Britain’s Juntas

Arthur Gavshon

  • The Disappeared: Voices from a Secret War by John Simpson and Jana Bennett
    Robson, 416 pp, £12.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 86051 292 4

Military and police murder squads roamed Argentina’s cities and villages during the Dirty War in search of anyone answering to the definition offered by General Jorge Rafael Videla: ‘A terrorist is not just someone with a gun or a bomb but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilisation.’ The dictatorial regimes led successively by Generals Videla, Roberto Eduardo Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri from 1976 to 1982 interpreted the concept of ‘Western and Christian civilisation’ in their own singular way. Last year, after a ninemonth investigation initiated by President Raul Alfonsin’s elected government, the National Commission on Disappeared Persons produced a 50,000-page report listing some of the ascertainable consequences. Not all were published, for fear of prejudicing the trials of those held responsible. But the Commission did make known that an estimated eleven thousand disappeared without explanation; that they were almost certainly murdered; that about twenty thousand people had been arrested, most of whom were beaten, tortured or raped; and that an exodus from the country of roughly two million took place – most of them people who thought their lives were in danger.

Two among the thousands of case-histories investigated by the Commission provide proof and symbol of the kind of crimes that were being committed while a not entirely ignorant world looked the other way – and with some foreign governments actually continuing to arm and fund the three Juntas. Case No 1127 tells about Mrs A.Z., a lawyer kidnapped on the morning of 20 November 1976. She described a ‘burial’ to which she and others were subjected in between various other forms of torture. They were taken to a prepared ditch and buried naked to the neck, then left exposed to the elements, sometimes for four days. When they were dug out, covered with insect bites, they were taken to the torture chambers. Case No 3721 is about a man identified only as J.A.M. who survived a round of electrical shock treatments. He recalled: ‘The interrogations were shorter after that but the picana [electric prod] was stronger and they forced it really violently into your anus while they put electrodes onto your teeth. It seemed like a bolt of lightning which struck you from head to foot and they put a string of metal pellets in my mouth which were difficult to swallow and when the current was turned on it felt as though a thousand pieces of glass were breaking inside me.’

The kidnappers, torturers and executioners of the Junta were still hard at work in August 1980 when the immaculate Cecil Parkinson visited Videla in Buenos Aires. As John Simpson and Jana Bennett of the British Broadcasting Corporation relate in their excellently-researched but somewhat inhibited book, the one-time Secretary for Trade and Industry had brought two messages for leaders of the Junta. The first was that Britain wanted better relations with Argentina, in the hope, presumably, that this would help transcend festering difficulties over the disputed future of the Falklands. (Mrs Thatcher’s Government, within months of taking office in 1979, had been warned by the Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington and by the Joint Intelligence Committee that, in the absence of a negotiated settlement, there was a high risk of Argentina’s invading the islands.) The second Parkinson message was more precise: The British admire the efforts made by Argentina to reduce inflation and their achievements so far,’ he said publicly. Argentina, he went on, was carrying out the ‘same structural changes that we are’. He meant, of course, structural changes in the economy, rather than in the treatment of the political opposition.

As Simpson and Bennett see it, Parkinson’s visit to Videla at that time was neither fortuitous nor the result of bureaucratic absent-mindedness. They make clear that it was an act of policy – a demonstration to the Argentine dictatorship that it could count on British political understanding and economic cooperation: in that sense, the pragmatic British were distancing themselves from what was being portrayed as ex-President Jimmy Carter’s naive, unnecessary and somewhat nebulous preoccupation with the breakdown of human rights in Argentina. Nor was the Parkinson mission an isolated, one-off bid for a restoration of British-Argentine amity: without saying so explicitly, the authors leave the impression that Parkinson, then filling the role of Mrs Thatcher’s favourite political son, was engaged in furthering a policy. Reinforcing this impression, the writers cite a series of other supportive British acts that could only have gladdened the hearts of the hard men running the affairs of Argentina at the time.

Among those supportive acts, some of which fell within Labour’s term of office, are the following ... In 1976 Britain had pledged to provide sanctuary for 75 Argentine fugitives from the Junta; by 1977 a mere 13 had been allowed in. Between 1976 and 1978 British exports to Videla’s Argentina had doubled to 300 million dollars, and in 1978, when a delegation of 20 British businessmen visited the country to drum up trade, they found that the Labour Foreign Secretary Dr David Owen’s distaste for Argentina’s record on human rights was an obstacle to their embassy: there was pressure on Owen to change his critical attitude. A consortium of British banks led by Lloyds organised a 75 million dollar loan soon after the Videla Junta seized power in 1976; six years later, by the time of the invasion of the Falklands, Argentina’s debt to British banks had soared to 2000 million dollars. One of the Thatcher Government’s first moves on taking office in 1979 was to restore full diplomatic relations with Buenos Aires: the British Ambassador had been recalled in early 1976, when Argentines fired shots across the bows of HMS Shackleton. From 1979 until the April 1982 invasion, Britain sold Argentina £200 million’s worth of naval, aerial and electronic equipment, missiles and other weaponry, despite Foreign Office and Intelligence warnings of a possible military threat by the Junta: some of those weapons doubtless helped to inflict casualties on British troops assigned to regain possession of the islands in the war that followed.

After their recital of Britain’s persistent attempts to appease a patently cruel military dictatorship, Simpson and Bennett suddenly seem to remember who they are: Simpson is BBC Television’s Diplomatic Editor, and Jana Bennett is a producer and an editor of the day of BBC 2’s Newsnight. Accordingly and irrationally they observe: ‘None of this constitutes a particular indictment either of the Callaghan Government or of Mrs Thatcher’s.’ By way of explanation, they add that neither Owen nor Parkinson achieved much. That, of course, is quite beside the point because both, in fact, did very much hope to achieve certain things. What in reality they did achieve was almost exclusively negative. The authors, apparently absentmindedly, acknowledge this.

Quite clearly, British actions during the period in which the military were in power in Argentina convinced the Argentines, not just that Her Majesty’s Government had no great interest in human rights, but that it lacked the backbone to resist if its own interests – in the shape of the Falkland Islands – were attacked. In Argentina, the decision to restore full diplomatic relations, and Mr Parkinson’s ingratiating words at his press conference, were widely seen as attempts by Britain to curry favour; just as, some years earlier, Mr Callaghan’s low-profile policy was seen as showing that Britain was nervous of their reactions, and was prepared to ignore small-scale infringements in the interests of keeping Argentina sweet. In other words, the only practical experience that successive juntas had had of Britain was of a country which would keep quiet rather than stand up for its own interests. Ignoring the true nature of the military regime and what it was doing to its own people proved to be a highly effective way of persuading Buenos Aires that Britain would not care very much if they decided to turn on British subjects who happened to be living in a group of islands off to their shores.

Continuing in this vein, Simpson and Bennett go on to argue justifiably that such misrepresentations were compounded by each country’s ignorance of the other. Argentine leaders thought the British to be ‘too decadent’ and inverted to be ready to defend any of their colonies against invasion. Conversely, British opinion-makers tended to display contempt for what they saw as ‘a tinpot fascist dictatorship’ (but only after the attack on the Falklands). The authors thereupon conclude: ‘The mutual ignorance cost a thousand lives in the two countries and perhaps 2000 million pounds to their exchequers.’

If Simpson and Bennett are right in charging Mrs Thatcher’s Government with appeasing and failing to understand the Junta, and if this appeasement and ignorance did as they suggest contribute to the Falklands conflict, they must be wrong in claiming that ‘none of this constitutes a particular indictment’ of Mrs Thatcher’s Government. It is in this area of political interpretation and assessment that the authors fail to do justice to the first-class job of research and reportage which they have performed in documenting aspects of the Dirty War between Argentina’s military rulers and the thousands of brave citizens who opposed or defied them. They appear to shrink from looking some self-evident truths in the face. One such truth is that the horrors of the Dirty War were no secret either to the Callaghan or Thatcher governments, or to many others in the allied world; and that if the allied powers had rallied behind the Carter Administration’s attempts to quarantine the Junta, the entire story might have had a different ending.

Another self-evident truth was enunciated once by the Cambridge historian Sir Herbert Butterfield, who said most wars have been contests not between right and wrong but ‘between one half-right that was too wilful and another half-right that was too proud’. So it was with the Falklands affair, as any careful reading of Lord Franks’s report would show. A third truth which seems to have been only half-recognised by the authors is that the Juntas led by Videla, Viola and Galtieri would never have survived but for the financial and military support (in armaments particularly) which they obtained from the Western powers.

Nevertheless, Simpson and Bennett have produced a book that sheds new light (for British readers at least) on the courage and endurance of thousands of Argentines who stood their ground with little outside help against oppressors comparable in their sadism to those of Nazi Germany. Their accounts of the sufferings of individual prisoners are deeply moving, with the tale of Ingrid Dagmar Hagelin, a Swedish teenager, among the most poignant. The sad and continuing saga of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is sensitively recounted from its beginnings to the point at which it had come to haunt not only the perpetrators of the crimes but the conscience of the whole nation.

It is one of the ironies of our life and times in this country that successive British governments tried but failed to conciliate the military rulers of Argentina in the hope that they would keep their hands off the Falklands, and that they looked the other way while atrocities were being committed. Then, witnessing the breakdown of that policy, Britain waged a short, sharp, costly war to repossess those remote and uninviting islands, defeated the guilty men of the Junta, and promptly declined to negotiate with the democratically-elected successor regime of Raul Alfonsin, who had all along resisted the Junta’s attempt to capture the Falklands.