March 22 2016
by: Belén Fernández
President Brack Obama’s decision to go golfing in Argentina on the anniversary of the country’s Dirty War | Photo: Reuters
Obama’s decision to spend the 40th anniversary of the coup playing golf in southern Argentina comes off as one hell of a sensitive arrangement.
Let’s say you’re the president of the United States and you decide to stage an official excursion to Argentina, the first bilateral visit by an American head of state in nearly two decades. Do you:
A) time your trip to exactly coincide with the 40th anniversary of a right-wing coup staged by a military junta that went on to forcibly disappear tens of thousands of people in said country, with the encouragement of none other than the United States?
B) visit some other time?
If you’re Barack Obama, you apparently go with the first option.
When it is then suggested to you by concerned observers that your itinerary may be lacking in the sensitivity department, you decide to spend merely the eve of the coup anniversary in Buenos Aires and then the actual anniversary, March 24, playing golf in southern Argentina. This, of course, also comes off as one hell of a sensitive arrangement.
Theatrics and deception
Last Thursday, less than a week before Obama’s scheduled descent upon the Argentine nation, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice announced that the president would use his visit to pledge a “comprehensive effort” toward declassifying additional Defense Department and intelligence records pertaining to the period of the military dictatorship.
But while Team Obama will undoubtedly milk this promise for all the brownie points it can, those of us with more than a feigned interest in human rights may be forgiven for not jumping for joy. For one thing, “declassification” does not literally translate as such in the American lexicon, as there are inevitably items deemed in need of redaction and other truth-obscuring measures.
For another, as historian Greg Grandin notes in his recent book on Henry Kissinger, the notorious former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor “himself has noted that the sheer volume of foreign policy paperwork makes it impossible to determine ‘which documents were produced to provide an alibi and which genuinely guided decisions.’”
It was incidentally also Kissinger himself who generously provided the Argentine junta with advice like: “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly.” As Grandin documents, warnings from one of Kissinger’s aides about the impending bloodbath the junta was likely to inflict on Argentina was rebuffed by the former statesman: “Whatever chance they have, they will need a little encouragement … because I do want to encourage them.”
The disappearance of some 30,000 suspected leftists
Among the “things” that ultimately had to be done in Argentina, it seems, were wanton detentions without trial, torture, and the disappearance of some 30,000 suspected leftists. When several years ago I visited the former Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, one of Argentina’s numerous illegal detention facilities during the seven-year Dirty War, I was able to tour the remnants of the fruits of labor of those persons allegedly warranting “a little encouragement” from the U.S.
Flung from airplanes
I saw attic rooms in which prisoners were kept chained to cots with bags over their heads; there was a separate room for women more than seven months pregnant. Once they had given birth, they were disposed of—often flung from airplanes, like so many other women and men—their offspring appropriated by military officials and similarly high-caliber parties.
A shameful period of American foreign policy
A recent New York Times editorial on Obama’s Argentine foray argues that, while Washington has already “partly declassified” some 4,700 State Department records from the Dirty War era, “[d]eclassifying a more extensive set of documents would … bring into sharper focus a shameful period of American foreign policy, during which Washington condoned and in some instances supported the brutal tactics of right-wing governments in the region.” In the Times’ view, the U.S. must “more fully reveal its role in a dark chapter of Argentine history” in order to “help bring the guilty to justice and give the victims’ families some of the answers they seek.”
Far from over
But while setting the historical record straight on Argentina is no doubt a necessary pursuit, what the Times approach serves to obscure is the fact that American foreign policy’s “shameful period” is far from over. Afghanistan and Iraq come to mind—where the Times itself dutifully assisted with wartime propaganda—as does U.S. support for murderous right-wing regimes in Colombia and elsewhere. The March assassination of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, an opponent of the 2009 U.S.-backed coup that ushered in an era of near-total impunity in that country, is certainly nothing if not shameful.
Given that Obama has presided over large-scale slaughter in various locations around the globe, via drone strikes as well as more traditional weaponry, he seems ill-fitted for the post of truth-teller-in-chief, shedding light on a four-decades-old “chapter” of darkness. You can’t come clean with one hand while spreading filth with the other.
Argentine President Mauricio Macri, part of the present rightward surge in Latin America, has however nobly taken it upon himself to defend his incoming guest as a great supporter of human rights, insisting to the Associated Press that critics of his Obama’s choice of travel dates “need to realize that important world leaders have a very busy schedule.”
Why, then, has this very busy, very important leader decided to grace Argentina with his presence for a few days this week? The Washington Post hit the nail rather blatantly on the head with its headline: “In Argentina, Obama will cheer on South America’s shift away from the left.”
But the right’s long-established commitment to trampling human rights means we’re not headed in the right direction at all.
Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.