Home The Washington Diplomat October 2008 Latin America Tries to Reconcile With Dirty Secrets of Its Past

Latin America Tries to Reconcile With Dirty Secrets of Its Past


Thirty years ago, Héctor Timerman was an angry young political refugee who would spend his days picketing the Argentine Embassy off Dupont Circle, demanding that the military dictatorship release his father from prison. Today, as ambassador, Timerman speaks for the very nation whose government he once despised. “I have learned through Argentine history that no country can hide from justice,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “Nothing is more important than knowing the truth.”

The 54-year-old envoy is the son of the late Jacobo Timerman, an outspoken newspaper editor who was tortured for exposing the atrocities of Argentina’s long-running “dirty war” — one of the darkest chapters in modern Latin American history.

Throughout the hemisphere, both well-established and fledgling democracies are finally coming to terms with their tainted pasts, though the process often stirs up painful memories that some people say are better left to rest.

During the course of Argentina’s “dirty war,” an estimated 30,000 students, union leaders and other leftists opposed to the Peronist regime “disappeared” and were never seen again.

One of those who nearly disappeared forever was Jacobo Timerman. On April 15, 1977, the generals who ruled Argentina shut down Timerman’s left-leaning newspaper, La Opinión, imprisoning and subjecting him to electric-shock torture for the next 30 months. Among other things, the journalist and lifelong supporter of Israel was accused of masterminding a plot to establish a Jewish homeland in the remote Patagonia region of southern Argentina.

Héctor Timerman set out to free his father, launching a massive letter-writing campaign that eventually gained the attention of Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the Vatican — all of whom pressured Buenos Aires to release Timerman.

“What happened to me was no different than what happened to thousands of people in Argentina,” Héctor Timerman said. “My family was lucky because none of us were killed, and because we were more well known than the other victims.”

The ambassador added: “They told him they were not going to kill him, because they wanted to show the world there was a Jewish conspiracy in order to justify the military repression. We think this saved his life.”

Eventually, all charges against Jacobo Timerman were dropped for lack of evidence, though in a final insult to his dignity, the government stripped him of his citizenship and his property, and put him on a one-way flight to Tel Aviv. Once in Israel, the exiled newspaper editor finished his book, “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number” — which became a bestseller and was made into a Hollywood film starring Roy Scheider as Timerman and Liv Ullman as his wife, Risha.

Timerman, who returned to Argentina in 1994 after it became a democracy, died five years later in Buenos Aires while working on his memoirs. His son Héctor says his own appointment as ambassador in Washington is the ideal job because he feels at home in both places.

“I have a deep debt to the American people, who saved my life during the dictatorship,” said the diplomat, who was given political asylum in the United States and is a co-founder of Human Rights Watch.

But Argentina certainly isn’t the only Latin American country with skeletons in its closet.

Uruguay, which used to be known as the “Switzerland of South America,” has blood on its hands as well. Current President Tabaré Vázquez — the first leftist president in more than a century — has made it his priority to investigate atrocities committed during the country’s 1973-85 military dictatorship.

“In Uruguay, the military resorted to widespread and arbitrary arrests and the systematic use of torture as the means to break opposition to its rule,” according to a report by the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). “Indeed, this method was so prevalent and effective that throughout the 1970s, Uruguay had the world’s largest ratio of political prisoners to national population, and all organized opposition to its rule quickly disappeared.”

Larry Birns, author of the COHA report, says that around 600,000 people were detained during the dictatorship (Uruguay’s current population is 3.4 million), with 4,000 of the most prominent “threats” subjected to long-term incarceration. Another 164 Uruguayans disappeared and it’s believed that most of them were later killed in Argentina as part of a cooperative arrangement between the two countries’ military regimes.

Despite Uruguay’s “Ley de Caducidad” — a 1986 law that gave blanket amnesty to former military officers — “President Vázquez commendably seems unwilling to tolerate the triumph of silence and inaction over such grave injustices,” wrote Birns. “He has constantly reaffirmed his campaign to carry out new investigations and, if nothing else, provide the victims, their family members and his ruptured nation with greater access to the truth — a necessary prerequisite for Uruguay to come to terms with a sordid recent past.”

In Colombia, meanwhile, a dozen investigative teams are exhuming the bodies of victims from that country’s long civil war. Since April 2006, about 1,540 bodies have been recovered — of which 172 have been identified — though as the Los Angeles Times reported in August, “with an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 victims of right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing rebels missing,” forensics experts are unlikely to run out of work anytime soon.

Many of the families of these victims are slowly coming forward to find closure, which is also “democratizing Colombia,” Ivan Cepeda, a peace activist and leader of a nationwide network of victims groups, told the Los Angeles Times. “It goes beyond the cathartic effect. It goes to the heart of the participatory nature of what democracy is supposed to be.”

Peru is also seeking justice by prosecuting its former president, Alberto Fujimori, for human rights abuses committed during his rule from 1990 to 2000. Fujimori — who was extradited to Peru from Chile — has denied waging a “dirty war” against insurgents and heading an army hit squad that is blamed for two massacres.

But justice has never materialized for some in Chile, where the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet killed between 3,000 and 4,000 political opponents — including former ambassador Orlando Letelier, who in 1976 was gunned down on Washington’s Sheridan Circle by Chilean agents working on Pinochet’s behalf. Despite facing numerous criminal charges, Pinochet was never jailed due to alleged health concerns, eventually dying in 2006 at the age of 91.

Similarly in Central America, the nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua all endured horrific civil wars of their own — and are only now owning up to their respective bloody pasts, with varying degrees of success.

Like Colombia, Guatemala has been literally digging up its past, searching for the remains of some 200,000 people — most of them Mayan Indian civilians — who were killed or abducted during the country’s 36-year civil war. Another estimated 75,000 Salvadorans died during El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to the United States and elsewhere.

Beyond the sheer logistics of exhuming and identifying so many people, some experts argue it may be better to just make peace than dredge up old hatreds.

“Sometimes, that’s the price you have to pay to bring about peace in a country,” counters Jaime Daremblum, Costa Rica’s former ambassador to the United States. “Morally, you may object to it, but it’s necessary for society to have political stability.”

But these days, it seems that worsening crime — not political violence — is what concerns most average people throughout the region. Daremblum, who now directs the Center for Latin American Studies at the D.C.-based Hudson Institute, cited a World Bank study that puts the economic toll from organized crime at 14.2 percent of the region’s total gross domestic product.

In a recent article for the Weekly Standard, Daremblum warned of a “genuine risk” that El Salvador could become another satellite of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whose influence appears to be steering the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections away from the ruling conservative ARENA party of President Tony Saca and toward the leftist FMLN candidate, Mauricio Funes.

“Although Saca has not made any glaring mistakes since his election in 2004, he has not been able to win over the hearts and minds of most Salvadorans,” said Daremblum. “Despite his efforts to boost security, El Salvador remains plagued by widespread violent crime” — even as the percentage of Salvadoran households living in extreme poverty fell from 28 percent in 1991 to under 10 percent in 2006.

Daremblum noted that his native Costa Rica — which abolished its army in 1948 — still has one of the lowest homicide rates in the hemisphere and by far the strongest economy, especially when compared to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador or Nicaragua.

Guatemala, which endured a long-running civil war, is especially violent because so many weapons are still in the hands of former guerrillas.

“The problem with Guatemala is that law enforcement has partially merged with organized crime,” Daremblum charged. “Many policemen have found it more profitable to go into business with criminals. Political reconciliation does not assure you will have a stable social environment free of crime. If people were killing in the past because of guerrilla activity, and now there’s peace and no need for them, those guerrillas become criminals.”

He added: “Perhaps the big lesson is that we need to look for more effective mechanisms to reincorporate elements of subversive forces into society — lawful activities so that they don’t have to continue killing for economic reasons.”

Daremblum told The Diplomat that he blames Latin America’s dramatic increase in violent crime on poverty, unsatisfied expectations and a jump in drug trafficking.

“The main drug market is here in the United States, and traffickers pay increasingly with product for local services, and that multiplies the phenomenon,” he said. “I think that’s been driving crime up. Much of the crime you see is for territory.”

One thing Daremblum doesn’t blame for Central America’s crime wave is the region’s return to democracy in the 1980s — a view that places him squarely at odds with those who argue that dictatorships of both the left (i.e., Cuba under Fidel Castro) and right (i.e., Paraguay under Gen. Alfredo Stroessner) helped keep delinquency under control.

“In totalitarian regimes, information is very scarce, but that doesn’t mean crime is not happening,” Daremblum argues. “It also doesn’t mean that because there’s democracy, all of a sudden there’s crime,” he added. “When there’s democracy, groups can exert their influence on government and bring about a more peaceful atmosphere.”

To that end, Daremblum praised both Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Mexican President Felipe Calderón for getting tough with criminal gangs and narco-traffickers.

“Uribe has become a paradigm for many governments in Latin America, an example to be followed,” he said. “In the past, people were scared just to land in Bogotá. Today it’s a wonderful and very safe city, thanks to the policies followed by Uribe, and the United States has played an important role in that.”

Daremblum said that before Uribe’s election in 2002, “drug traffickers, right-wing paramilitaries and guerrillas were running wild” — but since then, he’s cleaned up the cities and given hope to other Latin American leaders that their countries can move beyond their violent pasts.

“Colombia has under way a demilitarization program in which those who renounce violence and surrender their weapons are reincorporated into civil society,” he said. “So far, it’s working very well.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.