National Security

Cleaning up a Dirty War

What America's anti-torture advocates can learn from Argentina's darkest days.

Zero Dark Thirty may have been snubbed at the Oscars, but human rights groups are still up in arms about the film and the role waterboarding may have played in the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden. In fact, the day after the Academy Awards, Amnesty International cited the film's nomination in calling on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to make public its report about the CIA's treatment of detainees. Amnesty and others are frustrated that years after the U.S. use of torture became public no high-level Bush administration officials have been held accountable.

President Obama seemed to close out that possibility when he called for "turning the page" shortly after winning election in 2008. That "forgive and forget" approach, coupled with the failure to close Guantanamo and the recent white paper laying out a drone policy asserting the right to kill Americans abroad, has discouraged advocates of civil liberties, who had hoped that a Democratic president -- a constitutional law professor no less -- would have investigated and punished such egregious acts. The fact that they are using one movie's Oscar loss as a call for action suggests how desperate they are.

Those advocates might, however, derive encouragement by looking south -- way south -- to Argentina. That may seem an odd source of inspiration, given that the country has hardly been a model for good governance. Cristina Kirchner is currently president, having succeeded her now-deceased husband Nestor in 2007, and their dual reign has been marked by the expropriation of foreign-owned enterprises, rampant inflation (which the government consistently tries to hide), and a dubious alliance with ailing Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who may have helped fund Kirchner's 2007 campaign.

When it comes to human rights, though, the couple presided over a watershed in Argentine history: They made it possible for members of one of the most brutal military dictatorships in South America to finally be tried and sentenced for kidnapping, murder, and torture. In the late 1980s, those men seemed forever protected by a spate of amnesty laws. Now, hundreds have been convicted. It's a narrative that activists who long for a similar meting out of justice in the United States can take hope from -- and learn from, too.

Obviously, there are enormous differences between the U.S. and Argentine cases. During the so-called Dirty War, the military junta killed as many as 30,000 people, the vast majority of them native Argentines. Their repertoire, moreover, was shockingly grisly: It included kidnapping, rape, electric shock torture, and drugging and dumping prisoners' inert bodies from airplanes into the sea. Perhaps most egregiously, the government took hundreds of babies from sequestered mothers and gave them to members of the military and their supporters. While the war was ostensibly waged against guerrilla fighters, the military's victims expanded well beyond that group to include anyone with suspected leftist sympathies. Students, journalists, and even psychologists were particularly vulnerable to being "disappeared."

While the United States tortured in the so-called war on terrorism, its actions certainly did not reach the depths of the Argentine junta. (No one is accusing senior officials of taking newborns away from their mothers.) But there are not-insignificant parallels between the U.S. war on terrorism and Argentina's Dirty War. Both had a similar incitation: They were launched in response to terrorism. The military junta was able to seize power from Isabel Peron's hapless government in 1976 largely because it was incapable staving off the Marxist Montoneros guerrillas, who were kidnapping high profile targets and setting off bombs in movie theaters and hotels. Some of the hallmarks of the U.S. war on terrorism also echo tactics deployed in the Dirty War, like indefinite detention, "hooding" (placing a hood over the entire face of a prisoner, so he cannot see), and waterboarding. And, as in the United States, for a long time in Argentina it seemed like no one would ever be forced to answer for their actions. For decades, the perpetrators of the Dirty War lived openly, and seemed immune from prosecution.

Yet now many of them are behind bars. How did that turn-around happen? Generally speaking, human rights activists employed three tactics. They documented and disseminated information on the abuses; consistently staged public demonstrations, even when the political climate seemed hopeless; and leveraged international courts to try members of the military brass in absentia when domestic jurists did nothing. "When the doors were closed," says Mirna Goransky, who has prosecuted cases against Dirty War military officials, "we did all we could to leverage the small openings that remained."

Human rights advocates were aided by the fact that, immediately following the fall of junta government in 1983, democratically-elected President Raul Alfonsín put top generals on trial and initiated a truth commission to investigate their legacy of political violence and repression. When the military threatened to take down the government, Alfonsín ended up pushing through what would be only the first round of amnesty laws, but the findings of the truth commission, published under the title Nunca Mas ("Never Again"), stunned the Argentine public. Documenting what happened during the period popularly known as anos de plomo, or "years of lead," became a useful placeholder for justice. In the 1990s, when courts wouldn't jail junta-era torturers, human rights attorneys pursued so-called "truth trials," in which they didn't demand punishment, but rather judicial investigations into the fate of the disappeared.

In addition to all of the legal wrangling, human rights groups consistently staged public demonstrations. The most iconic were, of course, the madres de la plaza de mayo, who took to walking in the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires every Thursday, wearing their signature white handkerchiefs. Most of the women were mothers of desaparecidos. Their consistent presence, and maternal bonafides, made them potent opponents.

The activists looked internationally, as well, to effect change at home. Attorneys proactively took on the cases of European victims, and had officers tried abroad in absentia. In 1999, in part at the prodding of Argentine attorneys, Spanish jurist Baltazar Gaston followed up on his warrant for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet by filing charges against members of the Argentine armed forces. The censure put pressure on Argentina to act, and when Kirchner annulled the decree forbidding extradition in 2003, the Dirty War cases started being heard in domestic courts.

To be sure, human rights groups today are using many of the same tactics deployed in Argentina. In 2011, for example, Amnesty International called for Canada to arrest and prosecute George W. Bush for his role in approving torture. This appears to have curbed the former president's international travel, but if he were in fact detained by a foreign government, it would probably backfire. Rather than whip up more U.S. public support for a thorough accounting for what happened post-9/11, most Americans would be outraged that a foreign power had put a former U.S. commander-in-chief in the dock.

The part of the Argentine playbook that could be most effective in the United States is the public documentation of acts of torture. It was almost nine years ago that pictures of abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib surprised and sickened the American public. Although news accounts of what happened during the Bush years -- and popular media like 24 and, yes, Zero Dark Thirty -- have no doubt inured the public to the reality of U.S.-sanctioned torture, putting more information out there would have an impact. Government officials implicated in the Bush-era policies know this; that's why the C.I.A. destroyed tapes of its interrogations.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch have released reports documenting the role senior officials played in condoning "enhanced interrogation techniques." More powerful than these efforts would be for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to declassify its 6,000-page report on the use of torture post-9/11. It reportedly makes the case that subjecting prisoners to torture did not play a role in the capture of Osama bin Laden and was counterproductive in the broader effort to root out terrorists. Despite persistent demands from human rights activists like Amnesty, the report remains shrouded from public view.

That gets to what is arguably the real lesson of the Argentine experience: Don't give up. By seizing on every opportunity to obtain and disseminate information and keeping the pressure on, activists eventually succeeded in getting trials. In a speech he gave in 2011, ACLU president Anthony Romero said his counterpart in Argentina -- the head of the Center for Legal and Social Studies in Buenos Aires -- routinely bucks him up when Romero despairs of seeing charges brought in connection to the war on terrorism. "You're thinking too short a time frame," Romero's counterpart purportedly tells him. "It took us 37 years."

JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Morales Walks the Populist High Wire

Morales talks big populist talk. Here's how it's actually working out. 

Bolivia is different: With some 30-plus indigenous groups accounting for two-thirds of its population, it has the highest percentage of native American peoples (almost all of whom are poor) of any South American country. Since 2006, the administration of Evo Morales has been intent on turning the established political and economic order upside down, displacing the non-indigenous ruling elite and challenging the influence of both the United States and the free market system. It's a high-risk experiment that's largely isolated Bolivia in an era of global integration.

Morales, an indigenous leader and former coca grower, campaigned for office promising radical change. And his success (he won a fair election in 2005) was as much a testament to the desperation of Bolivia's poor as to Morale's charisma; Bolivia had the most unequal distribution of household income of any country in Latin America.

Shortly thereafter, he rammed through constitutional changes that reordered political power in favor of the indigenous majority and triggered the piecemeal nationalization of what Lenin called the "commanding heights" of industry. He has since governed with an eclectic strategy that blends a determination to address the wretched living standard of the indigenous majority with a surprising degree of pragmatism. (The photo above shows Morales handing out fake bills as part of the Alasitas festival.) 

Morales' first economic priority was to undo the 1990s reforms of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, arguably the most devoted believer in economist Jeffrey Sachs' prescription for rapid a transition to free markets. Sanchez de Lozada's brand of "shock therapy" included the partial privatization of key industries -- electric power, railways, telecoms -- along with an invitation to foreign investors to buy control of former state companies on the condition that they invested heavily in the economy.

Most of these industries have been re-nationalized, with foreign investors a key target. In December 2012, Morales decreed the nationalization of shares held by the Spanish firm Iberdrola in two electricity distribution companies. It was 15th takeover of foreign assets since Morales assumed power. More significant, this one may have ushered in a new chapter in the assertion of state control of the economy, since Iberdorla's holdings had never been state enterprises. And the beat goes on: In February, the government nationalized the Spanish company that operates Bolivia's three international airports, charging it was reaping "an exorbitant profit with a derisory capital input."

Not surprisingly, foreign investors are making themselves scarce. The lack of foreign investment has been partly offset by strong increases in public investment, with greatly increased involvement of key state corporations including Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos in the oil and gas, and Comibol in mining. But Bolivia's state enterprises lack the technological proficiency and financial reach of multinationals, a reality that is slowing resource development. The situation is especially critical in the natural gas sector, where exportable surpluses (and foreign exchange earnings) will soon begin to decline unless new reserves are identified and accessed.

Another major economic stumbling block has been new barriers to trade with the United States. Morales has refused to cooperate in the suppression coca production, which remains a major cash crop for indigenous farmers in the Bolivian highlands. Playing tit-for-tat, the Obama Administration pulled the benefits Bolivia was due under the Andean Trade Preferences' Act, a law specifically designed as an incentive for South American countries to show more enthusiasm toward the war on drugs.

Morales, incidentally, shows no signs of giving way. Far from retreating from its stance, Bolivia obtained an exemption from its obligations under the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in January 2013 that requires signatories to bar domestic coca consumption. This exemption represents a significant alteration of the convention, one that was long and rigorously opposed by the United States.

The loss of the right to export tariff-free to U.S. markets matters little with natural resources, where markets are truly global or (in the case of natural gas) the only logical customers are Brazil and Argentina. But it does limit Bolivia's ability to reduce the economy's dependence on hydrocarbons, tin and zinc -- in particular, efforts to diversify into labor-intensive textile manufacturing. It may also put the kibosh on plans to produce batteries from Bolivia's vast deposits of lithium. 

What's more, the empowerment of the powerless has not always worked in Morales' favor: His policies are also being tested by the very indigenous groups they were designed to benefit. Since late 2010, a number of native groups have been protesting the failure of his government to consult sufficiently on infrastructure projects. The government suffered a major embarrassment in August 2011, when over 1,000 people of marched 500 kilometers across the Andes to La Paz to oppose construction of a highway that the government claimed was critical for the development of sparsely populated eastern lowlands. 

By the same token, indigenous groups have staged numerous protests to block gas development, despite the fact that most social programs are financed out of gas export revenues. They have also blocked attempts to bring the country's vast lithium deposits into production. One recent academic study estimated that protests, strikes and other social conflict reduced Bolivian GDP growth by an average of one percentage point annually between 1970 and 2004 -- a figure that is likely to have risen since in light of the ongoing high-profile protests.

This is not your usual "perils of defying the capitalist gods" tale, though. Given low levels of foreign investment, lack of favorable access to U.S. markets and the destructive effects of the ongoing protests (not to mention significant drop in foreign aid), Bolivia's overall economic performance has been surprisingly good. According to the U.N.'s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), about 62 percent of the population lived in poverty in 2002; by 2010, that figure had been reduced to 42 percent.

While Morale's critics claim this decline was simply a byproduct of Bolivia's participation in the global commodities boom, ECLAC found otherwise. Resource-fueled growth, they concluded, explained only one-third of the reduction in poverty; Bolivia also experienced a fairly sharp drop in income inequality that was almost certainly a product of government policy.

It's worth noting, moreover, that despite the Morales Administration's reputation for radicalism, the government's macroeconomic management--including debt reduction and the build-up of foreign exchange reserves -- has been extremely effective. A January 2013 IMF report cited Bolivia as one of only a handful of Latin American countries (including Chile, Paraguay, Peru and perhaps Colombia) in "a relatively solid position to withstand sizeable shocks -- even responding with expansionary policies - without putting fiscal solvency at risk." 

Maybe it should not be surprising, then, that late last year Bolivia was able to sell bonds on the international bond market for the first time since 1917. The interest rate demanded by lenders was below five percent -- less than the rate being paid by Spain.

The oft-told tale of contemporary political economy concludes that market liberalization is the key to economic development, and that growing income inequality is an unfortunate but nearly inevitable byproduct. That story -- or at least the red-meat version that gained prominence in the last decade -- is now being tested in Latin America. On the one hand, the troubles dogging Venezuela suggest that the road to economic hell is still paved with populist intentions. On the other, Brazil's economic success (albeit modest success) is surely evidence that growth and economic justice need not be incompatible.

And where does Bolivia fit the schema? It's hard to say. Morales may talk the same talk as Hugo Chavez, but he doesn't walk the same walk. It's possible that Bolivian populism is living on borrowed time, that the leveling of global commodity prices, the alienation of foreign investors and the inherent inefficiency of state-owned industry will soon enough slow growth to a crawl -- and that competing claims to a dwindling economic pie will thereafter overwhelm and destabilize the government. But it's also possible that the empowerment of Bolivia's long-suffering indigenous majority will lead to a virtuous circle in which free enterprise can make a gradual comeback. History has a way of undermining conventional wisdoms.    

Photo by AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images