We are happy to feature another insightful interview conducted by Adele Nieves. The interview with a former political prisoner under Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970′s is being released following a historic decision yesterday. The court’s ruling is the first time that a judge has been found guilty of repression and abuse that occurred during Argentina’s “Dirty War”.
Patricia Isasa: Bringing Torturers to Justice in Argentina
Interview by Adele Nieves
Patricia Isasa visited the University of Detroit Mercy’s McNichols Campus and spoke on her experiences of being tortured and held prisoner in Argentina. We met and talked the following weekend.
In 1976 you were kidnapped by Argentine police and soldiers, imprisoned for over two years, and tortured and raped. What was the official reason for your arrest?
I don’t exactly know; there was never a trial, or even any evidence. I never had the opportunity to defend myself against false accusations, or see the evidence against me.
I was not a subversive, I was never a delinquent. But I was involved with social movements and student government. And during the 1960s and 70s a new progressive current erupted among Catholics after the Second Vatican Council, with a focus on the poor, freedom, a vision of secular people getting closer to the needy. There are some who would call that “subversive.”
But to be subversive, to be a terrorist, is a concept so general, so broad, and so undetermined that any person can fit: a scientist, an artist, or a union worker.
Why were you finally released?
Since there was no real motive for detention in a specific case, there was no motive for freedom. They could easily have not freed me. They could have killed me in a week, or they could have kept me for years.
Immediately after I was freed, I worked to testify in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. It gave me a new reason for the craziness that I and so many others lived through. The government’s idea was to commit these acts in secrecy to guarantee intimidation. But I felt it had to be reported, and to report, one must investigate. You cannot report without evidence, and many of us immediately started to investigate. When we were kidnapped, we had tried to pay attention to who was present, who came, if we heard a name spoken, if we saw a clue to our location. I finished the investigation, accumulating data and reports, almost 20 years later in 1998.
Compared to the United States, other countries have social movements that are much more revolutionary or radical. You mentioned if the schools were to be privatized in Argentina, there would be a big uproar.
Argentina was one of the richest countries in Latin America. I was raised in a very different country than what it is now. My public school was free and secular; I was able to go to a secular public high school and to college, all free. I never paid a dollar, nothing.
Every time they tried to privatize there were terrible uproars. We had good public health, very powerful unions that won very good salaries for the workers – about 70% of people were middle class with good standards of living. The coup of 1976 changed everything. Debt was privatized, like now in the U.S. Then a small Argentinean financial group robbed the country, became very rich, and that made the banks break down.
The country gained nothing from the dictatorship. We lost 30,000 people, we lost 500 babies born in the concentration camps, and the corrupt administration bought a bunch of weapons for a war that had no purpose or function. Those were the consequences.
You protested the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School of Americas, at Fort Benning in Georgia. You were also there in 2006. Tell us why the school is important, and why you and others believe it should be shut down.
Well, the school must be closed for many reasons. The military dictatorship adopted the belief that any person involved in sciences, in art, in unions, anyone involved in something, anyone who proposes a small change, all of this was sufficient for someone to be considered dangerous, an enemy, and to be eliminated, exterminated. That is the central social concept that the military received while being trained at the School of Americas. For the military, I don’t believe this transformation was easy; the military’s training is the defense of the country, of its citizens. This training meant a transformation of the military into occupiers of their own country, and the persecution of their own citizens. I think they were convinced this was part of like a third world war, against Marxism, against communism, and whatever else – all of that had to be destroyed. What if they weren’t fighting a common military or the people they fought had no weapons? But nothing mattered to them anymore. So their weapons combated our ideas. The School of Americas was part of the genesis of these massacres in Argentina, and elsewhere in Latin America, so it is important to close the school because of what it has produced.
The issue is not that they trained 900 people, but they have reproduced. 900 are trained so they can teach 9,000 more. Leopoldo Galtieri* was trained at the School of Americas, he was the chief of five provinces; later commander of the country’s entire military, and in 1981 became president. Viola, another president received trained at the SOA. We are talking about dictators with great power over millions of people.
On one hand the school is a symbol, and on the other hand it is concrete history. I really think it is criminal having social politics as part of the military. The military has to focus on other things. How great would it have been to have a well-trained military when Hurricane Katrina occurred? For these and so many other things, there needs to be more defense and order, not the persecution of socially organized citizens.
The U.S. supported the Argentine dictatorship, and trained many of the people who ordered and carried out the torture and murder during those years. What are your feelings toward the United States, its government and its people?
The United States has a marvelous history. It is a country of immigrants, after the massacre of Indians, the real land owners. The struggle in Chicago for the eight hour day, the labor struggles in Boston; the anarchists and immigrant laborers fighting for worker’s rights, the struggle for women’s rights, the sixties with its marvelous social movements over abortion, feminism, the rights of lesbians and gays and their families, for individual rights in general, the fight against racism. Also, cultural movements like rock and roll – young people like me were raised by it. The developments in science and technology were enormous. So I have a feeling of great determination for this history and the people. Governments are distinct from all these people that have made history.
But I also think that they are victims of propaganda. People need free media, to hear other voices and opinions. And there is the darker side of U.S. society – its political exterior. The government, especially after World War II, started to focus on the business of war, starting the period by throwing two atomic bombs on poor, innocent people. Your government has had very repressive and criminal foreign policies, especially in Latin America. People think of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, but it’s not just the person, it’s the politics: the School of the Americas, the repression, the coup, fighting the progress of other societies. Were it not for these policies, we would have a much better quality of life on this planet.
Recently, memos were released proving the Bush administration approved of the use of torture by the CIA in the so-called war on terror. What do you want to say to the American people about torture, and why it must be ended?
Well, it should simply be finished with because it is illegal. But besides being illegal, it is useless. The supposed objective of torture is to search for information. Of course the information obtained from torture is a lie. Simply, when being tortured, anyone will say anything. One can make themselves responsible for the death of Christ, as long as it stops the torture.
If it doesn’t work for information, what does it work for? It serves to intimidate, to generate fear and terror. This is a well-known practice; people know it’s happening – although it isn’t known where, when, nor why – therefore any person can have this fear. The idea of torture, not even saying how, nor when, nor why, is precisely putting you in risk of being tortured. And that generates terror, the purpose of which is to dissuade you from identifying with those Arabs who were accused unjustly, the way I was.
How bad a position must we be in, that we must create a campaign that says “torture is an error?” Imagine a campaign that says “raping children is an error” or “abuse of children is an error.” What has happened to a society if you must discuss if it right or wrong to abuse a child?
We don’t need terrorized societies. We need productive societies, laborious, creative, to develop more discourses; every day we grow more in numbers, and we are going to start taking care of each other and the planet, the environment. We need to put our resources there, and think about how to develop or recuperate the industries and technology. It is better than torturing someone.
After 20 years of working on this case, what will you do when it is over?
I am going to write a book. I don’t want to die without telling my story. If it could help someone, even just once, for one person, in one place on the planet…for a woman or a young person to have the chance to be able to say “a similar thing happened to me.” For me, it has been very difficult. I would want to help someone have it easier than me.
UPDATE: Patricia’s trial lasted from Sept. 1 until December 22. All accused are facing sentences ranging from 19 to 23 years in prison. For most of the perpetrators, this means that they will be in prison for the rest of their lives. There is still no word on the appeal process.
* Leopoldo Galtieri: President of Argentina from December 22, 1981 to June 18, 1982, during the last military dictatorship.
Image of Patricia Via / Presente!
Adele ‘bo-dee-qua’ Nieves is a freelance journalist, mixed media-maker, and emerging poet. To learn more about Adele, please visit her at adelenieves.com
Spanish translation after the jump.