By Luisa Valenzuela
1) The word impunity was charged with an even darker meaning than usual when it was casually uttered by the equally dark Alfredo Yabrán. A high-level businessman with a very low profile whom Domingo Cavallo, minister of the economy in the government of the then president Carlos Menem, described as ‘the boss of a power-bloated mafia’. This took place in 1995. Yabrán was a multi-millionaire who ran things from behind the scenes. He used to like saying that ‘taking my photo is the same as shooting me in the head,’ and in the first and perhaps only television interview he ever gave he declared ‘power means impunity.’ He later explained he’d said this in allusion to Cavallo, but it was a slip that left no doubt as to his beliefs. A belief that cost the photojournalist José Luis Cabezas his life, a man who had managed to photograph Yabrán at the exclusive beach resort of Pinamar for a well-known weekly magazine. This was the first tear in a cloak of invisibility that over the years would gradually become more and more frayed.
Impunity. Invisibility. Such closely related terms in the context of power.
I’d like to slowly trace a map of such rents (the rending of the veil), but I am a writer of fiction, not a political scientist or a sociologist. For this very reason I pause at the apparently meek terms that allude to horror, such as ‘liberated zone,’ which opened the way for hired killers to do their job with total peace of mind, with no police intervention whatsoever as occurred at Pinamar when they killed Cabezas. Or else ‘task force,’ or ‘unemployed workforce,’ in allusion to the security officers who, having had to leave the force, continue or continued to commit identical atrocities but on the other side of the law. Freelancers, we might call them.
Because impunity has many faces, assumes multiple disguises. Or respectable dinner jackets. I think of those horrifying laws that succeeded each other as if to reaffirm Yabrán’s dictum, namely: ‘Due Obedience’, ‘Full Stop’, and the intolerable ‘Amnesty’, initially signed by the very soldiers who carried out the coup before renouncing power, and which Carlos Saúl Menem transformed – after the significant though limited proceedings initiated by his predecessor, Raúl Alfonsín – into ‘Reprieve’. Wipe the slate clean, was the facile formula, fortunately changed during Néstor Kirchner’s government when it was declared that there is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity.
2) Miraculously, Argentina is a country with memory, and the impenetrable frontier of impunity is gradually being shifted. In this very land, where the term ‘the disappeared’ was coined to refer to the thousands of people obliterated from the map, the memory of their lives erased forever, symbolic figures emerged to endow the terms ‘Mothers’ and ‘Grandmothers’ with a heroic dimension.
In the so-called ‘years of lead’ of the military dictatorship (1976-1983) during the evil known as the Dirty War, which was actually a genocide, artistic works as well as the human beings who created them were ‘disappeared’, consisting at times of thousands of pages of words.
There were some notable rescue efforts, going far beyond such iconic writers as Haroldo Conti, Rodolfo Walsh, Paco Urondo or Miguel Ángel Bustos. To start with, in 2005 the SEA (the Argentinian society of authors), founded in 2001 by Graciela Araoz and Víctor Redondo, published Palabra viva, textos de escritoras y escritores desaparecidos, víctimas del terrorismo de estado[The Living Word: Texts by Disappeared Writers, Victims of State Terrorism]. For the second edition they had already produced anthologies of 116 writers from all over the country. And of course, it is not the only book of its kind. That same year Escritos de la memoria [Writings from Memory] by Daniel Pastore and Enrique Zavala appeared, an anthology covering those disappeared since 1974, and later on, funded by the Argentinian ministry of culture, Escritos en la memoria [Writings in Memory]. It is to these books and others like them that Miguel Bonasso was referring when he stated that ‘this was a generation of intellectuals who combined great talent with great social and political commitment.’
State terrorism was unleashed years before the military coup of March 24 1976, when Estela Martínez de Perón, the woefully famous Isabelita, was overthrown. The paramilitary paraphernalia was in actual fact implemented by the man who was private secretary to General Perón and later on his minister for social welfare, José López Rega, better known as The Sorcerer. His Argentinian Anti-Communist Association, the notorious Triple A, sowed terror throughout the country, and the streets of Buenos Aires became the scene of violent raids and shoot-outs for the smallest infraction to the point where, returning from a two-year trip halfway through 1974, I realised the only way to re-integrate myself into this atrocious, fractured reality was by writing a collection of short stories in a month. Thus was born Aquí pasan cosas raras [Strange Things Happen Here], and the title is but a pale reflection of that reality.
Rodolfo Walsh condemned this reality roundly in his Carta Abierta a la Junta Militar [Open Letter to the |Military Junta], saying that nothing had changed and mentioning ‘the role played by that agency (the CIA) and by high-ranking army officers, lead by General Menéndez, in the creation of the Logia Libertadores de América(the Masonic Liberators of America Lodge), which replaced the three A’s until its full role was taken over by the junta in the name of the three Armed Forces.’
Now that trials have taken place of the soldiers from the three forces who made up the three juntas that devastated the country, the sluice-gates have been slowly opening over the last few years as attempts are made to investigate the shadowy period that was the last period of Peronism, above all during the period of the ex-vice-president and her sorcerer minister. New steps to further tear the veil of impunity. And that of invisibility.
3) As for me, I have just had an experience, minor with regards to all this, but strange all the same. I travelled to Sardinia to see the carnival in Barbagia de Ollolai, at the heart of the island. In reality they are archaic, chthonic farming rituals that use imposing masks. And there a surprise awaited me: the conviction, very strongly held (especially in the little town of Mamoiada), that General Perón, three-times president of the Republic of Argentina, was born here in Sardinia and emigrated to Argentina as a teenager, where he had to change his name so as to be able to enter military school. I took it as a quaint legend. But the novelist in me could not help but become interested as I gradually looked into the facts and documents that since 1951 have been circulating around these parts. It was then that the journalist and lawyer Nino Tola published his first article in the newspaper L’Unione Sarda with the following title: ‘Nato a Mamoiada il dittatore Juan Peron?’ [‘Was the Dictator Juan Peron Born in Mamoiada?’]. Tola was not convinced of the story, but a month later he published a second article: ‘Una questione che comincia a diventare seria divisa a Mamoiada in “peronisti” e “non peronisti’ [‘An Increasingly Serious Question Divides Mamoiada into ‘Peronists’ and ‘non-Peronists’’]. After which he was forced to fall silent, apparently threatened by the Argentinian secret services, the same ones who later would go on to steal the few insubstantial pieces of evidence and even – it is said – to burn down a house in the town. Years later several books appeared on the subject, the best-known and most widely-read being those by Pepino Canneddu (Juan Perón-Giovanni Piras. Due nomi una persona, 1984), Gabriele Casula (Dònde naciò Peròn. Un enigma sardo nella storia dell´Argentina, 2004), and Raffaele Ballore (El Presidente – Il caso Piras-Peron, 2007).
I returned to Buenos Aires with this material as a subject for a novel, knowing there would be some good secrets to explore with regards to the construction of this great Argentinian legend.
In any case, Perón himself never spoke of his childhood and when he did, he gave ambiguous, contradictory details. But how could I approach the story without knowing if it was true or not? By making use of parallel realities, perhaps? I thought it was too affected, almost Borgesian, recalling how in his short story ‘The Simulacrum’ Borges writes that ‘the man in mourning was not Perón and the blonde doll was not the woman Eva Duarte, but Perón was not Perón either and nor was Eva Eva, but rather they were strangers or anonymous (whose secret name and true face we do not know) who represent, for the gullible love of the suburban slums, a crass mythology’ [my underlining].
I then remembered two things: first, that the above-mentioned Sardinian authors accuse not just the Argentinian secret services but more specifically López Rega of being the instigator of the cover-up. Tying up loose ends, I re-lived a scene I had the privilege of witnessing in the Mexican embassy in around 1977. It was the leaving party for the ambassador, who was going to be transferred. Towards the end of the evening I was invited to go up to the restricted part of the house where I met the ex-president Héctor Cámpora and other ‘bigwigs’ (as the owner of the house put it), long-term political refugees there. Cámpora started talking and among other things told of how Perón had managed to convince him to be his candidate, an honour he had declined a few days before. Shortly after the General arrived in Buenos Aires en 1972, for the first time in sixteen years, when Peronism was no longer banned (although its leader still was), they all went on an official trip to Paraguay. Over dinner, seated at the table were Perón, his wife Isabelita, Cámpora and his eldest son, when Stroessner asked the Argentine General if he had got round to appointing a candidate to represent him in the following year’s election. Just then, José López Rega appeared in the door to the dining room but Perón pushed him away saying, and I repeat the words quoted by Cámpora, “You’ve already eaten, Lopecito”.
Recalling this scene I understood the resentment José López Rega must have felt, the Sorcerer, private secretary to the General during his exile in Madrid, an excessively ambitious all-round assistant.
I took the subtitle of my novel, La máscara sarda, el profundo secreto de Perón [The Sardinian Mask: Perón’s Deep Secret], from the General himself. Because in Yo, Perón [I, Perón], by Enrique Pavón Pereyra, official biographer, there is a phrase of the General’s often quoted by the Sardinian ‘Peronists’: ‘As if I had made a magical bet with fate, I managed to keep the origins of my birth a deep secret until today.’
It is true that he fabricated the date and place of his birth, that we know that General Perón was not born in Lobos in 1895, but rather in General Bermúdez in 1893. Understandable confusions and/or cover-ups due not simply to the inept record keeping of the time but also, it is said, because Perón always meant to hide the fact he was the illegitimate son of an indigenous Tehuelche mother.
But the mystery lies not so much in the ‘deep secret’ as in the misinformation. How can it be that a rumour – let’s call it that – which circulates freely in Italy (not just Sardinia) to the point where there was a symposium about it scarcely six years ago, has never reached Argentina?
When López Rega was mentioned as a possible source of the cover-up I thought it highly unlikely, at that early stage. But after investigating further I was able to verify that, in his role as police chief, the future Sorcerer was guardian of the presidential mansion, the old and now demolished Unzué Palace, from 1949. And what is more, López Rega himself said of that same opportunity, in his overblown style, that he had received divine mandate to watch over the General and his wife, and protect them at all times.
Looking into several biographies I found the possible origin of said divine mandate: Victoria Montero, known as Mother Victoria, a clairvoyant and witch doctor from the city of Corrientes whom Evita consulted several times and who introduced López Rega to various esoteric practices. Can it have been due to her magical arts that this story about a Sardinian Perón has remained shrouded to this day in a cloak of absolute invisibility? I wrote the novel, I researched it thoroughly; I didn’t decide the legend was true, but I can only feel astonished that no one, not one person, none of the multiple newspaper, radio or television journalists has ever heard of this theory that buzzes on the internet. Sardinian Perón. A revelation or rumour that could have been used by so many people and with such diverse aims, the most logical being that of invalidating him, challenging him. Or as a joke in the humorous publications of the time: Tía Vicenta, Humor, Sátira 12. Or else – and this might have proved awkward – in order to denounce General Perón as a great fraud, who managed to be president for three terms of a country whose constitution did not allow for a foreign head of state.
So it is not beyond the realms of possibility to assume that the long arm of the Sorcerer and his Triple A with its notorious memory went as far as Sardinia to erase all traces, even knowing they were false.
As small as it might seem, here we find one more crease in the cloak of invisibility in which those who understood power as a form of immunity from prosecution, or impunity, tried to drape themselves. Fortunately there is now cause to celebrate the fact that this part of Argentina’s painful history, postponed when the proceedings against the military dictatorship were re-launched, are being brought to light and that throughout the country the so-called Truth Trials continue to reach back in time so as to not leave one stone unturned, or anyone guilty of crimes against humanity unpunished.
(Translated by Rosalind Harvey)