It was Argentine's dictator General Jorge Rafael Videla who made the following statement during a press conference: "They are neither dead nor alive, they are desaparecidos (missing)." During Argentina's Dirty War and Operation Condor, many alleged political dissidents were abducted or illegally detained and kept in clandestine detention centers, where they were questioned, tortured, and sometimes killed. These places of torture, located in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed over 6,000 desaparecidos, or disappeared persons, to the overall count in the Dirty War. The Argentine military justified torture to gather intelligence and understood the disappearances as a way to curb political dissent. Whenever the female captives were pregnant, their children were stolen away right after giving birth, while the women themselves remained detained. An estimated 500 children and infants were given to families with close ties to the military to be raised. In a research project funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, the historian Professor Isabelle Cosse from the Universidad de Buenos Aires seeks to explore how activists, exiles, and human rights organizations in Europe denounced the kidnappings of babies and children perpetrated by the Argentine dictatorship. Thus, the research is situated at the intersection of the history of childhood, human rights studies, and transnational turn approaches. While intending to reconstruct the meaning of childhood for the human rights movement during the Cold War, Professor Cosse also aims to explore how the global stage became a crucial battlefield in the struggle against the Argentinian dictatorship. We asked her some questions concerning her project.
"Disappearance to demonstrate power"
Interview with Isabella Cosse about kidnappings by the Argentine government
"Understanding the place occupied by feelings"
L.I.S.A.: Dr. Cosse, you are conducting research on the kidnappings of children and babies by the Argentine government that took place in the 1970s and 1980s. What exactly is your object of research and what was your initial point to start your study?
Dr. Cosse: I am studying how human rights organizations and activists in Europe denounced the kidnapping of babies and children and their families perpetrated by the 1976-1983 Argentine dictatorship. I am retracing the campaigns they conducted to raise awareness of this crime, examining the content of such campaigns and the representations they featured, and looking at the activists and organizations involved, as well as the impact their actions had on international public opinion. I embarked on my work from two main starting points. First, I took on the challenge of questioning the naturalization of the nation-state as the final unit of analysis, which is posed by transnational studies. I have adopted a transnational perspective (thinking about the connections, circulations, and interdependencies at the local, regional, and global scales) to consider the human rights movement, which was a new force of enormous importance during the cold war. Second, I think these perspectives acquire greater significance when it comes to childhood. In this sense, my point of departure is the paradox between the exaltation of childhood (which peaked in the 1950s, when children symbolized progress and the future, connecting the fate of the family with that of the nation and humanity) and new forms of violence against children that emerged at the same time as the direct or indirect result of policies implemented by modern states. I believe this contradiction was crucial in sparking human rights activism, because the cruelty inflicted on children crossed the limit of the tolerable for a sensitivity that was thought to be at the very foundation of all of humanity. In other words, I am very interested in understanding the place occupied by feelings, the concern for children, but also the role played by emotions in the political and social actions of movements, organizations, and exiles demanding that the kidnapped children be returned to their families, offering support to the relatives, and denouncing the repression in Argentina.
"An act of extreme cruelty and inhumanity"
L.I.S.A.: One might assume that the Argentine dictatorship had an underlying intention when kidnapping children and babies: Who was the actual target and what was the purpose of the kidnappings?
Dr. Cosse: The Argentine dictatorship drew on the ideas of the cold war, which in Latin America played out in a heated scenario. The armed forces saw anyone who opposed the social and political status quo, regardless of their ideological views, as an enemy of the nation and of Western Christian civilization. These opponents were considered an extreme threat by the military regime, which unleashed a brutal repression, characterized by its ferocity and cruelty and by the fact that it operated completely outside the law, in violation even of the laws of war. Political and social activists were kidnapped, tortured, and disappeared (they were killed but their bodies were thrown into the sea or buried in unmarked graves as unknowns). Their children were not spared from these repressive measures. Many children were taken alive with the explicit intention of obtaining information from them (there were children who were tortured) and babies and children were used to pressure their parents into talking with the threat of making their children suffer.
Second, the kidnapping of babies and children formed part of the regime’s plan to completely wipe out the political forces their parents belonged to. Thus, many babies who were born in captivity were placed through fraudulent or illegal adoptions with what were deemed to be “healthy” families, that is, loyal to the military regime. In many cases, the very same military officers who had murdered their parents were the ones who appropriated these babies and children as their own. In that way the dictatorship sought to tame the new generations, rendering them passive and preventing the ideas of social and political change from spreading in the future. That is, children and young people were key elements in the authoritarian ideological project.
Third, disappearance was a way of demonstrating the power that the military regime had over the life not only of activists but also of their families and even their children and babies. It was an act of extreme cruelty and inhumanity because it denied families and loved ones the possibility of burying their dead and mourning them.
"Over 400 babies and children have been documented as victims of disappearance"
L.I.S.A.: Were there any international reactions to the kidnapping?
Dr. Cosse: The global community was crucial in the denunciation of crimes against humanity. These crimes were denounced in different international bodies and to public opinion, turning such spaces into major fields for combating the dictatorship. In 1976, Amnesty International visited the country and in 1979 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) sent a mission to Argentina after receiving thousands of complaints. The IACHR report was instrumental because it was issued by an international body. It received a lot of press and served to legitimize the denunciations. But there were also numerous actions conducted in different countries by activists, parties, and exiles who furthered the search for the disappeared and garnered support for the Mothers and the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and other human rights organizations in Argentina. Over 400 babies and children have been documented as victims of disappearance. Of these, 130 have since been found and their identities have been restored. The human rights organizations were very important in the efforts to find these children and in advocating internationally in their favor.
"The international denunciations delegitimized the military government"
L.I.S.A.: One might make note of the fact that kidnapping is considered one of the worst crimes one can possibly commit. Therefore, the question arises whether the Argentine dictatorship was aware of possible reactions and acted knowingly anyway?
Dr. Cosse: That is an important question. We still do not know exactly how the dictatorship came to the decision to disappear political and social activists, but we do know that, in doing so, it tried to avoid the rejection that the mass imprisonments and killings by the Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile had raised in the international community. The repressive agents thought that if they disappeared their opponents, their crimes would not come to light. But the opposite occurred. The Mothers and the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo – with their characteristic white handkerchiefs – exposed and spoke out against those crimes, winning the support of the international community for the human rights movement. The dictatorship denied these reports. It tried to neutralize them and prevent their dissemination, and it stigmatized those who were involved in drawing up such reports. The 1978 World Soccer Cup, which was hosted by Argentina during the dictatorship, was used to attempt to improve the image of the military regime in the eyes of international public opinion. At that time, in response to the international criticism against the country, the military regime came up with the slogan “Los Argentinos somos derechos y humanos,” which roughly translated as “We Argentines are human and rightful,” a play on the term “human rights.” It failed, however. The international denunciations made a great impact and delegitimized the military government.
"Clara Anahí Mariani has yet to be found"
L.I.S.A.: In your research you are discussing the campaigns organized to denounce the crimes. Could you name specific examples of possible campaigns, how these were perceived in public and if they can be considered successful?
Dr. Cosse: I am midway through my research and I am finding that there were different kinds of campaigns. First, there were the campaigns conducted to garner support for the Mothers or the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and those that denounced the disappearance of babies and children with the aim of raising awareness about the search for them. This had a political impact, but also concrete and practical effects in terms of the efforts to find them. The information provided by individuals who knew about the disappearance of babies and children has been absolutely crucial in finding these disappeared children and babies and restoring their identity. Last year the 130th grandson (now an adult, of course) was found, and the continuous efforts to raise awareness about this crime were instrumental in this outcome.
Second, there were political denunciation campaigns that appealed to governments, churches, international bodies, and non-governmental organizations so that they would join in pressuring for the recovery of these children and their return to the families they were taken from, both through demands for all disappeared children in general and for specific babies or children. One such campaign for a specific child, which was very important because it received much publicity in Europe, was the campaign for the search of Clara Anahí Mariani, who was just three months old when she was taken. Her photograph is featured in many of the European press articles that I have reviewed over the past few days. She has yet to be found.
Finally, there were campaigns that contributed to the search for these babies and children and provided specific support for the grandmothers. These included different forms of support: political, economic, and organizational. These groups worked with various international organizations, including Amnesty International. Particularly important in the case of disappeared babies and children and the work with the grandmothers was the Amnesty International Ulm group, and there was also a network called Ariadne, in Tübingen, the birthplace of a German national, Elisabeth Käsemann, who was disappeared in Argentina. But there were many different groups and organizations engaged in denouncing human rights abuses perpetrated in Latin America, both in Germany and throughout Europe, with countless organizations carrying out actions to support the grandmothers and their search for these disappeared children and babies.
"A painful and brutal period of our history"
L.I.S.A.: What significance does the event have today relating to the culture of memory and remembrance? More specifically asked: How did the kidnapping influence Argentine history and memory?
Dr. Cosse: The human rights abuses committed in the past in Argentina are of cardinal importance for the present. It is a time in Argentine history that has not yet been resolved – even though fifty years have gone by – and it is important for various reasons. In the first place, because the crimes are still being investigated and the demand for justice still stands and is furthered by relatives of the victims and human rights organizations, which, among other things, succeeded in overturning the full stop laws that had put an end to investigations and prosecutions.
Second, important actions have been conducted to raise awareness of the human rights violations and to prevent them from being forgotten, in the understanding that only by remembering what happened can we stop it from being repeated. It is a very important subject included in school curricula, it is featured in museums and memorial sites, and evidence of the crimes is still being found in archives and made available to the public. Moreover, there is a great demand from human rights organization to preserve the memory of that past and make it known.
Finally, the past of repression and the dictatorship are present in public opinion, through numerous personal accounts, movies, literature, press, and academic works. In particular, in recent years we have seen an important number of accounts by individuals who were children during that period. I think that, because of their importance, these issues have spawned a very vigorous and rich field of studies on memory and the recent past in Argentina, as in the rest of the Southern Cone. My work is part of that effort to understand – and elaborate on and discuss – such a painful and brutal period of our history.
Prof Dr Isabelle Cosse answered the questions in written form.
Isabella Cosse holds a PhD in History and is a researcher with the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET, Argentina), Universidad de Buenos Aires and Universidad Nacional de San Martín. Among others books, she is the author of Pareja, sexualidad y familia en los años sesenta (Siglo XXI, 2010), Estigmas de nacimiento: Peronismo y orden familiar, 1946-1955 (FCE, 2006), and Mafalda: A Social and Political History of Latin America's Global Comic (Duke University Press, 2019). She is working on this project as a Gerda Henkel Foundation Fellow.