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Records can shed light on U.S. role in Argentina

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In 1979, with Paul Heath Hoeffel, I wrote “Missing or Dead in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

For this article, published as a cover story in The New York Times Magazine, we received the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the best article on Human Rights. For that article, I used the pseudonym Juan Montalvo, to protect my family in Argentina from possible military reprisals.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent decision to unseal U.S. files on Argentina’s “dirty war” is particularly valuable to us, since it will confirm our denunciations of the abuses by the Argentine military on that country’s civilian population.

For many years, human rights activists both in Argentina and in the United States have been demanding access to classified U.S. records about the war in Argentina that lasted from 1976 to 1983. During that period, the military abducted thousands of people — many among them for the sole reason of being in the address book of a captured dissident — and made them disappear, never to be seen again.

Thousands of civilians were killed, and many babies were taken from their parents and given to military or police couples who wanted to adopt them. Thanks to the valiant efforts of two women’s groups, The Mothers and The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo dozens of these children were found and returned to their true families.

Among those children was Florencia Mangini — my wife’s relative — whose parents and two uncles were killed by the Argentine military. Florencia went to live with her mother’s parents, and was able to accompany them until the end of their sad lives, only illuminated by Florencia’s love and care. Today, Florencia is an accomplished professional who cherishes the memories of living with her grandparents.

Obama’s decision, announced at the same time of the 40th anniversary of the military coup, will allow that the unsealed U.S. files will help determine the role of several U.S. officials — notably among them, then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — in supporting the Argentine military.

According to documents obtained by the National Security Archive through the Freedom of Information Act, the Argentine military believed they had the “green light” from Kissinger.

After Kissinger was told during a staff meeting two days after the military coup “to expect a fair amount of repression, probably a good deal of blood, in Argentina,” Kissinger issued instructions on what the U.S. policy should be toward the new military junta: “Whatever chance they have [the Argentine military] they will need a little encouragement … because I do want to encourage them. I don’t want to give the sense that they’re harassed by the United States.”

A secret memorandum obtained by Carlos Osorio, an analyst at the National Security Archive, reveals a conversation in 1976 between Kissinger and Cesar Augusto Guzzetti, the Argentine foreign minister at the time, in which, according to a declassified account, Kissinger told Guzzetti, “If there are things to be done, you should do them quickly.”

Obama’s orders to declassify documents follow the release of records during the Clinton administration. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright agreed to review and release State Department records and some 4,700 documents were eventually declassified. However, the CIA, the U.S. Defense Department and the FBI didn’t participate in the process. Thus, thousands of intelligence records on the military repression are still secret and will now be open to analysis by relatives of the disappeared and human rights activists

Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the U.S. National Security Archive, says that Obama should be praised for engaging in “declassified diplomacy” that “not only provides a historical atonement for early U.S. support for the coup and the repression in its aftermath, but also can provide actual evidence and answers to the families of human rights victims who continue to search for their missing loved ones in Argentina, 40 years after the coup took place.”

Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina. He frequently writes about humanitarian issues.