* Published in The Independent on 6 January 2022 (Long Reads)
Ten years have passed since the death of General Domingo Bussi. The general was a member of the Argentine army, and perhaps one of the worst criminals of the last military dictatorship that devastated Argentina between 1976 and 1983 – a dictatorship characterised by kidnapping, torture and the execution of tens of thousands of citizens, the disappeared. Among them was my father, Maximo Jaroslavsky.
Bussi’s story contains a tragic lesson that Argentine society, like so many others, seems to have learnt and then forgotten again.
The Last Dictatorship
“Providence has placed upon the army the duty to govern,
from the presidency, down to administering a trade union”
Monsignor Bonamín, 10 October 1976.
During the 20th century, Argentina suffered six coups d’etat. The army developed a vision of itself as “supervisors” with a deep contempt for civil society, a role encouraged by the country’s most powerful economic sectors and given the invaluable blessing of the Catholic Church. The church supported the army not only because of the benefits it obtained. The army and the church shared the conviction that Argentina should be a Catholic country, a society living according to Catholic doctrine – whose God, paradoxically, told them: ‘Thou shalt not kill’.”
The social and cultural changes of the late 1960s in Argentina, the violent political situation and the incipient appearance of marginal armed organisations gave the armed forces the excuse (once again) to start planning yet another coup. By the end of 1975, Argentine society was clearly sensing that the military would soon take power again, but no one imagined that this new dictatorship would be dramatically different from previous ones.
Max, my father, was a cardiologist at the Hospital Centro de Salud, in the capital of the province of Tucumán, a small province in the north of Argentina, associated historically with the production of sugar cane. The remote province was at the time falling into a spiral of poverty, making the political situation highly unstable.
On the night of 19 November 1975 (four months before the coup) my father left the hospital where he worked to visit some of his patients and then return home. But he never did. Somewhere between the hospital and his patients he was kidnapped. The armed forces had decided that he had lived long enough. My father disappeared when I was five years old. Unknowingly, he became one more sign of what was to come.
The armed forces, led by Brigadier General Adel Vilas, had begun Operation Independence (OI), a major exercise designed to practise the techniques learned from the CIA in the US Army’s School of the Americas, which included kidnapping, torture and disappearance. The armed forces had also been training with the OAS (l’Organization de l’armée secrète), a French dissident paramilitary organisation known for torture and assassinations in an attempt to prevent Algeria’s independence from French colonial rule. Tucumán was now a laboratory, a rehearsal where the army could practise a plan of extermination that – after the military coup – would be applied to the entire country.
A few days after my father’s disappearance the OI changed command: Vilas was replaced by General Bussi. The new commander belonged to the Latin American military generation, which had attended the School of the Americas in the US and Panama, received training at Fort Leavenworth and was also taken as an observer to Vietnam. Bussi led OI until the coup, when the junta rewarded him with a provincial government command in recognition of his brutality.
A cloud of denial and fear invaded my home and the campaigns asking for my father’s whereabouts fell silent. No one ever mentioned him, and the only reminder I had of him was in the surname that he had bequeathed us and which was so striking – especially in the Salesian school run by Catholic priests where my family then placed me.
Vilas’s resentment at being replaced by Bussi led him to write about his experiences of OI. The general’s account gives us a glimpse of the lies promoted by the army. Vilas reveals that the armed insurgency comprised a group of no more than 300, and maintains that when he handed the command to Bussi “the armed subversion had been totally and completely defeated … I enjoyed the greatest satisfaction when some days later in the federal capital I received a call from General Bussi who told me ‘Vilas, you haven’t left me anything to do’. ”
When Bussi became de facto governor of Tucumán after the coup, carnage ensued, demonstrating that the goal of this dictatorship was to far exceed just the annihilation of the armed insurgency. The armed forces sought the extermination of any type of opposition or dissent in its desire to impose its economic and social restructuring of the country.
“First we shall kill all the subversives; then we shall kill their collaborators;
then their sympathisers; then those who remain indifferent;
and finally, we will kill those who are undecided.”
General Ibérico Saint-Jean, International Herald Tribune, 26 May 1977.
The medieval character of the dictatorship was also illustrated by the burning of books, censorship and regulation for the length of women’s skirts. The army called this new dictatorship the National Reorganisation Process. Argentina went through years of horror and widespread corruption – without any supervision or control – which had a disastrous impact on the economy. The army presided over the accumulation of huge private-sector debts, which it later converted into state debt.
When the economy began to collapse the army decided to start a war to justify their permanence in power. Argentina’s historic and, in my view, fair claim to the Malvinas Islands (Falklands) was the opportunity to rally popular opinion. The army declared war on one of the biggest military powers in the world. Military defeat in the Malvinas led to the final implosion of the dictatorship.
The return to democracy
After seven years of crimes against humanity, thousands of disappearances, imprisonments without trials, torture, the enforced exile of thousands of Argentines, and the appropriation of newborn children belonging to mothers executed in clandestine detention centres, the dictatorship collapsed.
The army had not just brought political terror to its citizens. A third of the population was living in poverty. In 1983, a destroyed and indebted Argentina began the return to democracy. It was a time marked by a strong sense of liberation, and a profound demand for justice. Argentina is one of the few countries in the world in which a democratically elected government has put senior military officers on trial for their crimes.
During these trials, a huge section of Argentine society experienced a painful eye-opener: all those citizens who, although suspecting the horrors committed by the military, had opted for ignorance, were now unavoidably confronted with the existence of mass graves and the testimonies of survivors with their gory descriptions of torture. They saw the results of the regime that they had actively or passively accepted.
Shame quickly gave rise to slogans promoted by accomplices of the terror, especially the Catholic Church: “Don’t look to the past, but to the future”, “Forget old grudges”, and so on. In short: flee forward. Paradoxically, the church authorities (including the current Pope) that maintained a profound silence during the dictatorship, became fierce campaigners in democracy threatening excommunications and plagues against anyone who dare to approve the new divorce law.
The armed forces’ refusal to accept the legitimacy of the trials also represented a constant threat to the fragile democracy until the Raul Alfonsín and Carlos Menem governments gave in and passed laws that guaranteed the military impunity from their crimes. For the relatives of the victims of the dictatorship, the climate of those years was one of deep frustration in the face of a situation that seemed set to become a permanent feature of the country’s weak democracy. But something much more sinister was about to happen in the Tucumán of my childhood.
While democracy failed to produce miracles, anti-democratic elements were busy promoting the myth of the dictatorship as a time of “order and security”. Within this framework of disenchantment, towards the end of the 1980s, the province of Tucumán welcomed back one of the leading figures in the dictatorship as a candidate for the governorship. Bussi was back.
Make Tucumán great again
In 1987, just four years after the return of democracy in Argentina, Bussi reappeared in Tucumán, free – thanks to the impunity laws. He headed an insignificant political party that obtained 18 per cent of the votes. His speeches tirelessly fed the frustration of the population with incendiary slogans, claiming that he was a new crusader who would sort out this corrupt and weak democracy. In 1993 Bussi was elected national deputy for Tucumán; and in 1995, as if his impunity were not already repulsive enough, he defeated the candidate of the two major parties to become governor once more.
Twenty years after the beginning of Operation Independence, one of the main criminals of the dictatorship was now the governor of Tucumán again, thanks to the avalanche of votes of tens of thousands of citizens. His rise to power happened during my late teens. Witnessing the support he received from my teachers, my neighbours and family friends made me understand how the military dictatorship had gained control. The armed forces did not “invade” Argentina. They emerged from people’s fears; they grew by feeding hate in society and harvesting their anger.
Voting for Bussi meant revenge too, a mindless reaction to rapid cultural and social changes. Bussi offered the promise of a return to a mythical past of honesty and security in contrast to the anxieties of this modern, degenerate world. I observed this process in disbelief, seeing how easy it is to blame democracy, to exaggerate its defects and promote anger while posing as an antidote, an antidote made of quick fixes and brutal solutions so simplistic that they look like an absurd joke.
But it was real. Bussi had gained power with a narrative of an anti-establishment hero who would restore order again. He turned reality upside down. His criminality was not a cause for shame anymore: he was now the representative of honesty while democracy meant corruption.
The general celebrated, ignoring the meteorite that was heading his way. An international investigation by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon about the kidnapping of Spanish citizens during the dictatorship revealed that the general kept undeclared overseas bank accounts. It became known that he also had almost $250,000 in the Hollandsche Bank-Unie NV in his wife’s name, plus a number of assets that he was unable to account for, including 17 apartments in the exclusive Buenos Aires neighbourhoods of Palermo and Recoleta, shares, and a number of expensive cars.
Without the dictatorship’s gags, the population could quickly see that Bussi was more corrupt than any of those whom he promised to fight. “It was an unintentional omission,” Bussi said, maintaining that the money was the product of “scholarships granted by the army and the United States government”.
The myth of the military man as a tough and incorruptible administrator evaporated rapidly when television broadcast the image of the brave general crying, incapable of explaining his properties’ portfolio and his accounts in Switzerland. Bussi was not defeated by other political parties. He defeated himself, sunk by his own lies. The talent of this general was limited to torturing and shooting defenseless detainees.
If his administration had scored just a couple of economic successes to uphold the “efficiency” myth, he and his party might have attained even higher levels of immorality.
The election of Bussi exposed the dangers of impunity. After many years, Argentine society matured and together with human rights organisations and a new government began to face up to the issue of impunity. Impunity laws were struck down and Bussi was tried in a country that he was no longer able to deceive or frighten.
Bussi lived long enough to see that there was nothing left of that model of society that the dictatorship had wanted to impose. In August 2008 he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was discharged from the army, losing his rank and his military status. The octogenarian spent his last years under house arrest. In 2011 he began to suffer cardiac complications and was admitted to a cardiology clinic.
A part of me couldn’t believe the twisted irony: the man who tortured and executed hundreds without remorse was laying on the clean sheets of a clinic that my father co-founded not long before the army took him.
By this time I had been living in York, England, for 12 years, pursuing a career as a painter. I learned on the news that Bussi was about to die. That day I wrote an article for the Argentinian newspaper Pagina/12, recalling that although Bussi was the psychopath who had commanded dozens of concentration camps, we should not forget that hundreds of businessmen, media organisations and the Catholic Church shared his objectives.
Representing the dictatorship as a purely military enterprise is a serious error of analysis that bestows oblivion on those that supported these criminals while profiting from the regime. Those who were in charge of the propaganda, the bishops who blessed the massacre, and the companies that filled pages with greetings to the dictators shared the army objectives.
Around that time, my mother, who still lives in Tucumán, received a call from a man who said he had information about my father. He left a phone number. When I finally managed to contact him, I learned that the man was going through a depressive crisis and that his psychologist had recommended him to contact us. The trembling voice at the other end of the line described a trip by bus when he was still a teenager, and the military raid that detained him and took him to a concentration centre that was being operated inside the Tucumán’s Central Police Headquarters. All this simply because he had the same last name as someone for whom they were looking. There he spent months in a hell of torture, hooded and terrified.
In his need to tell what he had kept silent for so many years, the man narrated in painful detail the terror that he went through, and finally told me of his recollection of a person older than him, who gave him support during his incarceration. That person was my father. After so many years, this was the first time I received credible information about Max’s fate after his disappearance; the answer to that cruel army riddle.
This survivor later became one of the main witnesses in the trials against the authorities running the Tucumán’s Police HQ during the dictatorship. In his testimony, he recalled that Max gave everyone “lots of encouragement” and had advised the detainees not to drink water after the torture sessions in which the military used to apply electric shocks to their victims. He also expressed gratitude for the support that my father had given to him.
His testimony described the last time he saw my father, tied over some wooden trestles after a torture session, dying. He thinks this was around July 1976. My father by then had been undergoing torture for more than eight months.
In that infernal lottery, where the military decided who lived and who died, the teenager was thrown semi-naked into the outskirts of the city. He remained hidden in the homes of relatives until he was finally able to leave Argentina to await the return of democracy.
Copy and paste
Building a stable democracy was a difficult journey for Argentina. A few weeks ago, the country held legislative elections to renew half of its chamber of deputies and a third of the senate of the nation. Like most countries, Argentina is struggling with the consequences of a pandemic that has hit the economy hard, in addition to a huge crisis generated by the debt taken on by the previous government of Mauricio Macri.
A predictable blow to the government appeared in the results. But one phenomenon is catching the media’s attention: an economist with a buffoonish presence, candidate Javier Milei, obtained more than 17 per cent of the vote and consolidated his party as a third force in Argentine politics. Until now, Milei had just been an economist/charlatan who came to the attention of the media when it was found that a large number of his articles in newspapers were nothing more than plagiarism from other authors of the Austrian School of Economics.
Shortly after, he launched his “anti-establishment” candidacy with a violent speech against the “political caste”, which is finding an echo among a segment of young male voters. Regardless of his vulgarities, there are other indications of his ideological profile: his number two is lawyer Victoria Villaruel, known for denying on several occasions the existence of state terrorism during the military dictatorship. It was just “fake news”.
Right across South America, the political map is being populated by similar characters denying the crimes of the last dictatorships while calling for war against random enemies. This aggressive discourse also denies global warming, the reality of a world pandemic, and attacks any type of aspiration for social justice.
After his successful first election, Milei received congratulations from various Latin American far-right groups, including that of the Chilean presidential candidate José Antonio Kast. Kast is a 55-year-old lawyer, a Catholic and father of nine, and a staunch critic of abortion and same-sex marriage. He is a fierce critic of immigration too, although his own father was an immigrant: a German lieutenant and a member of the nazi party that escaped to Chile at the end of the Second World War. Kast’s brother was a minister in Pinochet’s military regime.
A few days later, Milei returned greetings to Kast after his successful result in the first-round ballot for the presidential election in Chile. “Long Live Pinochet” chants accompanied the celebrations.
Trump changed the rules, creating a new scenario in which ignorance or immorality were no longer a cause for shame, or an obstacle to rise to power. He demonstrated how much can be achieved by openly falsifying reality while inciting hate against others. Trump’s total lack of inhibition was the mirror in which the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, modelled his image. Since then, a growing number of Latin American leaders have found the inspiration they were looking for. Aggressive arrogance rewards much more than compassion and analysis.
For its part, as in the US, a large sector of the local electorate believes that this clownish phenomenon will vanish. But how many times has humanity witnessed the rise of these almost comical characters who use the frustrations of societies to fuel hate, create scapegoats, divide and promote cultural wars simply to rise to power? How many times has the chip on the shoulders of these narcissistic “outsiders” ended in a nightmare for the whole of society?
The horrors of the dictatorship forced the nostalgics to hide their sympathy for the regime and encode their messages. Trump showed them that it is not shameful anymore. And Milei did “copy and paste” one more time.
A simple example: before being elected governor of Tucumán, Bussi was a national deputy in 1993. Argentina’s new political phenomenon Javier Milei never mentioned that during this time he worked for Bussi as his economic advisor. The economist kept it secret for almost 30 years. But now he is no longer ashamed of his association with Bussi.
Shortly after the end of the Second World War, Albert Camus published his novel The Plague, a brilliant allegory about fascism and the destruction it brought to Europe. In his final paragraph Camus leaves a chilling warning reminding us that “the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
Meanwhile, despite the evidence, we still cannot find an antidote for this new incarnation of fascism, the unapologetic pride in simplistic solutions. In the words of Federico Fellini: “Fascism cannot be fought if we do not recognise that it is nothing more than the stupid, pathetic and frustrated side of ourselves, and of which we should be ashamed.”
The proceeds of this article will be donated to The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights organization in Argentina with the goal of tracking down the children of women who were abducted by the dictatorship while pregnant. These women were murdered shortly after giving birth and their babies were handed over to military couples to raise as their own. www.abuelas.org.ar