An Argentine Dictator’s Legacy

Jorge Rafael Videla, leader of Argentina’s dictatorial junta from 1976 to 1981, died in prison on May 17, but his historical legacy is far from settled.

Although in his day he was lionized by some Cold War warriors as a savior of his nation, his crimes are no longer in question, and many young Argentines who never lived under his murderous grip regard him as a symbol of evil. The debate that persists is whether he in fact waged a “dirty war,” implying two sides, or whether, as many professional historians agree, he simply unleashed state-sponsored terrorism.

Under the junta’s rule, even a five-year-old knew his name. That was my case: As far as I can remember, I never heard political discussions in the middle-class Argentine Jewish home in which I was raised, but I knew who he was.

Videla was a spectral figure with his gravelly voice, stern look and mustache. My parents later told me that they had considered it too dangerous to discuss the junta in the presence of a child. They knew too many people who had disappeared.

Like many other Argentines, I am still trying to come to terms with the crimes against humanity committed under Videla’s rule — the disappearances, the concentration camps, the citizens tortured, drugged and then thrown into the Atlantic from military planes. Official estimates range from 10,000 to 15,000 murder victims. There was also the theft of babies born to illegally detained mothers. One of the reasons I became a historian was because I wanted to understand how the so-called dirty war could have become a reality in a modern nation with a strong, progressive civil society.

Today Argentina once again has a strong civil society, an electoral democracy and a dynamic political culture with no place for the military in politics. The country has moved beyond Videla’s efforts at “reconciliation”; it is clear from the reactions to his death that in Argentina almost nobody buys Videla’s idea that the military were saviors of the nation.

But a recent shift in the perception of Videla’s legacy poses new challenges to Argentina’s efforts to come to terms with its violent past. The current Peronist administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner regularly — and in most cases implausibly — accuses opponents of having been associated with the dictatorship, or, if they are too young, wishing for its return. The dictatorship has thus become an ultimate political insult, a populist means of political polarization. Equally problematic from a historical standpoint are the efforts by the Kirchner administrations to present the victims as heroes.

In effect, this marks a shift from a legal perception of perpetrators and victims under the junta, to a moral one of a “war” between heroes and villains. This is exactly how Videla wanted to be remembered — as a warrior in a violent political contest.

President Kirchner and her husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, see themselves on the other side of this war, as warriors against absolute evil, though neither played any visible role in the resistance to the dictatorship. Thus history as populist melodrama presents a vision of past victims as protosupporters of current politics.

Such efforts to emphasize the political identities of the victims as the main reason for their victimization retroactively places the crimes of the state within the political sphere. Yet these crimes were outside politics — the “dirty war” was state-sponsored terrorism, not a struggle between different political visions. Videla’s deeds belong to the history of the fascist genealogies of Argentina for which he wrote the last chapter.

Federico Finchelstein is associate professor of history and director of the Janey Program in Latin American Studies at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York. He is the author of the forthcoming The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War.

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