President Obama's trip to Buenos Aires and beyond on the heels of his Cuba trip this week is sure to create headlines around the world, as Argentines remember the 40th anniversary of a vicious military coup that ushered in an eight-year dictatorship in which tens of thousands of political dissidents and others were secretly kidnapped, tortured and killed in a dirty, supposed "war."
In an October 1987 article for The Nation, I broke the story of how then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1976 gave the Argentine generals a "green light" for the massacre. By the time President Jimmy Carter's human rights revolution emerged during his 1977-1981 presidency, the dictatorship was a killing machine that included more than 340 clandestine concentration camps in full operation.
Before leaving for Cuba, President Obama promised to declassify U.S. government documents related to the military dictatorship, receiving praise from those who hope that doing so may offer real, meaningful relief for victims of human rights atrocities and their families.
The central thrust is that, going beyond U.S. Department of State documents that are already declassified (the release of which more than a decade ago fully confirmed Kissinger's role), relevant documents held by the CIA, FBI, and Department of Defense should also be released.
However, while in and of itself important, doing just that and no more might be seen, in a country whose relations with the United States have been profoundly damaged by the dirty war legacy, as an easy public relations "milk run." Senior Obama advisers (perhaps trying to tamp down the former secretary of state's unexpected emergence as an issue in a Democratic presidential primary debate), already say privately that he will not apologize to the Argentine people for Kissinger's role.
Proponents point out that his "leading from behind" approach has been important in many of Obama's successes, including the critical fight against global warming and international economics. However, it is exactly the wrong role to play if restoring the United States to the forefront of the world struggle for human rights is the goal. This is especially true in Buenos Aires, where even the president’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner and Catholic militant Adolfo Perez Esquivel asked Obama to stay away on the actual day of anniversary event March 24.
“I’m a survivor of that era, of the flights of death, of the torture, of the prisons, of the exiles,” Perez Esquivel told the Associated Press. “And when you analyze the situation in depth, the United States was responsible for the coups in Latin America.”
For those even more bitter and often highly politicized critics, the decision of Obama to play golf in Bariloche the very day Argentines mark the tragic four-decade anniversary of the coming to power of the Kissinger-blessed Nazi-sympathizing dictatorship is sure to stir controversy. The Andean resort town served as a post-war haven for German Nazis like Erich Priebke and Josef Mengele.
Although the die unfortunately may be already cast, at a minimum Obama should tell the Argentines that included in the declassification will be all information from the files relating to "Kissinger Associates'" ongoing business interests in Argentina. It was no accident that Kissinger was not only the generals' "guest of honor" at the 1998 World Cup games in Argentina, but also at the 1989 presidential inauguration of the notoriously corrupt Carlos Menem, who promptly pardoned the dirty war rulers convicted and jailed during the term of his predecessor, human rights hero Raul Alfonsin.
The supposedly anti-communist military rulers claimed that their illegal repression was the "opening battle of the Third World War," even as they maintained well-oiled relations with the Soviet Union. However, as the then FBI legal attache stationed in Buenos Aires, Robert W. Scherrer, told me, the supposed threat offered by left-wing guerrillas at the time was vastly overblown and used as an excuse for the generals to take power.
In fact, the head of the Peronist Montoneros, then portrayed as the largest urban terrorist organization in Latin America, was actually a double agent working for the Argentine Army. All those files should be released as well.
Finally, as I wrote the my original Kissinger exposé, even before President Carter took office in January 1977, there was a hero within the State Department who behind the scenes fought Kissinger tooth and nail on human rights. The five-time GOP political appointee as ambassador (and friend of Richard M. Nixon) Robert C. Hill, for whom the FBI's Scherrer had the greatest admiration, fought to restore American values to diplomacy even as left-wing guerrillas tried to kill him and his family; this while Kissinger associates threatened that he would be fired for insubordination on human rights.
In this perilous and in many ways sad U.S. election year, President Obama should take the chance to fully and publicly embrace the bipartisan upholding of the human rights banner in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era by President Carter, his crusading State Department human rights champion Patricia Derian, Ambassador Hill and the ubiquitous hands-on life-saver Bob Scherrer, among others.
It is perhaps the most noble thing the president can do today to reinforce America's role in the hemisphere, as human rights — and particularly telling truth to power — are our most cherished values.
A native Kenoshan, Martin Edwin Andersen is a former senior foreign policy aide to then Senate Majority Whip Alan Cranston, D-Calif., as well as a decorated national security whistleblower.
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