On March 24, 1976, the Argentinian military detained President Martínez de Perón and seized control of the government. Two days later, at Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s weekly staff meeting, Assistant Secretary for Latin America William Rogers argued that the U.S. government should keep its distance from the military regime. “[W]e've got to expect a fair amount of repression, probably a good deal of blood,” he said.
But Kissinger rejected his counsel, and the United States quietly supported the junta’s “Dirty War,” a brutal campaign of arbitrary detention, torture, and assassination against students, trade unionists, and other opponents of the government. Thousands of people — perhaps as many as 30,000 — were killed or disappeared by the regime, which ruled until 1983. And “los desaparecidos” entered the human rights lexicon.
In light of that history, it’s no wonder that many human rights activists in Argentina are frustrated and angry that President Obama will visit on the 40th anniversary of the coup. But the controversy underscores the importance of the president’s decision to unseal documents related to the Dirty War. He reportedly plans to announce the decision during his visit.
The documents may reveal important facts about what happened to the military dictatorship’s victims, who was responsible for human rights abuses, and where survivors — including now-grown abducted children — may be now. For decades, the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, a group of grandmothers of the abducted children, and other human rights activists, have been trying to find out what happened to their children and grandchildren. Thanks to President Obama, crucial evidence may be forthcoming.
In 2000, during a visit to Argentina, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright promised to declassify and release State Department documents about the Dirty War, and President George W. Bush followed through in 2002. President Obama will now declassify and release Department of Defense, CIA, and FBI documents.
Opponents of further declassification may be concerned that new revelations could embarrass the United States. But embarrassment is not a threat to national security and doesn’t justify denying Argentines information that could help them heal and seek accountability.
President Obama’s move will also strengthen the relationship between Argentina’s new democratically elected government and the Argentinian people as a whole. In the late 1990s, the U.S. government undertook a similar multi-agency declassification of documents related to the Chilean dictatorship. Not only was release of the Chilean documents the right thing to do, but it also helped to repair relations between the United States and the Chilean people.
The move should also help burnish President Obama’s legacy as an advocate — albeit a sometimes reluctant one — of transparency. Remember, this is the president who came into office pledging to “look forward, not backward” — away, that is, from the U.S. government’s recent record of torture. Yet he came around to support release of key parts of the Senate intelligence committee’s landmark report on the CIA’s torture of detainees after 9/11.
The release of the report created momentum for a new law solidifying the ban on torture, which President Obama signed in January after passage by a large bipartisan majority in the Senate. That law looks especially important now as some politicians talk about a return to the “dark side.” Our country’s efforts to face up to our government’s embrace of torture will continue. Accountability is a long-term project, as Argentina’s reckoning with its past shows.
Release of the Dirty War documents will spur discussion about American complicity in horrific human rights abuses. This is precisely how a strong, self-correcting democracy should operate. Ideally, of course, the U.S. government would not support brutal dictatorships in the first place, and this ugly history holds lessons for today as the United States continues to support governments — including coup regimes in Latin America and elsewhere — that are committing grave human rights abuses. My organization and many others worked to expose the Argentine junta’s crimes at the time and pressed the Carter and Reagan administrations to stop supporting it.
Of course, it never feels like the “right time” to reveal our complicity in human rights abuses. But as Americans, we will only be able to close the distance between our ideals and our actions once we know how far we have to go. And withholding information only compounds the complicity. By coming clean, the President will honor the victims of the Dirty War and enable the United States and Argentina to recommit to a shared future grounded in respect for human rights.
Elisa Massimino is President and CEO of Human Rights First.