by Martin McReynolds
American Reporter Correspondent
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Sept. 18, 2007
REMEMBERING BAD TIMES IN ARGENTINA
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Returning to Argentina these days brings back memories of an ugly time.
Last year, my wife Norma and I happened to be in Buenos Aires when ceremonies were held marking the 30th anniversary of the 1976 military coup that installed the most vicious dictatorship in the country's history.
President Nestor Kirchner, democratically elected in 2003, honored the memory of the thousands of Argentines who "disappeared" at the hands of the armed forces and police on suspicion of being leftist guerrillas or their sympathizers.
Many of those victims were seized in their homes or on the streets and taken to secret jails where they were tortured and murdered without trial. Kirchner even inaugurated a museum dedicated to the victims - at the former Naval Mechanics School, where torture was carried out inside buildings visible from one of Buenos Aires' main avenues.
Shortly after we arrived in the Argentine capital this year, the Supreme Court overturned a deal worked out in 1989 that had granted pardons to the officers responsible for that "Dirty War." Many of them are old now but they may still face justice for their acts.
During a trip to the northwest we came across a plaque on the side of a high wall in one provincial city that said, "This site functioned as a clandestine prison during the dictatorship of 1976-83." What a turnaround from our former time in Argentina, when the press was muzzled and no one would admit the existence of such a place.
We found the newspapers in Buenos Aires carrying full coverage of the trial of a Roman Catholic priest named Christian Von Wernich, a former police chaplain accused of collaborating with the torturers in those dark times. The priest now claims he visited the prisons only to offer spiritual comfort to the detained. But witness after witness testified he ignored their pleas to stop the torture and instead lectured them on mending their evil ways. What was the torture for? The first goal seems to have been to get suspects to confess their alleged crimes and provide names and addresses of their accomplices. But torture takes on a life of its own. Survivors have told of tormentors trying to confirm paranoid theories of Communist plots tied to Jewish schemes for Zionist domination of the world.
The name of one witness in the priest's trial took me back to a day in April 1976 I remember well. The background is a bit complicated. A scandal broke in far-off Holland involving wheeling and dealing by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands in the 1950s. It was revealed the prince had negotiated the sale of $100 million worth of Dutch railroad cars to Argentina by paying a $12 million bribe to Argentine President Juan Peron, plus providing $12,000 in jewelry for his wife Evita and a deluxe train for the presidential couple's personal use. Wire service reporters in Holland transmitted the news to the world.
One newspaper in Buenos Aires ran a story about the scandal at the top of Page One, as reported by United Press International from Holland. I was a correspondent for UPI in Buenos Aires and would normally have felt delighted to see our company scoring such a journalistic success on a big story. But the news was embarrassing to the Argentine government. Juan Peron had been elected president again in 1973 after spending 17 years in exile. He had died less than two years later, leaving his third wife, Isabel, as his successor. "Isabelita," as she was known, led a shaky government beset by leftist guerrillas and racked by economic problems and its own incompetence. Her public support was close to zero and it appeared to be only a matter of time until the armed forces seized power.
Her government was in no mood to laugh off a serious accusation against Peron and Evita, who had run the country in the 1950s with the backing of the country's militant labor unions.
The presidential office at the Casa Rosada, or Pink House, phoned the UPI bureau and demanded that the person responsible for the company's affairs report immediately to the government press office. I was not that person. I was just the news editor for South America. But the main foreign boss, a Frenchman, was out of town and so was the Argentine manager who would be expected to deal with the local authorities.
So it was up to me to walk the four blocks to Government House and answer for UPI's reporting. I was ushered into the office of the press secretary, a hack named Osvaldo Pacheco. He was generally believed to have been appointed to the job only because his wife was the popular actress Irma Roy, a loyal supporter of the Peronist movement.
As I stood before Pacheco's desk, he ranted about the unpardonable insult UPI had committed to the memory of the beloved Juan and Evita Peron by reporting they had accepted a bribe. I responded meekly that it was out of the hands of the Buenos Aires office, which had nothing to do with the story transmitted from Amsterdam.
"Your agency must transmit a retraction!" he shouted.
I said we couldn't retract a story that was based on facts which came out in a Dutch government investigation and were printed in the leading Dutch newspaper.
"Oh, so now you're being defiant?" he thundered.
"No, no, I'm not being defiant," I said, trying to walk a line between defending UPI and groveling in surrender by offering something I couldn't provide. "I just don't see how we can undo a story we didn't originate."
I was beginning to sweat. I didn't know how to cope with the tirade, even though I felt it was a show being put on for my benefit and to justify the man's job.
"Well, the Peronist masses won't stand for this insult to their beloved leader," Pacheco warned me. "All I have to do is give out the address of the UPI office and the Peronist masses won't leave a stone of that building standing."
I don't remember how the session ended but the storm finally blew itself out and I walked back to the UPI bureau, which consisted of a few rented offices in a dingy building with a rickety elevator. I didn't know whether to expect the Peronist mobs to show up shortly afterward but they didn't.
In fact, the army made its move a few days later, sending tanks through the city streets to seize the Casa Rosada and round up Isabel Peron and her assistants, including Press Secretary Osvaldo Pacheco.
The Peronist masses were in no mood to fight for Peron's hapless successor and the operation went smoothly.
I've always smiled to think of the man who chewed me out finding himself humiliated and held for months in some uncomfortable military barracks.
Now I see things differently. I read in a Buenos Aires newspaper during the priest's trial that Pacheco was among those held in the clandestine torture centers.
He testified he was stripped naked and tied to a metal bed frame on the floor, where he was kicked in the head while electric shocks were applied - first to the soles of his feet, his thighs and chest but then intensified with stronger shocks to his mouth and genitals.
I thought the man was a clown but I would never have wished that treatment on him and I'm glad he survived to testify 30 years later.