Just about every nation on the planet has its share of skeletons in the closet, and Argentina is no exception. During World War II, General Juan Perón made no secret of his pro-fascist views. And as the Third Reich crumbled in the spring of 1945, Perón made hundreds of blank Argentine passports available to ranking Nazis trying to flee Europe. Recently uncovered evidence suggests that Eva Perón’s high profile tour of Europe in June 1947, made under the guise of strengthening ties between Argentina and important European leaders, had a parallel and covert mission: coordinating the clandestine "ratlines" that helped Nazis and their collaborators relocate to Argentina.
More recently, an estimated thirty thousand Argentineans deemed to be political subversives were killed and "disappeared" by military officers who led the country’s so-called "Dirty War" between 1976 and 1983. When the full magnitude of the horror was revealed, family members of the disappeared found neither answers from their government, nor any desire to hear their plight. A group of women that would later become The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo began holding meetings. At the time, such collaboration was considered illegal. In 1977, they began demonstrating in the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday afternoon, clutching photographs of lost loved ones. The demonstrations were viewed as dangerous acts of defiance.
Appallingly, the former military leaders who were responsible for the murder of their own countrymen were granted immunity from prosecution. The demonstrations, and demands for answers and accountability, continued. Today, the military regime is long gone, having been supplanted by a constitutional government. To his credit, current President Nestor Kirchner has done much to revoke the aforementioned immunity. Nonetheless, the demonstrations continue, and the mothers still seek an official acknowledgment of the disappearances. The year 2006 marks the 30th anniversary of the military coup.
Many visitors to Buenos Aires aren’t aware that there are several groups of mothers associated with the Plaza de Mayo and the disappeared. Various splinter groups and factions with more politically controversial views separated from the original group. Most of these groups march at the same time, although separately and under their own banners.
Well aware of the weekly gathering in the Plaza de Mayo, a driving morning rain shower altered our plans for the day, and it was quite by accident that we found ourselves in the plaza on a Thursday afternoon in late October, 2005.
I took perhaps a dozen photos that day. In my own ignorance I thought all the demonstrators marched in the name of the same cause. After we’d returned from our trip, I showed the photographs to a good friend, a native of Buenos Aires who now lives in the United States. One of the photographs caught her eye. In it, a group of old women carry a banner that reads, "No al pago de la deuda externa." Do not repay any foreign debt. Doesn’t sound like it has much to do with disappeared loved ones, does it?
Our Argentine friend recognized one of the women in the photograph. I don’t believe it serves any purpose to name the woman here, but she is the president of a far left political organization in Argentina. And according to our friend, who was still living in Argentina at the time, this woman appeared on Argentine television celebrating and toasting champagne after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
What’s the bottom line? Understand what you are looking at. Not all the demonstrators who march on Thursday afternoons in the Plaza de Mayo, nor the causes they champion, can be painted with the same brush. They may or may not be worthy of one’s compassion.