When President Obama lands in Buenos Aires this week, he will be arriving on the eve of one of the most traumatic dates in our history. On March 24, Argentina commemorates the 40th anniversary of a military coup that “disappeared” thousands of people, a deep trauma in Argentina’s national psyche.
There were other, greater atrocities in South America in that era, like the ones that occurred during virtual civil wars in Colombia or Guatemala. The killings in Argentina may have been lesser in number, but this was premeditated mass murder.
Argentina’s military dictatorship organized its killings in death camps, with methods reminiscent of the Nazis’ (and many Nazis had, in fact, found asylum in Argentina after World War II and still lived there then). In many cases, doctors injected opponents with sedatives before they were dropped, still alive, from planes into the freezing waters of the South Atlantic.
Argentina must be commended for its efforts to confront this ugly past. In a reckoning rare in the annals of international justice, more than 1,000 former officers have been put on trial, and hundreds have been convicted. Last week’s announcement ahead of Mr. Obama’s visit by the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, that the American government would declassify military and intelligence records on the dictatorship could provide evidence for further prosecutions.
Much is owed to the country’s human rights campaigners, like the celebrated Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. Over decades, they worked to trace the children born to women who gave birth in custody and were then murdered. Their babies were handed over to regime-approved parents, usually military families, to raise as their own. The grandmothers have recovered 119 of their missing grandchildren.
The group’s leader, Estela de Carlotto, searched for 36 years before a DNA test helped to unite her with her grandson, Ignacio. Mr. Montoya Carlotto, a musician, had grown up not knowing his true identity or that his birth parents had been killed in a death camp in 1978. There are many similarly painful stories from the time of the junta.
So, even 40 years later, leading human rights campaigners in Argentina feel justified in protesting Mr. Obama’s presence on this gruesome anniversary. Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who in 1980 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights work, wrote an open letter to the president asking him to postpone his visit. He himself was tortured and held for 14 months without trial, including at a prison where the police had painted a giant swastika on the wall.
On May 5, 1977, Mr. Pérez Esquivel was put on a “death flight.” Chained to his seat, he watched an officer preparing a syringe. For a long time, the military plane circled over the Río de la Plata estuary that opens on the Atlantic Ocean as if awaiting orders. Finally, he heard a crackling radio command to return to base. Mr. Pérez Esquivel believes his life was probably saved by all the inquiries the authorities were getting about his disappearance.
In his letter to Mr. Obama, Mr. Pérez Esquivel noted that the military dictatorship had relied on “financing, training and coordination by the United States.” Human rights activists point to a 1976 meeting between Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and the regime’s foreign minister, Adm. César Augusto Guzzetti, at which Admiral Guzzetti asked for American “understanding and support” in suppressing resistance to the coup.
“If there are things that have to be done,” Mr. Kissinger said, “you should do them quickly.”
Many Argentines find it hard to forgive the encouragement for atrocities. But an attitude that Mr. Obama somehow represents such thinking, and should not be welcomed, is mistaken.
Those who are still angry at the United States over its abetting of the military junta also forget that President Jimmy Carter helped save many lives after he took office in 1977 by making human rights a cornerstone of American foreign policy.
In August that year, Mr. Carter’s human rights envoy, Patricia M. Derian, met with Adm. Emilio Massera, one of the regime’s bloodiest leaders, at the Naval Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, a detention center where some 5,000 people are believed to have died.
“Possibly while we are speaking, people are being tortured,” Ms. Derian told the admiral. In September, Mr. Carter himself used a meeting at the White House with Argentina’s military dictator, Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, to take up the issue of the disappeared.
At the American Embassy in Buenos Aires, a brave diplomat named F. Allen Harris (known as Tex) regularly received the relatives of “missing people,” providing comfort, and fed Washington with lists of the thousands of “desaparecidos.” For a time, the United States was seen as an ally of the victims rather than the junta. Robert Cox, a British journalist who was held in the same swastika-adorned building as Mr. Pérez Esquivel, remembers that in his cell, a previous prisoner had scrawled on the wall not the anti-American slogan “Yankee go home,” but the plea “Yankee get me out of here.”
Still, the White House planners clearly miscalculated the depth of feeling here that surrounds the date of March 24. According to a revised schedule of his visit, Mr. Obama will meet with President Mauricio Macri in Buenos Aires on March 23, but will then remove himself to the distant tourist resort of Bariloche, to avoid provoking the protests threatened by some human-rights activists.
It’s a sad epilogue to the United States’ mixed record on the dictatorship of the 1970s that many in Argentina seem unwilling to admit that Washington’s initial support for the dictatorship was later counterbalanced by the brave efforts of the Carter administration to rein in the killers in uniform.
Uki Goñi is the author of The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón’s Argentina and a contributing opinion writer.