My husband and I have a running debate over “progress.” News junkies, we routinely argue over whether a development somewhere is forward movement or not. He holds, for example, that most accounts of human rights abuse are boilerplate from the 1960s, with blanks to fill in for new names. Things are arguably worse on the human rights front, not better, he says. I reply that noise is good. Dictators who once yawned at the idea of human rights now at least pay lip service to it, even if they run secret torture centers. Rhetoric has consequences. Yes, he says: More people are angry and unhappy. I say that’s because they now aspire where they used to be hopeless and silent. And so on.
This was the context in which we recently spent three weeks in Argentina, where human rights abuse was once the norm. I was there as the Washington Post South America correspondent when the generals took over thirty years ago, on March 24, 1976, and I wrote some of the first stories when they launched their bloody war against leftist dissidents. I helped create the new language of los desaparecidos, the “disappeared.” By pure chance, I was also there in January, when some of the players in that drama wrote a formal end to the story. It was that rarest of moments, a glimpse of the entire dramatic arc, one the principals claimed was actual progress. But was it?
On April 13, 1977, a dozen or so Argentine mothers, despairing of learning what had happened to their children, put on white kerchiefs and gathered at the 220-foot obelisk in Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo. This is where generations of Argentines have demonstrated, where Juan Peron mobilized his descamisados, the shirtless ones, where Evita cried from the balcony of the presidential Casa Rosada; it is where the generals years later rallied support for the invasion of the Malvinas Islands (a k a the Falklands), which eventually brought them down. The plaza is Argentina’s living room. The mothers, carrying photos of their disappeared loved ones above small signs asking Where Are They?, marched slowly and in silence around the obelisk.
Few people noticed, including me. My Post story that day was headlined “Repression Is Keeping Latin American Left on the Retreat.” It noted that resistance was “impossible to measure so long as speaking up risks extermination.” But none of the nearby soldiers opened fire on the mothers, and they weren’t arrested. They returned the following week, and again the week after. For nearly thirty years they marched every Thursday afternoon, demanding justice. A few of them disappeared, but the others marched, Thursday after Thursday.
People soon did notice: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo became world icons of courageous demands for accountability, the assertion of human rights. Their march inspired poetry and dissidents the world over; it won awards from UNESCO and the European Parliament, among others. What dictator would dare mow down a group of grieving women?
As the years passed, the mothers quarreled. Some wanted to compromise with this new leader or that; some denounced others as sellouts or media hounds. They split into factions. Which was more important, healing the nation’s wounds or learning what had happened to every last disappeared person? Should they also demand action on unemployment and homeless street children? A group of grandmothers started their own march. The mothers’ annual twenty-four-hour “March of Resistance,” which began in 1981, became a media circus. Their politics over the years seemed to mirror the tortured politics of Argentina itself.
Who could follow all that? I couldn’t, and didn’t. But I wanted to return to Argentina, not only to revise some painful memories but also to see the tourist spots I never had time for as a foreign correspondent. So I was stunned on arriving for a politics-free vacation to learn that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo would be holding their final March of Resistance the very next day. Well, it would be just one faction of the Mothers, albeit a major faction. And it wouldn’t be their final Thursday march, albeit their 1,500th, just the final annual March of Resistance. And it wouldn’t even be the last annual march of the other faction, the so-called Founding Mothers. But still I had to go. It felt like the closure I had hoped for.
On January 26 the plaza was only lightly crowded, nothing like the cheek-to-cheek crushes of many rallies I had covered there. Faded paintings of white scarves on the pavement testified to the mothers’ claim to the turf. The obelisk was obscured by a scaffolding of photographs–the faces of the disappeared, still wrenching. Human rights activists say that about 30,000 people disappeared during the “dirty war,” and no one is sure how many cases remain unresolved.
As the mothers assembled, hundreds of reporters and cameras pushed and shoved, wanting to know why they were doing this, why now. “We no longer have an enemy in the Casa Rosada,” declared Hebe de Bonafini, leader of the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. President Nestor Kirchner, she said, “is a friend” with “good intentions” who has “opened the doors of the Casa Rosada to us.” Then she lined up with about twenty other older women, and they began their last twenty-four hours of marching slowly around the obelisk. In front they carried a banner that would have turned on the machine guns in 1976: Distribute the Wealth, Now! Behind them, people crowded in to march along, some with other banners that would have been welcome in Red Square: Che Guevara’s famous face, the leftist People’s Revolutionary Army, other once-clandestine groups. I looked around for the guns that were everywhere in my day, but I saw only a few smiling policemen in orange vests, their pistols holstered. On the plaza’s edges, vendors sold pamphlets and soda and mate gourds.
“For once we’re all together,” said Ileana, 34, who grew up amid family whispers about a disappeared uncle. Watching from the sidelines, she declined to give her last name, but her eyes brimmed with tears. “It’s a very emotional moment for me.” Minutes later, however, an older man buttonholed me. “Are you a journalist?” he demanded. “Tell your people I don’t agree with these women.” A retired machinist, he was trying to live on about $50 a month. “It can’t be done! This government is useless!” The disappeared are not the only issue now, even for the Mothers. I asked Marcela Bruzuela, 75, to tell me her personal story. She refused. “We are marching for all our sons,” she said, “and so that no child will be homeless from now on.”
Newspapers the next day quoted de Bonafini heralding a “historic moment” in which Kirchner’s election was part of a Latin democratic turn to the left, with Bolivia’s Morales, Venezuela’s Chavez, Brazil’s Lula da Silva and Chile’s Bachelet. “We’re achieving revolutions through the democratic process, without shedding blood,” she said.
So what does it mean? In theory, democracy picks leaders who promise what voters want, and then keeps them in office only if they deliver. It sounds so simple. De Bonafini praised Kirchner for listening and holding meetings, and it’s true that generals don’t do that: Democracy is noisy. But we jaded ones know money is what really talks. Who are “the people”? Whose op-eds get printed? Who gets invited to the meetings where the goodies are divided? Kirchner promised change, but all politicians do. Democracy needs to know what a government actually does, as opposed to what it says it is doing. The Mothers made history by pointing out the difference. Reality in the United States now includes eavesdropping and prison camps. Can people ever really get what they vote for?
Like the machinist, many Argentines doubt Kirchner’s ability or desire to deliver. Inflation is rising and corruption charges accumulate. The vision of Argentina potencia–as strong and prosperous as every Argentine knows it could be, if only its leaders would do the right thing–seems as “potential” as it did in 1976. But two things felt firm to me: No one risks extermination now by sounding off, and no one seems worried that the lists of the disappeared might lengthen again. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, even those still marching, are not adding new names. They are making new demands.
For me, remembering the blood and the bullets and the silences of thirty years ago, those two facts are real progress. Democracy, like desire, never runs out of new demands. Making them is only the first step, but it’s critical, which is why we have a First Amendment. “Argentina’s democracy is strong enough to let the leftists march and shout without having to do anything to them–or for them either,” said observer and economist Judith Evans, a longtime friend. She’s right. In a true democracy some demands get met, some don’t, depending on so many factors it’s exhausting to think about. We don’t know if Argentina is fully there yet. But in the meantime, Argentina’s mothers are moving on, loudly. I think we can chalk up one win.