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The Thick Line

On the impossibility of coming to terms with a dark past

“We split away the history of our recent past with a thick line. We will be responsible only for what we have done to help extract Poland from her current predicament from now on.” 

– Tadeusz Masowiecki

As Poland’s first post-Communist prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki sought to draw a thick line between the past and present; to say that the criterion for judging bureaucrats would not be their past guilt, but their competence and their loyalty to the new order. In his book Askari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle, Jacob Dlamini suggests that South Africa seems to have adopted a similar ‘thick line’ not intentionally, but by default. In South Africa, public servants kept their jobs and pensions as long as they supported the reform – and this let apartheid collaborators, he argues, “slip seamlessly into the new order.”

On January 30th, The New School enjoyed the privilege of having Jacob Dlamini speak with the students composing a course entitled “Women and Men in Dark Times.” For us – the students, professors, and TA’s in attendance – his book was the perfect excuse to delve into the issue of collaboration in Apartheid South Africa, and into the problematic transition to Post-Apartheid life. To this end Dlamini was the protagonist of a warm and friendly talk, but also a sharp and thought provoking one – in which not even Mandela himself was safe.

Coincidentally, only a week before Dlamini’s visit to New York Nicolás Massot, one of the leaders of the Argentinian Propuesta Republicana (PRO) party, declared that “with the 1970s, we have to do like South Africa and call for reconciliation.” It is hard to emphasize how shocking words like these of Massot’s can be in a country that has taken not the path of reconciliation – as South African did – but the path of “justice,” of full prosecution of those who have been found guilty. Massot’s words are shocking precisely because, unlike South Africa, Argentina did not draw a thick line.

The words of Massot, Dlamini, and Mazowiecki are all attempts to respond to the crises that follow in the wake of efforts to democratize governments, whether these transitions took place in the Poland of the 1980s, the South Africa of the 1990s, or the Argentina of today – where consensus about the troubled past and how to deal with it is again under scrutiny. As an Argentinian myself, I was struck in listening to Dlamini by one sad fact: that neither of our opposite ways of handling the past during our transitions to democracy seem to have worked. Both in Argentina and in South Africa accusations continue to spring up, and collaborators to slip in.

This can be brought to light by remembering two things Dlamini shared with us in his lecture. The first relates to what he referred to as the “black face” of apartheid. In a country where whites count for only ten percent of the population, Dlamini argued that a regime like apartheid could not have been sustained without black collaboration. It was this reality that triggered the question that led him to write Askari: how can South Africa come to terms with the fact that so many black people collaborated with a government that oppressed precisely them? And how can South Africa come to terms with the fact that most of those collaborators still remain anonymous – that they have “slipped into the new order?”

The second element that I would like to recall is the distinction Dlamini made between the formal and informal ends of apartheid. While the formal end of apartheid is marked by the negotiations that took place in 1990-1991, informally, apartheid is still present in South Africa. And not least in the effect it has on current patterns of wealth distribution and educational access. In his narrative, Dlamini argued that part of the reason apartheid ended was because, by 1992, white people simply did not need it anymore. In other words, given the capital, the skills, and the educations that white South Africans had attained, apartheid was able to become formally obsolete precisely because the stage was set to reproduce systematically and structurally the same inequalities without the need of racist laws. Evidence of the structural-racial inequality that exists today is not difficult to obtain: income distribution between blacks than whites in Post-Apartheid South Africa is dramatically unequal. And, even further, so is the income distribution between the descendants of black Africans who collaborated with the apartheid government and the descendants of those who refused.

While the thick line might have been needed to prevent retribution in the years immediately following the transition out of apartheid, Dlamini argues that the obscurity of a past covered by the thick line also hurts the public life of the presentIn other words, South Africa has let the secrets of the past gain an afterlife: instead of coming to terms with the fact of collaboration, the dark past and the secrets it conceals are being used to fight contemporary political battles. Whispers about who might have been a collaborator are used in today’s post-apartheid South Africa to silence political rivals since these accusations render them morally suspect and politically unreliable. In such a context, heroes are accused as villains and villains decorated as heroes. And the whisperers triumph by simply passing on secrets – often secrets that say nothing of who the true collaborators were. Such whisperers, writes Dlamini, speak “as if they knew that the power of the secrets they were purporting to share resided, not in the content of the secrets themselves, but in the mere hint that there were secrets.”

It was almost inevitable, given Massot’s words and Argentina’s own history, that I would begin to draw parallels – but Argentina is not the only Latin American example. In Chile, for example, South America’s most famous dictator, Augusto Pinochet, was never fully tried for the crimes he committed. In fact, he continued to serve as head of the Chilean army until 1998, eight years into democracy. After that he became “Senator for Life” – in accord with the 1980 Constitution promulgated by his own regime. Even though he resigned from this role in 2002, four years before his death, he continued to enjoy the pension and benefits granted to all senators until the last day of his life. While several judicial attempts were made to bring him to account (including his arrest in London – ordered by celebrity judge Baltasar Garzón) they never succeeded. It must be noted that Chile did form a National Commission of Truth and Reconciliation in 1990 in order to investigate human rights violations during the dictatorship. But even though the commission published its results, most of the crimes it detailed could not be judged due to the still effective Amnesty Law which pardoned crimes committed by any military officer between 1973 and 1978. This led, in the Chilean context, to the strange combination of the public knowing about the dark past but lacking the capacity to do anything about it.

In Uruguay, as usual, things are simpler. There the dictatorship ended in 1985. By 1986 congress had already passed the Ley de Caducidad – the “law of expiration” – which impeded the prosecution of any violations against human rights committed by the security and military forces between 1973 and 1985. Such a law accompanied Uruguay well into the re-establishment of democracy, even obtaining popular support via referenda in both 1989 and 2009. When congress finally voted to modify this law in 2011 it declared the offenses committed between 1973 and 1985 to be crimes against humanity, which would therefore not expire. However, in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that this amendment was unconstitutional because penal application cannot be retroactive. This 2013 ruling has been described as in effect creating a “ people that does not want to remember,” and thereby drawing in Uruguay one of the thickest of thick lines. This Uruguayan thick line is, however, not one that is inherited or drawn by default, but rather one that has had popular support, has been subjected to debate in congress, and was finally consolidated as a result of the rule of law fully working.

In Argentina, as usual, things are more complicated. The absurd idea of the Falkland War of 1982 and its obvious failure, together with an economy that was falling to pieces, precipitated the end of the regime in 1983. The famous “Trial of the Juntas” was carried out two years into the return of the democratic order, in 1985. That trial still remains one of the few cases of perpetrators being tried for crimes against humanity by their own people and country. Its results were exemplary as well, with members of the juntas condemned to prison sentences that ranged from decades to life. These sound steps on the road to justice, however, would not last.

In fact they lasted only until 1987 when, in the middle of a climate of political agitation and with the specter of political violence stretching over Buenos Aires, the Ley de Obediencia Debida, or “Law of Due Obedience,” was passed. This law absolved any member of the armed forces below the rank of colonel from their crimes on the grounds that they were obeying orders. This, together with the Ley de Punto Final, or “Full stop Law”, of the previous year (which indicated that human rights violations committed until 1983 should be reported by 1986 or would be pardoned) and the presidential pardons awarded in 1990 to the imprisoned members of the juntas, turned the tables completely. With these three laws another thick line was drawn through the Southern Cone – a line that would endure for more than a decade.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, this was a case in which the typically-Argentinean loose attachment to the written law worked in favor of justice. By 2003, each of these laws were annulled. The quest for justice was back on. It is, in fact, still ongoing.

The repercussions of Massot’s words were loud indeed: five days later, the Argentina’s secretary for human rights clarified that the government is not looking for reconciliation with the violence of the 1970s. In addition, representatives of opposition parties replied that reconciliation and forgiveness will only be enacted by God. Representative Cecilia Moreau even suggested that the government wants Argentina “to forget that many of the names that are today in power are repeated if we look at the actors of that time.” The resemblance of such statements to the secrets described by Dlamini is not coincidental. Even more, these sharp reactions against the idea of reconciliation let us see just how committed the Argentinean public still is to the search for full, vindictive, justice.

The difference between the three South American cases is illuminative: Uruguayan amnesty will be here forever. Chile is struggling with the legacy of Pinochet’s regime and the obstacles it still presents for the prosecution of the perpetrators. And Argentina has been bringing repressors to justice for more than a decade. Yet, and even though we can see the current Argentinean way of handling its past as the opposite of South Africa or Uruguay, rumors about past collaboration still corrode public life.

Moreau’s response to Massot’s words is the perfect example of how accusations of involvement with the military dictatorship can work as a readymade answer to discredit political rivals in the Argentinian context. The comments sections of the online versions of the reports describing this controversy are rife with accusations that publisher Vicente Massot (who is Representative Massot’s uncle) was an accomplice in the disappearance of two people who worked at the newspaper he owned in the ‘70s. As in South Africa, public life in Argentina is impregnated with these kinds of rumors and whispers. This kind of public whispering is so common, in fact, that not even Pope Francis – who is among the most popular figures in the world – has been safe from these accusations. In 2010, when he was still Jorge Bergoglio and a political rival, he was accused of having collaborated with the regime in 1976 by giving them the names of two Jesuit priests. These accusations were propelled by a sector of the press and never formalized – but, as is typical of this style of communication, they were never cleared up either, even though the articles accusing him were deleted from the archives in 2014 when he ceased to be a rival.

Nor has this stopped, because even after three decades of democracy, collaborators continue to sneak into public office. This is especially notable in the case of César Milani 2017 arrest. Milani, who was chief of the army between 2013 and 2015, was arrested on the basis of an accusation of having kidnapped and tortured two people in 1977. These examples show how the erasure of the thick line does not guarantee a non-discretionary use of the past. It does not prevent perpetrators from slipping into the new order.

And all of this is why Rep. Massot’s words, as problematic as they might be in another place and time, must be read in the context of today’s Argentina – in light of the consequences of a seemingly-infinite search for justice. Because in truth the endlessness of this search for justice conceals a problem. It is never closed, never over, and this very limitlessness obscures the boundaries of what is and what is not collaboration. This kind of search for justice seems simply to rip open the wounds of the past in an endless loop instead of letting them heal. It must be asked: was all civil service collaboration? Was personal or corporate profit from the economic policies of the dictatorship “collaboration”? In 2017, the province of Buenos Aires passed a law that officially proclaimed the dictatorship to be a civil-military one in order to account for the civilian actors that propelled it and benefited from it. This kind of formulation gives civilians and military the same level of responsibility – even though human rights violations were perpetrated primarily by members of the armed forces. The past, then, is never over.

While the quest for justice should always celebrated, sometimes its delay results in no justice at all. Some of these repressors are already dead. Others are living (or about to live) under house arrest. Perhaps that kind of lenient justice can be given up in exchange for what is truly needed: a truth that might allow Argentina to finally come to terms with its own troubled past.

But perhaps this cry seems vague or idealistic, so here is a more modest proposal. It is estimated that some 500 babies born in captivity – the children of unjustly imprisoned, pregnant women – were stolen and relocated by the armed forces between 1976 and 1983. Only 127 were recovered. I propose that a deal be offered to any people who come forward with information on the destination of the remaining 373 persons. And to any who are willing to provide information leading to some kind of confirmation of what happened to the desaparecidos – so that some closure can be brought to something that otherwise seems to remain perpetually open. Of course justice would be given up in such a proposal, but it would be given in exchange for truth. And maybe truth would help to heal the wounds from which Argentina’s people and politics suffer more than would justice.

Regardless of Argentina’s path forward, it is another example of how the transition from a dark past is always problematic. And it is perhaps a lesson as to why we should not blame those who do not want to remember, or those who want to make the line between past and present as thick as possible.

Santiago Mandirola is a Ph.D. Student in Sociology at The New School for Social Research. His research focuses primarily on economic sociology. 

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Santiago Mandirola

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