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NUNCA MAS: The Report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared, edited by Ernesto Sabato, introduction by Ronald Dworkin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $22.50; 463 pp.)

December 07, 1986| David Rock | Rock is the author of "Argentina, 1516-1982: From Spanish Colonization to the Falklands War" (University of California Press)

Ronald Dworkin, who provides an introduction to this book, aptly characterizes it as "a report from Hell." "Nunca Mas" contains numerous searing, bloodcurdling accounts of the treatment that the Argentine armed forces meted out to its captives during the infamous "Dirty War" of 1976-1979. "Nunca Mas" is a story, told in great detail, of "ultimate brutality and absolute caprice" that embraced the kidnap of many thousands of persons, the fiendish, unrelenting and hideous tortures inflicted upon them, and the eventual murder of a vast majority--mass murder committed, at its most imaginative and perverse, by hurling captives alive from airplanes. "If I say you live, you live, and if I say you die, you die. As it happens, you have the same Christian name as my daughter, and so you live." In these words, and on these criteria, Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri dispensed justice to his victims.

Real "subversives," the declared enemies of the Argentine state and the military junta, rarely became the victims of this barbarism. Victims were selected, often at random, from every sector of Argentine society. In those days, supporting a society for the blind or for the handicapped, or having the audacity to urge more financial support for the state schools, could represent sufficient cause for arrest and consignment to the ranks of the " desaparecidos " with incessant beatings, hour upon hour of subjection to the electrified cow-prod, multiple rape, month after month in hooded darkness. Although familiar with detailed, documented accounts of torture in Argentina since 1972, I still recoil in dizzy horror at this material: So too will every reader of this book.

The White Terror in Argentina was originally designed to break the leftist guerrilla rebellion led by the Peronist Montoneros and the Trotskyite People's Revolutionary Army and to instill a climate of fear in the population at large to prevent the guerrillas expanding their popular support. By the time of the military coup in March, 1976, these objectives had been largely achieved, and yet it was now that the repression escalated to its pernicious climax. Kidnap, torture and murder therefore increasingly ceased to be instruments of politics and became the tools of pleasure, engendering in those who used them the exhilaration of total control in the inflicting of the furthest extremes of pain. Repression too became the cover for robbery and looting, since a "disappearance" meant the plunder of a captive's home and the confiscation of his property, sometimes even of his children. (This last abuse was dramatized in the recent Argentine film "The Official Story.")

"Nunca Mas" is the work of the Argentine Commission on the Disappeared, a body established by then newly elected President Raul Alfonsin in late 1983 and chaired by the distinguished writer Ernest Sabato. The Sabato Commission collected 50,000 pages of depositions from among the survivors of the disappeared. It successfully identified about 300 secret detention centers administered by the armed forces throughout Argentina. The commission's painstaking inquiries helped to discover many of the mass burial grounds to which the disappeared had been consigned. The commission conducted an analysis of the social and class backgrounds of the disappeared, concluding, for example, that 30% of the victims were women and that there were no less than 200 children under 15 who "disappeared." The Report is exhaustive and absolutely credible.

Sensitive readers should simply stay away from this book, but its harrowing contents can only strengthen and inspire the enemies of totalitarianism and the upholders of the rule of law and democracy. In Argentina, "Nunca Mas" helps to sustain a fledgling democracy by providing a chilling reminder of what might happen should democracy be overthrown once more. What this document cannot do, however, is explain why these events occurred, and in this sense, it will provide inspiration for students and scholars. Our task, whose value and usefulness is constantly vindicated through "Nunca Mas," is to seek an explanation of the origins and the course of the Dirty War, and in so doing make our own contribution to the cause of "Never Again."

"Nunca Mas" will leave American readers, in particular, with a disturbing and unresolved question. Most Americans uphold the causes of democracy and human rights in Latin America. Yet the "Doctrine of National Security" through which the Argentine junta justified its vicious crusade is partly American in origin, an aspect of the strategy developed under the Kennedy Administration to contain communism. To this extent, Americans are not entirely exempt from blame for what happened in Argentina.

Finally, it saddens me to reflect that this material should become available to the public so long after the events themselves. Many of us who know Argentina have attempted unsuccessfully for many years to bring this issue into public view and public debate. We have often stumbled against an unresponsive and unbelieving press. What "Nunca Mas" recounts remains an ongoing experience in many parts of Latin America today. If we want it to cease, we must speak more loudly.

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