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.