Argentina has seen some major changes over the last four decades since the death of Juan Domingo Perón in 1974. To try to better understand these changes I have interviewed some of the people I have met whilst living in Buenos Aires. I wanted to talk about how ordinary people’s lives have been shaped by events over the last 40 years. Over the span of a week I talked to seven people between the ages of twenty-three and fifty-five.
The first major event that shook Argentine society to its core was the military coup of March 24, 1976. The coup was a result of violent factional conflicts between supporters of recently deceased President Juan Domingo Perón. Perón was democratically elected President in 1973, but died in July 1974. His vice president and third wife, Isabel Martínez de Perón, succeeded him but proved to be a weak and ineffectual leader.
Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla (center) dictator of Argentina from 1976 to 1981.
After Perón’s death a number of revolutionary organizations, chief among them the Montoneros, a far-left Peronists group with the motive of establishing a far-left dictatorship, escalated their wave of political violence, including kidnappings and bombings. In addition, right-wing paramilitary groups entered the cycle of violence, such as the Triple A Death Squad.
Businessman Gabriel, 49, remembers the violence all too well whilst growing up in the poor neighborhood of Pompeya. One horrific memory he shared with me was of a scene he witnessed from his family’s apartment balcony; a gun-battle between a leftist urban guerrilla group, likely the Montoneros or ERP (People’s Revolutionary Army), and the police which left two dead.
Neurologist Hugo, 55, was born and lived in what is now called Palermo Hollywood. During the dictatorship Palermo was a regular battlefield; Las Cañitas, an area of Palermo, was home to the city’s principal army base and therefore a major target for the guerrilla groups.
Today this period in Argentine history is termed ‘The Dirty War’, a period of state terrorism with military and security forces conducting urban and rural guerrilla warfare against left-wing guerrillas, political dissidents, and anyone believed to be associated with socialism. It has been estimated that between 15,000 and 30,000 people were killed. The “disappeared”, as they would come to be known, were considered to be a political or ideological threat to the military junta and their disappearances were attempts to silence the opposition and break the determination of the guerillas.
Many of the disappeared were trade unionists, students and journalists. Hugo spent much of the dictatorship studying medicine at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) and had many friends disappear. It was common for the army to storm UBA and arrest students. One of Hugo’s classmates was taken and never seen again for being involved in outlawed left wing political parties.
In an attempt to provide an objective series of interviews I also ventured to ask my interviewees if there were any positives to the dictatorship.
Daily life during the dictatorship was precarious but there also existed some benefits including a very low crime rate. There were very few instances of petty crime, robberies or burglaries. People felt relatively safe walking around the city at night that is when there were no military curfews in place.
Isolina, 53, was living in the neighborhood of Balvanera at the time and told me how her neighborhood improved during the dictatorship. She saw how the junta cleaned up the neighborhood by demolishing a ‘villa’, a shantytown, across the street from her family apartment. She also told me that most of the schools that exist today in Buenos Aires date back to the time of the dictatorship.
The Mayor of Buenos Aires from 1976 to 1982 was Osvaldo Cacciatore. In 1976 Buenos Aires was South America’s largest city and suffered from a number of serious logistical problems including how to manage a rapid growth in automobile traffic. The Balvanera shantytown was one of over thirty that had appeared as a result of an influx of migrants from both the less developed Argentine north and neighboring countries such as Bolivia and Paraguay.
Several people including Isolina and Gabriel give credit to the dictatorship for improving the city’s infrastructure and services. These improvements included the construction of new highways and numerous public parks, the closure of the city’s tens of thousands of apartment building incinerators and the opening of sixty-four public schools.
Hugo provided a stark contrast strongly stating that there was nothing positive to mention about the dictatorship. Freedom for Hugo has always been paramount and he argued against the points Isolina and Gabriel made about the dictatorship’s achievements in improving the country’s infrastructure and services, in fact he went even further to say that the infrastructure and services were terrible until democracy returned.
For Hugo, living under the dictatorship was a nightmare. He told me about State censorship and control. Hugo watched movies such as ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘Laurence of Arabia’ in secret as both were banned. Books that were not good for the dictatorship were banned, such as books about Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution. The people were oppressed in so many ways.
Several factors, including a failing economy, a growing public awareness of the harsh repressive measures taken by the regime, and the military defeat in the Falklands War, forced the regime to call for elections after seven and a half years. President Raúl Alfonsín won the elections and was sworn into office on December 10, 1983.