Never Again: The Legacy of Nunca Más and the Promise of Truth in Democratic Argentina

Argentina Genocide Chronicles 2.0

Never Again: The Legacy of Nunca Más and the Promise of Truth in Democratic Argentina

by Natasha Zaretsky

In the February 10, 2015 New York Times, Uki Goñi, author of The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón’s Argentina, wrote a piece about truth in Argentina, provocatively titled, “How Argentina ‘Suicides’ The Truth,” or in Spanish, “Como se ‘suicida’ la verdad en Argentina.” He explores the immediate aftermath of the sudden death of Alberto Nisman, the lead prosecutor investigating the 1994 bombing of the AMIA building, the worst terrorist attack in Argentina’s history. Despite killing 85 people, wounding hundreds, and destroying the main Jewish community center in the nation, twenty years after the attack, the case remains in a state of impunity.

Nisman had been investigating the bombing since 2004, and in January, had made controversial accusations directed against Argentina’s government (accusations they deny). [1] Shortly after making those accusations public, Nisman was discovered dead in his apartment on January 18th, the night before he was scheduled to appear before Congress to formally present his findings.   Since his death, questions have abounded about who killed him, whether it was a suicide or a murder, who is really behind it, and what it all really means for Argentina.

Truth, as noted by scholars like historian Jeremy Adelman, [2] has important implications for democracy.  So, what is at stake here is not only the truth of what happened in the Nisman case, or the AMIA bombing, but more broadly, truth itself as a central foundation for Argentina’s democracy — a promise of truth drawing on the legacy of the historic truth commission report, Nunca Más (Never Again).

Nunca Más and the Promise of Truth

Why does truth matter so much? In Argentina, truth, or the promise of truth, became one of the foundational principles of the newly formed democracy, as symbolized in the CONADEP (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons) truth commission created to help Argentina transition from state terror, repression, and genocide to a society based in the rule of law. The CONADEP released their findings in a best-selling 1984 report, aptly titled Nunca Más as a way to further reinforce the idea that truth is integral to preventing such atrocities from happening again.

In 1983, after 7 years of a brutal dictatorship that left an estimated 30,000 disappeared, Argentina transitioned to democratic rule. One of the first things newly elected President Alfonsín did was to create the CONADEP – The National Commission on the Disappeared was created by President Alfonsín in 1983 to investigate and document the systematic abuses committed by the state from 1976-1983, the years of military dictatorship euphemistically called the “Proceso” (the Process of National Reorganization), classifying out, disappearing, and torturing those considered dangerous or subversive to national order by the military in power.

The historical significance of the CONADEP truth commission cannot be overstated. As one of the very first truth commissions to take place in the world, it became a model for transitional justice efforts that became paradigmatic in Latin America and beyond.

When justice did not seem immediately possible, the official documentation of the truth in the Nunca Más report became an important way for the state to acknowledge the experience and history of the survivors of state violence and the family members of the estimated 30,000 victims of state violence and repression. The Nunca Más report also connects the experience in Argentina with other genocides that preceded it, like the Holocaust, and is a term used for responses to subsequent genocides as well – suggesting the power of truth to prevent the recurrence of state violence and genocide.

In Argentina, truth and memory became especially important in response to the overwhelming silences of the dictatorship. The detentions, tortures, and disappearances were waged in a clandestine way, with the military in power attempting to disappear not just human beings but also the truth of that time. The social movements formed during the period of state repression — such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and later the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo – actively resisted the official narratives that denied the human rights abuses and crimes against humanity underway, using protests in public spaces like the Plaza de Mayo to challenge the notion that their children simply disappeared, and defend their rights to know the truth of what happened. Through their protests and advocacy, they inscribed memory into public spaces and into the political ethos of democratic Argentina.

While the CONADEP and the Nunca Más report were an important official support of these efforts and a step forward in a new democracy established in 1983, the late 1980s saw new challenges with the amnesty laws that heralded in a period of impunity for perpetrators. In the 1990s, in a period when justice was deferred, truth and memory remained critical tools in the advocacy work of the human rights movement, in the work of the Mothers and Grandmothers, along with other groups representing ex-detainees and children of the disappeared (H.I.J.O.S.) and the continuing efforts of organizations like CELS (Center of Legal and Social Studies).

We see, then, that the idea of “truth” and the promise of that truth, as symbolized by Nunca Más, continued to expand its meaning and relevance as time wore on, through the work of human rights groups struggling to resist the impunity that surrounded the state terror of 1976-1983 and the period of amnesty for perpetrators that existed in the first years of democracy.

A New Era for Memory, Truth… and Justice

Under the leadership of President Néstor Kirchner, human rights reforms took place that finally opened the door for prosecutions to begin for the perpetrators of torture and abuse. The largest such trial, the ESMA Mega-Trial (which began in 2012 and will conclude in 2015; to read more, see the CGHR Argentina Trial Monitor), builds on the promise of the Nunca Más report. Now in the context of justice, the trials are chronicling the juridical testimony of hundreds of witnesses that are documenting the abuses that took place at the ESMA. The ESMA itself is now officially called the Ex-ESMA and has became an important site of memory, home to organizations like the Memoria Abierta (Open Memory) archive and other human rights groups.

These trials then are taking place in tandem with a greater human rights effort, for whom memory and truth were historically central.   The connections between Memory, Truth, and Justice – literally pillars standing at sites of former torture and abuse – have become foundational to Argentina’s democracy, critical to ensuring that “never again” will the state be able to commit human rights abuses against their own citizens, thus reinforcing and sustaining the promise of truth in Nunca Más.

The Continued Importance and Legacy of Nunca Más for Democracy

But despite the genocide trials, challenges remain for democracy in contemporary Argentina.  In this time of political crisis, members of the government are defending their human rights record and their efforts in this case. [3] The trials prosecuting the perpetrators of state violence, along with the many other efforts of Argentina’s government to support human rights, are significant, and indeed carry out an important part of the promise of Nunca Más – hoping to ensure that the state will never again be responsible for such atrocities.

But part of the promise of Nunca Más is also in the step forward it represented in terms of establishing a democracy based in the rule of law. Indeed, the “never again” not only refers to human rights abuses but also to impunity. The promise and possibility of truth of Nunca Más is also to ensure the rule of law and a functioning civil society, so critical for any democracy.

The power and promise of truth in Nunca Más remained strong in an Argentina during a time of the amnesty laws in the 1990s, and continues to expand under the historic genocide trials currently underway. Now, as Argentina grapples with the challenges of Nisman’s death and the ongoing impunity in the AMIA case, we can hope that the legacy of truth embodied in Nunca Más continues to inspire the nation and help move it forward.

Links to References

– Jeremy Adelman, “Why It’s So Hard to Know the Truth in Argentina,” Slate, February 9, 2015.

– Alicia Castro, “Argentina Upholds Values of Peace, Truth, and Justice,” in Financial Times, February 9, 2015

– Uki Goñi, “How Argentina ‘Suicides’ The Truth,” The New York Times, February 10, 2015

– Uki Goñi, “Como se ‘suicida’ la verdad en Argentina,” The New York Times, February 10, 2015

– Natasha Zaretsky, “Something is Rotten in Argentina,” The Tablet, January 21, 2015

– CGHR Argentina Trial Monitor

[1] For more background on his accusations and another analysis of the impact of Nisman’s death on the family members of the victims of this bombing, see Natasha Zaretsky, “Something is Rotten in Argentina,” The Tablet, January 21, 2015

[2] See Jeremy Adelman, “Why It’s So Hard to Know the Truth in Argentina,” Slate, February 9, 2015.

[3] Alicia Castro, “Argentina Upholds Values of Peace, Truth, and Justice,” in Financial Times, February 9, 2015


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