Bill Berkowitz: Olga Talamante - Surviving torture
Olga Talamante: Surviving torture
On March 27, 1976, sixteen months after being arrested, tortured and imprisoned in an Argentina jail, Olga Talamante was released. Today, she is concerned that the public doesn't understand the horror
Many people in the U.S. think torture is some kind of abstraction that happens "elsewhere" in the world, to "other" people, and is not conducted by governments on "our" side. But a Gilroy, California woman, Olga Talamante, knows from personal experience 30 years ago in Argentina that torture is real, horrifying, and is often supported or condoned by the U.S. government.
The photos and stories coming out of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison not only lifted the curtain on the use of torture in President Bush's war on terrorism, but they reawakened memories that for Talamante are never far from the surface.
Talamante's ordeal began on the evening of November 11, 1974, when, after a political strategy session/barbeque, she and 13 other members of the Peronist Youth group she worked with, were arrested and taken to the police station in the center of Azul, Argentina.
Only 24 years old when she was imprisoned, Olga Talamante was a long way from the garlic fields of Gilroy, where her parents Refugio "Dona Cuca," who was born in Lompoc, California, and Eduardo Talamante, a Mexican citizen, had settled after emigrating from Mexicali, Mexico when she was eleven.
A naturalized U.S. citizen, she was quick to learn English. She attended Gilroy public schools, and was elected sophomore class president, school Secretary and vice president of the student body at Gilroy High School, where she graduated in 1969.
Talamante went on to the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) where she majored in Latin American Studies. She was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement, the budding Chicano movement, and was involved in the struggle for justice for farmworkers: She once had the honor of introducing Cesar Chavez, the head of the United Farm Workers Union, at an event aimed at building support for the UFW's boycott of Safeway stores.
After leaving UCSC, Talamante headed for Argentina. "I had met several Argentineans in Mexico a few years earlier while doing a field study in Chiapas, Mexico," Talamante told me in a telephone interview from her Burlingame, California, office where she is the Executive Director of the Chicana/Latina Foundation. "After those friends returned from Argentina and talked glowingly about the political changes that were taking place there, I decided I would go after I finished school. Since I was interested in pursuing Latin American studies, I thought I might take classes at Buenos Aires University," she added.
In August 1973, Talamante arrived in Argentina shortly after Hector Campora, the progressive Peronist candidate, had won the election. After eighteen years of military rule, hundreds of political prisoners had been released and the political landscape had changed dramatically.
Campora resigned the presidency and called for new elections, which, former president Juan Peron, having returned from exile in Spain, won handily in September of 1973. His second wife, Isabel Peron, was elected vice president.
Talamante arrived in Azul, a town of nearly 50,000 people located within the state of Buenos Aires, about a four hour drive south of the city. "I spent most of my early days finding out what was going on in town, meeting people, learning to drink mate, and soaking up the vibrant political atmosphere," Talamante noted.
Within a few months of her arrival, Talamante began working in Barrio San Francisco, one of the poorest sections on the outskirts of Azul. "I was working with the Peronist Youth, a group working with poor people throughout the country."
By November 1974, Peron had died and Isabel Peron, backed by the right wing of the Peronist movement, took control of the government. "There was a struggle within Peronism between the left and the right," Talamante explained. "On November 7, the government issued a broad set of security regulations that banned political meetings, labor organizing, anti-government demonstrations. It was the new martial law and the beginning of the repressive period in Argentina," Talamante pointed out.
Talamante's family and friends in the U.S. learned of her arrest from friends in Argentina, and moved quickly to organize to work for her freedom. Not so coincidentally, the Olga Talamante Defense Committee (OTDC) launched its campaign to free Olga at the La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley, Ca., a cafe/meeting place founded in the early 1970s by refugees from the regime of Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, who with the support of the U.S. government, overthrew the democratically elected president Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973.
On March 27, 1976, after being imprisoned for 16 months, Olga Talamante was released. Although it was Gerald Ford's State Department that gave the final orders to Argentine authorities to release Talamante, her freedom came as a result of an unusual campaign galvanized by the support of labor unions, religious organizations, political groups, and thousands of individuals from the Bay Area and across the country.
Torture never recedes from the memory of the tortured. In the week before the thirtieth anniversary of her release from prison, I spoke to Olga Talamante about how her memories of being tortured had been reawakened by the current debates over the use of torture as a weapon in President George W. Bush's "war on terrorism."
Bill Berkowitz: You were arrested in Argentina in 1974. Can you describe what happened to you?
Olga Talamante: The federal officials that interrogated me put a burlap bag over my head. It felt rough and scratchy against my cheek. It smelled earthy, yet it was deceptively comforting. My eyes were already heavily bandaged, so it didn't serve the purpose of preventing me from seeing. It was obviously meant to frighten me. And I was frightened.
I knew that I had entered another dimension, where one's identity was lost and another found: A dimension where a slight turn of the head would bring about yet another barrage of insults and a pummeling of my bones.
I was huddled in a corner with my hands tied behind my back and my feet were tied together; the air was knocked out of me from being karate-chopped.
They took me into another room where there were several other people. I heard several men's voices. They untied my hands and feet and ordered me to take my clothes off. I hesitated, but they made it clear that there was no choice to make. Some hands sat me down on a bed. They pushed me down on the bed and spread my arms and legs, which were then tied to the posts of the bed, spread-eagle fashion.
Then the electric shocks began. They knew to attack some of the most sensitive areas of the body. When the electric current was applied, I could only scream.
The terror came after the electric shock. They are going to do it again, I thought. A pillow was put over my head to muffle my scream. I panicked. I must be able to breathe and scream in order to survive, I thought. I must be able to breathe. After about the third time that the electric current was applied, I figured what I thought was a brilliant maneuver. I waited until the pillow was put on my head, then right before the hands holding it pushed down hard on it, I turned my head sideways and was so relieved to be able to take in a breath. I just had to be really alert so I could move my head back in upright position before the pillow was pulled up. It was a project, and it helped me focus. I knew that was the only way I could survive."
Bill Berkowitz: What were the charges against you? Was there ever a hearing or a trial?
Olga Talamante: We were arrested for violating the martial law imposed in November of 1974. Although there was a judge assigned to the case, there was never a trial to speak of. The court eventually convicted us of violating the martial law and sentenced us to three years.
Bill Berkowitz: How does your experience being tortured in an Argentina prison help us understand the "war on terror" where imprisonments without trial, ghost prisoners, kidnappings, and renditions are everyday fare?
Olga Talamante: My main concern is that the methodology of torture is far removed from democracy and human rights, concepts that most citizens of the U.S. hold dear. It is appalling to think that the U.S. government would think that torture was a legitimate weapon to use in the struggle against terrorism.
Bill Berkowitz: Since most people have never been tortured, it tends to be an abstract concept, or a subject for debate. When people read about prisoners being tortured, what should they really be thinking about?
Olga Talamante: Torture is the most degrading, humiliating, and painful treatment that any human being can undergo. That is because you have no control, you have no rights, and you have no way of defending yourself. When I saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib, and read about how the prisoners were treated -- how the interrogators taunted and humiliated them sexually and psychologically -- I felt myself transported back to the torture rooms at the police station in Azul.
The interrogators taunted, insulted and humiliated me as they applied electric shock to my body. Trying to get me to give them the names and addresses of other political activists and force me into admitting to activities that I had not been involved with.
The searing pain from high voltage electric shocks being applied to your body is hard to describe. There is absolutely nothing you can do; it doesn't matter what you know or don't know, or what you say or don't say. They hold complete control over your life and they make you feel like there is nothing that can protect you in that moment.
Bill Berkowitz: How do the events of 9/11 figure into the current debate over torture? Is torture justified under any circumstance?
Olga Talamante: The events of 9/11 -- the attacks and the horrendous loss of life -- has led the Bush Administration to a strategy that allows for just about any egregious act to be acceptable in the name of the war against terrorism. People have been led to believe that interrogation methods that include torture are necessary in order to prevent future attacks. In fact, these methods mostly prove to be ineffective and, are often counter-productive. How many of those people that were tortured, especially victims of indiscriminate or wrongful arrests, leave prison as friends of the U.S.?
There are international standards related to how prisoners should be treated. Torture, under any circumstances, violates those standards. However, some may argue that if it is suspected that a prisoner has critical information that if known could prevent a major terrorist incident, torturing them is justified. Most human rights activists and people who have studied torture will tell you that even from a practical standpoint torture yields very little in the way of accurate information.
Bill Berkowitz: Now, thirty years after being tortured, what impact did it have on your life?
Olga Talamante: My experience reaffirmed my belief that we must continue to fight for human rights, for social justice, for political institutions where torture is forever banned. It reaffirmed my belief that solidarity with one another on an individual and collective basis is the foundation of the best of our humanity.
I think that I survived being tortured because even though I was desperately alone in that room, ultimately, I was not alone. Above all, I was with my family; I was with the people that I had been working with in Argentina; I was with the farmworkers that I worked with in California. As strange as this might sound, all those people that helped shape my ideals and my beliefs, helped me through those dark days and nights in Azul.
Bill Berkowitz: Is the current use of torture an aberration, or is this a dirty little secret that has consistently run through U.S foreign policy?
Olga Talamante: Unfortunately, it has been part of U.S foreign policy to train, arm and aid police and paramilitary forces throughout the world, especially in Latin America. Although these activities have gone on, particularly at The School of the Americas, torture has not been an official U.S. policy. Nor has it been a method that has been acceptable to the U.S. public.
When I returned from Argentina and told my story, I found that the average person was horrified and appalled to learn about what had happened to me. To most people, torture was something that fascistic leaders and military dictators did to their people to quell dissent.
Most people didn't believe that the U.S government would ever resort to such tactics. These days, however, the administration's constant fear mongering has rendered it acceptable to debate the appropriateness and viability of torture. In that sense, we have taken a giant step backward as a people.
Bill Berkowitz: What are you doing these days?
Olga Talamante: I'm the executive director of the Chicana/Latina Foundation, a Burlingame, California-based organization that is committed to helping Latina students graduate college through our scholarship, mentoring, leadership training and advocacy programs. Education is the path to self-awareness, empowerment and knowledge, which are essential for these students be able to improve not only their selves, but their communities as well.
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Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.