The Disappeared

December 19, 2013


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

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

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

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 

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 

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

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"



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