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The "Dirty War" and the History of Democracy in Argentina

Lena Muldoon, Joint First Prize, Graduate Category, Essay Contest 2018

March 12, 2019

Centro Popular de la Memoria in Rosario, Argentina (in English, "Former illegal center of detention, torture and disappearance of persons, 1976–1979"). CREDIT: Wikimedia (CC)

Lena is from Kentucky and has lived in between the United States and Argentina for the last seven years. She is a master's student at the Universidad de Belgrano in Buenos Aires and currently finishing her dissertation focusing on the diplomatic relations between the United States and Argentina of the 20th century.

ESSAY TOPIC: Is it important to live in a democracy?

In the Western world, "democracy" is a word that has become a bit of a broken record. The word finds its roots all the way back to Ancient Greece, and it has been implemented, tested, manipulated, and questioned ever since. In more recent history, campaigns of spreading and promoting democracy throughout the world have been simultaneously zealous and tumultuous, with operations promoted (and demanded) by global powers as well as grassroots citizens. While many of these efforts began with young people protesting for better rights and representation, many have also been pushed into existence by foreign forces. But what happens when these characterizations of "democracy" do not align with a nation's identity? How can one put a common classification on something that can be so acutely delicate? I have come to learn that "democracy" is hardly universally consistent. Instead, the importance of living in a democracy is relative to the peoples' history, lived experiences, and promised future

Traveling from the United States for the first time at age 17, I thought I knew the definition of democracy: a system in which the representatives are chosen by the people and for the people—simple enough. In Argentina, I quickly learned that democracy was something much more fragile, emotional, and austere than I ever realized.

For the past six years, I have lived on-and-off in Buenos Aires. First, as a student; then as a resident; and always as an endlessly curious spectator. It is a country filled with passion, resilience, and a fierce determination to never forget its history. The history seeps through the walls and flows through the allies of the city, characterizing every corner and building. One constantly hears it brought up in day-to-day life, from the two 60-something women drinking coffee on the sidewalk café, the students debating animatedly in the public universities, and uncles and cousins arguing at family luncheons.

To the Argentine people, democracy is more than a political structure or having a say in who their representatives are: it is a constant dissent against illicit authority. It is a demand that they are humans, no less than the politicians that lead them. It is a constant battle cry of "never again" and a demonstration that the people are, in fact, the bosses.

On a fateful day in late March of 1976, Argentina's established democracy fell to a military coup that led the country into a brutal dictatorship for the next seven years, a period that has been coined "The Dirty War" Thousands of people disappeared, many were murdered, freedom of speech and the press were nullified, and any convention of "democracy," no matter one's definition, vanished.

The military coup was one of the darkest hours of Argentine history, and even today so much justice has yet to be reached. Only a small handful of generals responsible for countless murders and disappearances of civilians have been held accountable, and so many families remain with questions unanswered and emotional wounds wide open.

After the Dirty War, Argentines had to fight to regain access to basic human rights, dignity, and to reestablish democratic order. Today, Argentines live in relentless paranoia of returning to a dictatorship—even those who weren't yet alive during that time. The paranoia stemming from the past is reflected in the thousands that march the streets, banging pots and pans together, over what would seem to an outside viewer as simple policy changes; or the defeated, shaking heads of people of all ages reading the newspapers detailing the latest political moves. Any move towards authoritarian-like behaviors triggers an angst, pulling the Argentine public to near breakdown. To them, democracy is something that was fought for with blood and tears—in many cases, those of their grandparents, parents, and even themselves. The threat lurks on every corner, waiting for the chance to jump in and take over again at just the right time.

During the dictatorship, mothers and grandmothers of those disappeared—whose whereabouts are still oftentimes unaccounted for—began to gather at Plaza de Mayo, the presidential plaza, demanding the return of their family members. To this day, these same women—many nearing 100 years of age and still seeking answers—gather at the same plaza every Thursday at 3:30 PM. The sight to see is such a raw symbol of Argentine freedom that the mere concept of its origin can move one to tears: unarmed women, arm-in-arm, facing down a military dictatorship. In many ways the symbol remains today and has nestled itself as a stark symbol of Argentine nationality—resistance and persistence.

The loss of their democracy is a dark stain on Argentine history and serves as a constant reminder, even a plea, to never forget what is possible when one turns their head for even a second too long. Today, the Argentine people fight mostly against threats such as political corruption, inflation, and safety within their cities and neighborhoods. The paradigms may have changed, but the raw spirit remains the same.

The notion of democracy has become synonymous with the Western world order, leading those in power to presume that without it, the world is unsafe; so much so that the word has filtered into common, day-to-day vernacular among people around the world, turning it into somewhat of a buzzword. In many cases, even as they talk about it, many people don't even know what a democracy is—at least not by definition.

So what is the definition of "democracy?" As I've come to learn, democracy is not an over-arching definition that can be fit into the neat context of global policy. No, it is much more intimate than that. The definition of democracy depends entirely on who you ask—and where you ask them.

Democracy is something that cannot be fully known or understood outside of the context in which it exists. It is not only theoretical, but subjective to the histories and words that have been written upon in. In the case of Argentina, the definition of "democracy" does not exist without the definition of repression, despotism, and finally, confrontation. I imagine that if a foreign power were to attempt to implement a democracy campaign here in Argentina, it would result in something of a laughably inept waste of time. Because without understanding the context and basis with which you are navigating such a definition, it is entirely futile. And if I know anything about the Argentine spirit, as far as they're concerned, an outsider looking in has no idea what the word "democracy" means here.

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