Rodolfo Walsh and the Politics of Violence: Part I

While out for drinks one night soon after moving to Argentina in 2010, I learned a basic fact that threw me for a loop: Rodolfo Walsh, the Argentine journalist killed in a 1977 shootout the day after he released his famous Open Letter to the Military Junta, had been a Montonero. And not just any Montonero, but second in command of the Peronist insurgent group’s intelligence structure, and thus one of the key figures in the most prominent guerrilla organization of Argentina’s turbulent 1970s. By this point in my life I had probably seen a dozen academic references to Walsh, and not just to his open letter, which I had read several times through. His 1957 book Operación Masacrerecently translated into English, is a gripping account of a mass political killing the year before, and arguably the founding work of modern investigative journalism. (Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood wasn’t published until 1966.) Walsh, in short, was a figure I thought I knew. But the foundational biographical fact of his high-level Montonero militancy — a fact central to understanding the evolution of his thought and the circumstances of his death, one so basic I could have learned it on Wikipedia — had never been mentioned. I was flabbergasted.

Rodolfo Walsh [From]
Seven years and three history degrees later, I now understand that the elision of Walsh’s work with the Montoneros was the product of a heated strategic debate among Argentine human rights organizations that ran the duration of the country’s 1976-1983 dictatorship and continues through to today. The debate owes much to the particularities of the 1976 military coup. In contrast to the widespread condemnation that followed Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 overthrow of democratic socialism in Chile, Argentina’s coup was met not with international censure but with broad relief. The deposed government, led by the violent Peronist Right, had made few friends since President Juan Perón‘s death in 1974. Moreover, by moving away from worker and student organizing and toward increasing militarization at a time of widespread preoccupation with political violence, Argentina’s armed groups had likewise lost much of the public sympathy they had commanded when the country had last been under dictatorship from 1966 to 1973. This unfavorable pre-coup scenario gave the newly installed military regime ample opportunity to claim the mantle of moderation. In the years following the 1976 coup, denunciations of human rights abuses were inevitably — and effectively — met by government claims that such criticisms were simply hypocritical attempts by exiled guerrillas to continue their insurgency by other means. As a result of these maneuvers — and of the steadfast support of a major Argentine trading partner, the Soviet Union (!) — the generals were largely able to avoid the pariah status that had befallen Pinochet.

Human rights groups responded to this adverse situation in distinct ways. Formed through an agreement between Montoneros and the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP, or People’s Revolutionary Army) reached shortly before the 1976 coup, the prominent exile-based Comisión Argentina de Derechos Humanos (CADHU, or Argentine Human Rights Commission) made no effort to hide the political militancy of the regime victims whose testimonies it collected and disseminated. This is hardly surprising, given that the radical lawyers who comprised CADHU had been denouncing state violence in service of revolution since the start of the decade, a topic I discuss in the post, Revolutionary Human Rights.

Yet the stigma of subversion was now far greater than it had been just half a decade before. Indeed, as Argentine historian Paula Canelo has demonstrated, the dictatorship succeeded at turning the defeat of the armed Left into a durable source of political legitimacy, one which would remain largely intact until the regime’s spectacular defeat in the 1982 Malvinas/Falkland War. For many human rights and victim advocacy groups, CADHU’s willingness to acknowledge the guerrilla affiliations of regime victims was playing right into the dictatorship’s hands.

This was the argument advanced by COSOFAM, an alliance of relatives of individuals forcibly disappeared by the regime, in a February 1980 letter to CADHU. “We believe, as relatives, that it is incorrect to specify in testimonies the political militancy of the people cited as disappeared,” COSOFAM explained in the letter. “The reason for this is to avoid giving information that could serve the military dictatorship and harm those who are disappeared and their families.” Left unstated was that CADHU’s reports also complicated the attempts of groups like COSOFAM to portray victims in a politically neutral light, already a challenge given the regime’s efforts to cast all of its opponents as dangerous subversives. While CADHU did not change its position in response to the letter, COSOFAM’s approach — shared by other groups at the time — ultimately won out, and in subsequent years advocates and academics working in the human rights vein have rarely referenced, let alone grappled with, the political activities of those imprisoned or killed by the regime.

While an understandable and indeed savvy move in the context of the dictatorship, this elision of militancy has come with significant costs, as I experienced first-hand on my night out in 2010. The Argentines who told me about Walsh’s role in the Montoneros were not simply expanding my knowledge. They were attempting to discredit Walsh and, moreover, to cast doubt on the criminal trials of former repressors that had resumed following Néstor Kirchner’s election to the presidency in 2003. Their arguments hinged not on the fact of Walsh’s militancy but instead on their sense that it had been deliberately obscured. As my interlocutors revealed with unusual concision, attempts to recast the complex and disparate political logics of the past in the moral terms of the present represent a fragile foundation for the contemporary human rights regime. Yet recognizing the radically distinct political values that guided actors on both the Right and the Left in the 1970s need not be a strike against efforts to criminally convict repressors today; to the contrary, it is my firm belief that the two projects must go hand-in-hand.

Selective histories of political violence carry academic costs as well. They make it impossible to understand past conflicts in the terms in which they were lived, and thus to reconstruct the circumstances in which individuals and organizations were forced to negotiate their relationships to the regime and its opponents. As a result, we miss out on valuable contributions to debates about political violence and the nature of rights that are far from resolved today. This is particularly clear in the case of Rodolfo Walsh, a key participant in arguments no less vital now than in the 1970s.

In the second part of this post, I explain why, honing in on key aspects of a debate between Walsh and the Montonero leadership in the months before his death that speak directly to controversies regarding the uses of political violence and the nature of loyalty and treason that remain live wires in Argentine scholarship and politics today.

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