Rewriting the past in Argentina

Argentina: Let Yourself be Crossed by Reality.  On Censors and Memories of the Dictatorship

By Rubén Kotler

Translated by Laura Boué, edited by Machetera

In recent days a variety of national and international media have published a list of songs censured during the last Argentinian military dictatorship, recovered in memory of those years of prohibition. The press has repeated the news and finds itself surprised to see some of the themes included in the list. However, this publication by COMFER (Federal Committee of Broadcasting) has made more noise than it deserves.  In first place, it is not news that the last military dictatorship prohibited hundred of musical themes in the darkest years of Argentinian contemporary history. Anyway, the curious thing is that in the middle of the political failure of the Kirchner administration, there’s a forceful resurgence toward revision of the past in themes that have already been revised and that in any case, are not to be “disappeared” from the agenda of the “never again” media.

It is unusual to see how the state establishes the agenda of memory. From the long institutional transition up until now, different administrations have defined their policy of memory as it has suited them, more or less freely, but with the singular particularity of limiting the agenda to a cost-benefit calculation.  While the late Raúl Alfonsín flirted with the subject of human rights, he installed the nefarious theory of the “two demons” through the head intellectual, Ernesto Sábato, who became a defender of fundamental rights, “forgetting” that the well known author had meetings with the dictators in 1977, when the culmination of repression made thousands of Argentinian citizens disappear. Hopelessly, the radical administration approved, with the involvement of the Congress, two evil laws that sealed the first pact of impunity in the country of “recovered democracy:” the Laws of Proper Obedience and Final Point.

The Menem administration in the ‘90s didn’t leave any doubt about the official necessity of turning the page and imposed collective amnesia. The exonerations that let free the few killers judged in 1985 were not only the symptom of a national disease but the nearest way to guarantee amnesia while, at the same time, balancing the stories of the recent dictatorial past. In the country of “I don’t remember,” everything was possible, from the death of the son of the president in strange circumstances to the most brutal attempts which remain unpunished until today: the council of Israel and AMIA, attempts that today, more than 15 years since they were committed, are not known with certainty by anyone.

In the case of the Alliance, headed by the rightwing Fernando de la Rúa, it is also paradigmatic in terms of turning a page on the history of dictatorship. Although the parliamentary debates about impunity laws have remained in the middle of the path, the fence of memory tried to seal once and forever any revision of the past: Never again. That was the instruction that was repeated with force: never again should the history be told. But those with a social imagination and persistent social and human rights organizations wouldn’t allow the turning of the page without reviewing what had happened in the years of shame, death, and forced disappearance. Reminiscent of the past, during a day of crisis, the over-cautious president decided to install “martial law”, reminding huge social sectors what the mere idea of “prohibition” implied. Two days later, practically emulating the way “chabelita” departure from government, Fernando the “bored” escaped from the Rosada in a helicopter.

The Duhalde interregnum doesn’t leave space for analysis. The revision of the past mattered very little to Argentinians in an urgent economic situation. They had to put out a social, political and economical fire, and the middle class, more concerned about their pockets and daily needs than looking again at the reasons for the crisis, felt relieved when the plane was stabilized in the middle of all the turbulence. The middle class never understood that the structural crisis began at the same time as the disappearance of thousands of social leaders and fighters, as if those were two different “processes”.  In 2003 and with “the Kirchners” in the Rosada, once again the topic of memory and human rights was handled, and in the worst way. In the world of “divide and conquer,” Néstor K. helped choose certain human rights organizations, promising an effective policy to review the past. Up to now, more than six years later, the judged and condemned dictators can be counted with the fingers of one hand. Once again memory and human rights have been used to turn the page on judging killers and a new horizon line is established. However, there is a new attack on the subject, as if bastardizing memory was enough for the most reactionary rightwing to win the battle in a field where once more there is lack of respect for the recent history of the country. The right obliges us to forget, the left changes the history and the society goes that way, forgetting pathologically and tripping again and again over the same stone.

One of the censured songs was an excellent work from the composer León Gieco, who in 1978 dared to compose songs such as “Sólo le pido a Dios” (I Just Ask God) or “Canción de amor para Francisca” (Love Song for Francisca), the story of a prostitute that Gieco knew how to “humanize”. Among these songs, one of them already warned of the process of amnesia that dictators of that time as well as constitutional presidents from our chosen transition, forced upon us: “This History” says in one of its verses: Let yourself be crossed by reality and let it cry in your head because it’s so bad to put this history to the side.

This History

(Lyrics and music: León Gieco)

Have you ever felt in a space

of your imagination

that the cry of the losers

is deaf and mute

although they cry together?

Have you ever felt when a country

spills its new blood

how the death comes slowly, just like for the heart

of a story teller?

Let yourself be crossed by reality

and let it cry in your head

because it‘s so bad to put

this history to the side,

because it’s so bad to put

this history to the side.

Have you ever felt a lot of people

having their strength broken

or a poem rising from the floor

that was saved in a corner

of their innocence?

Have you ever felt very closed

the tragedy moving forward

trampling and breaking everything

and on its back it carries

a good girl.

And Gieco was right. It was bad and it is worse to let this history go by the wayside: the shame of not knowing the truth more than 33 years after the last military dictatorship, the shame of managing it in the face of so much spilled blood and the shame of believing that the revision of the past can be managed, making disappear the memory of those disappeared, those that still call to us for justice.  While the administration of CFK (Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) is concerned about bringing the topic of “human rights” back to the front pages, she degenerates the history once again by trivializing the topic and returning to the story of her thunderous fight with the rural rightwing, while Jorge Julio López is still disappeared, while the right moves forward, while the country of marginalization hasn’t changed in comparison with the ’90’s, while the president’s own family is richer in a suspicious way, while kids keep dying of hunger in the country of “I don’t remember,” and while killers are walking freely in the Argentinian streets, operating as in the old days with the updated repressive apparatus of the state. Or let’s take a look at what is going on in Tucumán, for example, where repressors such as Camilo Orce keep terrorizing the local population with total impunity. And the national and international media have nothing better to broadcast than a well known list of songs prohibited more than 33 years ago.

Once more history and memory are being managed. Once more human rights are made banal, this time at the hands of COMFER. We already knew the prohibited songs. The truth about what happened in the country more than 33 years ago is still in hiding, while this history keeps being put aside. It is the sad and repeated Argentinian history of the years of the long and controlled transition.

Laura Boué and Machetera are members of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity. This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, translator and editor are cited.

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