Thursday March 24, 2016 was a meaningful day for Argentina, one that revealed how elements of a nation’s past, present and future may coincide in illuminating fashion. Carol and I were in Buenos Aires during Semana Santa (Holy Week) so I could share research about the U.S. Hispanic/Latino population and media with students, faculty and media industry professionals at the Universidad Austral. Jueves Santo (Holy Thursday) initiates a long weekend that is imbued with religious significance for Catholics. Political, economic and cultural matters also surfaced on this Jueves Santo.
The 24th of March is Día de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia (Truth and Justice Memorial Day) in Argentina, marking the coup d’etat in 1976, which installed a military dictatorship responsible for “disappearing” an estimated 11,000 to 30,000 people and forcing thousands of others into exile. Victims of the military government’s “ideological war” were mostly young and middle class; few had direct ties to leftist militant groups that—like their counterparts on the right—had engaged in violence, kidnapping and other malevolent acts earlier in the decade. Contemporary Argentines’ concerns for human rights in the wake of such brutality were manifest in the presence of many human rights organizations at a memorial gathering at Plaza de Mayo, the site which commanded overwhelming television coverage among multiple 40th anniversary remembrances. Key participants in the memorial were surviving members of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo who had courageously protested by walking around the plaza, in plain view of the presidential palace, with signs and photos of their disappeared children.
The mothers and their white scarves became symbols of the struggle against violence and repression across Latin America and the globe; they received particular attention when Argentina hosted soccer’s World Cup tournament in 1978. The ideological divisions behind so much turmoil and suffering in the 1960s through ‘80s remain conspicuous in Argentina, Chile and other nations of the region.
Those divisions were plain to see in coverage and discussion of U.S. President Barak Obama’s brief Argentine visit following his historic trip to Cuba. Critics condemned the U.S. government’s tacit support for the overthrow of a civilian government, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s alleged counsel that the military dictatorship complete its dirty work quickly (prior to President Jimmy Carter’s pursuit of a human-rights-based foreign policy agenda beginning in 1977). On the other hand, Argentines who support President Mauricio Macri’s aggressive economic reforms welcome his focal shift toward Europe and North America and away from leftist Latin American governments and other U.S. rivals such as China and Russia, which prior administrations pursued. In response to objections over a U.S. president’s visit coinciding with the Día de la Memoria, notably those by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, a torture victim who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his human rights work, President Obama and his family spent most of the day in the mountain resort town of Bariloche. His activities on the 23rd included discussions with President Macri about cooperating to support economic development and curb drug trafficking, climate change and terrorism; an open discussion with Argentine youth; and a state dinner which famously included a quick tango dance. Before departing for Bariloche, Pres. Obama joined Pres. Macri in visiting the Parque de Memoria to pay tribute to the dictatorship’s victims. Mr. Obama also announced that the U.S. government would declassify additional records related to the coup and human rights abuses in order to assist Argentina’s discovery and healing processes (4,700 such documents were released in 2002).
The third big event on Jueves Santo was the Argentine national fútbol (soccer) team’s World Cup qualifying match against Chile. Its timing, broadcast at 8:30, may have facilitated the peaceful conclusion of memorial marches and rallies, at which forewarned violence did not materialize. The importance of fútbol in Latin America is difficult to overstate. Television sports channels transmit and discuss little else, at least while the professional leagues and national teams are playing. National pride is at stake, as during the Olympic Games in the U.S. This is especially true of rival nations with long histories of contention, if not full-scale war, like Argentina and Chile. Carol’s and my stronger allegiance is to the latter, given the location of my Fulbright grant and a broader friend base, but we bear no animosity toward Argentina’s team, which is exciting to watch (I will undoubtedly be rebuked for this statement). We arrived at the bar we’d been eyeing, “LocosXFútbol”—read “X” as “for”—just as not-so-loco-looking fans from the prior match, Ecuador vs. Paraguay, were leaving. We neutrally-clad, middle-aged Americans stood out amid a younger sea of robin egg blue and white vertical stripes. The atmosphere became tense when Chile scored first and early, then relaxed considerably after tying and go-ahead goals by the Argentine side. Pains of the past, irritants of the present and uncertainties about the future were forgotten during three hours of athletic and cultural bliss.