Grappling with the Memory of the “Dirty War” in Argentina

In the Boston Review, Marc B. Haefele on Agrentina’s attempt to grapple with its past.

On the 30th anniversary of the coup the Naval Mechanics School (known by its Spanish acronym, ESMA) reopened as “The Space for Memory.” …The ESMA memory space is a key part of this swerving new democracy’s campaign against its past. There once was talk of leveling the place, but President Nestor Kirchner decreed that it should become a museum, a memorial. Kirchner is the first Argentine president to dare wield history against his opposition, which includes a merchants’ organization that prospered during the dictatorship and the Catholic Church, which supported the dictatorship and ratted out dissident clerics. On the 30th anniversary of the coup, Kirchner hosted a memorial that was duplicated in all Argentine consulates and embassies. Some have argued that he was playing politics with this most shameful episode in the nation’s history, that the “dirty war” should be recalled only in silence. But others say that Kirchner’s somber ceremonials were far better for the country than what one scholar called the “percepticide” of official forgetting by two previous presidents, Raul Alfonsin and Carlos Menem.

The forgetting was not confined to presidents or to the police, navy, army, and air force. Didn’t the 12th-floor tenants on Libertador’s 8000 block see the headlights every night, see the gate open, hear the car doors slam, hear the screams of the abducted and the curses and blows? Didn’t they smell the improvised crematoria? Probably. Did they draw the curtains, turn on the air conditioner? Perhaps. What about the night shift at the Gillette plant that used to be across the street? Did the workers take sidelong glances out the window? Kids at the polytechnic high school next door said they heard loud music from the ESMA during the day, apparently played to drown out the screams.