Revolutionary Human Rights

The modern Argentine human rights movement was born, it has been firmly established, in 1975. In December of that year, just three months before the coup that would inaugurate the most violent dictatorship in Argentine history, a small group of religious and secular activists gathered in a Buenos Aires church to found the Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos (APDH, or Permanent Assembly for Human Rights). The APDH was joined in early 1977 by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a courageous group of babushka-clad mothers who faced down the threat of violent repression as they demanded the return of their kidnapped children during weekly marches through Buenos Aires’ most iconic civic space. In so doing, scholars from Elizabeth Jelin to Kathryn Sikkink have argued, these organizations and their allies planted the seed that would give life to one of the most important social movements of the past half-century.

The Madres march in the Plaza de Mayo, October 1982. [Photo by Eduardo Longoni]
Nothing about the preceding paragraph is wrong — except the sentence that opens it. While it is true that the Argentine human rights groups that were to achieve the greatest international prominence all took shape in the years surrounding the country’s 1976 coup, they did not sprout from barren soil. Indeed, in 1975 Argentina was just two years out of its penultimate period of military rule, a series of three consecutive governments that together constituted the self-proclaimed “Argentine Revolution” (1966-1973). Particularly in its later years, this dictatorship unleashed a wave of surveillance, torture, and disappearance that prefigured the extraordinary violence soon to be loosed on an even wider scale. This repression generated both armed resistance and a vigorous nonviolent response from laborers, lawyers, journalists, students. Drawing on deep-seated traditions of resistance, these individuals built a dynamic and multifaceted movement to denounce state violence and to aid its victims.

Guided by a chapter of Ariel Eidelman’s excellent 2010 doctoral dissertation on repression during the “Argentine Revolution,” I have spent much of the past month in Buenos Aires tracking down whatever I can about the hardly-studied groups that opposed it. Organizations including the Foro de Buenos Aires por la Vigencia de los Derechos Humanos (Buenos Aires Forum for the Enforcement of Human Rights, founded 1971); the Trotskyist Comisión de Familiares de Presos Políticos, Estudiantiles y Gremiales (Commission of Relatives of Political, Union, and Student Prisoners, founded 1971); and the long-standing, Communist Party-linked Liga Argentina por los Derechos del Hombre (Argentine League for the Rights of Man, founded 1937) all produced detailed reports available in various archives across the city.

These reports share many of the elements that would later be cited as hallmarks of a supposedly depoliticized human rights discourse: an emphasis on testimony, a tendency to foreground victims’ suffering rather than their political commitments, and an insistence on the systematic illegality of dictatorial repression, to name just a few. Yet the documents I have been reading are indisputably not apolitical: they present state repression as the servant of imperialism, and they find its solution in the end of exploitation and the transformation of society, at home and across the world. They offer a vision, in other words, not of minimalist but of revolutionary human rights.

A close look at any of the organizations named above could readily substantiate this point, but none could do so as compellingly as the Movimiento Nacional contra la Represión y la Tortura, the National Movement Against Repression and Torture. Founded in June 1971 and active at least through 1973, the Movimiento’s trajectory can be traced through the personal papers of one of its leaders, the leftist lawyer and presidential brotherSilvio Frondizi. From the early 1940s until his murder at the hands of a state-linked death squad in September 1974, Frondizi founded and led an array of significant leftist groups and publications, earning fame as one of the most prominent thinker-practitioners of the Argentine left. His papers, housed at the National Library and recently opened to public consultation, represent a picture window onto midcentury left-wing politics in general, and resistance to the “Argentine Revolution” in particular.

Frondizi and fellow left-wing lawyers on the cover of the magazine he directed, Nuevo Hombre (New Man). [From Changüí Revista]
Never kind to its opponents, the 1966-1973 dictatorship turned toward increasingly violent repression following the May 1969 outbreak of worker- and student-led uprisings across major Argentine cities. This state violence demonstrated the characteristics that would come to dominate the decade: an increasing role for the military in internal security; the kidnapping, rather than the arrest, of key opponents; frequent extrajudicial executions; enforced disappearance; and electric torture, sometimes in clandestine facilities, carried out by specialists and often supervised by doctors.

The Movimiento Nacional contra la Represión y la Tortura set about documenting and denouncing the ever-broadening use of these repressive tactics. It drew up lists of political prisoners, organized by province and detention facility, both to warn the government that these detainees had not escaped public notice, and also to paint a national picture of the scope and scale of repression. Testimonies of torture victims, quoted in press releases and disseminated at press conferences, presented first-person accounts sure to arouse horror and sympathy, and to allow the Movimiento to chart patterns of repression. A pair of press conferences held in Buenos Aires on April 12, 1972 is representative. The sessions addressed the experiences of five victims, four of whom had been tortured with the picana, or adapted electric cattle prod. One of the victims had also been drugged. Another, four months pregnant at the time of her detention, had lost her child. These cases, the Movimiento insisted, showed that torture had not only become systematic, but that, supervised by doctors and involving the use of drugs, it was also becoming medicalized. At a time when the national government had declared its commitment to “institutionalizing” the country in advance of promised March 1973 presidential elections, the Movimiento argued that this increasingly structured repression led away from the “true path to institutionalize the country,” a goal that could only be accomplished by “respecting the principles of our constitution and ensuring genuine democracy.”

A picana eléctrica. [From Paraguay’s Museo Electrónico MEVES]
Intensifying state torture was not the only deviation from the path of “institutionalization” that concerned the Movimiento. Most of the political prisoners on whose behalf the Movimiento advocated were arrested by uniformed security agents and, perhaps after a lag of hours or days, acknowledged by the state. These “legal” detainees could still be tortured without consequence, as they were ultimately to be tried not in civilian courts but in a newly created, military-dominated forum called the Cámara Federal en lo Penal (Federal Penal Chamber). Some high-value targets, however, were never to be tried at all. Instead, they were kidnapped by plainclothed agents and never seen again — a tactic that would come to be identified as “enforced disappearance” following the 1976 coup. Beginning with the December 1970 kidnapping of Néstor Martins, prominent lawyers began to join guerrilla fighters on the list of such victims, inspiring a new round of self-organization by the country’s left-wing law professionals.

The Movimiento joined other human rights groups in denouncing this terrifying practice. The most striking example of these efforts was a full-page advertisement placed in the magazine, América Latina, in July 1971. Titled, “Avoid a Kidnapping,” the ad advised anyone confronted by a group of armed, non-uniformed agents to resist detention by “every means possible,” and to try to draw attention to the event by screaming their own name. It also asked witnesses to immediately denounce kidnappings, and included the telephone numbers of newspapers and radio and TV stations to this end. The Movimiento understood that enforced disappearance relied on anonymity, and that the most effective means to help its victims was to publicly denounce their kidnapping from the first moment — a practice that would come to stand at the center of human rights advocacy following the 1976 coup.

The Movimiento was active far beyond Buenos Aires, denouncing state violence and participating in actions in cities including Rosario, Santa Fe, and Tucumán. Like the groups that would arise later in the decade, the organization also built channels of collaboration across civil society, including with the major proponent of liberation theology in Argentina, the Movimiento de Sacerdotes para el Tercer Mundo (Movement of Priests for the Third World). These “third-world priests” advocated revolutionary change as they challenged the government’s claim to defend “Western, Christian civilization” — a trope that predated 1976.

The Movimiento’s alliance-building saw its seminal expression in the Mesa Coordinadora contra la Represión y Tortura (Coordinating Board Against Repression and Torture), a collection of ten groups including the above-mentioned Foro de Buenos Aires, several political-prisoner advocacy organizations, and professional associations for psychiatrists, social workers, and journalists. Citing testimonies and forensic reports documenting torture, a May 1972 Mesa report linked deepening repression to an indictment of exploitation more generally. The regime’s campaign of “institutionalization,” the groups contended, was not about political liberalization but in fact the “institutionalization of repression against all those who seek to actively confront the policies of the dominant sectors of society.”

The Movimiento went even further in an undated document from late 1972 or early 1973. Titled, “Ellos son torturados y están presos por nosotros – Qué hacemos nosotros por ellos?” (“They are tortured and imprisoned for us – What do we do for them?”), the three-page text documents the “specialization” of the military to fight “subversion” by way of dedicated “tactial antiguerrilla commandos” operating in semi-clandestinity. Although this analysis anticipates the sort of human-rights reporting soon to reach global prominence, the very title of the document suggests an understanding of torture worlds apart from what is typically taken to represent “human rights discourse” — a promise on which the contents of the report deliver.

Repression, the Movimiento argues in “Ellos son torturados,” is not a security problem to be reformed away, but rather the inevitable expression of a capitalist system in freefall, in Argentina and around the world. “History demonstrates,” the report explains, “that no system gives up without a fight, and that facing its crisis and its foreseeable, definitive defeat, it will become ferocious and inhuman.” With the US losing in Vietnam and socialism ascendent in Chile, dominant elites staring down the “already visible collapse of the capitalist system” would “cast aside all ethical principles and transform them into various forms of Nazism-fascism.” The process already seen in “Germany, Italy, and Spain” earlier in the century was “now in progress in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, etc.,” where it was further amplified by “underdevelopment” and “imperialism.”

In this context of capitalist crisis, the Argentine government had called elections for March 1973. These elections were to take place under conditions of military rule and to exclude the most popular political figure in the country, once and future president Juan Domingo Perón. Paradoxically, they also enabled the regime to characterize a broad swath of the population as dangerous and therefore a legitimate target of state violence. “From this moment anyone who questions the electoral plan is called a subversive and for this can be tortured with the picana, quartered, and killed without the least inconvenience,” the report states. These subversives included not only armed guerrilla fighters, but also union activists, lawyers, teachers, and journalists. “From all of this,” the author says in closing, “we can reach only one conclusion: the people as a whole have been accused of subversion. And if being a subversive means opposing the current system, there is only one thing to say: LONG LIVE SUBVERSION. LONG LIVE THE WORKERS IN THE STREET. LONG LIVE PRISONERS AND TORTURE VICTIMS. DEATH TO TORTURERS AND THE POLICIES THAT SUSTAIN THEM.”

The Movimiento’s full-throated indictment is a powerful demonstration of a point that has largely fallen out of recent discussions of the transnational human rights movement: there is no reason that a defense of the victim qua victim need be an act of depoliticization. Some of the people subjected to torture and disappearance may have been guerrilleros, the Movimiento contended, but what united them all was their designation as “subversives,” a label that applied as readily to teachers and social workers as to armed revolutionaries. The abuses they suffered, the Movimiento claimed at a February 1972 press conference, constitute “an outrage against the most elemental human rights and a violation of all standing legislation.” The victims themselves were usually presented along these universalizing lines. Those cited in testimonies were almost never identified with a particular political current, and only occasionally were they linked to armed attacks against the dictatorship. But in the Movimiento’s rendition, these torturados were nonetheless fundamentally political agents, opponents of the regime — some of them justifiably violent — to whom society as a whole had incurred a massive debt. They have been tortured for us, the Movimiento implored. What do we do for them?

I do not mean, in calling attention to the work of the Movimiento and other members of the Mesa Coordinadora contra la Represión y Tortura, to suggest that there are not important contrasts between the strategies of these early-1970s groups and those that arose around the dictatorship of 1976. Such a claim would surely have seemed absurd to advocates from both periods. After all, to take just two examples, early-70s revolutionaries knew Emilio Mignone not as the future founder of the pioneering human rights group, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (Center for Legal and Social Studies), but as a “technocrat of the Argentine Revolution,” given his service as Vice-Minister of Education from 1966 to 1970. Likewise, Jacobo Timerman, perhaps the most widely known victim of the 1976 dictatorship and later one of its loudest critics, appeared in a 1972 report about the persecution of reporters by the Buenos Aires Journalists’ Association not as a defender of human rights but rather as an object of censure when, as editor of the daily La Opinión, he provided the police with the home address of journalist Zito Lema. Timerman, Mignone, and Frondizi came from very different political traditions, and they spoke in distinct registers — a fact surely not lost on allies and opponents alike.

Timerman (second from right) receiving the Moors Cabot Prize from Columbia, 1981. [From tea&deportea]
If my goal is not to equate the opposition figures of the early and late 1970s, then why present the former as a challenge to the truism that the Argentine human rights movement was born in 1975? I can see at least three benefits to framing the Movimiento and its allies as an important if partial precedent for subsequent human rights activism.

First, this approach allows us to cultivate a broader conception of what “human rights” have meant, and thus to avoid oversimplified explanations of complex sociopolitical phenomena. Of course, diverse groups and individuals have long emphasized different sorts of rights; socialists may choose to focus on “second generation” economic and social rights, while liberals may look to “first generation” civil and political ones. This is hardly news. Yet the distance between the discourse of the Movimiento and the most prominent human rights groups of today demonstrates that the very same rights — in this case, the right to basic physical integrity, to not being tortured — can be understood in radically distinct manners. If torture is the product of a crisis of capitalist imperialism, then there is no incompatibility between human rights advocacy and calls for revolution, and the rise of the former cannot easily be called to account for the decline of the latter. (I find the vicious repression of revolutionaries a decent place to start the search for a better explanation.) Likewise, if denouncing torture can serve the ends of revolutionary socialism as well as incremental reformism, then the decline of the first at the expense of the second does not seem to be a compelling explanation for the explosion in talk of torture in the 1970s. (The torture of an enormous number of people with social capital strikes me as a more plausible point of departure.) This more expansive approach also casts the conflation by the region’s dictatorships of armed opposition and human rights in a fresh light — one which I look forward to exploring in a future post.

Second, turning to the early 1970s allows us to call up a broader cast of characters than has populated most recent histories of human rights — and to recognize that rather than crossing it sequentially, they shared the stage. At the same time that groups like Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists were forging the foundations of liberal cross-border advocacy, the Russell Tribunal and later the International League for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples were building a parallel infrastructure for the left. This was also true in Argentina, where for the first year after the 1976 coup, the only source of reliable information on state repression was the Comisión Argentina por los Derechos Humanos (CADHU, or the Argentine Commission for Human Rights), which brought together many of the lawyers who had formed the backbone of the 1966-1973 opposition. Decidedly leftist in orientation, CADHU worked in exile to denounce regime violence and played a leading role in the creation of two important UN instruments, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (formed in 1980) and the 1984 Convention Against Torture. Keeping sight of this diverse spectrum can also help us see what many have characterized as the Madres’ anti-imperialist “radicalization” of the 1990s less as a break with the mainstream human rights movement than as an embrace of one of the strains that has long comprised it.

Finally, bringing 1966-1973 back into the picture affords the opportunity to think transnationally about repression in the Southern Cone. This is true not only because opposition to the “Revolución Argentina” was itself transnational, though indeed it was — the Foro de Buenos Aires, for instance, emerged from a meeting of Latin American scope held at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1971, and Frondizi opposed a 1972 Argentine crackdown on refugees from Bolivia’s 1971 coup as a self-destructive “competition with Brazil” to play a sub-imperial role in the region. The longer timeframe also enables us to see parallels between militant responses to Brazilian and Argentine repression in the early 1970s and to thereby locate the two countries, not at sequential points along a timeline of repression and response, but rather in a single, understudied regional system.

Each of these points demands much more elaboration. Long as this post has been, any one could be at the center of its own dissertation. I share these thoughts here in raw form, to help myself work through an illuminating set of documents from an under-discussed chapter in the all-too-relevant history of state repression and the brave people who oppose it.

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