Coming to Terms with the Past: Argentina's Coup: Social Myth, Memory and History

By Lorenz, Federico Guillermo | History Today, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Coming to Terms with the Past: Argentina's Coup: Social Myth, Memory and History


Lorenz, Federico Guillermo, History Today


Federico Guillermo Lorenz shows that those who control the present are sometimes able to control interpretations of the past.

WHAT NARRATIVES HAVE SHAPED the history of the military coup in Argentina of March 24th, 1976? Which social actors bare felt the right or need to tell the history of the years of dictatorship that followed? How do these narratives influence the present? Controversies upon the meaning of this day are still strong. According to Rodolfo Walsh, a writer and member of the Montoneros guerrillas, in 1977: 'The first anniversary of the latest military junta has been marked by many official documents and speeches evaluating the government's activities over the past year; what you call successes are failures, the failures you recognise are crimes and the disasters you have committed are omitted altogether.' Rodolfo Walsh disappeared on March 25th, 1977, after posting copies of his famous Open Letter From a Writer to the Military Junta, in which he questioned the official version of the current situation in Argentina. His words show the difficulty of any attempt to approach an explanation about Argentina's recent history.

Social memory is essentially dynamic. It grows and changes, constantly recovering or burying facts and meanings. Historians are part of this process: our work provides elements to allow individuals to feel part of a larger, collective whole. When the past to be told has elements of a tragedy of enormous moral implications, as in this case in Argentina, this task is more difficult to perform.

First, the bald facts about the coup. On March 24th, 1976, the Argentine Armed Forces brought down the democratic government and a military junta took over, appointing a president, General Videla, who initiated the National Reorganisation Process.

Military coups were already old news in twentieth-century Argentina. Their frequency was directly proportional to the radicalisation of politics, especially since the coup of 1955 which had brought down Juan Peron's government. From then on, through the following decades, social unrest grew constantly. Youngsters and trade unionists were at the forefront of this struggle, which also drew support from many different quarters. Guerrilla organisations started to surface. The most important ones were the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP) and the Montoneros, the latter of Peronist extraction.

In 1972, social unrest forced the military government to call an election. Peron himself was not allowed to stand as candidate; but his deputy, Hector Campora, was elected president, due largely to the activities and support of the Juventud Peronista (Peronist Youth), which supported Montoneros. The increasing political clout of this section of Peronism was bitterly resented by its orthodox sectors. The intense struggle for power between the left and the right wings of Peronism came to a head in June 1973, when Peron returned to Argentina from exile in Madrid. Close to Ezeiza Airport, right-wing groups fired on the masses of people who had come to welcome their leader. It was a bloodbath. From then on, but specially after Peron's death, on July 1st, 1974, state-supported paramilitary groups such as the Triple A hunted down leftwing supporters, social militants, radical trade unionists and intellectuals, murdering or forcing into exile thousands of people considered to be 'subversives'. The guerrilla organisations rose to the challenge, meting out 'popular justice' to individuals regarded as 'enemies of the people'. Both legal and illegal repression seriously affected the operational ability of the guerrilla groups and drove them into terrorism, so that they became isolated from society. A population used to military coups and tired of violence was therefore relieved to hear about the events of March 24th, 1976.

All political and trade unionist activity, as well as constitutional rights, were now suspended. Similarly, outward signs of dissent were to be repressed. …

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