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No Sugarplums for Christmas

Torture, Democracy and Memory in Argentina

by CELILIA GONZÁLEZ

Translator’s Note

This article about the ongoing trauma of Argentina’s dictatorship by Cecilia González won first prize in a contest organized by the former Navy Mechanical School (ESMA), Argentina, which is now the Space for Memory. The purpose of the competition is to contribute to the construction of material that promotes collective memory and the meaning of democracy within society. As González describes, Argentina is the only country in the world that, after some uncertain starts, has systematically tried crimes against humanity of a past regime.  — PT

Carlos Loza didn’t celebrate Christmas in 1976 with a sugarplum.

There was no roast, no cold veal, and no nougat. Not even a fruit salad for pudding. No possibility of celebrating a toast with wine, champagne, or cider. He only swallowed one sugarplum, something he’d hardly been able to hold in his shackled hand, and he couldn’t even see it because the hood covered his eyes. Carlos was being held in the Navy Mechanical School (ESMA), and there he spent the bitterest year’s end of his life.

For Carlos the lonely, tiny piece of candy revealed the depths – in all the word’s meanings – his tormentors could reduce him to at any moment. He was 23 years old and his family did not know what had happened to him. He lived with his mother in Villa Tesei. She spent the holidays searching for him, in desperation. His brother had been stationed in Campo de Mayo, performing his military service. The sugarplums the guards gave to all the prisoners seemed to be a sick joke: after that they did not know if they were going to kill them.

Carlos was taken to the Navy Mechanical School (ESMA) early in the morning on 17 December 1976. The day before, in the afternoon, a gang of youths had kidnaped him from the Communist Party branch offices in Barracas, together with some fellow port workers from Buenos Aires. They bound their hands, covered their heads, and piled them into an ambulance. On arriving at the extermination center, they were given identification numbers. Carlos Loza: 738; Héctor Guelfi: 739; Rodolfo Picheni: 740; and Oscar Repossi: 741. A basement torture session served as their welcome to ESMA. They lost track of time.

Today, almost 37 years after his kidnap, Carlos is a diligent witness to the hearings in the third court case about the crimes committed in Latin America’s most emblematic of clandestine prisons. Usually he sits in the public hearing room. He listens attentively to every testimony. He weaves together the victims’ stories. Above all else, he is part of the group making sure the guilty face justice.

“I have been able to know in greater detail the stories of the fallen compañeros of the ESMA,” says Carlos one morning with a proud smile that intensifies a heavenly, wide-eyed expression.

***

By the middle of 2013, Argentina had concluded 104 trials for crimes against humanity. Among eleven still ongoing trials, there is one known as ESMA III, a case that involves the largest number of victims (789), torturers (68), and witnesses (930). The first ESMA trial, ESMA I, began in 2007 but was suspended because of the cyanide poisoning of the only person accused, prefect Héctor Febres. By contrast, the second ESMA trial, ESMA II, finished in 2011 with life sentences against twelve torturers, thanks to the testimony of 160 witnesses (Carlos among them). Another four were found guilty and sentenced to prison for 18 to 24 years, with acquittals for two more.

This sixty-year-old man – who always carries a folder or notebook under his arm – testified in the third ESMA trial. Focused, he told the story yet one more time. A story about kidnap and torture that he doesn’t think of as just his own, but of belonging to society.

“Around the 23 December 1976 we managed to figure out what the day was,” he recalled at court – because I knew the dates of the final football championship. When I heard someone say that Boca had one, that’s when I knew what day it was.”

Days in the ESMA revolved around the darkness of the torture chambers, the guards’ unending shouts and threats, the pain from the handcuffs on the wrists and the shackles around the ankles. Resting was impossible. The prisoners sucked on bread because they had been so badly beaten up they could not chew food. For Carlos and his compañeros sleep came from exhaustion, but uncertainty never left them. Sometimes they spoke, when they were transferred to the “Capuchita” where there were fewer prisoners. If the guards caught them whispering among themselves or with other prisoners, they would hit them. In captivity Carlos came to know Hernán Abriata, a member of the Peronist Youth in the Faculty of Architecture. “I am a prisoner like you all, as you’ll find out,” said the young, still disappeared man. He was trying to console them: they wore hoods of a different color to his, a sign they weren’t going to be killed.

“We spoke to each other to find out our names, who we were. There was a tacit agreement: whoever gets out of here has to tell the story. We promised each other because you had to see how it was to not become terrified. That’s what the killers wanted. There’s a place where they can’t win, and it’s called the mind, so you shouldn’t infect others with fear. Not everybody managed it. Some left the ESMA terrified. They even forgot their own names. They quit working, stopped being activists. But we felt we had to tell what we’d seen because it concerned our dignity.”

The kidnapped lived through things that would give them nightmares for the rest of their lives. Carlos once heard a prisoner say, “Nothing’s going to happen to you because you’re pregnant.” Today the port unionist is still investigating who that woman might have been.

From his interrogators he learned of a young priest with a bright future. The priest was told he should collaborate because his father was dying and his family tremendously missed him. That he could go free if he revealed what he knew, giving up his compañeros’ names. Many years later Carlos managed to find out that the priest was Pablo María Gazzarri whose disappearance forms part of the ESMA case.

On 6 January 1977 a guard called Carlos and his compañeros by number. He told them they were going to be set free. He removed their shackles, handcuffs, and hoods. Carlos and Rodolfo were put together in a grey Falcon. Héctor and Oscar went separately, in two other vehicles. The workers from Buenos Aires thought they were being freed but they also feared a trick to kill them. They left them in different parts of Buenos Aires, after telling them they had ended up in ESMA for collaborating with the Montoneros.

Carlos withdrew from activism for a few months. He was afraid. But bit-by-bit he began to meet up with his compañeros from the port. In 1979 they were already calling for strikes and a return to politics. That’s what resistance was like until 1983, when Argentines resurrected their democracy.

***

Democracy brought with it faltering first steps to bring the torturers to justice. Judgments came down against the governing juntas, followed by pardons and decades of impunity. The stalemate continued until 2003 when Congress and the Supreme Court struck down the End Point and Due Obedience Laws, meaning that the judicial processes could restart, now en masse, against many more accomplices, not just against those at the top of the chain of command. Ever since then, Argentina has been the only country in the world to systematically try crimes against humanity.

For each trial to end with a guilty verdict, survivors’ testimony proves crucial. It’s never easy for any of the survivors, even those who are experienced human rights activists. It’s not easy to testify in the presence of torturers and murderers.

“Their sitting in front of us is a new torture. It makes you feel uncomfortable, threatened,” Carlos adds.

When the unionist appeared at hearings for the second ESMA trial, Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, a former marine and director of the clandestine prison, sat just a few steps away. Cavallo was engrossed in his computer screen, bearing the evasive attitude he maintained at every hearing. At the third ESMA trial, Carlos spoke in front of Juan Carlos Rolón, but he only realized it later after he had accused him of being a rapist, an allegation that would weigh against the former lieutenant more than torturer or murderer.

The trials afford relief, an easing for the witnesses.

“They help us mend,” recognizes Carlos, “but in a contradictory way. Justice has come very late and what’s happened cannot be repaired. When they issue rulings, you celebrate, but you also think that it would be better if the murdered or disappeared compañero could be by your side. It’s a pain that nobody can heal.”

The ever-present pain prevents many survivors from even getting close to the Navy Mechanical School (ESMA).

Carlos was one of those. After his kidnapping, he always avoided walking down those streets, especially if it was night. Things changed on 24 March 2004 when Nestor Kirchner offered the state’s apology in front of thousands of people, ordering that the clandestine prison should be turned into a Space for Memory. On that day Carlos braved entering the place where he had been kidnapped and tortured, together with his friends. Overcome by tension, by the memories, but supported by his wife and their two children, he walked about Capucha and Capuchita. He observed a change in the color of a window, the stairs, and the back of the water tank where he spoke to Hernán Abriata, the disappeared man who gave him hope during his captivity. He baptized his only son in honor of Hernán.

Carlos’s tour around ESMA was sufficient. He will never go back. It was too heavy on his spirit. It had been terrifying remembering that in this place neither justice, nor God. Nothing existed there, only the remains of a human being, civilization in retreat.

“It provokes deep thought. The concentration camp diminishes a human being, so one values little things like being able to move your hands around your body. A lot of pain comes with the retreat to primordial times: fighting for food, the loss of dignity, behaving like an animal.”

Carlos recognizes that part of Argentina’s society does not understand the importance of trials for crimes against humanity. There are those who insist that this is past history. Yet all the while the victims, their family members, human rights organizations and other groups have constructed a historical narrative that explains those crimes from the perspective of those who were involved.

That’s why Carlos attends most of three-times a week hearings held in Comodoro Py. He takes note of the testimonies. He looks over the witness lists. He puts together lines of investigation. He discovers the names and numbers of victims whose files can be joined to future processes. He describes operations, dates of kidnappings and names. He uncovers photos of the disappeared. He criticizes the defense witnesses. He proposes measures to speed up the trials, like grouping cases into one procedure, analyzing events according to chronology, to line them up with dates of captivity in the ESMA. Patiently he waits for the judgment to be handed down, by the latest at the end of 2014.

***

Carlos can tell many stories about the twenty-one days he spent in the Navy Mechanical School. But there’s one that scarred him.

One prisoner was delirious. He wouldn’t eat, and he took off his hood, so they hit him. He asked to see his father. “First officer, Montonero, doctor,” he shouted to identify himself. A guard kicked him until he killed him. He covered his corpse with a blanket, leaving it for hours beside Carlos and his friends. Five years ago Carlos got to know a woman named Alejandra Mendé who told him about the disappearance of her bother, Jorge. When they started to piece things together, they discovered that he was the same man that he and his friend had seen die. There hadn’t been many doctors who were first officers in the Montoneros.

Rodolfo Picheni, the port worker freed in the same Falcon as Carlos, never overcame his kidnapping and torture, nor of being an impotent witness to Mendé’s murder. Depression pursued him and worsened every time a new anniversary of his kidnapping came around. On 5 December 2012 a little after the third ESMA hearings began he hanged himself. “Now I am going to be number 30,0001. I’ll be taking care of them,” he wrote in a note.

Since 1976, end of the year celebrations have always been particularly nostalgic for Carlos. But his friend’s suicide last year saddened him. He didn’t let it overcome him. He celebrated Christmas and the New Year with his family, as is his custom. He dined. He toasted. He laughed.

He did all those things. But he’s never tasted a sugarplum again.

Cecilia González is a foreign correspondent for NOTIMEX based in Argentina. Her book, “Narcosur: la sombra del narcotráfico mexicano en la Argentina,” was published by Marea in 2013. This prize-winning article first appeared in Spanish under the title, “Sin confites de navidad,” available at: http://www.espaciomemoria.ar/noticia.php?not_ID=378&barra=noticias&titulo=noticia.

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons.