The conclusion of the third ESMA trial last Wednesday with 29 life sentences is a milestone for memory, truth and justice but its significance should not be limited to coming to terms with the past – it also carries messages for the present and future, as can be seen from viewing it in the context of other major current news items.
ESMA (the naval engineering academy converted into a concentration camp and the centre of mass disappearances and death flights during the 1976- 83 military dictatorship) is a subject in its own right, inviting moral indignation in the face of the atrocities there and debate over whether the verdicts are sufficiently condign punishment. But this editorial would prefer to view the ESMA trial in conjunction with the Coast Guard killing of Mapuche militant Rafael Nahuel last weekend, because each places the other in perspective.
Comparing the two can never be tantamount to equating them – even taking the worst possible interpretation of Nahuel’s shooting, it fades into insignificance when measured against the horrors of ESMA, thus exposing the absurdity of the crassly opportunistic Kirchnerite attempts to draw parallels between these recurrent tragedies under the elected democratic government of Mauricio Macri and the mass slaughter inflicted by the military juntas. But having said that,
Nahuel’s slaying remains the thin end of the wedge. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” wrote Edmund Burke but Security Minister Patricia Bullrich seems to have no interest in applying this eternal vigilance to the various police forces on her watch, acquitting as she did the Coast Guard ahead of any autopsy or probe. Affirming the need to trust the security forces, Bullrich insists on taking the most benign view possible of the police actions near Bariloche but even if the Coast Guard’s guilt turned out to be maximal, the government would probably argue that this is a lesser evil to demoralising the security forces in their epic battle against the drug scourge, repeatedly named by President Macri as one of his three top priorities. But given the track record of Latin American police forces and the frequency with which they have meshed with drug-trafficking gangs, what basis can there possibly be for blind faith? If a blank cheque for the security forces is all she has to offer, why not save the taxpayer the expense of her ministry and let the police do what they like?
ESMA is also a useful backdrop for the lost ARA San Juan, apart from the technical overlap between naval engineering and submarines. The Argentine public has absorbed the horrors of ESMA with the two extremes of memory and oblivion but both extremes have the common denominator of shunning the military, leading to decades of spiralling neglect culminating in the tragedy of the San Juan (with hope of survivors officially abandoned on Thursday).
Many people conclude that the only fitting response to this tragedy would be to up defence spending dramatically, despite a bulging fiscal deficit, in the hope that some of this money will trickle down to proper maintenance and training. But a drastic restructuring could relaunch the military without spending more.
There is plenty of fat to cut – the armed forces are top heavy with over 23,000 officers and NCOs outnumbering some 20,000 volunteer privates, while there are three times as many Defence Ministry officials to administer these reduced numbers than the 150,000-strong armed forces of the dictatorship. And why not unify the three services into a flexible, multipurpose unit (the Navy and Air Force have clear roles against South Atlantic poaching trawlers and drug flights respectively but not the Army in the absence of external threats)?
The ESMA trial should serve to consign military shame to the past – surely the day must come when the Armed Forces can look at themselves in the mirror and their fellow Argentines in the face.