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Can America confront its present?

Argentina confronts its past. Can America do the same to its present?

By Mark Drolette

Dancing in the street, Buenos Aires (Image: CC Flickr)

Something I noticed about Argentines while visiting Buenos Aires recently: they seem to have an almost unquenchable thirst for living. Maybe that's because, a generation ago, successive governments deprived horrifying numbers of them life's most basic right -- that of continuing it.

Beginning after the May 1969 civil uprising in Córdoba and lasting until 1983, an estimated 30,000 Argentines became desaparecidos, citizens "disappeared" by right-wing dictatorships that ruled Argentina with stinging cruelty. Of particular barbaric note were the "death flights" which entailed flinging Argentines from aircraft to plummet thousands of feet into the Atlantic Ocean or the Río de la Plata, the immense river abutting Buenos Aires.

Today, Buenos Aires hums, a terrific city full of warm people, grand architecture, wondrous food. Oh, and non-stop energy, too, especially evident every weekend night, starting around one o'clock in the morning and lasting well into the next day.

This all-night singing, shouting and laughing prompted me to ponder -- pondering that typically started every weekend night somewhere around, oh, one o'clock in the morning.

I drowsily considered: Was such exuberance a natural celebratory reaction, subconscious or otherwise, to having survived unfathomable horror, a response supercharged even further by a deep-seated psychological desire to drive a figurative thumb into the eyes of the monsters who terrorized their country for fifteen hellish years, or…

Do they just really like to party?

Actually, many of the revelers weren't even born when darkness blanketed their nation, so none of them could possibly remember it. Still, Argentina itself is beginning to speak, if yet only in whispers.

Sporadic graffiti in Buenos Aires ensure the victims aren't forgotten. Sidewalk plaques fronting at least three buildings in town mark where and when abductions took place, listing the names of innocents ripped violently from their homes and lives inside.

Then there's the Parque de la Memoria, Argentina's first official memorial recognizing the nightmare. Dedicated in 2007, the 31-acre site sits beside the Río de la Plata whose silvery brown waters still conceal the bones of many desaparecidos.

I visited the park on a perfect South American spring day. Large banners, attached to a fence inside, bore black-and-white photographic portraits of hundreds of the repression's victims. A date, static and ominous, sat below each name. Standing before the grainy images, I announced quietly, as an Argentine friend had suggested, "Presente," then walked to the memorial nearby.

Four long walls form a giant zigzag ("designed as a gash, an open wound…," says the park's Web site) that angles symbolically toward the river. Victims' names and ages are engraved here, grouped by year of disappearance. Most were in their teens, twenties or thirties when they were stolen to be tortured and killed. The oldest age I saw: 77. The youngest? Five months.

You can never get those evildoers too soon.

A park guide, Iván, told me the walls hold 9,000 names. Only 21,000 more to go. Enough space has been left to memorialize these unknowns -- if identification is ever made. Not an easy task, for various reasons.

Some survivors fled Argentina, taking their awful knowledge with them. Reprisal fears have silenced others, while others silence themselves because they approved of the governments' actions. In yet other instances, some citizens with pertinent information, especially those in small provincial towns, may never have heard of the national commission formed in 1983 to investigate and report on the abuses (which it did to a shocked Argentina in 1984). Or, if so, they've little interest in divulging information to any government, be it military or otherwise, given the track records.

The most horrifying reason that some desaparecidos will remain unidentified: Some entire families were erased by the state.

The cut runs so deep that even Argentines unaffected personally by the brutality have been reluctant to discuss it. Change is occurring, however. Though Argentina still has "a long way to walk," Iván noted that some primary and secondary schools now teach about the repression. Other factors for the shift include the passage of time, "the fact that (people in the military) are starting to be judged for what they did…" and the open-mindedness of both Kirchner administrations (those of former president Néstor and current president Cristina Fernández), all hopeful developments supporting Iván's assertion that Argentines finally are "losing their fear and…starting to talk openly about this. We have movies, TV shows…and now we have a Memory Park."

Even after visiting the memorial, it was still impossible truly comprehending Argentina's horror. Nothing approaching that magnitude, for example, has ever happened in the United States. But -- what about outside its borders? What of those America has tortured and "disappeared" in places like Guantánamo Bay, Iraq and elsewhere? Does it really matter these were not neighbors or relatives, as was the case in Argentina? All humans deserve to live unmolested, no matter what resources they stand atop.

President-elect Barack Obama's watchword is change. Well, as a U.S. citizen, here's some change I could believe in: a full and open airing of the current administration's militaristic misdeeds, followed by the appropriate prosecution of those responsible for same.

For as another weekend night in Buenos Aires would unfold alive with laughter and song, the message was (very loud and) clear: despite the pain, Argentina, by confronting its hideous legacy, had at last begun its recovery process. Conversely, America's spirit remains sickened, poisoned by senseless war and the intolerable abuse of others. Perhaps only when we Americans fearlessly address the toxic actions of our own government can our nation's soul also begin to heal, thereby making it possible for us, too, to celebrate unfettered our place in the sun.

Even if it's at somewhere around, oh, one in the morning.


Mark Drolette is a freelance writer living in Costa Rica.

Copyright © 2008 Mark Drolette. All rights reserved.

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