Truth, Justice and Memory in Argentina: The Life of Nora Cortiñas

It is forty years since Nora Cortiñas, a housewife and mother of two sons, left her quiet life to become one of the most respected and committed human rights leaders in the world as co-founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (Madres de Plaza de Mayo).

It seemed only yesterday that Argentina was lauded for its human rights and memory policies. The enforced disappearance of 30,000 citizens, labelled subversives, during its last military dictatorship (1976-83) attained global notoriety. Democracy was restored following the disastrous Malvinas War in 1982 which coincided with deep economic crisis, growing street protests and international condemnation. Thus, after a century of successive civic military governments with intermittent democratic periods, representative democracy was re-established in 1983.

Currently, under the government of President Mauricio Macri, the state barely recognises dictatorship victims. Macri has questioned the number of ‘disappeared’, as defined by human rights organisations and the gravity of the atrocities committed. The government’s historical revisionism sits alongside the imposition of a neoliberal economic programme that slashes jobs and wages, sells off public assets and increases public debt. Amidst an atmosphere of repression there are still many brave people that will not be silenced.

It is forty years since Nora Cortiñas, a housewife and mother of two sons, left her quiet life to become one of the most respected and committed human rights leaders in the world as co-founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (Madres de Plaza de Mayo). Nora Cortiñas was born in Buenos Aires, in 1930. Her son, Carlos Gustavo Cortiñas, belonged to the Peronist Party. He was abducted and disappeared by the armed forces in 1977. Ever since, Nora has devoted herself to campaigning for numerous human rights causes, especially those concerning state-committed crimes against humanity and enforced disappearances.

Since Carlos’ disappearance, Nora has travelled a long journey in pursuit of justice and truth for her son. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, one of the most important human rights organisations in Argentina, brought together many women searching for their children. Women who had suffered the abduction of their children confronted the military dictatorship in the historic Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. Inside the Presidential Palace, the dictatorship generals Rafael Videla, Roberto Viola, Leopoldo Galtieri and, finally, Reynaldo Bignone, commanded the abduction, torture and enforced disappearance of thousands of innocent people.

The Madres of Plaza de Mayo was founded on 30 April 1977, after gathering in the Plaza de Mayo to protest the military junta. After soldiers demanded that they move along, the reaction of the Mothers was to move, but in circles around the square. This gave birth to their iconic march that continues to take place today, four decades later, every Thursday afternoon. Years later, the organisation split into two groups due to ideological differences – the Founding Line and the Association. Nora Cortiñas belongs to the former.

Although democracy was restored in 1983, traces of the dictatorship remain – particularly if one analyses Argentina’s current economic and security paradigm: the external debt is one of them. Privatisations, reduced worker rights and the opening up of national economy to global trade and capital flows are another. Each commenced during the dictatorship and has shaped Argentina’s recent history. Its external debt has reached record levels and predicated acquiescence to Washington Consensus reforms. This has gone hand in hand with the repression of social movements which oppose the intervention of the International Monetary Fund and other agents of foreign capital in sovereign matters. One of President Macri’s first moves was to invite IMF inspectors into Argentina in 2016 to approve its fiscal and monetary policy, after they had effectively been expelled by the previous Kirchner government.

During the 1990s, President Carlos Menem proclaimed a ‘reconciliation’ policy with the past, enabling impunity for those who committed crimes against humanity. In 1989, Menem exonerated military officers on trial and in December 1990 he pardoned ex-commanders from the military junta. He also implemented a neoliberal economic programme that contributed to the economic crisis of 2001.In December that year, after a short period in office for President Fernando De La Rua, huge popular uprisings took place on the streets of Buenos Aires and around the country’s urban centres. The De La Rua government resorted to military repression that killed 39 Argentinians.

At the root of Argentina’s economic crisis was unpaid debts to international lending organisations including the IMF. In an interview with the political party Project South, in 2010, Nora Cortiñas commented on the debt’s illegitimacy: ‘To me, the external debt is something that I have always remembered. I link this to the 30.000 disappeared Argentinians, with my son Carlos and with the people that must pay a debt that wasn’t assumed by them … and that began with the last civic-military dictatorship … The debt was increased enormously by the military junta through torture, abduction and death.’

Nora’s hypothesis proposes that no neoliberal economic programme can be delivered without systematic repression of the people. In this scenario, Macri has stated the need to cut the country’s famously high labour costs to increase foreign investment. Despite economic stagnation, huge rises in the cost of living, a further 1.5million people living in poverty, record indebtedness, rising unemployment and human rights violations which have been condemned by the United Nations, Amnesty International and others, Macri and his Cambiemos party won October’s legislative elections in convincing fashion. An assault on the labour movement, reinforcement of the neoliberal model and further misery for the majority look set to follow.

The so-called ‘debt reduction policy’ carried out by the Nestor Kirchner (2003-7) and Cristina Fernández (2008-15) governments has been abandoned. Between 2005 and 2010, Argentina carried out debt-restructures that wrote off two-thirds of its debt, although it also paid large amounts to the Paris Club, IMF, World Bank’s investor settlement process and the Spanish oil giant Repsol without questioning the debt’s legitimacy. These measures failed to bring about a full audit of the debt’s legitimacy. However, far worse was the Macri government’s agreement with its US vulture funds that refused to engage in the restructuring process and subsequently held Argentina to ransom through international courts. They were eventually handsomely paid off by Macri’s administration, depriving the country of billions of dollars which could have been spent on social investment.

While China and Russia were allies to Argentina during the Fernández administration, Macri’s government has transformed the foreign policy agenda to one which supposedly ‘returns them to the world’. Argentina hosted the World Economic Forum last April and, with the IMF’s blessing , will host December’s World Trade Organisation summit. These events are the consequence of a very explicit agenda which puts Argentina at the service of international capital.

Argentina is going back in time in other ways too. On 1 August 2017, 28-year-old Santiago Maldonado disappeared after federal security forces broke up indigenous Mapuche protests over disputed ancestral lands that are ‘legally’ owned by fashion brand Benetton in Lof Cushamen, Patagonia. Benetton bought the lands in the 1990s, seemingly in contravention of international law which requires consultation with indigenous populations. The owner, Luciano Benetton, is a friend of Macri’s.

At the Mapuche protest, several witnesses say they saw security agents forcing someone into a van, almost certainly Santiago. After 81 days, his body was discovered in the Chabut River, close to the initial repression, despite two previous police scans of the same area. Locals are  adamant that the body was not there throughout this time while 73 per cent of Argentinians suspect that Santiago was killed by security forces.  Suspicions were further raised by the body appearing two days before the election. Macri’s government has subsequently propagated the idea that the young man had ‘drowned alone’.

The culpability of military police agents is the lead hypothesis, as Macri’s own Minister Claudio Avruj admitted. This has caused a major political crisis for Mauricio Marci’s government. The search for justice for Santiago, led by his brother Sergio Maldonado, has received the support of Nora Cortiñas who has questioned Security Minister Patricia Bullrich’s handling of the affair. Nora recently visited the site of the protest where Maldonado was ‘disappeared’. She says that the abduction of Santiago sends a strong message aimed at silencing the solidarity of the people towards indigenous  protests over ancestral lands.

Nora Cortiñas is just one example of the many unstoppable women who have contributed greatly to the human rights movement in Argentina. Latin America is facing new challenges and the spectre of a painful past haunts the region again. The need to listen to voices like Nora Cortiñas is greater than ever.

Nora Cortiñas, alongside Beverly Keene, director of Jubileo-Sur Diálogo 2000, an NGO that campaigns against illegitimate debts in the global south, will perform a speaking tour on Human rights, Disappearances, Debt and Free Trade: Struggles for Justice and Sovereignty in Argentina and Latin America organised by London-based group Argentinian Solidarity Campaign between 31 October and 2 November 2017, with talks scheduled at the University of Cambridge and University of London. More information here

It is forty years since Nora Cortiñas, a housewife and mother of two sons, left her quiet life to become one of the most respected and committed human rights leaders in the world as co-founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (Madres de Plaza de Mayo).

It seemed only yesterday that Argentina was lauded for its human rights and memory policies. The enforced disappearance of 30,000 citizens, labelled subversives, during its last military dictatorship (1976-83) attained global notoriety. Democracy was restored following the disastrous Malvinas War in 1982 which coincided with deep economic crisis, growing street protests and international condemnation. Thus, after a century of successive civic military governments with intermittent democratic periods, representative democracy was re-established in 1983.

Currently, under the government of President Mauricio Macri, the state barely recognises dictatorship victims. Macri has questioned the number of ‘disappeared’, as defined by human rights organisations and the gravity of the atrocities committed. The government’s historical revisionism sits alongside the imposition of a neoliberal economic programme that slashes jobs and wages, sells off public assets and increases public debt. Amidst an atmosphere of repression there are still many brave people that will not be silenced.

It is forty years since Nora Cortiñas, a housewife and mother of two sons, left her quiet life to become one of the most respected and committed human rights leaders in the world as co-founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (Madres de Plaza de Mayo). Nora Cortiñas was born in Buenos Aires, in 1930. Her son, Carlos Gustavo Cortiñas, belonged to the Peronist Party. He was abducted and disappeared by the armed forces in 1977. Ever since, Nora has devoted herself to campaigning for numerous human rights causes, especially those concerning state-committed crimes against humanity and enforced disappearances.

Since Carlos’ disappearance, Nora has travelled a long journey in pursuit of justice and truth for her son. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, one of the most important human rights organisations in Argentina, brought together many women searching for their children. Women who had suffered the abduction of their children confronted the military dictatorship in the historic Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. Inside the Presidential Palace, the dictatorship generals Rafael Videla, Roberto Viola, Leopoldo Galtieri and, finally, Reynaldo Bignone, commanded the abduction, torture and enforced disappearance of thousands of innocent people.

The Madres of Plaza de Mayo was founded on 30 April 1977, after gathering in the Plaza de Mayo to protest the military junta. After soldiers demanded that they move along, the reaction of the Mothers was to move, but in circles around the square. This gave birth to their iconic march that continues to take place today, four decades later, every Thursday afternoon. Years later, the organisation split into two groups due to ideological differences – the Founding Line and the Association. Nora Cortiñas belongs to the former.

Although democracy was restored in 1983, traces of the dictatorship remain – particularly if one analyses Argentina’s current economic and security paradigm: the external debt is one of them. Privatisations, reduced worker rights and the opening up of national economy to global trade and capital flows are another. Each commenced during the dictatorship and has shaped Argentina’s recent history. Its external debt has reached record levels and predicated acquiescence to Washington Consensus reforms. This has gone hand in hand with the repression of social movements which oppose the intervention of the International Monetary Fund and other agents of foreign capital in sovereign matters. One of President Macri’s first moves was to invite IMF inspectors into Argentina in 2016 to approve its fiscal and monetary policy, after they had effectively been expelled by the previous Kirchner government.

During the 1990s, President Carlos Menem proclaimed a ‘reconciliation’ policy with the past, enabling impunity for those who committed crimes against humanity. In 1989, Menem exonerated military officers on trial and in December 1990 he pardoned ex-commanders from the military junta. He also implemented a neoliberal economic programme that contributed to the economic crisis of 2001.In December that year, after a short period in office for President Fernando De La Rua, huge popular uprisings took place on the streets of Buenos Aires and around the country’s urban centres. The De La Rua government resorted to military repression that killed 39 Argentinians.

At the root of Argentina’s economic crisis was unpaid debts to international lending organisations including the IMF. In an interview with the political party Project South, in 2010, Nora Cortiñas commented on the debt’s illegitimacy: ‘To me, the external debt is something that I have always remembered. I link this to the 30.000 disappeared Argentinians, with my son Carlos and with the people that must pay a debt that wasn’t assumed by them … and that began with the last civic-military dictatorship … The debt was increased enormously by the military junta through torture, abduction and death.’

Nora’s hypothesis proposes that no neoliberal economic programme can be delivered without systematic repression of the people. In this scenario, Macri has stated the need to cut the country’s famously high labour costs to increase foreign investment. Despite economic stagnation, huge rises in the cost of living, a further 1.5million people living in poverty, record indebtedness, rising unemployment and human rights violations which have been condemned by the United Nations, Amnesty International and others, Macri and his Cambiemos party won October’s legislative elections in convincing fashion. An assault on the labour movement, reinforcement of the neoliberal model and further misery for the majority look set to follow.

The so-called ‘debt reduction policy’ carried out by the Nestor Kirchner (2003-7) and Cristina Fernández (2008-15) governments has been abandoned. Between 2005 and 2010, Argentina carried out debt-restructures that wrote off two-thirds of its debt, although it also paid large amounts to the Paris Club, IMF, World Bank’s investor settlement process and the Spanish oil giant Repsol without questioning the debt’s legitimacy. These measures failed to bring about a full audit of the debt’s legitimacy. However, far worse was the Macri government’s agreement with its US vulture funds that refused to engage in the restructuring process and subsequently held Argentina to ransom through international courts. They were eventually handsomely paid off by Macri’s administration, depriving the country of billions of dollars which could have been spent on social investment.

While China and Russia were allies to Argentina during the Fernández administration, Macri’s government has transformed the foreign policy agenda to one which supposedly ‘returns them to the world’. Argentina hosted the World Economic Forum last April and, with the IMF’s blessing , will host December’s World Trade Organisation summit. These events are the consequence of a very explicit agenda which puts Argentina at the service of international capital.

Argentina is going back in time in other ways too. On 1 August 2017, 28-year-old Santiago Maldonado disappeared after federal security forces broke up indigenous Mapuche protests over disputed ancestral lands that are ‘legally’ owned by fashion brand Benetton in Lof Cushamen, Patagonia. Benetton bought the lands in the 1990s, seemingly in contravention of international law which requires consultation with indigenous populations. The owner, Luciano Benetton, is a friend of Macri’s.

At the Mapuche protest, several witnesses say they saw security agents forcing someone into a van, almost certainly Santiago. After 81 days, his body was discovered in the Chabut River, close to the initial repression, despite two previous police scans of the same area. Locals are  adamant that the body was not there throughout this time while 73 per cent of Argentinians suspect that Santiago was killed by security forces.  Suspicions were further raised by the body appearing two days before the election. Macri’s government has subsequently propagated the idea that the young man had ‘drowned alone’.

The culpability of military police agents is the lead hypothesis, as Macri’s own Minister Claudio Avruj admitted. This has caused a major political crisis for Mauricio Marci’s government. The search for justice for Santiago, led by his brother Sergio Maldonado, has received the support of Nora Cortiñas who has questioned Security Minister Patricia Bullrich’s handling of the affair. Nora recently visited the site of the protest where Maldonado was ‘disappeared’. She says that the abduction of Santiago sends a strong message aimed at silencing the solidarity of the people towards indigenous  protests over ancestral lands.

Nora Cortiñas is just one example of the many unstoppable women who have contributed greatly to the human rights movement in Argentina. Latin America is facing new challenges and the spectre of a painful past haunts the region again. The need to listen to voices like Nora Cortiñas is greater than ever.

Nora Cortiñas, alongside Beverly Keene, director of Jubileo-Sur Diálogo 2000, an NGO that campaigns against illegitimate debts in the global south, will perform a speaking tour on Human rights, Disappearances, Debt and Free Trade: Struggles for Justice and Sovereignty in Argentina and Latin America organised by London-based group Argentinian Solidarity Campaign between 31 October and 2 November 2017, with talks scheduled at the University of Cambridge and University of London. More information here

2017-11-07T17:00:15+00:00 28/October/2017|Categories: Articles|
Carla Torres is a Chevening scholar from Argentina, studying for a Masters degree in Applied Human Rights at the University of York, UK. Twitter: @torrescarla90‏ /// Daniel Ozarow is a Senior Lecturer at Middlesex University (UK), co-editor of Argentina Since the 2001 Crisis: Recovering the Past, Reclaiming the Future (Palgrave Macmillan) and a member of the Argentina Solidarity Campaign. Twitter: @danozarow‏