This Sunday, I’ll be watching the 95th Oscars Ceremony with special interest. That’s because of my concern about U.S. atrocities abroad and the related fact that the nominee for best international film is “Argentina 1985.”
It tells the gripping story behind Argentina’s “Trial of the Junta,” which in 1985 brought to justice the country’s military dictatorship responsible for the prosecution of its infamous “Dirty War” (1976-1984).
Apart from its artistic merits and my already noted focus, the film interested me personally, because precisely in 1985 while I was studying liberation theology in Brazil, my family and I lived under the related military dictatorship for more than six months. We even passed several nights lodged in Rio’s Clube Militar (Military Club), thanks to my Portuguese language instructor in Boulder Colorado whose father was a general in the Brazilian army.
Knowledge of Brazil’s then-recent history, its 1964 military coup, and its prosecution of liberation theologians made the Clube a scary place. We all knew the days of Brazil’s junta were numbered too. So, what was happening in Argentina sparked deep thoughts about a coming day of reckoning further north.
With all of that in mind, let me recommend “Argentina 1985,” point out a key omission relevant to North Americans, and indicate some of the film’s implicit and salutary political portents for us all. (Spoiler alert!)
“Argentina 1985” is dark and gripping. It’s about fascism, government corruption, absolute cruelty, torture, death squads, bomb threats, child abuse, propaganda, and citizen intimidation.
At the same time it’s the cinematically familiar story of a reluctant leader who turns a group of unprepared and unlikely players into an unstoppable team eventually victorious over an invincible foe.
At the film’s outset team members are introduced one after another. We find them naïve, idealistic, practical, wise, funny, focused, and hard working in the extreme. Perhaps its most effective unofficial member is the main character’s pre-teen son who comically demonstrates wisdom and savoir faire far beyond his years.
The film’s real hero though is Julio Cesar Strassera, Brazil’s Chief Prosecutor. He’s aided by his young Assistant Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo who’s constantly worried about his mother’s opinions. She’s extremely conservative and a loyal supporter of Argentina’s military. She’s Catholic and a co-parishioner of one of the junta’s main defendants.
Together Strassera and Ocampo guide their young team (despite crippling time restraints, death threats, and bomb scares) in fulfilling their superhuman task of gathering an overwhelming number of testimonies from hundreds of Dirty War eyewitnesses, victims, and their family members.
The dramatic result portrayed convincingly in “Argentina 1985” is a whole series of moving accounts of torture, rape, and murder. Responsibility for all those crimes is inexorably laid at the doorstep of the country’s military dictatorship.
Toward the film’s conclusion, after hearing Strassera’s summarizing argument, most audience members, I’m sure, feel (as I did) like joining the packed Argentine courtroom in its ovation of thunderous applause. That feeling of vindication is reinforced when the worst of the accused generals receive severe sentences including life behind bars.
What’s Not Told
Unfortunately for North American audiences, what’s not told in “Argentina 1985” is the key role that the United States government played in that sad country’s Dirty War. That’s unfortunate because the omission allows U.S. viewers to experience the film as exclusively about Argentinians and not about us. Consequently, as we’ll see presently, casual viewers likely miss the salutary lessons the film contains for viewers like us.
Let me be specific.
According to US archives, the United States government aided Argentine generals throughout the dictatorship’s bloody time in office. That means that Henry Kissinger’s hands are red. But so are Jimmy Carter’s and Ronald Reagan’s.
The blood in question belonged to more than 30,000 Argentinians. It was an old U.S. story about supporting fascistic right-wing forces employing a scorched earth policy against leftists. The idea was to kill everyone who might possibly be on “the other side.”
The resulting victims included teachers, student activists, indigenous leaders, union organizers, social workers, radical clergy, and nuns, along with their friends and family members who might have been influenced by their ideas, words, and examples. Most of these were identified as suspected communists, socialists, subversives, guerrillas, and terrorists.
It was all part of Operation Condor, a U.S.-backed anti-leftist campaign that from 1975 to 1989 wreaked havoc throughout Latin America, especially in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil. Conservative estimates say the Operation took 60,000 to 80,000 lives in the Southern Cone. Condor involved a series of military coup d’états within the countries just named.
In those contexts, the U.S. role was to plan the campaigns and coordinate them across national boundaries. The Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations also provided the dictatorships in question with military training, economic assistance, and technical instruction including methods of kidnapping and disappearance, assassination, the use of torture, and the operation of death squads. In Argentina, hundreds of babies were taken from imprisoned and disappeared female victims only to be “adopted” by associates of the ruling generals.
An indispensable element of Operation Condor was near total control of the mass media for purposes of disseminating pro-regime propaganda. The latter consistently described the relevant countries as under siege. It attempted to garner public support by invoking nationalism and patriotism against “criminal” subversives threatening revolt and chaos. Pro-regime media encouraged citizens to report any suspicious activities on the parts of their neighbors.
And yes, “Argentina 1985” is right. All of this came to light in 1983 when democracy was restored in Argentina. It was then that the new government established the National Commission for Forced Disappearances (CONADEP). That commission eventually engaged Chief Prosecutor Strassera and his team of young lawyers and volunteers to collect testimony from hundreds of victims and witnesses. In the process, the investigators were able to identify by name the leaders of the dictatorship’s death squads and torture centers. As well, Strassera’s team documented the existence of hundreds of secret prisons and detention gulags throughout the country.
Eventually, in 1985, enough evidence had been gathered to present a convincing case before the “Trial of the Juntas.” Again, this was correctly depicted in “Argentina 1985.” As described in the film, the trial convicted the dictatorship’s top officers with many of them receiving sentences of life in prison.
All of that was in 1985. However, just four years later, Argentine President Carlos Menem pardoned the powerful convicts in what he described as an act of “healing and reconciliation.”
So much for Strassera’s victory.
Lessons for U.S. Viewers
In the light of the film’s information and omissions, here are just a few of the valuable lessons it contains:
- It could happen here! I mean, I’m sure you’ve noticed our country’s creeping fascism. And if you’ve read e.g., Jonathan Katz’s Gangsters of Capitalism, you know that fascism has always been popular among the U.S. elite. In fact, at the moment, they seem on the verge of taking over even formal control.
- Atrocities wreaked abroad have their way of returning home to plague those not paying attention to history or foreign policy.
- It’s totally dangerous to revere the military. Their job is to kill people and destroy their property – usually quite indiscriminately. They are protectors of the status quo. They are not our friends. It’s not hard to imagine U.S. soldiers or police torturing you or your children tomorrow. Ask Chelsea Manning or Julian Assange.
- The laudable ideals of “healing and reconciliation” and even nonviolence are typically weaponized by the powerful to benefit them and override more important democratic values such as justice, equal standing before the law, and legitimate self-defense.
- The powerful rarely pay for their crimes. Impunity is their rule.
- Since they are owned by the rich and powerful, the mass media (MSM) cannot be depended upon as reliable sources of information. Like the military, MSM presenters are not our friends.
- Most often, the young and inexperienced are better servants of truth than the “veteran” old who have been co-opted by the unjust systems that bought-and-paid-for governments represent.
- Our government is no better than the ones it arms and supports.
With all of this in mind, be sure to watch “Argentina 1985.” And let it be a lesson about history and U.S. atrocities. Let it also be a forewarning.