The Power of The People
“ We’ll see, we’ll see, who calls the tune—the people united or those military sons of bitches” (Human rights movement refrain).
This concluding post recounts the tale of a song—the stirring voice of the Argentine people melding their voices together as they echoe the chorus demanding justice for their lost loved ones. Although the military had purposed to inculcate fear and submissiveness into the hearts of the citizens in order to create a passive and obedient people, those who had been dealt a cruel blow-- either through personal injury or the loss of a beloved, rose up with defiance and the power to spark the growth of a grassroots activity—the birth of a human rights movement. Public protest became their channel of anguish and sorrow and it soon became a collective action. In particular, the mothers of the disappeared began to protest each and every Thursday at the Plaza de Mayo. “When everyone was terrorized we didn’t stay at home crying—we went to the streets to confront them directly. We were mad but it was the only way to stay sane (Brysk, 300).” Such demonstrations transformed individual suffering into socio-political manifestation that harnessed the energy and strength of the Argentine society.
How do symbolic protests such as the mothers of Plaza de Mayo produce real social change? Alison Brysk, author of The Politics of Human Rights in Argentina, puts forth the principle that: “Persuasion in the form of protests changes political behavior and institutions through changing norms and values (8).” The people of Argentina began to change norms. How? They started the conversation. They provoked people to think, to question the state of affairs, and raised a standard of justice. “The human rights movement was formed by people who were politically marginal but socially legitimate—initially they were somewhat sheltered by their perceived powerlessness. But their ultimate power came from the politicization of their social legitimacy as mothers, clergy, and jurists (Brysk, 10).”
Trouble was stirred when the international community raised a cry of alarm. There had been a fact-finding mission by Amnesty International in November 1976, and reports by the US State Department and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that accused the Argentine military of human rights violations. Such circulating reports became the fuel that stirred the fire in brewing volcano. The explosion then ensued:
On Thursday 1 June 1977, at 3:30 p.m. the opening match of the World Cup Soccer tournament was kicked at the River Plate Stadium. At exactly the same time, about one hundred mothers gathered together and chanted: “ We want our children, that they tell us where they are! That they tell the truth! It became the scene of a riot. One army officer blurted out: “Daughters of bitches, they come to provoke us here, right under our noses, and they let them. They’re all communists, mothers of subversives, and they dare to come and protest. If they would let me, I would clean the square very fast with the bursts of a machine gun. They wouldn’t return (Robben 308). Soon a massive pedestrian crowd gathered around the imposing obelisk at the intersection of Correntes Avenue. Argentina beat the Netherlands in the finals that day and won the World Cup. It was a day that went down in history and its political significance did not escape the newspapers. One reporter related: “The city center offered yesterday evening a spectacle that probably has never been seen. One had to recognize how much the country has won, through the spirit of its people ( Robben, 310).” This joyous crowd had worked magic upon the people by celebrating society itself and renewing a national pride and identity that had ceased to exist in that land. The jinni had been let out of the bottle. Labor unions and human rights organizations began to co-opt nonpolitical crowds for their political purposes. From the March for Life in October 1982, the People’s March for Democracy and National Reconstruction, to rallies led by Pope John Paul II, the people had taken to the streets. Robben here observes: “What is crucial to understand about the human rights movement is that they worked through their social trauma through a symbolic and spatial expansion into the political arena. Their advance inverted the deep repression of the military, and thus regained a certain control over the domains wrested from them so violently. What was private and secret became public and open (317).”
A Government that respects human rights is almost always the legacy of persistent national political struggles against human rights violations. Most governments that respect human rights have been created not from the top down, but from the bottom up (Jack Donnelly “International Human Rights”).
On Saturday 10 December 1983, an immense crowd accompanied the open sedan driving President Raul Alfonsin after his inauguration at Congress. A reporter wrote: “This was a truly civil celebration. A celebration of freedom, democracy, and hope that was, however, laced with anxiety about the fate of the disappeared.” On that eventful day a piece of paper was slipped under Alfonsin’s windshield wiper, exclaiming:“ Cain, where is your brother?” Five days later Alfonsin installed the National Commission on Disappeared Persons –CONADEP—to discover if there were still disappeared persons alive (Robben, 319). This commission was established as a permanent provincial bicameral commission with investigative powers and active in enforcing the executive for police and penal reform, promoting symbolic and educational projects, and building a nonpartisan consensus on human rights (Brysk 69).” CONADEP worked for nine months, and documented almost 9,000 cases of unresolved disappearances. It identified 340 clandestine detention centers and evaluated patterns of disappearances. CONADEP was particularly dependent on the work of local human rights activists who assisted in identifying and visiting the sites of former secret detention centers, morgues, hospitals, and prisons. The work of the CONADEP commission gave rise to numerous emotional testimonies in books, magazines, newspapers, and radio and television programs. However, its greatest compilation of information was presented to the Argentine people in the documentary “Never Again” (Nunca Mas)—see image below. This documentary begins with the images of the disappeared men, women, and children. It explains and presented the shocking results for the people to see. And then the narrator asks a most profound question: “Why this atrocious enigma?” (Rock 321).
When President Raul Alfonsin took the reins of command, he not only instituted the operation of CONADEP, he sought to administer justice by placing a number of convicted military commanders on trial. Thus the Buenos Aires Court of Criminal Appeals selected the 670 strongest cases from the CONADEP report to “prove that the nine junta members had designed and executed a secret plan to eliminate the guerrilla organizations by unlawful means (Rock 98).” In my opinion this trial was more of a symbolic gesture than a true trial of justice as it only convicted a very small number of those who were guilty. Yet it stirred the people, giving them a taste for recompense, which they doggedly pursued in the years to come.
The Alfonis administration’s goals were the reestablishment of the rule of the law and military self-discipline, stressing that it was not trying the military as an institution, but rather members of the institution who had violated the law (Brysk 75).” Public hearings began in April 1985 and the trial was presided over by six judges and observed by an audience of several hundred people. The court heard a total of 78 days of testimony from 833 witnesses, and excerpts from the day’s testimony were broadcast on the television news every night for nine months (Robben 476). Then on December 9 1985 the verdict was decreed as follows: “The commanders were found guilty of organizing and ordering a secret criminal ground plan of systemic abduction, torture, disappearance, and assassination of Argentine civilians, and allowing subordinates ample freedom to decide about the fate of their victims in clear violation of due process (Brysk 78).” Two commanders were given life sentences; others prison time ranging from 4 to 17 years. The people responded by declaring: “We Argentines have tried to gain peace based in forgetting and failed...We have tried to search for peace through violence and extermination and failed…With this trial and condemnation of the military juntas, the responsibility rests with us to found a peace based, not on forgetting, but in remembering, not in violence, but in justice. El Diario del Juicio (Journal of the trial 74). Davis and Warner echo these very same sentiments in their article, Reaching Beyond the State: “In the face of the legacy of catastrophic political violence, victims frequently look to the courts to reconstruct the rule of law and to provide justice. Accountability provides a direct, moral, and ethical response to victims on behalf of society that demonstrates that the state is validating their innocence and their lack of culpability in their deeds.
(236): Mayerfeld deepens this argument by stating that: “effective judicial dispute resolution systems “encourage social reconciliation by modeling a fair procedure for the just disposition of violence conflicts fueled by bitter political and ideological divisions.” Not only does a court offer justice, it sets a standard. Even if the Alfonis trials did not accomplish the feat of bringing each and every individual to justice, it showed its people and the international community that it now abides by a rule of justice as demonstrated through the conviction of the military commanders. Ruti Teitel states, “when criminal justice denounces these crimes, such prosecutions establish knowledge of past actions committed under color of law and its public construction as wrongdoing is the necessary threshold to prospective normative uses of the criminal law (Warner 237).” Justice was served—not only for the past, but also for the future of the Argentina citizens.
A Memory --Never To Be Forgotten
Can a protest create social change? The answer may now seem obvious. It can become a political force that the government must contend with and the means to mobilize a downtrodden people. Yet there is also something much deeper than just the mere political aspect of the revolts and fervent cries for recompense: there was a voice uplifted for the memory of the disappeared. Roxanne Altholz (Harvard Human Rights Journal) aptly points out that allowing victims an opportunity to create a historical record and to express their suffering is an essential element in seeking justice. One relative of desaparecido explained why she chose to participate in the Mother’s movement, saying: “They had a public presence that I feel is very important. The big change from the movement is in us, to come and to protest for our children for other people’s children (Brysk 14).”
Argentina will never, ever forget those who disappeared. Buenos Aires proclaimed the 24th of March an annual Day of Memory to commemorate the 1976 military coup. A large memory park was created in August 2001—with a prominent “ Monument to the Victims of State Terror" (see photo) and a sinuous fissure traversing the park to symbolize the open wound left in Argentina by the disappeared.
Remember. They will remember. The disappeared will never be forgotten.
This last report was brought to you by Ava Munson, University of Washington.
Robben , Antonius . Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press , 2005 .
Brysk , Alison . The Politics of Human Rights in Argentina . Stanford : Standford University Press , 1994 .
Rock, David. Argentina, 1516–1982. University of California Press, 1987.