Democracy Lab

The Stubborn Past

Thirty-five years after the "Dirty War," a trial in Argentina is still struggling to shed light on a bloody legacy.

A few months ago I watched, from the twentieth row of a university auditorium, as Pablo del Río, a soft-spoken man in his early thirties with an ill-kept beard, gave testimony to a panel of judges. In a halting voice, his eyes fixed on the floor, he described events early on the morning of August 17, 1976, when his father was beaten and kidnapped by a group of plainclothes thugs acting on behalf of Argentina's military dictatorship. The next night the elder del Río was shot dead as he lay in his hospital bed. His offense: membership in a leftist political group.

The younger del Río clearly found it excruciating to testify in public about his father's murder. From time to time his swivel chair creaked as he turned to face the elderly defendants seated in the two front rows:

"You don't kill people," he told them, his voice trembling with rage. "You just don't kill people."

Del Río could just as easily have been addressing the broader public beyond the courtroom. Today, 35 years after the fall of the most brutal dictatorship in the country's history, Argentina is still grappling with the legacy of violence it left behind. In the provincial Argentine university city of Bahía Blanca, 17 former soldiers and police officers are standing trial on more than a hundred counts of murder, kidnapping, and torture. But the proceedings have much broader implications than a conventional criminal case. The white-haired men in the dock stand for the members of an implied community -- families, friends, and neighbors -- who have never really acknowledged their links to the horrors of that era. The trial, which has already lasted for almost a year, is due to end next month.

Located seven hours south of Buenos Aires by car and nestled between the South Atlantic coast and the dry plains of Patagonia, Bahía Blanca offers a fitting microcosm of Argentina's divided soul. It is a medium-sized, affluent city that includes both bastions of progressive politics and a sizable contingent of staunch conservatives. It is home to a prestigious and politically liberal university, the Universidad Nacional del Sur (UNS). But it also has a significant military presence and hosts the largest naval base in Argentina. Its main newspaper, La Nueva Provincia, is one of the most conservative in the country.

In what later came to be known as the "Dirty War," the military junta that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983 sent as many as 30,000 political protesters, students, and labor activists to their deaths in clandestine detention centers. Though armed leftist groups did mount a challenge to the government at first, soon the only enemies of the state that remained were young men and women, often guilty of little more than attending the wrong rally or owning the wrong book. Nearly 5,000 people died in Argentina's largest clandestine detention center, the Navy Mechanical School in Buenos Aires (commonly known as "La Escuela," or "the School"). In Bahía Blanca, the local army unit set up its own perversely named torture center, "La Escuelita" ("the Little School"), in an abandoned building just beyond the city limits. (Last month, Alicia Partnoy, one of the survivors of La Escuelita, testified at the Bahia Blanca trial, repeating an account she has also described in a remarkable memoir of her experiences.) Even today, signs of those years of terror are hidden in plain sight around the city -- like a small plaque in the university hallway commemorating the spot where two uniformed men shot a student dead after he was caught passing out political leaflets. The bullet holes have been plastered over, but the ensuing decades have failed to heal the country's wounds. (The photo above shows María Graciela Izurieta, who disappeared in Bahía Blanca in 1976 and has never been seen again.)

But why bring up the past now? The answer, as one might expect, involves both politics and the persistence of demands for a proper reckoning. After democracy was restored in 1983, the government of President Raúl Alfonsín tried only the top members of the previous military regime for crimes against humanity, giving amnesty to the rest. When President Carlos Menem came to power in 1989, however, he adopted a policy of "forgive and forget." He pardoned all former officials (and the much smaller number of anti-government guerillas still around) and freed those serving prison sentences.

It was only in 2003 with the appearance on the scene of President Nestor Kirchner, who lost many friends in the "dirty war," that cases were re-opened against all ranks of the military. His widow and successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has continued his policy of confronting the legacy of the military junta. Last year, when the current human rights trial finally opened in Bahía Blanca, it ended a long period of reticence about this dark chapter in the city's past. The trial is just one of 13 others currently under way around Argentina.

We often use the expression "to bury the past," but Argentina's experience suggests that this is much harder than it looks. Take, for example, the persistently recurring issue of the fate of the children who lost their parents in the state-sponsored violence. Some of the "disappeared" were young pregnant mothers who were kidnapped, detained until they gave birth, and then killed. Their babies were given up for adoption, in some cases to childless military families. Since DNA testing became widely available in the 1990s, the national victims groups H.I.J.O.S. and the Nobel-prize-winning Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo have linked various desaparecido children to their biological families. In at least one now-notorious case, a young woman discovered that the man she thought was her father was actually the officer who had tortured and killed her parents.

In some instances, these cases have grabbed national headlines, as when two young heirs to the Clarín media group fortune were suspected of being the biological children of desaparecidos. It's an issue that also haunts the tribunal in Bahía Blanca. Last November, 36-year old Adriana Metz took the stand to tell about the morning in December 1976, when government agents kidnapped her pregnant mother, Graciela Romero. Metz and her family have reason to believe that Romero subsequently gave birth to a boy during Romero's imprisonment in the La Escuelita prison, and has asked that government archives be opened so that they can learn the truth. When prosecutor Córdoba asked her what it meant to her to discover that she had a brother, she paused for a full minute before answering: "It meant that I don't have my mother anymore. That I don't have my father. And, now, that I don't have my brother."

Not everyone in Bahía Blanca, however, wants to listen. Argentines exult in their own garrulousness, so the silence I encountered whenever I broached the subject of the tribunal was all the more striking. One pleasant summer afternoon, I chatted poolside with a neighbor, a local landlord named Vicente. An amiable man with a sharp laugh and a round belly upon which he rested discarded peanut shells, his mood darkened when I mentioned the trial. "‘Human rights' is a business enterprise, nothing more," he said, explaining his view that the proceedings were just a political ploy to drum up financial and popular support for the president. He became irate when I asked whether the victims of the former military regime deserved justice: "There was fighting on both sides," he told me. "We shouldn't be crying about human rights, we should be thanking those generals that we're not like Cuba, that there's no Berlin Wall in Buenos Aires!"

The Cold War-era language of a "communist threat" that Vicente employed is still commonplace in the more conservative communities in Bahía Blanca. It finds its most regular expression in the editorial pages of La Nueva Provincia, which has repeatedly invoked Argentina's good fortune in "winning the war against the subversives."

Supporters of the tribunal argue that it is precisely this continuing undercurrent of support for the policies of the old regime that dictates the need for a public criminal proceeding. Graciela Cortazar, a lawyer in Bahía Blanca and a law professor at the university, articulated the need for a trial as a way of setting the record straight in the community. Referring to the local newspaper and its well-known sympathies for the military, Graciela told me: "La Nueva's level of denial about what happened is close to that of the Nazis in Germany. If we don't try these men in a legitimate court of justice, I fear what that paper and its loyal readers will be able to claim."

When I asked Walter Larrea, a prosecutor in the trial, about the skepticism that many people in the community felt towards the proceedings, he let out a dry laugh. "This city is one big bag of guilt," he said.

He told me that he sees the trial both as a means for making the perpetrators answer for their actions as well as a vital step toward confronting the city with its own complicity. Whether it was a neighbor who witnessed a kidnapping and then went back to bed, or a police officer who described a cold-blooded act of murder as an "altercation" in his report, Larrea explained, it took many cogs to make the military regime's mechanism of terror run smoothly. "There's a collective sense of shame that they do not want to confront," Larrea told me. "Now we are going to face it. Argentines have to learn that we can no longer hide from our past."

The trial in Bahía Blanca is complicated by the fact that it has two competing goals. It seeks to punish the individuals involved while at the same time shedding light on a period that has been cloaked in darkness for over three decades. It should come as little surprise that there is considerable debate about whether a formal legal proceeding can encompass the full scope of past crimes against humanity. "Sometimes we have to look for ‘absolute truth' instead of ‘absolute justice,'" chief prosecutor Abel Córdoba told me. "What might not cut it as legal proof still gets into the history books."

Yet Córdoba has hardly been shy about invoking his prosecutorial powers. Last year, testimony from one victim, a former leftist parliamentarian named Mario Edgardo Medina, implicated a long-time law professor at the university. Medina, who described how he was taken away in the trunk of a car after being abducted from his Bahía Blanca home in 1976, recalled that the future professor, Hugo Sierra, had sat by and taken notes during his subsequent interrogation. Medina was then dispatched to La Escuelita. He emerged from detention only four years later.

Following Medina's testimony, the federal tribunal ordered Sierra's immediate arrest, and hours later the grey-haired law professor was taken into custody. Though his arrest was highly publicized, Sierra was released the next day on insufficient evidence. Still, the allegations have made him a pariah in many quarters. The court's decision to arrest Sierra represented an aggressive interpretation of its mandate. Unlike the defendants, the professor never served in the military or the police force. Even if he acted as a tool of terror during the Dirty War, how could he be implicated in this particular trial? It remains unclear whether Córdoba genuinely expected to prosecute Sierra or merely intended to make a public statement about his role that would then become part of the historical record.

As the arrest of Sierra clearly shows, the prosecutors are looking far beyond the former military officers and policemen directly accused in the trial. Larrea's emphasis on a "collective sense of shame" is echoed in the courtroom nearly every day. The victims' testimonies rarely involve the men in the dock, and the prosecutors frequently ask the witnesses how other people -- priests, neighbors, colleagues, or even journalists at La Nueva Provincia -- might have contributed to their ordeals. After the trial ends next month, the prosecutor intends to launch a similar case this summer against the local navy unit, in part for its involvement in the infamous "Death Flights" of that era.

And that, in turn, raises another fundamental question about criminal investigations like Argentina's: How far should the circle of culpability extend? It seems obvious that everyone should condemn the soldier who pushed a pregnant woman, drugged but alive, out of an airplane -- but what about the air-traffic controller who guided the plane to its destination and back? It was the military regime that carried out the policies at the heart of the Dirty War, but those policies would have been impossible without the complicity of broad swathes of society.

Argentina's recent experience vividly demonstrates that countries emerging from authoritarian rule cannot expect quick or easy fixes to the problems of transitional justice. How can a country expect to bury its past when so many of its vanished victims never had graves? Katherine Sikkink, a leading scholar on transitional justice, argues that criminal trials can be inherently healing even when they don't reach a clear verdict. But based on my own experience of the tribunal in Bahía Blanca, I suspect that many of the victims of the Dirty War won't be satisfied merely by an act of public catharsis. Many of them say they want to see the killers of their loved ones punished with the full force of the law.

The undeniable need for this trial in Bahía Blanca, half a lifetime after the events it scrutinizes, suggests that other countries emerging from authoritarian rule will have little choice but to confront the horrors of the past. They must initiate this painful process even without the promise of closure. Even the best-dressed wound still leaves a scar.

Argument

Formula Zero

The world's most craven sport crashes into the smoldering embers of the Arab Spring.

Until recently, sports fans had little cause to pay attention to Bahrain. The tiny Arab state, unlike its neighbors Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Qatar, with their mega-purchases of British soccer clubs or extravagant plans for hosting the 2022 World Cup, rarely featured on the international sporting calendar. But Formula One (F1) changed all that. In 2004 Bahrain, a Shiite majority kingdom ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa family, won -- or paid for, frankly -- the right to become the first Arab country to host an F1 Grand Prix race, an event in the world's pinnacle motorsport series, watched annually by over 600 million people.

For the first time, Bahrain had a place on the sporting map. The race was a publicity coup for the country and a boost to the ruling family's prestige. Then came the Arab Spring.

Last season's race was, eventually and reluctantly, cancelled in a storm of controversy as teams pondered the ethics of racing in a country wracked by protests and a violent government crackdown that left dozens of protestors dead. Damon Hill, a former F1 world champion, observed that racing in the "blood-soaked" kingdom would be akin to racing in South Africa at the height of the apartheid regime.

How quickly we forget. A year later, F1 has returned to Bahrain -- kicking off a gaudy three-day extravaganza that begins on Friday, April 20 -- though the political situation in the country is as fraught as it was in 2011.

According to Amnesty International, "Despite the authorities' claims to the contrary, state violence against those who oppose the Al Khalifa family rule continues, and in practice, not much has changed in the country since the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in February and March 2011."

Amnesty's concerns are widely shared. This week, the hackers collective Anonymous attacked the official F1 website to highlight the regime's crackdown on dissent and F1's complicity in pretending all is well in Bahrain. As the hackers put it, "the regime persists to deny any meaningful reform and continues to use brutal and violent tactics to oppress the popular calls for reformation. Not only is the Human Rights situation in Bahrain tragic, it becomes more drastic with each passing day. For these reasons the F1 Grand Prix in Bahrain should be strongly opposed."

The hackers' solidarity with the protesters may be a useful gesture, but the reform movement remains under the cosh of the government. And though there is less overt violence now than there was a year ago, it's a difference of degree, not of kind. So why the F1 flip-flop? Why will they race on Sunday in Bahrain when they would not a year ago?

The answer is simple: money. Formula One is a business cunningly disguised as the planet's most glamorous sport. Once a minority hobby enjoyed by dedicated petrol-heads and Eurotrash flotsam and jetsam, it has become a global entertainment circus worth billions of dollars annually. Consider this: the annual budget to field a competitive F1 team these days costs upwards of $300 million dollars. And that's for two cars. But the circus makes a lot of people a lot of money -- and that counts for more than trivial concerns about human rights.

The drivers, without whom the carnival cannot take place, seem unconcerned by the ongoing repression in Bahrain. According to Sebastian Vettel, the German 24 year-old reigning world champion, the security situation is "not a big problem." Vettel said he looked forward to Friday's practice session as a means of distracting attention from off-track issues and onto "the stuff that really matters -- tire temperatures and cars."

Do not think Vettel unusually solipsistic. His views are mainstream within the paddock and the wider F1 family. This is not a group that places human rights at the top of the grid. Three-time world champion and former team-owner Jackie Stewart revealed how commercial interests have become the only concerns that count: "This is the largest TV sport in the world on an annual basis. What about the sponsors. Whether it's Mobil, or Total or Shell -- they're going to seen by hundreds of millions of people.... If you are a sponsor for that team, do you think it's correct not to get the exposure they have bought as a supplier? It's the responsibility of the race organisers to make the race safe for us to participate in."

Human rights should know their place and, plainly, their place is some way behind commercial rights. Besides, said Stewart, "Bahrain is probably more advanced in creating democracy than any other country in the entire Middle East. Look at Syria and Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, and they are not as advanced in their democracy as Bahrain. But Bahrain does have a problem with religion, just as we did in Northern Ireland. None of these countries have full democracies. But no democracy has been created without time."

Decency is relative. Precedent, apparently, is not. As Stewart argued, "If we don't go to Bahrain how are we going to suggest that we're going to go to Russia in 2014? And we go to [South] Korea. We've got to be very careful."

Quite. According to John Yates, a former Scotland Yard police officer who, despite being forced to resign after being caught up in the phone-hacking scandal that roiled Britain last year, now advises the Bahrain government, the Western media has been gulled by a "distorted picture" of the democracy protests in that country. Writing to Jean Todt, the head of F1's governing body, Yates claimed that "Along with my family, I feel completely safe. Indeed, safer than I have often felt in London."

The protests, he said, are only "criminal acts being perpetrated against an unarmed police force who, in the face of such attacks, are acting with remarkable restraint. These people are intent on causing harm to the police and the communities in which they live. They are not representative of the vast majority of delightful, law-abiding citizens that represent the real Bahrain that I see every day."

Such is the consequence of selling your sport to the highest bidder. Formula One, thanks to its global television audience, has become a plaything for regimes that see hosting races as a way of burnishing their reputations. The Khalifa family are not the only despots to appreciate how useful F1 can be. This year, races will be held in less-than-democratic China, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi.

With the possible exception of soccer, few sports have been as quick as Formula One to appreciate the importance of new and lucrative Asian markets. Once a European phenomenon with outposts in South America, F1 has embraced globalization. This year, fewer than half the races will be held in Europe.

The shift east owes something to European hostility to the tobacco advertising that has traditionally fuelled F1 and much, of course, to the rising middle classes in Korea, Malaysia, China, and India (all of which host races this year). Most of all, however, it is the work of one man: Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One's pint-sized potentate is a remarkable figure: he makes soccer's Sepp Blatter and FIFA seem almost respectable. Ecclestone may be 82, but he shows no sign of relinquishing his grip on a sport that has made him -- and his colleagues -- some of the wealthiest figures in any sport anywhere in the world.

Ecclestone's rise to control F1 is a murky, fearsomely complex tale that even his biographers have been hard-pressed to explain. Central to it, however, has been his control of F1's global media rights. His motto has been, as he once put it, "You can have anything you like, as long as you pay too much for it." Races are sold to the highest bidder and, even by the standards of cut-throat international business, Ecclestone has been an unusually shameless huckster.

In 1997, for instance, he donated £1 million to the British Labour Party. Coincidentally, Tony Blair's government then exempted F1 from legislation banning tobacco advertising at sporting events.

In 2009, he made another splash with comments praising Adolf Hitler's ability "to get things done." What's more, he suggested, "If you have a look at a democracy it hasn't done a lot of good for many countries -- including this one." Under Ecclestone's dictatorship, of course, F1 has managed to escape the debilitating compromises demanded by democracy.

No wonder this weekend's race will go ahead. Formula One has always been for sale: Bahrain's ruling family owns a stake in the Lotus team while a Bahraini company is also a minority shareholder in the McLaren team.

Zayed al-Zayani, chairman of the Bahrain International Circuit where the race is held, told the BBC this week that "We are a sporting event, we are a social event, we have nothing to do with the political scene, and I think that's better left to sort out between the politicians and government." Nothing could be further from the truth.

The irony is that a race designed to flatter and showcase the Bahraini regime has instead become a focal point for unrest, shining a light upon a repressive government whose actions would not receive nearly as much attention in the European and international press if Bahrain had not purchased the right to host motor racing's traveling circus.

That, however, is small comfort when set beside the moral iniquity of millionaires and billionaires fretting about tire temperatures and race set-ups while pretending that all is sunshine and sweetness. Meanwhile, the Bahraini regime continues to thwart all but the most superficial reforms and has no qualms about using any amount of force necessary -- including tear gas, stun grenades, and birdshot, reportedly -- to do quell the small, but vocal chorus of non-violent dissent. At least, unlike a year ago, they're not using live ammunition. Not that Ecclestone or F1 would care -- or, god forbid, dare to speak up. Formula One may try to paint itself as a glamorous business but the cheap and grubby reality beneath the surface shine is rather different. The sport sold its soul long ago -- and with that any sense of shame as well.

Mark Thompson/Getty Images