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Another ‘dirty war’

By Dr George Venturini

Heinz Alfred ‘Henry’ Kissinger obtained a Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1954. His interest was on Castelreagh and Metternich – two empire builders. He devoted his life to sublimate them.

In an incendiary, studiedly defamatory book the late Christopher Hitchens described him as “a mediocre and opportunist academic [intent on] becoming an international potentate. The signature qualities were there from the inaugural moment: the sycophancy and the duplicity; the power worship and the absence of scruple; the empty trading of old non-friends for new non-friends. And the distinctive effects were also present: the uncounted and expendable corpses; the official and unofficial lying about the cost; the heavy and pompous pseudo-indignation when unwelcome questions were asked. Kissinger’s global career started as it meant to go on. It debauched the American republic and American democracy, and it levied a hideous toll of casualties on weaker and more vulnerable societies.”

The story is all here: from the martyrdom of Indochina to becoming the real backchannel to Moscow on behalf of his new client: Donald Trump.

Editor’s note: This outstanding series by Dr Venturini is published bi-weekly (Wednesdays and Saturdays). Today we publish Part Thirteen. Here is the link to Part Twelve; Diplomacy! What diplomacy?


On 24 March 1976 a right-wing coup d’état overthrew María Estela Martínez (popularly known as Isabel) de Perón as President of Argentina. President Juan Perón had died on 1 July 1974. He was ‘succeeded’ by his wife. Despite her claim as the country’s rightful ruler, Martínez de Perón rapidly lost political influence and power. A group of military officials, chosen by Perón himself to aide Isabel, took control in an effort to revitalise Argentina’s deteriorating political and social climate. This shift in governance paved the way for the ensuing coup.

A military Junta was installed to replace her; this was headed by General Jorge Rafael Videla, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera and Brigadier-General Orlando Ramón Agosti. The Junta took the official name of ‘National Reorganization Process’, and remained in power until 10 December 1983.

The coup had been planned since October 1975, and the United States Department of State learned of the preparations two months before its execution. At the time the American Secretary of State was Henry Kissinger. He would meet on several occasions with Argentinian military leaders after the coup, urging them to destroy their opponents quickly before outcry over human rights abuses grew in the United States. (Kissinger approved Argentinian ‘dirty war’, The Guardian, 6 December 2003).

On 5 February 1975 Operativo Independencia was launched. This action aimed to eliminate the guerrillas in the Tucumán jungle, who had maintained strongholds in the area as early as May 1974. In October the country was divided into five military zones, with each commander given full autonomy to unleash a carefully planned wave of repression.

On 18 December 1975 a number of warplanes took off from Morón Air Base and strafed the Casa Rosada in an attempt to overthrow Isabel Perón. The rebellion was brought to a halt four days later through arbitration by a chaplain.

However, the military did succeed in removing the only officer remaining loyal to the government, Air Force commander Héctor Fautario. Fautario drew harsh criticism from the Army and Navy owing to his vehement opposition to their repressive plans, and for his refusal to mobilise the Air Force against the guerrillas’ strongholds in the north. Fautario was Videla’s final obstacle in his pursuit of power.

By January 1976 the guerrilla presence in Tucumán had been reduced to a few platoons. In the meanwhile, the military, fully supported by the local élite and the United States, bided its time before ultimately seizing power. (‘Kissinger approved Argentine ‘dirty war’ ’, supra and Transcript: U.S. OK’d ‘dirty war’, The Miami Herald, 4 December 2003).

Shortly before 01:00 am of 24 March 1976 President Martínez de Perón was detained and taken by helicopter to the El Messidor residence. At 03:10 all television and radio stations were interrupted. Regular transmissions were cut and replaced by a military march, after which the first communiqué was broadcast: “[…] People are advised that as of today, the country is under the operational control of the Joint Chiefs General of the Armed Forces. We recommend to all inhabitants strict compliance with the provisions and directives emanating from the military, security or police authorities, and to be extremely careful to avoid individual or group actions and attitudes that may require drastic intervention from the operating personnel. Signed: General Jorge Rafael Videla, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera and Brigadier Orlando Ramón Agosti.”

A state of siege and martial law were proclaimed, as military patrolling spread to every major city. The morning was seemingly uneventful, but as the day progressed, the detentions began. Hundreds of workers, unionists, students, and political activists were abducted from their homes, their workplaces, or in the streets.

Human rights activists testify that in the aftermath of the coup and the ensuing ‘dirty war’ some 30,000 people, primarily young opponents of the military regime, were ‘disappeared’ or killed. Military men responsible for the killings often spared pregnant women – for a while anyway, keeping them in custody until they gave birth, before killing them and giving their infants to childless military families: the ‘dirty war’.

The ‘dirty war’ has longstanding roots. There is a disquieting hypothesis that as long as the ‘Argentine question’ remains unsettled the military may intervene again, the resistance movement will remain strong, and violence may continue even under a democratic government (Donald C. Hodges, Argentina’s ‘dirty war’: an intellectual biography (University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas 2011). Secretly Kissinger had assured the planners of the coup that they would have the full support of the United States government in their war and associated actions – a commitment which was opposed by the U.S. Ambassador to Argentina at the time, Robert Hill. (Kissinger approved Argentinian ‘dirty war’, The Guardian, 6 December 2003).

The 24 March anniversary of the coup is now designated the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice.

Much has been written on the subject, but very little was proved by the release of relative documents – until recently.

On 20 August 2002 the State Department authorised the opening of files on Argentina’s ‘dirty war’. The newly disclosed documents described the activity of a key death squad under the command of the former Chief of the Army General Leopoldo Galtieri.

More than 4,600 previously secret U.S. documents on human rights violations during the period 1976-1983 were rendered public under the 1976-83 military dictatorship in Argentina.

George Washington University’s National Security Archive and its Argentine partner, the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, praised the State Department’s declassification.

“The State Department under Secretary Powell – and previously under Secretary Albright – deserves credit for this historic release, which demonstrates again that openness serves our national security interest in democracy and human rights.” said Thomas S. Blanton, Archive director. Victor Abramovich, director of the Centro de Estudios, said that the 10 July arrest of former Argentine dictator Galtieri and 40 other military veterans on human rights charges from the ‘dirty war’ period made the State Department declassification even more urgent: “The documents will help clarify this case of great public importance, as well as the whole period of military rule.”

The State Department had already shipped copies of the documents to the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires for distribution to the Argentine government and the groups of survivors and families of the ‘disappeared’ – almost exactly two years after then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright promised the families to open U.S. files: 16 August 2000. The State Department undertook to post the full set on its website and the National Security Archive posted on that 20 August a selection of the most important new documents, with analysis by the Archive’s Southern Cone project director Carlos Osorio, (at http://www.nsarchive.org/NSAEBB/NSAEBB73).

There is a document containing excerpts from the memorandum of conversation and a chronology of events surrounding the 10 June 1976 meeting between Kissinger and former Vice-admiral César Augusto Guzzetti, who after the coup had become the first foreign minister of the military government presided by Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla.

Excerpts from the meeting are quite informative.

“Guzzetti: Our main problem in Argentina is terrorism. It is the first priority of the current government that took office on March 24. There are two aspects to the solution. The first is to ensure the internal security of the country; the second is to solve the most urgent economic problems over the coming 6 to 12 months. Argentina needs United States understanding and support …

The Secretary [Kissinger]: We have followed events in Argentina closely. We wish the new government well. We wish it will succeed. We will do what we can to help it succeed. [Emphasis added].

(At a time when the international community, most American media, universities and scientific institutions, the United States Congress, and even the U.S. Embassy in Argentina were clamouring about the indiscriminate human rights violations against scientists, labour leaders, students and politicians by the Argentine military), Secretary Kissinger told Guzzetti:

We are aware you are in a difficult period. It is a curious time, when political, criminal, and terrorist activities tend to merge without any clear separation. We understand you must establish authority.” [Emphasis added].

Guzzetti: The foreign press creates many problems for us, interpreting events in a very peculiar manner. Press criticism creates problems for confidence. It weakens international confidence in the Argentine government …

The Secretary: The worst crime as far as the press is concerned is to have replaced a government of the left. [Emphasis added].

Guzzetti: It is even worse than that.

The Secretary: I realize you have no choice but to restore governmental authority. But it is also clear that the absence of normal procedures will be used against you.

Guzzetti [on thousands of refugees in Argentina]: They have come from all our neighboring countries: Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, as well as Chile… Many provide clandestine support for terrorism. Chile, when the government changed, resulted in a very large number of leftist exiles. The Peronist government at the time welcomed them to Argentina in large numbers.

The Secretary: You could always send them back. [Where ‘back’ meant to Pinochet’s Chile] [Emphasis added].

Guzzetti: For elemental human rights reasons we cannot send them back to Chile… No one wants to receive them. There are many terrorists.

The Secretary: Have you tried the PLO? They need more terrorists. Seriously, we cannot tell you how to handle these people. What are you going to do? …

The Secretary: I understand the problem. But if no one receives them, then what can you do?

Guzzetti: We are worried about their involvement in the terrorism problem. But many fear persecution, and do not want to register. …

The Secretary: And how many of these do you feel are engaged in illegal activities?

Guzzetti: It is difficult to say. Perhaps 10,000. Only 150 Chileans are legal. We have no names. Only the refugee committees know something in detail. But their problems create unrest, and sometimes even logistic support for the guerrillas.

The Secretary: We wish you success. …

Guzzetti: The terrorist problem is general to the entire Southern Cone. To combat it, we are encouraging joint efforts to integrate with our neighbors… All of them: Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay, Brazil. (This collaboration would be codenamed ‘Opration Condor’. At the time of the meeting, the Department of State suspected that the Southern Cone military regimes were carrying out a coordinated attack against refugees in Argentina; indeed Kissinger received a special telegramme from Washington briefing him on this issue just before he met with Guzzetti on 10 June 1976. But the memorandum of conversation contains no reference by Secretary Kissinger regarding the human rights concerns posed by the Southern Cone security cooperation.

By the end of 1976, 10,000 Argentines had been ‘disappeared’ or assassinated by the Argentine security forces; half a dozen American citizens had been kidnapped and tortured. On the international front, the cooperation between Argentine military and intelligence forces and other Southern Cone militaries would leave hundreds of Bolivians, Brazilians, Chileans, Paraguayans and Uruguayans ‘ disappeared’, tortured, and/or dead).

The Secretary: I take it you are talking about joint economic activities?

Guzzetti: Yes. Activities on both the terrorist and the economic fronts.

The Secretary: Oh. I thought you were referring only to security. You cannot succeed if you focus on terrorism and ignore its causes. …

The Secretary: Let me say, as a friend, that I have noticed that military governments are not always the most effective in dealing with these problems… [Emphasis added].

So after a while, many people who don’t understand the situation begin to oppose the military and the problem is compounded.

The Chileans, for example, have not succeeded in getting across their initial problem and are increasingly isolated.

You will have to make an international effort to have your problems understood. Otherwise, you, too, will come under increasing attack. If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly. But you must get back quickly to normal procedures. [Emphasis added]. …

The Secretary: It is certainly true that whatever the origin, terrorism frequently gains outside support. And this outside support also creates pressures against efforts to suppress it. But you cannot focus on terrorism alone. If you do, you only increase your problems.

Guzzetti: Yes, there is a need for balance between political rights and authority.

The Secretary: I agree. The failure to respect it creates serious problems. In the United States we have strong domestic pressures to do something on human rights.

Guzzetti: The terrorists work hard to appear as victims in the light of world opinion even though they are the real aggressors.

(Only two weeks earlier, on 28 May, the U.S. Ambassador Robert Hill had presented a démarche on human rights to Vice-Admiral Guzzetti. The Embassy was deeply concerned about the kidnapping and torture of three American women, among them the Fulbright coordinator for Argentina, Elida Messina, and the wave of attacks against political refugees from the country). In contrast to Hill’s efforts, Secretary Kissinger told Guzzetti:

“In the United States we have strong domestic pressures to do something on human rights …

We want you to succeed. We do not want to harrass [sic] you. I will do what I can…” [Emphasis added].

[At 9:10 the Secretary and Guzzetti leave for a word alone. At 9:14 they re-emerge, and the meeting ends].”

Another document (Secret meeting chaired by Kissinger, declassified, Authority NND 989505, NARA, 6/11/01) recently unearthed by the National Security Archives shows that on 9 July 1976, Secretary Kissinger was explicitly briefed on the rampant repression taking place in Argentina: “Their theory is that they can use the Chilean method,” Kissinger’s top aide on Latin America Harry Shlaudeman informed him, “that is, to terrorize the opposition – even killing priests and nuns and others.” [Emphasis added] (National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 133, Edited by Carlo Osorio and Kathleen Costar, posted on 27 August 2004).

Documents published earlier by the National Security Archive show that in September 1976 Ambassador Hill complained again to Guzzetti about the astounding human rights violations occurring in Argentina. Guzzetti rebuffed him saying that, “When he had seen Secretary of State Kissinger in Santiago, the latter had said he hoped the Argentine Govt could get the terrorist problem under control as quickly as possible.’ Guzzetti said that he had reported this to President Videla and to the cabinet, and that their impression had been that the [United States Government’s] overriding concern was not human rights but rather that [the Government of Argentina] ‘get it over quickly’.”

Kissinger reiterated this message during another meeting with Guzzetti in New York on 7 October 1976. telling him “the quicker you succeed the better.” Later, Ambassador Hill sent a bitter complaint to the Department of State that Guzzetti had returned to Argentina in a “state of jubilation” after meeting the Secretary. (See: National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 104, Edited by Carlos Osorio, Assisted by Kathleen Costar, posted 4 December 2003).

After a second meeting between Kissinger and Guzzetti in Washington, on 19 October 1976, Ambassador Robert Hill wrote ‘a sour note’ from Buenos Aires complaining that he could hardly carry human rights démarches if the Argentine Foreign Minister did not hear the same message from the Secretary of State. “Guzzetti went to U.S. fully expecting to hear some strong, firm, direct warnings on his government’s human rights practices, rather than that, he has returned in a state of jubilation, convinced that there is no real problem with the [United States Government] over that issue.” wrote Hill.

The U.S. Embassy also disagreed with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence 19 July 1976 assessment that there was a “murderous three-cornered battle going on in Argentina amongst left-wing terrorists, government security personnel and right wing goon squads.” On 23 July 1976 Deputy Chief of Mission Maxwell Chaplin cabled Washington that “The battle is a two-sided affair, not tri-cornered” since “the only ‘right-wing assassins’ operating in Argentina at this point, however, are members of the [Government of Argentina] security forces.” (See: National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 73 – Part II, 21 August 2002, and the thirteen documents released on 20 August 2002).

The 10 June 1976 memorandum of conversation between Kissinger and Guzzetti explains why the Argentine generals believed that they had received a clear message from the Secretary that they had carte blanche for the ‘dirty war.’

There is not much on the record – except for the following notation: “Kissinger to Argentines on dirty war: “The quicker you succeed the better.” Newly declassified documents show Secretary of State gave green light to junta, Contradict official line that Argentines “heard only what [they] wanted to hear.”

While military dictatorship committed massive human rights abuses in 1976, Kissinger advised: “If you can finish before [the American] Congress gets back, the better.”

Next installment Saturday: A law to forget.

Dr. Venturino Giorgio (George) Venturini, formerly an avvocato at the Court of Appeal of Bologna, devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reach at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.


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