NPR logo
Despite The Awkward Timing, Argentina Welcomes Obama
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/471563694/471622206" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Despite The Awkward Timing, Argentina Welcomes Obama

Politics & Policy

Despite The Awkward Timing, Argentina Welcomes Obama

Despite The Awkward Timing, Argentina Welcomes Obama
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/471563694/471622206" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo human rights group demand information about missing relatives during their traditional Thursday march in Buenos Aires on March 3. The women began demonstrating in 1977. i

Members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo human rights group demand information about missing relatives during their traditional Thursday march in Buenos Aires on March 3. The women began demonstrating in 1977. Victor R. Caivano/AP hide caption

toggle caption Victor R. Caivano/AP
Members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo human rights group demand information about missing relatives during their traditional Thursday march in Buenos Aires on March 3. The women began demonstrating in 1977.

Members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo human rights group demand information about missing relatives during their traditional Thursday march in Buenos Aires on March 3. The women began demonstrating in 1977.

Victor R. Caivano/AP

President Obama's visit to Argentina this week coincides with the anniversary of a dark moment in that country's history. Thursday marks 40 years since a 1976 military coup that ushered in that country's so-called Dirty War, when as many as 30,000 Argentines were killed or disappeared during a seven-year dictatorship.

Human rights groups want the U.S. to divulge what it knew back then. The president is now promising that he will declassify new documents.

President Obama announced the declassification of new documents at a Wednesday news conference with Argentine President Mauricio Macri at the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires. i

President Obama announced the declassification of new documents at a Wednesday news conference with Argentine President Mauricio Macri at the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires. Victor R. Caivano/AP hide caption

toggle caption Victor R. Caivano/AP
President Obama announced the declassification of new documents at a Wednesday news conference with Argentine President Mauricio Macri at the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires.

President Obama announced the declassification of new documents at a Wednesday news conference with Argentine President Mauricio Macri at the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires.

Victor R. Caivano/AP
Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla (center) was sworn in as Argentina's president on March 24, 1976, after the overthrow of President Isabel Peron in a coup. i

Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla (center) was sworn in as Argentina's president on March 24, 1976, after the overthrow of President Isabel Peron in a coup. ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

toggle caption ASSOCIATED PRESS
Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla (center) was sworn in as Argentina's president on March 24, 1976, after the overthrow of President Isabel Peron in a coup.

Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla (center) was sworn in as Argentina's president on March 24, 1976, after the overthrow of President Isabel Peron in a coup.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

"I'm launching a new effort to open up additional documents from that dark period," Obama told a joint news conference in Buenos Aires on Wednesday with Argentina's president, Mauricio Macri. "We previously declassified thousands of records from that era, but for the first time now, we will declassify military and intelligence records as well."

That's welcome news to Carlos Osorio. At his office in the George Washington University library, he shows off boxes and boxes of government documents. These are papers that his research organization, the National Security Archive, forced the U.S. government to declassify more than a decade ago.

Some appear to show former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger giving Argentina's coup leaders the green light to go after their enemies.

"In early 1976 through January 1977, Henry Kissinger took U.S. policy into his hands," Osorio says. "And he was deliberately telling the [Argentine] military at every point through the year, 'We will support you.' "

Although Kissinger has denied any complicity, Osorio says the State Department quietly released U.S. security assistance to Argentina — even as the U.S. ambassador at the time was reporting hundreds of human rights abuses.

"So they start to disappear these people — scientists, nuclear scientists, painters, journalists, famous historians start to disappear, and people ask the embassy to help with this," Osorio says.

But while the ambassador was raising serious human rights concerns, Kissinger was sending a different message to Argentina's foreign minister, Osorio says: "Whatever needs to be done, do it quickly."

Argentina's former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla (left) and Luciano Benjamin Menendez, a former general, appeared during their trial in Cordoba, Argentina, on July 22, 2010. i

Argentina's former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla (left) and Luciano Benjamin Menendez, a former general, appeared during their trial in Cordoba, Argentina, on July 22, 2010. JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images
Argentina's former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla (left) and Luciano Benjamin Menendez, a former general, appeared during their trial in Cordoba, Argentina, on July 22, 2010.

Argentina's former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla (left) and Luciano Benjamin Menendez, a former general, appeared during their trial in Cordoba, Argentina, on July 22, 2010.

JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images

He says this is just a glimpse of U.S. policy from that era. The military and intelligence documents that President Obama promised to release are expected to be even more revealing.

Argentines are eager for any scraps of information about family members who disappeared in the Dirty War years, says Elisa Massimino, the president and CEO of Human Rights First.

"They are looking for answers," she says. "They are also, I think, looking for a deeper and more accurate understanding of the role of the United States."

Massimino says some activists in Argentina were angry when they first learned that Obama would visit on the anniversary of the military coup. But Human Rights First saw the visit as an opportunity to press the White House.

"The release of these documents is hugely important," she says, "not only for the people of Argentina, who are continuing to struggle to come to grips with that period — but also it's important for Americans, too, because we have to come to terms with our own role in the Dirty War."

Relatives and friends of victims hear news of the sentences handed down to Jorge Rafael Videla and other past junta leaders in Cordoba, Argentina, on Dec. 22, 2010. Videla was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity. i

Relatives and friends of victims hear news of the sentences handed down to Jorge Rafael Videla and other past junta leaders in Cordoba, Argentina, on Dec. 22, 2010. Videla was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity. AFP/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Relatives and friends of victims hear news of the sentences handed down to Jorge Rafael Videla and other past junta leaders in Cordoba, Argentina, on Dec. 22, 2010. Videla was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity.

Relatives and friends of victims hear news of the sentences handed down to Jorge Rafael Videla and other past junta leaders in Cordoba, Argentina, on Dec. 22, 2010. Videla was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Osorio, who says he will advise the White House on what to look for and where, believes the administration could come away from this awkwardly timed trip looking good.

"If it was a gaffe, well, they just came out of it in a genius way," he says. That way is what he's calling "declassification diplomacy."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.