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AAAS Deceived by Argentine Junta
by Carlos Pereyra
The following letter was written by Dr. Carlos Pereyra in reply to Emilio Daddario’s article in Science February 3, 1978, about the status of scientists in Argentina. Mr. Daddario went to Argentina in December 1977 at the request of the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility. His purpose was to show the concerns of the American scientific community for the precarious situation of their Argentinian colleagues. many of whom have been imprisoned, exiled, tortured, abducted, or killed. Daddario noted that there is “a bad scene in Argentina”. While Daddario noted the atmosphere of fear and repression, he also claimed that it is easing up in gradual moderation “within the attitudes of the present government.” He gave as an example being “personally assured by Admiral Emilio Messara,” a member oft he ruling military junta, that 500 prisoners would be released in the near future. His report concluded by saying essentially that although things are not so good, they are not so bad either, and “we” (especially the Argentinians) have to make the best of it. Dr. Pereyra’s letter presents a more realistic appraisal of what is going on in Argentina. Science refused to publish his letter and so it was sent to us in order that the full story be published.
Mexico, April 1st, 1978
To the Editor of Science:
The visit of Mr. Emilio Daddario, President of the AAAS, to Argentina, should be hailed as a positive sign expressing the concern of the American scientific community for the situation of scientists in Argentina.
Unfortunately, besides its positive value, the visit has served the purposes of the Junta, by having its line transmitted to the American scientific community by an important spokesperson, thus presenting a distorted and false view of the Argentine situation.
Which is the Junta’s line? First, that the March 24, 1976 coup was a popular coup, because the population was tired of right and left wing terrorism and of the obvious decomposition of power of the Isabel Peron government. Therefore, the military seized power reluctantly in order to restore law and order, but they were and are now solidly supported by the majority of the population. Second, that the plight of the scientific community and of intellectuals in general is but the consequence of excessive anti-terrorist activity by the repression forces and not the result of a deliberate policy in the fields of culture and education. Third, government officials are concerned with this situation and thus it will improve.
We shall try to show that an opposite reading of the situation in Argentina can be legitimately made, and that it can be done without even visiting Buenos Aires. All that is needed is a careful reading of the carefully self-censored Aregntine press.
That Argentina is living through what we shall call an hegemony crisis, meaning that the ruling classes can no longer rule through traditional methods, should be clear to anyone. What is less clear is that there is not just one possible solution to a crisis: there might be a reactionary solution and a progressive solution. What is also unclear is the role of the military. While they claim that they are just knights of honor, who were forced to seize power in order to prevent chaos, we suggest that the leadership of the Armed Forces acted as a tool of the most privileged, reactionary and obscurantist forces of the country, basically the agrarian and financial bourgeoisie. The military had seized power in 1966 and were forced to give it back to an elected government by mounting popular resistance that threatened to lead toward a popular insurrection, as shown by the Cordoba events in 1969. Once the military were expelled from power in 1973, they started to conspire to seize power again, and they contributed to creating the climate for yet another coup through the organization of paramilitary groups formed by members of the Armed Forces. They did not organize alone, but had the help of the financial and landed oligarchies. The lack of spine of the elected government and the mindless terrorism of the armed left groups aided the process. They seized power in order to prevent popular mobilization for a progressive solution to the crisis, a mobilization that had started to gain momentum in 1975, in order to impose the “solution” of the most reactionary. What that “solution” was could be seen the day after they seized power: they unleashed an unprecedented wave of terror, directed basically at the working class and at intellectuals, in order to submit the working class to an economic policy that would substantially reduce its standards of living. They also intended to reconstitute through terror the power of the ruling ideology, which had nearly collapsed.
Towards these ends the Junta’s policies operate at differentiable but clearly connected levels: 1) through “legal” repression, which includes measures such as having thousands of political prisoners in a state of indefinite imprisonment without trail, in most cases for years: the outlawing of strikes and seizure of unions; religious persecution: banning of publications and publishing houses, burning of books, etc.; 2) illegal repression, i.e. the organization of paramilitary gangs formed by members of the Armed Forces and the police, which plunder, kidnap, torture and murder thousands of political and union militants and leftist intellectuals whom the Junta might consider as potentially dangerous; 3) educational and cultural policies, which tend to rigidly control all schools and universities, even the private ones, to limit access to the public school system and even to let it fall apart, to have parents and teachers converted into agents of “civic action” pantomimes under Armed Forces control; 4) and last but not least, a cynical public relations offensive aimed at foreign public opinion, for which the Junta got help from some Goebbels disciples sitting at the Manhattan firm of Burston-Marsteller (Proceso magazine, Mexico, 2.27.78 p.56) which had previously taken such honorable jobs as convincing the American public that genocide never occurred in Biafra. This public-relations offensive includes such a known extravaganza as the World Soccer Games, the Cancer Congress and the less-known educational exchange agreement between the Buenos Aires provincial state government and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (La Opinion, Buenos Aires 3.14.78).
Let us give a concrete example of repression. The educational policy of the Junta requires smashing the union of schoolteachers (Confederacion de Trabajadores de Ia Educacion de Ia Republica Argentina) in order to carry out its policy of strangling public schools. To this end the authorities deny salary raises to the teachers in the midst of 170% yearly inflation, while they force the teachers to participate in “civic action” activities and to teach new subjects of a militaristic content, such as “Civil Defense”, to grade school children: they liquidate the job stability of teachers and end guarantees against arbitrary transfers, etc. Then the Junta hoodlums do their part by kidnapping the schoolteachers’ union leader Eduardo Requena in July 1976 and scores of provincial union leaders and local militants. Incredibly, the union manages to survive and to elect a new leader, Alfredo Bravo, who is first kidnapped and then put under a disposicion del Poder Ejecutivo, meaning a state of indefinite arrest without trial, in September 1977. Thus the same goals are pursued against a single organization by a combination of “legal” and illegal methods. In the meantime, while an estimated 20% of the teachers quit by mass resignations and early retirement requests, a figure that reached 30% in Buenos Aires provinces and 50% in some proletarian areas of the same province, the authorities negotiate an educational exchange agreement with the American Association of State Colleges, in order to cover their obscene actions with the perfumes of Madison Avenue.
Of all the points raised by the Daddario report two deserve careful examination: 1) that there is a general approval of the Junta by the people; and 2) that there are signs of gradual moderation in the Junta’s attitudes, as shown by the pious hopes expressed to him by known torturers and assassins in high positions.
On the problem of “popular support” it would be necessary to define what we mean by support in a situation in which all dissenting political action is considered a crime. Even if we do not want to go into details we might agree that striking is not a sign of support when strikes are outlawed and strikers are threatened with up to ten years of prison in addition to the kidnappings and assassinations carried out by the Junta hoodlums. Neither is sabotage a sign of support, all the less so if a law passed by the Junta (Law 21264, published the day of the coup) provides the death penalty for sabotage and authorizes the repression forces to first shoot suspects of sabotage and ask questions later. Now if under such conditions, which recall those of Europe occupied by the Nazi armies, there are still strikes which involve hundreds of thousands and mass sabotage actions, we may begin to doubt whether popular support for the Junta exists. And reports of these strikes and mass sabotage actions are not hard to find; they are found by reading the Argentine press, which also reports the incredible conditions under which they are carried out, such as the military occupation of the factories. Let us give a few examples: practically all automobile factories were struck several times between August and November 1976. In September 1976 there were strikes at chemical plants, in the food industry, rubber, meat packing, big metallurgical and textile factories, and so on. In March and June, 1977 again there were strikes in automobile factories. In October and November 1976 work slowed down to 30% of normal in Buenos Aires harbor. In October and November there were slowdowns and work stoppages by 30,000 workers of the power utilities, which continued in an intermittent way until February 1977. In October 1977 there were strikes in urban transport, subways, railways and again the power plants.
In addition to the strikes we should note the development of mass sabotage actions. Sabotage reduced production to almost zero at times in the automobile industry and slowed down dock work by destruction of conveyor belts and intentional fires during the longshoremen’s conflict. In the electrical industry there were sabotage actions both at the power plants and against power transmission lines, which disrupted the subways, water pumping, elevators, air conditioning, and television, and caused traffic jams, etc., during the whole summer of 1976-77. In the gas and oil industry the government had to import gas from Uruguay in March 1977 because the distribution plants at La Plata, Dock Sud and La Matanza had “technical problems” of unexplained origin (La Opinion, 3.27.77 p.1 ), while the refineries at La Plata and Campana were simultaneously stopped because of “maintenance tasks”.
What all this tells us is that under extraordinary repression a working class that has lost most of its leadership because the militants are either dead, in prison, underground or in exile, continues nevertheless to enage in a bitter and powerful mass resistance.
Are things improving? What is the relation between the smiles of the hoodlums that were trying to have the naive gringos swallow their gimmicks and the real situation? It seems to us that there have been a few encouraging signs, such as the termination of military control over what is left of the San Miguel Physics and Technology Institute. But most signs point in the opposite direction. Let us mention a few facts. The emigration of qualified personnel goes on: one third of the technical personnel of the National Institute of Statistics resigned in the first nine months of 1977 (Clarin, 10.30.77), as did technical personnel of the petroleum, telephone and January/ February 1979 railways state companies. The unfinished campus of the National University at Tucuman was taken over by the Army, which will use it for a military high school (La Prensa, 2.27.78). The state government of Cordoba banned long hair in the schools and established a special day for hair length inspection (Clarin, 3.12.78). Admission to the universities has been drastically cut to 42,000 in 1977, while it was 128,000 in 1974. Professor Alfredo Tagliabue, Director of Private Institutions at the Ministry of Education, made a raging public speech on November 2nd, 1977, demanding action against Marxist infiltration in Church affiliated schools and against judges who are “soft” on it. The Ministry of Labor required that union representatives should have “good behavior” certificates given to them by the police (La Prensa, 2.21.78).
What about the situation of the political prisoners? On January 21 (La Opinion) it was announced that ten prisoners who were a disposicion del Poder Ejecutivo were freed while forty-six others were arrested and placed in the same situation. On February 11 three were freed and 26 were arrested. On March 11 twenty-five were freed and 48 arrested. On February 18 fifteen Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested, on March 29 thirty more. Sixty more members of a banned religious group were in Mar del Plata, and it was announced that the religious dissenters will be tried by the Federal courts (idem, 2.20). On March 14th the authorities announced that they had put down a riot in the Villa Devoto Federal prison in Buenos Aires. Sixty prisoners died, several of them political prisoners, while not even one prison guard was injured. No independent inquiry is possible under the circumstances. Another physicist, Mario Villani, is kidnapped; he was the former Academic Secretary of the Physics and Mathematics School at the National University at La Plata.
All American scientists, all intellectuals should think about these actions of a dictatorship that will most probably be remembered among the most savage in a continent racked by brutal regimes. They should reflect on why the American press, which has extensive resources to find out about Soviet dissidents, has so little interest in the Argentine situation. They should reflect about the “ideological infiltration” trial going on against Argentine professors, and so on. They should reflect on what the American Association of State Colleges has been doing. And they should act to help the victims of persecution and to isolate the hoodlums, not to spread their lies.
Facultad de Filosofia y Letras
Universidad Nacional Autonoma