Mario Benedetti, 1920-2009, was a distinguished Uruguayan poet and novelist. He was a member of the Latin American literary generation that included Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, and Gabriel García Márquez. Here, he reflects on the horrors of Argentina’s “dirty war” of the 1970s and 1980s, and on the necessity of remembrance. This essay was published in Volume 29 Number 3 of the NACLA Report, November/December 1995.
The terrifying revelations made by a navy captain of the “death flights” carried out during Argentina’s dirty war show that memory will always fight to come to the surface. Consigning it to oblivion is pointless, hypocritical and perverse. A scandal was unleashed in Argentina in March in the wake of the terrifying revelations made by corvette-ship captain Adolfo Scilingo of the practice of throwing men and women to their death from airplanes during the military dictatorship (1976-83). That scandal gives rise to more than one interpretation. Of course, the first of these has to do with horror.
Just months earlier, in October, 1994, two captains (Antonio Pernias and Juan Carlos Rolón) admitted before the Argentine Senate that torture had been frequently employed in interrogations of political prisoners. They referred to these punishments, though, in a generic way, giving few details, characteristics, or other particulars.
They thus provoked in the imagination of every citizen images of kicks, slaps, the plantón (being forced to stand up for hours on end), the “submarine” (being held under water until near suffocation), the electric wire, and other varieties of excessive cruelty. It is true, however, that these declarations did not shock anyone. It is public and notorious that here, there, and everywhere, human rights are violated, preferably those of human beings on the left.
Even so, the case of Captain Scilingo is something quite different. In his by now well-known confession to journalist Horacio Verbitsky, which was disseminated not only in Verbitsky’s book, The Flight, but also in the press and on television, Scilingo doesn’t just talk about the obvious and routine generalities of torture. He goes into details, characteristics, and other particulars.
Prisoners were notified of a simple and even promising transferal. They were given strong sedatives that they were told were vaccines, and then put on a plane. After being injected with even stronger sedatives, they were thrown, unconscious but alive, into the ocean.
The testimony of the corvette-ship captain is one of flabbergasting realism. He himself was so involved in the actual operation that during one of the flights, in the midst of throwing prisoners out of the plane, he slipped near the small door and was close to accompanying them in the lethal fall to the sea.
The irony does not end there. After each of the punitive flights, priests “comforted the officials with scripture from the Gospels about the necessary separation of the wheat from the chaff.” Everything was so peculiarly ethical that the doctor who administered the soporific injections did not participate in the act of letting the bodies fall into space in order not to violate the “Hippocratic oath” (which is not, as one might think, the father of hypocrisy, but of medicine).
At the same time, the captain knows how to use his computer to do the calculations. He personally participated in two of these lethal flights, but he says that other similar flights were carried out every Wednesday over the course of two years. If 15 or 20 prisoners were eliminated in this way every Wednesday, the total number of victims would be around 2,000.
As is to be expected, different sectors have reacted to the disturbing revelation in different ways. Suddenly, the various human rights organizations, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, relatives of the disappeared, intellectuals, artists, and even bishops see all their denunciations confirmed. They are demanding that the armed forces provide a complete list of those killed in the lethal flights.
President Carlos Saúl Menem, by contrast, chooses to describe the corvette-ship captain as “wicked,” but he does not deny the terms of the confession. The highest naval authority, Admiral Enrique Molina Pico, disqualifies Scilingo because on a certain occasion he purchased a stolen car, but he too does not deny the terms of the confession. Another high navy official attributes to him the epithet “traitor and ungentlemanly,” but he doesn’t deny the terms of the confession either.
The permanent commission of the Argentine episcopate, for its part, clarified that “neither the Argentine episcopate nor its authorities were ever consulted about the correctness or viability of the denounced procedures for the elimination of the detained, nor did they ever give any form of consultation.” The second vice-president of the same episcopate, however, admitted that, “the Church has always accepted that, while it is holy, it may give shelter to sinners who are in need of repentance.”
The second and perhaps most important reading of the surprising and self-incriminating testimony is that from now on, no one can any longer close their eyes before the evidence of a monstrous collective blame. The much sought-after amnesty laws of “due obedience” or “full stop,” passed under President Raúl Alfonsin in 1984 and 1987 respectively, are now confirmed as a flagrant injustice that can never be erased.
Given the connivance and the fraternal alliance between the repressive forces of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia, Scilingo’s revelations also implicate the entire region. A case in point is Uruguay’s sadly renowned Law of Termination of the Punitive Pretension of the State (a true verbal macramé to cloak an amnesty law for the torturers). The true character of that law, which was sponsored and implemented during the first government of current president Julio Maria Sanguinetti (and approved in a contentious plebiscite in 1989) becomes clear thanks to the captain’s testimony.
In reference to the Scilingo case, the March 10 edition of the Montevideo weekly Brecha recalls that 30 cadavers appeared on the Uruguayan coast between 1976 and 1978. The pro-government press, addicted to the dictatorship, claimed that the cadavers were probably Asians washed ashore after a mutiny on board a Japanese cargo ship. An orgy of blood and drugs, read a newspaper headline from this fearful time. It had been an orgy, it is true, but one of cynicism and vileness. Uruguayan public opinion had no doubts that the cadavers came from Argentina, but the only journalist to initiate an investigation was pressured to abandon the issue.
It is always a bad symptom when a ruler tries to base his or her power on collective amnesia. It must be prohibited to look backward, they decree; it is necessary to always look forward. One should not have “eyes in the back of one’s head” (as President Sanguinetti once said in reference to the organizers of the referendum campaign against the amnesty law, whom he accused of stirring up old hatreds and conflicts).
The superficial meaning is that we should not cultivate hatred or vengeance. That’s not bad. But the hidden meaning is that we should renounce being just, that the essence of justice should disappear along with the disappeared. No country, however, can construct a true peace if it has a sinister past pending.
From a psychological point of view, the character of Scilingo merits profound study. The psychologist Laura Bonaparte, one of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, overcoming her own tragedy (the military killed her ex-husband, her two daughters, her two sons-in-law, her son and her daughter-in-law), offers a profound analysis in the March 12, 1995 edition of the Buenos Aires daily Página/12. She tries to explain why Scilingo could recuperate some elements of his humanity:
An ideology like a militarist one forces you to encapsulate your own subjectivity through rationalizations that justify your actions. They are inventions, let’s say, to convince yourself. So all the characteristics that make a military officer human are blocked out. The history of each person may be different, depending on the sensibility with which he or she has been raised. I doubt that the encapuchados [“the hooded ones,” unidentified military personnel who have violently protested the human rights trials of military officials] had been human at any time. The person who was able to unblock him- or herself was able to do so because he or she had a human drive to identify with another human being.
She adds: “What Scilingo did cannot be changed, but he did reveal one great truth. He cannot give life back to our loved ones. He has proven us right. The human rights organizations are no longer the crazy men and women.”
A young Uruguayan poet, Rafael Courtoisie, wrote this poem of just two lines some time ago: “One day, all the elephants met to forget/All of them, except one.” Now it was Captain Scilingo. On another occasion, it could be someone else.
There will always be an elephant who cannot bear the pressure of his or her conscience and decides to tell the truth. Society will have a hard time forgiving that person but, just the same, it will be grateful for his or her sincerity. Society, or at least its most dignified part, will not demand revenge but justice and, above all, information.
A few hours after the confession of the corvette-ship captain, ten young people who in the midst of the military dictatorship had been adopted by various couples called for an investigation into their true identities. The public debate made them realize that they might be children of the disappeared.
It is curious that the top military hierarchy, as well as President Menem, fervently disqualify the testimony of Scilingo only because at one point he acquired a stolen car. Yet they are not concerned that hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of officials who stole lives are not in jail. Does this mean that for the canons (cannons) of a consumerist and neoliberal society, the purchase of a stolen automobile represents a more treacherous crime than the ominous throwing into the ocean of 2,000 citizens who had not even received a trial?
The flights were based on a fiction: that their existence could be forgotten, and the perpetrators exonerated of blame. Four years ago, when President Menem pardoned Massera, Vida, Viola, and Camps—the leaders of the dictatorship—I wrote that, “the pardoning of the crime reenacts the crime.”
Fear may spread and even overcome an entire society, but fear is never democratic. Neither fear nor amnesia is democratic. It was for a reason that Jorge Luis Borges, who lived through stages of incredible blindness before the glare of the sabers, nonetheless left this quotation that is almost a revelation: ”Only one thing does not exist. It is forgetting.”
From the well-known Dreyfus case (it was recently the hundredth anniversary of his scandalous conviction) to today, forgetting has always been filled with memory. This memory has always fought to come to the surface in order to show the world that consigning it to oblivion is pointless, hypocritical and perverse.
Memory is so important that, to paraphrase Courtoisie, if just one elephant remains that remembers, that memory can change an entire country’s history.
Read the rest of NACLA's Winter 2013 issue: "Latino New York"