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Marchers Condemn Obama's Visit on the 40th Anniversary of Argentina's Dictatorship

Argentina remembered the victims of the country’s 1976 to 1982 dictatorship on the 40th anniversary of the coup that started it all with a massive march through the capital that was peppered with banners saying "Obama Go Home."

by Taylor Dolven
Mar 25 2016, 7:40pm

Taylor Dolven/VICE News

Argentina remembered the victims of the country's last dictatorship on the 40th anniversary of the coup that started it all, with a massive march through the capital Buenos Aires.

Yesterday's march, estimated at around 100,000 people, was peppered with "Go Home Obama" signs in reference to the US president's visit to the country that coincided with the anniversary, and which many saw as an insult. It was also pervaded by the fear that Argentina's new right-wing president, Mauricio Macri, will bump justice for victims down the political priority list, as was the case during the last right-wing government in the 90s under Carlos Menem.

Paper mache figures of Obama and Macri kissing floated over the enormous crowd. They gave the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo — a group of activists whose children disappeared during the dictatorship and whose grandchildren were stolen and given to military families — space as they shuffled down the city's wide avenues wearing their traditional white headscarves.

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Photo by Taylor Dolven/VICE News

Human rights organizations have always put part of the blame for the horror of the military's rule on US imperialism, and not just in Argentina. They point to the logistical role the US played supporting dictatorships throughout the region in the 1970s and 80s, including military training and information sharing between dictatorships in South America, known as Operation Condor.

"Obama's visit is unfortunate. The US government at the time planned and financed different dictatorships in the region," said Emiliano Rodríguez Saá, a psychologist whose father was held by the regime in Argentina. "Today is a march to recognize the bloodiest coup in our history and not only the disappearance and torture as a form of murder, but the objective of installing a free market economic model here."

The leader of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Estela de Carlotto, said only a few words about Obama's visit in the park built to commemorate the victims, known as the Parque de la Memoria, where he and Macri had thrown white roses into the River Plata.

Related: Obama's Visit to Argentina: A New 'Mature' Chapter in a Complicated Relationship

"We don't criticize it or applaud it," she told the crowd. "The park is open to everyone, including them."

Soon after another of the "grandmothers" shouted "30,000 presentes," or ""the 30,000 are here," over a loudspeaker, referring to the number of people estimated to have disappeared during the seven-year dictatorship.

"Ahora," she continued, or "Now."

"Y Siempre," the crowd shouted back, meaning "And forever."

An NGO that works within Argentine slums called "La Poderosa," named after the motorcycle Che Guevara used on his famous trip through the continent as a young man, had tables on each block with pens and paper for passersby to write letters to different figures in the dictatorship.

A protester writes a letter at the station set up by La Poderosa. Photo by Taylor Dolven/VICE News

They included the senior commander of the army during the dictatorship, Jorge Rafael Videla, as well as Jorge Eduardo "Tigre" Acosta, who commanded the infamous ESMA detention center, and Miguel Etchecolatz, the head of the Buenos Aires police. All of them have been convicted of human rights violations. Videla died in prison in 2013.

People waited in line to write letters a the table under the banner that said "Open Letter to Obama." Many criticized the US's record in the region and some cited Guántanamo as the biggest human rights violation of all.

Related: Argentina's President Macri Urges Congress to End 15-Year Feud with 'Vulture Funds'

A group of artists had spent five hours painting a giant mural on the side of a building that featured a huge vulture, signifying the holdouts, wearing buttons with the logos of Monsanto, Shell, Clarín, Barrick Gold, and JP Moran being pulled by a cartoon drawing of Macri.

"Today is a day of memory and struggle," muralist Lucas Quinto said. "Memory for the 30,000 disappeared and struggle for what we still need to achieve. Obama's visit is a joke; it looks like he came to celebrate 40 years since Operation Condor. That's why I'm here today."

A mural painted amidst the protest. Photo by Taylor Dolven/VICE News

About every half hour parts of the crowd erupted in a chant of support for the previous administrations of Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who are credited with giving prominence to the remembrance of the dictatorship as well as for their anti-imperialist rhetoric. A man resting on a relatively calm curb side near a sign that said "Thanks for the best 12 years," wore a shirt featuring the smiling former presidents.

Since his inauguration last December, President Macri has sought to reintegrate Argentina into world markets, and eliminated electricity subsidies and import restrictions. On the first day of his visit on Wednesday Obama applauded Macri's swift changes and new openness to foreign investment — another reason why many left-wing marchers expressed their disapproval.

Related: Activists Fear the History of Argentina's Dirty War Is About to Be Rewritten

"I don't believe that Obama can improve the daily lives of the Argentine people," said Norberto Varela, who works at the University of Buenos Aires. "I'm not pro-US or anti-US, but I would have liked to see a leader from the region like Evo or Lula be received here the same way."

Though Obama did acknowledge that the US had been "slow to speak out for human rights" in Argentina, this was not enough for many on the march.

"Obama's reluctance to acknowledge US intervention in Latin American dictatorships is truly unfortunate," said Gabriel Giorgi, an Argentine professor at NYU. "It's an indication of the true goal of this trip: to boost Macri´s place as his ally in the region."

Giorgi is part of a group of over 30 academics at US and European universities who penned a letter to President Obama before his visit urging him to recognize flaws in the current government. Another Argentine professor at Georgia State University, Fernando Oscar Reati, who as a young political activist was detained from 1976 to 1981, called Obama's visit "too little, too late." Seventy of his fellow activists were disappeared and killed during the dictatorship.

Thousands protest in Buenos Aires. Photo by Taylor Dolven/VICE News

During a press conference on Thursday, Obama thanked several people from outside Argentina who helped fight for justice during the dictatorship including US scientists who helped the Grandmothers set up a DNA database to find their missing grandchildren, President Jimmy Carter who spoke out against the atrocities, and Robert Cox, a British journalist at the Buenos Aires Herald during that time who was detained after publishing stories about the disappeared and later fled to the US.

A few signs at the march read "Fee Milago Sala!" referring to an indigenous activist who remains detained since January 16, 2016 in the region of Jujuy after refusing to leave a protest against the newly-elected governor and Macri ally, Gerardo Morales. Amnesty International is campaigning on her case. The Pope sent her a rosary in prison.

Jens Andermann, a Latin American studies professor at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, said Obama should have criticized Sala's detention, instead of congratulating Macri on his economic reforms.

"To visit Parque de la Memoria now, in the company of Mauricio Macri, in order to put some pseudo-'progressive' veneer on the rewards for Macri's government in exchange for the latter's realignment with US and international finance capital, strikes me as one of the most disgusting acts of political theater I've seen in recent years," he said.

Related: Argentina's New President Mauricio Macri Promises a 'New Era'

Follow Taylor Dolven on Twitter: @taydolven

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