25 November 2023
I visited Argentina, Uruguay and Chile for 4 weeks over Christmas 2018-9.
Argentina was a pleasant, orderly, developed country. The people were friendly, and you could sit in cafes in town squares where flamenco dancers performed, supported by tips from the enthusiastic locals and tourists. The main part of Buenos Aires had been built, modelled on Paris around 1900, when Argentina was relatively rich because of beef prices. As commodities fell in price relative to manufactured goods, their economy has suffered. But the fine buildings in the centre of the city remain. They have alternated between leftist governments that nationalise and take resources from the foreigners and right wing governments, usually supported by the US, who privatise and encourage foreign investment, then use repression to control the people.
The government, when we were there was middle of the road, but having trouble controlling inflation, which was at around 40%. From a visitors point of view, things were cheap, a meal for two with wine less than half what it would have been in a Sydney pub. We did not feel unsafe.
Because of the concerns with the inflation problem, there were worries about democracy in the future, given the history of right-wing coups in many South American countries.
There had been a military coup in 1975, which seems to have been US-facilitated and the military junta had been in power from 1976 to 1983. Approximately 30,000 people who had been arrested ‘disappeared’. They were part of a wider ‘Operation Condor’ to persecute and eliminate political, social, trade-union and student activists from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil by the right-wing governments in those countries. The US CIA provided the database so was well aware of what was happening.
Even now, every Thursday at 1pm the mothers and sisters of ‘The Disappeared’ dress in white and walk in pairs around a statue in Plaza de Mayo outside the Parliament. The women had started protesting in 1977, but anything more than two people walking together was termed a crowd’ and thus illegal. Of those who perpetrated this atrocity only one soldier actually told the tale of what happened. Some of the disappeared had simply been shot in mass graves, but others went to the Naval training headquarters in Buenos Aires where they were kept in the attic and tortured in the basement. Some were released, but others were drugged with thiopentone, loaded into trucks, then planes and dumped into the Atlantic Ocean. Some were made to call their families with a gun at their heads and say that they could not talk, but they were happy in a new life in Paris or some other unlikely tale.
Survivors described how they had a hood over their head at all times and could only see their feet. They described the steps and the colour of the walls, and where the phone was that they had to speak on and the lift next to the phone. Later, the government came, took out the lift and the phone and painted the walls of the Naval training centre a different colour, so that the building would not match the descriptions of the inmates. Naturally there were no plans of the building changes available. The area was a museum when we were there and there was a small research area, still trying to identify individuals and what had happened to them. They were worried that the government would defund them and close their museum.
Now a far-Right populist, Javier Milei, has won the election, promising to abolish the Central Bank, change the currency to the US dollar, privatise everything and make guns freely available. He denies climate change and the crimes of the previous military junta. He has been congratulated by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, the recently defeated populist from Brazil. He also wants to re-take the Malvinas aka the Falklands. There is little hope of this simplistic nonsense improving anything in Argentina. The worry is not only that the ‘Museum to the Disappeared’ will disappear, but that it will all happen again.