The Sentencing Of Argentina's Last Dictator
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
For people who live in or claim Argentina as their homeland, last week marked a significant milestone. Retired General Reynaldo Bignone was sentenced to 25 years for ordering the kidnapping, torture and disappearance of Argentine civilians. General Bignone was the country's president and leader of the military junta from 1982 to 1983, in effect, its last dictator.
As president and as a military leader before then, he was implicated in deaths, illegal detention, torture and other abuses in at least 56 cases. But he then spent 24 years as a free man before being ordered to trial.
We wanted to find out what this means for a country to come to terms with its violent past. So we've called two women who've been deeply affected by that dictatorship. Alicia Kozameh is a former political prisoner. She was held without a release date for three years. Also joining us Ines Kuperschmidt. Her parents were disappeared by the dictatorship. And I thank you both for speaking with us.
Professor ALICIA KOZAMEH (Creative Writing, Chapman University): Thank you for having us.
Ms. INES KUPERSCHMIDT: Thank you.
MARTIN: Alicia, can we start with you?
Prof. KOZAMEH: Sure.
MARTIN: And I appreciate you're being willing to talk about this. But why were you detained to begin with?
Prof. KOZAMEH: Because I was a political activist. I belonged to a very left wing political party at the time. So that was a time of repression and I was detained before the coup d'etat. And that's the reason why I'm still alive.
MARTIN: And what were some of the conditions that you were held under while you were in detention? I understand that you were physically abused that time.
Prof. KOZAMEH: Yeah. I was in two different prisons. I'm originally from Rosario, a city in Argentina. And at that time, they were sending women to the police station, Rosario police station, that had a basement. And I was beat up in my house and then I was put in that place together with a lot of companeras who were already in prison. And we were in that basement for about 14 months without being able to see the sunlight.
At the very beginning we had visitors. But then the coup d'etat, which was in March of 1976, we were just isolated, completely isolated from the rest of the world in there. So, no family, no visitors, no nothing. So...
MARTIN: Did anyone know where you were? Did anyone know you were still alive?
Prof. KOZAMEH: Yes. Because we were what they call legal prisoners. We were not technically disappeared. Our names were all over the world, you know, with Amnesty International, different the U.N. They knew about us. That's why we survived. Yeah.
MARTIN: And, Ines, you've been on our program before. Your parents were disappeared. Now, if you would just remind people. And I use that term deliberately to say that they were disappeared. They were taken. Can you tell us a little bit more about your story?
Ms. KUPERSCHMIDT: Yes. Both of my parents disappeared during the Dirty War. They, like many couples, disappeared at different times. My father was taken, or at least allegedly taken from the streets while he was driving and there was some kind of an altercation in the streets. Whereas my mother was taken from a public park in Buenos Aires when she was with me. And she left me in the grass under the care of an elderly couple as she ran the opposite direction in the hopes that I would not be taken with her.
Prof. KOZAMEH: And she was eight months old. I just want to say that.
MARTIN: Yes. And it's a very dramatic story. It's actually a very heartbreaking story that some tourists found the baby and through a series of some might call it divine interventions, you were reunited with family members. So you were able to be raised by family as opposed to some children who were literally handed over to, you know, members of the junta to be raised by them.
So, Ines, just to clarify, did you ever find out what happened to your parents? Do you know what their fate was?
Ms. KUPERSCHMIDT: We have had some folks tell us that they recall seeing my mother, Mimi, in one of the detention centers for some amount of time. Whereas it's at least believed that my father was probably killed on the spot in the street through some kind of an altercation with law enforcement.
MARTIN: So, of course now we want to know, how does each of you react to the news that General Bignone finally stood trial and has been sentenced. And of course I have to say, he's 82 years old. So the fact that he's been given this 25-year sentence, I don't know what that means. But, Alicia, I'll start with you. How did you react when you heard this news? What do you think about this?
Prof. KOZAMEH: What this means is that justice can be reached if you fight for it. That's what I feel about it, okay. Bignone is one of them. And that group is just a small group. So we need to be just fighting to catch the other ones.
MARTIN: Ines, what about you? How did you react to this news?
Ms. KUPERSCHMIDT: You know, as an attorney here in the U.S. where I do a lot of children's rights and civil rights law, I think that it is very important for history to get things right and really better late than never. And it's important symbol in terms of kind of the evolution of the judicial system in Argentina to finally prosecute persons who are known to have committed very serious and very egregious atrocities.
MARTIN: One of his crimes was that he ordered destruction of documents related to that period, which is one of the reasons why it may be difficult to find out what actually happened to so many of these people. And he basically minimized it. He says, well, in times of peace the disappearance of a single person means one thing, in times of war it means something else.
So, one does not get the sense that there is any remorse. I wanted to ask each of you, is that important? Would that be meaningful? Do you care? Alicia, I'll ask you first.
Prof. KOZAMEH: They don't have remorse. They think that they saved the country from the hands of the Communists. If some of them shows remorse, it's just because he or she thinks will get a shorter sentence or something like that. But remorse, real remorse, no, they were convinced of what they did.
MARTIN: Ines, what about you?
Ms. KUPERSCHMIDT: Yeah, Bignone's comments really seem to imply that his culpability is limited in some fashion. And whether it's 8,000 disappeared or 30,000 disappeared, the historical facts are an atrocity no matter what. And Bignone's comments to me really indicate kind of the depth of his, I dare say his personal evil and how little remorse he does have, and therefore how disconnected he must be from human kind to seem to not be able to differentiate the value of thousands of people and that they have no inherent value.
MARTIN: Well, I do want to ask about this whole question of memory and what role memories should play in our national lives. Because there are those who argue that, and forgive me, I do not wish to offend either of you with this, but there are those who say that the society doesn't really recover from this if we're constantly picking at these sores and revisiting these issues. There is that point of view. I'd like to ask each of you what you think about that. Alicia, I'll start with you.
Prof. KOZAMEH: Well, I don't know if you are aware, but I'm a writer and what I do is in my writing, in my books, is to keep the memory alive just to avoid the repetition of our history. Healing, how can a mother heal from the loss of a son or three sons or three daughters who have been killed in torture or being thrown from a plane to the ocean? There are different, you know, depths. Wounds can be deep and when they are really, really, really deep like this, there's no healing.
You can ask a mother to heal from the loss of her children in this way at least. You can't ask Ines to heal from the loss of her parents. See what I'm saying?
MARTIN: Ines, what do you think?
Ms. KUPERSCHMIDT: I think that there's a difference between healing and survival. And I fully acknowledge that at different points in time, many people have had to simply as a matter of survival forget a trauma, forget a tragedy just to be able to wake up the next morning and have the desire to keep on living.
And I think that there's definitely a personal choice there as well. I think there are many, many folks who have been involved in the Dirty War have been victims or survivors, however you'd like to phrase it, who choose as a matter of survival to simply go about living their lives and not really rehashing these issues. And I respect their personal decision to do so. However, it's my personal belief that to truly heal, you've got to get at that underlying infection. And if we simply put a Band-Aid on it, but the underlying problem isn't actually gone, it's only a matter of time before that abscess just bubbles forth to the surface.
And I think that the judicial process plays an important role in making sure that wrongs are righted so that a true healing process can take place and that we move away from a survival mentality into a true healing mentality.
MARTIN: What would you like to see happen now?
Prof. KOZAMEH: Well, I want to see every single torturer and murderer in Argentina in jail.
MARTIN: Ines, what about you?
Ms. KUPERSCHMIDT: I would like to see the justice system move swiftly in terms of prosecution of all of those who were involved in illegal activity and torture, disappearances, kidnappings and the taking of children away from their families. And that justice be sought in the same way that it would against others. So, no house arrest, no allowances because some of these torturers happen to be elderly. But the same evenhanded legal justice that would be meted against these individuals were they simply common criminals, which is frankly what they are.
Prof. KOZAMEH: Exactly.
MARTIN: Ines Kuperschmidt is a children's rights lawyer practicing in California. Alicia Kozameh is an author, an English professor at Emeritus College in California. They both joined us from our studios at NPR West. Ladies, I thank you both for speaking with us.
Prof. KOZAMEH: Thank you.
Ms. KUPERSCHMIDT: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.