Posts Tagged ‘Argentina’

Torture works.

datePosted on 15:55, July 1st, 2019 by Pablo

I have been working my way through a 47,000 document tranche of declassified US government communications related to Argentina and the “Dirty War” of 1976-83. I grew up in Argentina in the period leading up to the March 24, 1976 coup d’état that ushered in the so-called “Process of National Reorganisation,” the euphemism that the military junta used to justify its actions. That was the period when I was politically socialised and which has marked my approach to politics ever since.

I also do so because I did human rights work in Argentina in the early 1980s and wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the Argentine state that required repeated primary source field research in the country throughout that decade. Those trips afforded me the opportunity to complement my human rights work with documentary and interview data that, while tangental to the dissertation, were central to my interest in what happened to people I knew who were caught up in the “Process.” I continued this interest as a sidebar to my academic work and official obligations while serving in and with US government agencies in the late 80s and early to mid 1990s. Even so, I did not have the time or authority to access what has emerged in this tranche of documents.

The documents (known as “cables” in diplomatic parlance) come from the CIA, FBI, State Department, Department of Defense and other agencies such as the Commerce Department that had involvement in Argentine issues during that period. The quality of the reporting and analysis is surprisingly good and the tone often brutally frank. Even so, thousands of pages in the declassified tranche are redacted or completely blank, attesting to ongoing sensitivity of some of the subjects being discussed. On a more personal level, the documents reveal the names of people that I knew while growing up, both embassy officials as well as private businessmen, school officials and missionaries (they were all men) who were fathers of kids that I went to school with and who either wrote the cables in question or served as informants to the embassy.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the reporting is the constant references to the Argentine security forces use of murder and torture. Time and time again the cables detail how torture was used to extract information and confessions, often followed by the murder of prisoners. The cables report things such as corpse disposal techniques improving after scores of bodies were discovered in public places with clear signs of torture and execution-style bullet wounds (among others, the “disposal-via-plane” method–where prisoners were sedated, loaded onto Air Force planes and dumped over the South Atlantic away from shore–was perfected after weighed-down bodies surfaced in the River Plate and many others were identified on land even though efforts had been made to destroy any possibility of identification). They note that many of the dead were said to have been killed in armed confrontations with security forces that never happened, and that many of those killed were students, unionists, academics, journalists, politicians and others unconnected to the various guerrilla groups (Montoneros and Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo or ERP, primarily) that were operating at the time.

The more I read the more I began to question a long held belief of mine: that torture does not work as an interrogation method, but instead is simply a cruel form of punishment. Readers may remember that, following on earlier academic and policy writing on the subject, I blogged here at KP about how torture does not work. But as I read the horrific descriptions of the methods used by the Argentine inquisitors and what happened as a result, and even though I had interviewed a few torture survivors during my human rights work, it dawned on me that I was wrong. Torture does, in fact, work as a means of extracting time sensitive tactical as well as strategic information from victims. Allow me to explain.

Torture only works in specific circumstances. Where it does not work is in democracies with strong institutions and the rule of law. Take, for example, the US torture program known as “enhanced interrogation.” This was an extension of coercive interrogation techniques that US military counter-intelligence officers developed by adapting a blueprint provided by the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) programs operated by the US military for personnel at high risk of capture in hostile territory. Those programs emulated the unpleasantness of foreign interrogations (say, by North Vietnamese) so that those going through the SERE programs would have the mental and physical ability to cope without breaking.

After 9/11 the CIA decided to turn SERE on its head and use it as a basis for enhanced interrogation of suspected jihadists. That in turn led to its use by the US military against jihadists and insurgents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Supervised by psychologists and medical doctors, techniques like water-boarding, exposure to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, painful binding by ropes, simulated executions and threatened electric shocks (where captives were hooked up by wires to car batteries or wall power outlets), simulated attacks by military working dogs (reportedly suggested by Israeli intelligence because of Arabs’ aversion to dogs) and sexual degradation were used by interrogators to try and extract both real-time and broad picture information from prisoners. The pictures that emerged from the Iraqi prison at Abu Ghraib–where US Army military police went rogue because of the environment created by their commanders–alerted the world to the fact that the US was routinely employing torture as an interrogation method, something that also occurred at detention facilities at Baghram Military Air Base in Kabul and in at the detention centre (Camp X Ray) operated by US Marines at the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This stopped when the Obama administration took office.

There were limits to what the US torturers would do. Deaths, rapes and other atrocities did occur but the overall thrust of US torture programs was to avoid such “excesses” and to remain within the broadly defined limits of US military codes of justice and the laws of war. It can be argued whether that in fact happened, but the point is that the US military, the CIA and the US government all wanted to give at least the appearance of norm adherence and legal cover. This forced the interrogators to engage in self-limiting strategies when it came to the treatment of prisoners, even if the boundaries of that self-limitation were broad. They were constrained by both the institutional and legal apparatus under which they operated and perhaps by their internalisation of cultural mores and norms regarding acceptability and limits to what can be done in defence of the State’s interests.

Whatever the reason for the relative self-limitation of the US torturers, the end result is that, rightwing apologist’s bluster to the contrary, limited “actionable” intelligence was obtained via the enhanced interrogation program (this was detailed in the Congressional Report on the matter).

Bottom line? Torture does not work when practiced by agents of modern democratic states with strong institutions and laws and a concern for human rights and civil liberties even when dealing with foreign enemies.

No such thing happened during the “Dirty War.” There were no limits set on what interrogators could do to prisoners other than what their consciences dictated. Moreover, the torturers were required to observe each other’s work, to include murdering people, so as to cement the bonds of group complicity (presumably in the hope of securing group silence in future years). The barbarity unleashed on suspects was medieval, modern and mind-bending in its depravity. The interrogators used flame, electricity, water, blunt, bladed and teethed tools, surgical instruments, pneumatic machines, vices and industrial presses. They removed body parts without anaesthesia for no medical purpose. They made captives perform grossly degrading acts and penetrated them with an assortment objects. They raped and sodomized both men and women alike and used animals to do so as well. They mutilated, tortured and murdered children, spouses, siblings, parents and grandparents in front of prisoners. There was simply nothing they would or could not do in pursuit of a confession and/or information about others. Worse yet, many of these evil beings still walk amongst us, either in exile or still in Argentina in spite of the various trials of officials implicated in the atrocities of the Dirty War.

Beyond the personal tragedies of those victimised, this is the saddest part: The torturer’s methods worked. Time and time again the US cables document Argentine security officials stating that prisoners identified other members of political resistance groups after “hard” interrogations. Time and time again the cables detailed how one by one “terrorist” cells were dismantled thanks to information gleaned from such interrogations. From the time the military took power on March 24, 1976 to the time of the Soccer World Cup held in Argentina in June-July 1978, tens of thousands of people vanished (some into exile) and levels of political violence declined from an average of half a dozen murders a day to near zero. Both urban and rural guerrilla groups were decimated and thousands of people disappeared. By the time the World Cup started under the watchful eyes of the junta and celebrity guests like Henry Kissinger, Argentina was once again at peace, even if it was the peace of the dead.

Two things stand out for me. First, why did the victims give up the names of comrades, friends, acquaintances and family rather than just accept the fact that they were going to die? Surely they must have known that they and the people tortured in front of them would not make it out alive, so why give the torturers what they wanted? All I can think is that while many people broke because of the physical horrors inflicted on them and hoped to escape death in their moment of agony, an equal number broke because they wanted to save the lives of their loved ones even if they knew that they would die and their loved ones or others would likely die anyway. Between desperation and pain, it seems that the captive’s minds searched for futile hope in the midst of darkness.

The second standout point is what made the torturers do what they did? There certainly was both individual and collective psychopathic behaviour involved (such as in the case of the infamous “Angel of Death” Lt. Carlos Astiz, later captured by the British in the first confrontation of the Falklands/Malvinas War), but it also appears that to reach the state of mind that they operated in they had to believe that a) democracy and human rights were useless concepts; b) the rule of law was no longer viable as a social construct; c) ideological enemies were sub-human; d) they were part of a greater good; e) morality was relative and the ends justified the means; f) they were inured to violence given the ongoing and escalating social conflict of the previous decade; g) they had impunity, both present and future; h) their cause was existential (in this case defence of the Catholic, capitalist, heterosexual, patriarchal and white-dominant parameters of Argentine society).

Which is to say, when unconstrained by democratic norms and (at least concern about) the rule of law, torture works. It works because once there is no limit to what torturers can do, their victims have only one–even if futile– hope to save themselves or others, and that is to talk. The democratic “variant” of torture simply cannot enter this realm unless the very values that underpin democratic socialisation are absent in the interrogator.

That explains why I was wrong about the utility of torture. I used to think that torture persisted because it was useful as a punishment that reminded potential victims of the costs of engaging in specific courses of action and thereby deterred them from doing so. I also thought that it involved sadistic pleasure on the part of desensitized socio- or pyschopathic perpetrators.

Now I believe that, along with both of these motives, torture persists throughout history because it is a useful interrogation method under specific conditions where democratic norms, values, institutions and legal codes do not apply. Since democracies have historically been a minority among world governance structures, this can explain the wide-spread use of torture to this day.

I am belabouring the obvious.

I will not go into how the Catholic Church and several democracies were active supporters of the Argentine dictatorship (including the US until Jimmy Carter was elected, and then after he was replaced by Ronald Reagan). Nor will I delve into how civil wars often see more atrocities committed than in foreign wars. What I will note is that when democracies begin to be corroded from within and respect for institutions and laws and basic norms about civility begin to be supplanted by partisanship, opportunism and treachery, then the slide into darkness has begun.

Perhaps that is what happened to the Bush 43 administration, and which may be happening now under Trump. Perhaps it is what led the French to go feral when trying to cling on to their colonial possessions in the 1950s and 1960s.

Whatever the case there is one more thing to ponder. If a liberal democracy like New Zealand had anything to do with the extraordinary rendition and black site programs that the US ran as conduits into and locations for its “enhanced interrogation” efforts, then merely having strong institutions and respect for the rule of law is not enough to guard against complicity in torture when fear of “the other,” bureaucratic opportunism and security partner pressure is involved. That is a major reason why I am interested in reading the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security’s (still delayed) report on whether New Zealand had anything to do with that part of the US “war on terrorism.”

Recuerdos de la Muerte (Memories of Death).

datePosted on 14:08, March 24th, 2011 by Pablo

Today (March 24) is the 35th anniversary of the coup that ushered in the “dirty war” in Argentina that cost 30,000+ lives, more than 10,000 “desparecidos”  (“disappeared,” or those who were last seen in custody but whose bodies have never been discovered), with tens of thousands tortured and exiled. Never has the dark side of the Argentine psyche been on worse display than during the so-called “Proceso de Reorganisacion Nacional” (“Process of National Reorganisation”), and hopefully the bitter lessons learned will prevent a repetition of that wretched episode in Argentine history. The hard truth is that although the September 11, 1973 golpe that ousted Salvador Allende in Chile is more well-known (as was the dictator Pinochet), and the Argentine coup followed others in Uruguay (1973), Bolivia (1974), Peru (1968), Brazil (1964) and several previous ones in Argentina itself (1962, 1966, with an internal military coup in 1970), the dictatorship installed in 1976 was the most sadistic, murderous and cruel of them all. In its brutality and efficiency it was the exemplar of South American authoritarianism.

For people like me–raised in Argentina and directly exposed to the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s–the horrors of those days do not go away easily. For a generation of Argentines, to say nothing of their counterparts in Chile and elsewhere such as in Central America, the traumas of those years will linger forever, and it is only now, with the birth of a generation completely unaffected by the dictaduras, that the process of psychological healing can begin in earnest. While people who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s continue living, it will be impossible to erase from the collective memory the pervasive climate of fear that characterised life during those times.

The immediate result of the climate of fear was known as “atomizing infantilisation:” the body politic is forcibly stripped of its horizontal solidarity networks by the imposition of state terror, which paralyses resistance and reduces the individual social subject to the level of a child’s nightmare. Just as children fear the monsters under their beds and are powerless to stop their depredations, so too a society subjected to a systematic campaign of state terror is reduced to a sense of utter helplessness and vulnerability. After all, in the case of the dictatorships, the monsters were real and death or torture could occur at any time, for seemingly any reason. Terror appeared arbitrary but was in fact systematic, with the objective being to break the will of anyone who might oppose the dictatorial project.

The result was a condition of survivalist alienation: people just tried to go about their personal business, retreat into their immediate private lives and avoid trouble by relinquishing public commitments. The Argentines had a phrase for this: “de la casa al trabajo y del trabajo a la casa:” From the house to work and from work to home. Under such conditions there is no collective social subject. There is just submission.

It was under these conditions that the beginnings of the neoliberal macroeconomic experiments began in the Southern Cone. It was not just a matter of outlawing unions and political parties. It was about “cleaning the slate” of all those who could thwart the laboratory experiment that was the imposition of monetarist policies in South America. It was about using the climate of fear to reforge collective identities  so that the working classes would never challenge the primacy of capital again. It was about elites taking advantage of the window of opportunity provided by dictatorship to restructure the economy in a more favourable image, setting in place structural changes that would fundamentally alter class relations and the relationship of the state and society to capital in a way that the latter would always have the dominant say in social life. It was about, in the language of the time, “forcibly extirpating without anesthesia the malignancies of communism, atheism, feminism and homosexuality from the body politic” (the phrase is attributed to Argentine General Benjamin Menendez, who was one of the dictatorship’s most bloodthirsty leaders). In sum, the project was about using systematic application of state terror to sow the seeds of fear, alienation and despair in which market-driven projects could be imposed. Above that, the use of state terror was focused on social cleansing–in Chile it was about eliminating class challenges to capatilist rule. In Argentina it was about preserving an elite way of life. In either case, the dictators stopped at nothing to make their point.

These are the projects from which Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Ruth Richardson, John Key and the Business Roundtable take inspiration. These are the models upon which the NZ economic reforms are based. And if we think of the way in which NZ macroeconomic reform and other aspects of social policy have been “reformed,” we can see that the authoritarian example has been emulated in more than the economic realm. In other words, the NZ market “model” is a softer version of the Southern Cone dictatorial projects, absent the repression but with the same thrust.

We should also remember the climate of fear when we observe the Middle East. Populations that have been victimised, brutalised and traumatised by long-standing dictatorships are unlikely to have forgiveness and conciliation on their minds as the dictators begin to tremble. But the dictators and their allies know this, which stiffens their resolve to not suffer the retributions that they richly deserve. That does not easily make for a democratic “spring.”

All of which is to say, when it comes to contemplating the virtues of dictatorial regimes because they provide economic models or security partnerships, the answer in the first instance should be the rallying cry of the heroic Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo: “Nunca Mas!!”

NB: The title of this post comes from Argentine author Miguel Bonasso, who wrote a book by that name.

Two Bicentennials, and two disappointments.

datePosted on 09:27, September 18th, 2010 by Pablo

Although the NZ media did not pay much attention to them, Argentina and Mexico celebrated the bicentennials of their independence from Spain this year (Argentina on May 25 and Mexico on September 16). Much fanfare and parading happened in both nation’s capitals, and a wide array of patriotic rhetoric was heard. But the sad truth is that both states are disappointments and long time failures. They certainly are not in the same league as Somalia or Yemen, but for the majority of citizens in each country the hallowed promise of independence has come up short. The failure in both instances rests not with foreign imperialists but with the respective political and economic elites.

Argentina and Mexico are the fourth and fifth largest countries in the Western Hemisphere and blessed with abundant natural resources, a variety of climates and geography, extensive coastlines and close commercial ties to greater Europe dating to 1810. They have well defined borders and are peace with their neighbours (even if those borders are permeable and historic resentments occasionally arise–but none of this compromises trade or good relations with neighbours big and small). The strategic sectors of their economy are under state or domestic capitalist control (or both). They both exhibit considerable foreign policy independence.

Yet, 200 years after independence, neither has fulfilled its promise. Mexico is in the midst of a vicious civil war between a variety of drug cartels and the state that poses the risk of it disintegrating into neo-feudal enclaves and autonomous regions barely under the nominal authority of a failed central state apparatus. Argentina, although not the financial basket case that it was in 2001-02 or the state terrorism experiment that it was from 1976-82, remains a nation in which corruption at all levels of society is an art form and in which patronage and nepotism are the hallmarks of political life.

This really should not be. Both countries have produced, among many other lines of contribution, Nobel laureates, writers, artists, musicians, actors, medical pioneers, legal scholars, diplomats, human rights champions, renown architects and more than a few good political scientists. The number of such luminaries is disproportionate to the total population of each country, so it is clear that the talent pool runs deep in each case. Yet time and time again, year after year, decade after decade, the tides of national fortune ebb and fall so that neither country has come close to fulfilling the promise of its naturally-given and human potential. That is a pity, and a waste.

I grew up in Argentina and have spent a fair amount of time, both personal and professional, in Mexico. In my younger years, when my leftward tilt was more pronounced, I joined those who blamed the US and imperialism in general for the woes of these and all other countries in the region. Dependency theory was my theoretical crutch and, as a prescription, revolution was to me the best answer to the region’s problems.

I was wrong. Mexico had its revolution in 1917 and although the nature of its authoritarianism changed, the fundamental socio-economic and political problems underpinning it did not (the 1994 Zapatista rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas was a reminder of that). Although a looming presence, the US is not the primary source of Mexico’s ills (although its drug consumer market is certainly a part of it). Although nominally democratic for a decade, Mexican politics remains infested with cronyism, corruption (now often drug related) and a lack of transparency. Socio-economic actors of all types see the state as a trough from which to feed when in power or in favour rather than as a neutral mediator in redistributive conflicts.

Argentina has not had a revolution but not for lack of trying. I was personal witness to the Montonero/ERP campaigns of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the last gasp of the Peronist mythos in person (Peron died in1974 after returning from exile the year before). That only precipitated the state terror experiment and the return to shallow consumerism for which Argentines–or least those living in Buenos Aires–are famous. The attitude towards holding power is similar to that of Mexico, and the “state-as-money bag” approach is also endemic amongst the Argentine elites.

After the neo-liberal experiments in both countries, the gap between rich and poor is worse now than it was 50 years ago. Working class dissent remains a simmering pool that remains unmitigated in each case. Crime haunts the streets (more in Mexico than in Argentina, but both at much higher rates than before 1960 or even 1990), and uncertainty about the future is rife amongst all but the upper ten percent of society. Even the national soccer teams have failed to live up to popular expectations, which in of itself is symptomatic of the larger malaise each is living through. And yet the politics of elite greed continues unabated in both countries, now under ostensibly democratic aegis.

All of which is to say that as much as it is nice to celebrate longevity, it is human folly that has prevented these two countries from developing into fully mature states that are nourishing and representative of their citizens. My hope is that the younger generation of citizens exposed to the excesses of the past 25 years in both places will work harder than their parents and ancestors at giving them the political leadership that they so rightly deserve and which was sorely missing from the official grandstands during the celebrations.