Pope Francis and the Dirty War: The Failure of National Reconciliation

The ascension of Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy as Pope Francis has, predictably, drawn a good amount of attention to his positions on social and economic issues as well as his relationships with political actors in his native Argentina. On social issues, Francis seems to be largely in line with his predecessors—I first learned about him during his strident, borderline hysterical opposition to Cristina Kichner’s successful attempt to legalize gay marriage. This is disappointing, but not surprising at all. More surprising, however, are the questions that have arisen regarding his relationship with the 1976-1983 military junta which waged a brutal dirty war first against urban guerrilla groups, then later against a broader and more nebulous array of “subversivos.” Andrew Sullivan has done a great job of aggregating pieces of the story, and I am not going to comment on his culpability, though any sort of complicity with a regime that was responsible for as many as 30,000 deaths (often by “disappearing” them) would be an incredible black mark on a man who is supposed to be the moral leader of the world’s largest religious domination.

What I find interesting is how illustrative this is of the incomplete and inconsistent way Argentina has dealt with the legacy of the military dictatorship. Initially, Raul Alfonsin—Argentina’s first post-dictatorship president—pursued justice against the military with some zeal, leading to convictions of leading members of the junta, including Jorge Videla and Emilio Massera in 1985. However, soon thereafter, a law was passed that dramatically limited the ability of the government to bring military members to trial. In 1990, Carlos Menem pardoned Videla and Massera, as well as some guerrilla leaders in an attempt to foster reconciliation. This remained the status quo until the Kirchners reopened cases against the military in 2005 leading to the reconviction of Videla among others. While the people who led the dictatorship unquestionably deserve the punishments they have received, the reopening of the trials was controversial because of its focus exclusively on the military, leaving out the role played by leftist groups (which was smaller but still significant) in the violence that typified the era after Peron’s death in 1973.

The upshot of this helter skelter approach to attempts at justice has been that, beyond the top officials in the military and a few specific leaders of the Montoneros and other guerrilla groups, there is very inconsistent information who else was responsible for abuses committed by both sides. This manifests itself in several ways. One is in the form of dark rumors that follow around people like Pope Francis. Because no systematic attempt has been sustained to find the truth, it’s difficult to judge how culpable he or others with similar accusations against them really are. Another way it shows up is in the cognitive dissonance around the 1982 war against Great Britain over the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands. Despite the fact that the invasion was a poorly-calculated attempt to rejuvenate the foundering dictatorship’s popularity and that many of the people running and fighting the war were the same people who had, until then, been the people kidnapping and torturing their fellow citizens, politicians on both sides (including the Kirchners) lionize both the goals of the war (a topic for another post) and the soldiers who fought it.

None of this is unique to Argentina. Chile, Sri Lanka and dozens of other countries have struggled to find the best way to deal with the legacies of civil wars and dictatorships. Finding that balance is difficult, and, at least until now, Argentina has done a poor job of devising a system that at least makes clear what happened, even if those responsible are shielded from punishment for their actions.


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