Co-sponsored by the Latin American Program and the Cold War International History Project, the conference aimed to analyze the conflicted relationship between Argentina and the United States both now and during the period of the military dictatorship. The current focus of U.S. foreign policy on the war against terrorism has made it less attentive to crises in the hemisphere, including that of Argentina. In addition, the declassification of thousands of U.S. documents from the period of the Ford and Carter administrations casts a new, and at times troubling, light on U.S.-Argentine relations during the Dirty War of the 1970s.

In an overview of the broad contours of Argentine foreign policy, Juan Gabriel Tokatlián director of the political science and international relations department of the Universidad de San Andrés, referred to the major shift in Argentina’s foreign policy 14 years ago. He argued that former president Carlos Menem’s policy of “pragmatic acquiescence,” in which the country subordinated its foreign policy to an external actor, had been “costly and useless.” The unrestricted alliance with the United States, manifest in Argentina’s support for the first Gulf War and in Argentine support for U.S. positions in the United Nations, did not benefit Argentina; today the country is weaker, less relevent in international affairs, and more impoverished than it was a decade and a half ago. Tokatlián argued that the best foreign policy for Argentina would be a good domestic policy, which empowered institutions, developed national identity, and enhanced competence and maturity on the part of political leaders. He faulted Argentine leaders for lacking the strategic vision to redesign a failed foreign policy and model of international insertion.

Mark Falcoff, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, referred to the central challenges in the bilateral relationship. The first, he said, was the need “to restore a measure of political and moral credibility.” For Argentina, distrust towards the United States has to do with the way in which “the relationship was oversold” during the Menem years, in which a policy of “automatic alignment” by Argentina with U.S. foreign policy intiatives was met with such gestures as the U.S. designation of Argentina as a non-NATO ally. In the U.S. financial press, Falcoff argued, there was a tendency “to radically overstate the extent and profundity of the economic reforms” enacted during the 1990s, and private banks and international financial institutions “took to believing their own propaganda” when a more skeptical approach to the economy would have been warranted. Since the onset of the current economic crisis, Argentines have become deeply disillusioned with U.S. indifference to their plight, and Falcoff faulted the U.S. belief that “if Argentines simply tighten their belt everything will be all right.” He also argued that Argentina’s political credibility in the United States was linked to Argentines themselves finding a political leadership in which they could believe.

Argentine economist Beatriz Nofal, a founding partner of the consulting firm Eco-Axis and former under-secretary of industry and trade and former national deputy, described multiple causes of the worst economic crisis in Argentina’s history: external shocks, domestic vulnerabilities, governance problems, and mistakes in economic policy, especially adjustment policy. Nofal emphasized the “tremendous social regression” that has left more than half of Argentines below the poverty line, but also cited signs of a precarious economic rebound. Argentine skepticism about closer integration into the world economy and cooperation with the United States had been fueled by Washington’s lack of reciprocity, she argued, at the same time that closer collaboration with the international community did not necessarily mean subordination. She said that a successful and balanced FTAA was needed, one that eliminated agricultural and agro-industrial subsidies and non-tariff barriers to trade and did not widen per capita income gaps. Nofal said that most Latin Americans are uneasy about the war with Iraq that lacked the support of the United Nations. If the United States wanted more Argentine engagement in the war against terrorism, she indicated, Argentina needed more cooperation in dealing with national and regional problems.

Director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program Joseph S. Tulchin called for a realistic foreign policy posture on the part of Argentina that was rooted in a sense of the country’s strategic objectives. He argued that Argentina cannot define itself in relation to the United States and insisted that, given conditions of assymetry, it was unrealistic to expect a balanced relationship between the two countries. He described as a “signal success” the fact that management of the current political and economic crisis was achieved without military intervention.

The second panel of the conference addressed new information shedding light on the U.S.-Argentine relationship in the 1970s and ‘80s. At the request of prominent Argentine human rights groups, the U.S. Department of State in August 2002 released 4,677 documents relating to human rights in Argentina from 1975 to 1984.

Carlos Osorio, director of the Southern Cone Documentation Project of the National Security Archive, described U.S. support for the military junta and the double message on human rights under the Ford Administration; the clash between the Carter administration and Argentine government over human rights in 1977; the parallel rapprochement and negotiations with "moderates" in the junta; and divisions within the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires over the scale of violations and over how forcefully and in what manner to promote human rights. Osorio concluded that the work of U.S. Embassy staffers boosted the morale of human rights workers in Argentina, preserving their work if not their lives. He noted the richness of information contained in the Argentina declassification and the utility of the documents collection in helping lawyers, family members, and judges in clarifying the fate of the disappeared and establishing state responsibility for human rights crimes.
Carlos Sersale di Cerisano, former director general for human rights in the Argentine Foreign Ministry, said “bringing to memory the Argentinian ‘holocaust,’” especially for a new generation of Argentines, had contributed to the consolidation of democracy, by reminding citizens of the suffering of living under a military government. So far, he said, no criminal proceedings had been initiated on the basis of information contained in the documents, and it was too early to tell if the release would have an impact on the changing of domestic laws (Punto Final and Obedencia Debida) that had protected members of the military from prosecution. Sersale said that, other than in the press and among human rights organizations, the response to the release of the documents had been limited, despite government efforts to publicize and circulate them. He praised the “tremendous and courageous efforts” of a few U.S. diplomats at the time in doing “whatever was possible” to save lives, and stated that, overall, the release of the documents had contributed to an improvement in bilateral relations.

University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Sikkink focused on “critical junctures” of repression, arguing that repression is a choice governments make in the context of ideology and a perception of costs and benefits. The attitude of the U.S. government is crucial in influencing both areas. She cited new material contained in the documents that shed light on the period between June 1976 and January 1977, the peak of repression in Argentina as well as the period of what she called the “green light” from U.S. policymakers. Sikkink referred to cables reflecting efforts by U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Robert Hill to impress on Argentine military leaders that certain norms could never be set aside in the fight against terrorism. These demarches were undermined by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who in meetings with the Argentine Foreign Minister, a naval admiral, encouraged the government to continue and even accelerate the war against subversion, making no mention of the methods, which included torture and disappearance. Sikkink concluded by noting Argentina’s crucial role in recent human rights initiatives, including the formation of the International Criminal Court.

In a paper written for the conference, María José Guembe, director of the program “Memoria y Lucha contra la Impunidad” of the Argentine human rights group Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), said that the documents provided an unparalleled registry of the methodology of the repressive system, as well as invaluable documentation for judicial investigations of human rights cases. The anonymity provided to mid-level officers who served as informants to officials of the U.S. Embassy produced extensive reporting on the organization of the terrorist state as well as individual acts of repression, including disappearances. She noted that the Argentine armed forces have continued to deny the existence of their own documents from the repressive period, although certain archives have surfaced, including those of the Naval Mechanics School (ESMA) and several intelligence units of provincial police. Guembe outlined steps in the Argentine lower courts to declare unconstitutional various laws preserving impunity, including the pardons issued by the Menem government in 1989-90. She also cited a precedent from Peru by which the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared “inadmissible” an amnesty applied to perpetrators of a massacre of civilians. Guembe affirmed that the effort to remember and document the past had contributed to the consolidation of a democratic system in Argentina.

Columbia University School of Journalism professor John Dinges described the dirty war in the Southern Cone as the “first war on terrorism.” The lessons of how the United States related not only to the terror of guerrilla organizations but also to that of governments that were U.S. allies is important to consider in the context of current U.S. foreign policy. Dinges said that the documents provided a fresh and “revolutionary” way of re-examining the history of the 1970s, revealing an inside view of the workings of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. intelligence. He portrayed the embassy as essentially ignorant of the approximately 4,000 disappearances that took place in 1976, as well as of the thousand or so killed by the military before the coup. Dinges said that his own research placed the number of those killed between 1975 and mid-1978 at some 22,000, a figure based on a document of an Argentine intelligence battalion chiefly responsible for the repression. Dinges called U.S. human rights policy in both the Ford and Carter periods ineffective with respect to Argentina, noting that human rights violations, including two to three thousand disappearances, continued in the first two years of the Carter administration.

F. A. “Tex” Harris, a political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires at the height of the dirty war, described policy struggles within the U.S. government over how forcefully to incorporate human rights issues into diplomacy. National security doctrine, in which the Argentine military saw itself as protecting Argentina and Western civilization against “godless communism,” was counterposed against efforts by members of the U.S. Congress, non-governmental organizations, and church groups to make human rights a central component of U.S. foreign policy. Harris described his own efforts to collect information from relatives of victims of repression, opening the U.S. Embassy to their visits and establishing an internal database unique to that period. He described in detail U.S. decisionmaking concerning an Export-Import Bank loan to a U.S. company, to set up a turbine factory for a wholly owned subsidiary of the Argentine Navy. His efforts to report on the beneficiary of the Ex-Im Bank loan were opposed by his superiors, and only through his extraordinary efforts did the information reach Washington in time to impact on the loan decision. Harris argued that Argentina provided cautionary lessons that must be learned in the battle between protecting homeland security and preserving individual human rights.

Cynthia Arnson
Deputy Director
Latin American