after the death in May of 2013 of General Jorge Rafael Videla, the main face of the Military Junta. It was most likely the last interview Castro ever gave. A year later, he would be in a nursing home, where he would pass away on April 10th 2015 at the age of 98.
The following is an extract from our conversation.
J.C. Pérez-Duthie: What was your impression of Videla when you first met him?
Ambassador Raúl H. Castro: A typical military man, very strict, very disciplined in every sense of the word. We respected each other, and I got along well with him.
JCPD: When you went to Argentina, were you aware of the severity of the problems taking place between the government and the left-wing groups?
RHC: No, it’s something I learned while I was there. I had some idea. There was a civil war going on, really, so killings and murders, I expected that. But I didn’t realize the depth of it, and when I got there, of course, I was struck to find that it was atrocious. It was chaos all the way around.
JCPD: Did you ever have a difficult or tense moment with Videla, where he called you to the Casa Rosada (the Argentine Pink Palace)?
RHC: When I first met him, I said very clearly to him, ‘Look, I’m here as the United States Ambassador. I’m here to try to improve relations and to help make this a better country. You know what my mission is, and I know what yours is. So I’m not going to play games with you.’ Most ambassadors had to write him a letter to visit him, to get an interview with him. I just picked up the phone and told him I needed to get together.
JCPD: Did you at some point find yourself being spied on or followed? Were you and your wife Patricia threatened somehow?
RHC: We were aware of the situation, and kept security at the embassy residence (the French-styled Bosch Alvear Palace), and of course, at night when we went to bed we were very careful and made sure we had enough money and supplies in case we had to leave at 2 o’ clock in the morning. The threat was forever there, but we knew it, so we were able to live with it.
JCPD: What about the other Junta leaders, Emilio Massera, Raúl Agosti? What kind of interaction did you have with them?
RHC: I had very good relationships with all of them, but Massera was a tough one. I knew it, and he knew it, so we respected each other.
JCPD: If people came up to you and said, ‘Ambassador, there’s a desaparecido in my family,’ were you able to do anything?
RHC: That’s where the relationship with Videla was different between me and the other ambassadors. I would pick up the phone and say, ‘I have a complaint, or I just got a call, about people missing in Rosario, and I want to see what you can do about it.’ I would follow up very closely, and he would proceed and try to do something about it.
JCPD: Do you have a feeling that he was being honest with you?
RHC: I felt we had a very sincere relationship.
JCPD: Three Americans disappeared. Were you aware of this, and if so, did you work on their cases?
RHC: I would call Videla if Americans were missing. I would say, ‘I have a report of Americans missing in Argentina and I want you to do something about it. I want a report, what you’re doing.’ We weren’t always successful, but we tried.
JCPD: Till the very end, Videla sustained that there was a civil war going on, that he had a mission to accomplish, and that there were casualties on both sides. What is your assessment of this line of thought, maintained by many Argentines?
RHC: From the American viewpoint, I thought it was a tough line. Some of it was not required, and it was an abuse of power. I criticized him with authority for the things that he did. People were dying every day and everywhere. That type of thing I could not understand, I could not accept.
JCPD: What was your and Mrs. Castro’s life then, how normal was it, in the midst of all this violence and death?
RHC: We traveled with bodyguards and had machine guns in the car, a bulletproof car, in the front seat and in the back seat. We had two daughters, and wherever they went, they had to go with bodyguards. Same with me and my wife. This was not normal for an ambassador. This was Argentina.
In his 2009 memoir ‘,” (TCU Press), Castro discusses his life at the time in more detail. He writes, for example: “I took to the streets and hinterlands to discover what local citizens thought of the US, their government, and their quality of life… Security was a serious issue in Argentina. The US Marine security forces were limited to the embassy grounds, sovereign American soil. When I left the embassy, I relied on Argentine security forces.”
JCPD: You were also ambassador to Bolivia and El Salvador.
RHC: Lyndon Johnson appointed me to El Salvador, and he spent a week at the embassy residence there with us. At the end he said, ‘I want you to move, you’ve been here long enough.’ And I said, ‘Where, Mr. President? And he said, ‘I want you to go to Bolivia.’ ‘Mr. President, I don’t think you’re satisfied with my work.’ ‘No, just the opposite. You have the political background, and you speak the language. We need your services in Bolivia.’ And one day before I arrived, Che Guevara was killed.
JCPD: There was also a dictator in Bolivia at the time.
RHC: René Barrientos.
JCPD: You were in South America when the infamous Plan Condor to wipe out subversion in several countries of the region was under way. Were you aware of what the Plan Condor was?
RHC: Very little. It was a deep, deep secret. They kept it to themselves, and very little leaked out.
JCPD: Right now there’s a lot of division in Argentina, with people split among those who support Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and those who do not. Do you think these differences can be solved?
RHC: I think the tactics (at the time Fernández de Kirchner was in power) utilized are not the better ones for this country.
In the end, Mr. Castro believed that whatever the severity of the problems and the country’s shortcomings, Argentina could make democracy work. Now, it remains to be seen whether the so-called “grieta,” or crack, that has so bitterly divided the Argentine population, can be filled in.
By courting the United States yet at the same time respecting the opposing beliefs of so many of his constituents, current President Macri must dance the most skillful of tangos. Will he be able to fulfill his country’s promise once and for all, or will Argentina remain forever the dream of what could have been?
Featured Image Source: University of Arizona
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