Find out how uncovering declassified documents from the Argentine dictatorship (1976-1983) plays into the two presidents’ political stratagem.
The disclosure of 1,081 pages of documents exchanged between United States diplomats on the subject of Argentina’s dictatorship (1973-1983) is exceedingly praiseworthy, as it sheds greater light on this sad period of history and serves to prevent such cruelty from ever happening again.
The texts in question contain descriptions of the brutal methods employed by the military during its internal conflict, including torture and disappearances, which left 30,000 people either dead or “disappeared.”
What is more, the documents reveal in detail how U.S. President Jimmy Carter (see Veja’s article “Meia volta, volver,” which hit newsstands on Aug. 13) was able to influence dictator Jorge Rafael Videla both to respect human rights and to allow a visit from an Organization of American States commission to look into the situation.
“Remorse stemming from Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’état in Chile and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 led Americans to want to spread good throughout the world and disseminate respect for human rights. Jimmy Carter was a good person and a humanist who embodied this spirit,” says diplomat Paulo Roberto Almeida, director of the Institute for International Relations Research—IPRI, by its Portuguese acronym—in Brasilia.
In a letter dated November 1977, Carter writes Videla that “… [subject ambiguous] demonstrates progress in human rights. And I can assure you that the United States will always be ready to acknowledge such improvements.”
Such revelations about President Carter and Videla’s relationship also benefit the nations’ two current presidents, Obama and Macri, quite brilliantly.
Macri had been receiving criticism from within Argentina—albeit without any proof—that he neither supported human rights nor wanted investigations to continue into crimes committed by the military.
Although neither Nestor nor Cristina Kirchner, Argentina’s two presidents during the years between 2003 and 2015, had been activists during the 1970s or 1980s, both adopted language defensive of human rights. They did this at the request of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had been already financing several Argentine organizations, among them the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, in order to gain influence in the region.
Over the course of their three terms in office, the Kirchners took up anti-American rhetoric and declined to pay off debt owed to American hedge funds—the so-called “vulture funds”—which had bought up part of the country’s renegotiated debt.
When Macri was elected president at the end of last year, he reached an agreement with American creditors immediately and, by so doing, made it possible for his country to obtain further investments and loans in the future.
Just as the new president was implementing his first measures, however, those who had lost the election raised doubts over whether he would continue investigations into crimes against humanity committed by the military dictatorship. This issue continues to be a serious one within Argentina, where close to 600 officials have been detained.
Bearing this in mind, the release of documents related to the Argentine dictatorship last week shows how Macri has not only secured an excellent relationship with Washington, but also succeeded in flipping the human rights discourse over to his own side.
“It was incredible how fast Obama responded to Macri’s request that all files related to the dictatorship be made available. In all of the years that the Kirchners were in government, they never managed to do what Macri did in just a few weeks,” says Fernando Schüler, professor of the Insper and Palavra Aberta Chair, a partnership between the Institute of Education and Research and the Open Word Institute. “That is a gesture that shows Macri’s international influence and ability to negotiate.”
On the part of the United States, uncovering these documents fits into Barack Obama’s desire to leave behind a legacy. Obama also put human rights on the agenda when initiating the détente with Cuba toward the end of 2014, during which time he met with dissidents of the dictatorship in Havana.
By casting a spotlight on documents from the Carter era, Obama is thinking ahead to his own image and attempting to enter history on the side of the former president.
“The documents make it clear that Jimmy Carter’s government, which was Democratic and liberal, made use of the human rights agenda in order to question the desire for autonomy on the part of several military governments—not just in Argentina but in Brazil and Chile, as well,” says political scientist José Niemeyer from IBMEC, the Brazilian Institute of Capital Markets, in São Paulo. “This was a way for the American government to retake control over the support they had given them previously.”
The United States, of course, has never given its support to the communist dictatorship in Cuba. Yet, Obama could have placed human rights on the agenda as a pretext to gain influence on the island. With Carter's help, this strategy has worked.