BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone.
SENATOR TED CRUZ: President Obama is happily at a baseball game yukking it up with the Castro Communist dictators, rather than being in America, rather than traveling to Brussels and standing with our friends and allies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Despite terrorism in Brussels and criticism from Cruz. President Obama went on with his scheduled trip to Latin America, where he became the first sitting president to visit Cuba in 88 years.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: As president of the United States, I’ve called on our Congress to lift the embargo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The two-day trip included a state dinner, a baseball game and an awkward handshake between Obama and Raul Castro, also the usual handwringing that follows photo ops in Communist countries.
[“LATE NIGHT” CLIP]:
HOST SETH MEYERS: But it’s understandable that Obama play a handshake defense, given how much flack he took earlier that day for being photographed in front of a mural of Che Guevara. Many criticized Obama, as this was seen as giving an implicit endorsement to Urban Outfitters.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER/END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From Cuba, the Obamas headed to Argentina, where the first couple danced the tango.
[TANGO MUSIC UP & UNDER]
The President also had some pressing diplomatic business. He happened to be visiting Argentina on the 40th anniversary of the military coup that disappeared thousands of people, often dropping them alive from planes into the Atlantic or killing them in detention centers.
On the heels of Obama's ode to free speech and friendly relations with Cuba, he vowed to shed a brighter light on the US role in abetting Argentina's “Dirty War.”
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I'm launching a new effort to open up additional documents from that dark period. We previously declassified thousands of records from that era, but for the first time now, we’ll declassify military and intelligence records as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Argentinian journalist and author Uki Goni says that President Obama’s overtures was snubbed by some, in part because they came at just the wrong time.
UKI GONI: You know, the coup here is an open wound. The 24th of March is a very important date in Argentina, and there are huge demonstrations every year. So you have this unfortunate situation where Obama, coming here after Cuba, is stepping into a situation where there are extremely raw nerves.
In Argentina, you have group called the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, one of the most important human rights groups in the world. I spoke to one of the mothers and she said, this is our day, what is he doing here? The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo refused to join with him when Obama went to render homage to the disappeared. And the way that is done here, you go to the edge of the river and you throw flowers into the river because the disappeared were mostly thrown into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean by the military.
You know, there’s a back story here, which is that the United States during the 1970s gave support to the military dictatorships in South America, particularly the ones in Argentina and neighboring Chile.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980. He refused point blank to meet with the president because of the sense that the US has not come to terms with giving the green light to the Argentinian government to go ahead and launch this campaign of disappearance.
UKI GONI: Yes, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, he’s the victim of a dictatorship himself, you know. He was put on a death flight himself. They took him out for a spin and at the last minute they got a command to bring him back. And he actually wrote an open letter to Obama, asking him not to come, which is an extremely sad situation because I was a journalist back then, reporting on the disappearances here in Argentina.
And it’s very clear to me that thanks to the human rights policies of President Jimmy Carter between 1977 and 1981, the United States helped save probably thousands of lives in Argentina, because Jimmy Carter places an arms embargo on the dictatorship here. He sent special emissaries.
Carter’s special envoy for human rights Patricia Derian met with the head of the Navy, Admiral Massera. He’s one of the scariest guys you could ever hope to meet in your life. She met with him at the Navy mechanics school where some 5,000 were murdered and she said to him, I know as we speak that people are being tortured in the basement. He denied it. And she said, I have the plans of what's going on down there, I have the layout, I know what’s going on. So he said, you remember the story of Pontius Pilate, and he made as it he was washing his hands off the whole matter.
So the United States really made a very brave effort at that time under Jimmy Carter to stop the killing in Argentina. And it’s unfortunate that a Democratic Party who – you know, Obama's pretty much in the same vein as Carter – was not welcome on this date.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So right now in 2016, what is the general perception of the United States with regard to the dirty war?
UKI GONI: This has come up in my interviews and something that gets repeated a lot is, so at first they egged on the killers and then they apologized for it? What are we supposed to think? It’s probably not surprising that especially human rights activists in Argentina are not very impressed by anything the United States could say.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, Obama's promise to declassify a whole host of military and intelligence documents regarding the US involvement in abetting the military regime, back in 2002 some 4700 documents were declassified in which that secret meeting in 1976 between that Henry Kissinger and Argentina's foreign minister revealed that Kissinger said, if these things are to be done you should do them quickly, which reminds me of Macbeth kind of saying -
UKI GONI: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - “If it were done when 'tis done, 'twere well it were done quickly,” which apparently the foreign minister César Guzzetti read as permission. So what are the new documents expected to disclose?
UKI GONI: People here are quite excited about this. I think we can expect to glean a tremendous amount of information from those files. And, you know, the files that were released by Bill Clinton, now over a decade and a half ago, some of those documents were used in trials against the former military officers here, and they helped get convictions. And those were only diplomatic files. Now we’re going to be looking at CIA filed, FBI files, military files. There might be things in there that could be very incriminating for the officers who are still on trial today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There were trials and then they were suspended, and then there was an amnesty and then they started up again?
UKI GONI: You know, Argentina, I think it’s probably the only country, or one of the very few, which has put its own dictators on trial. At a very scary moment when the dictatorship had just been thrown out, when the military was still very powerful, you know, the new democratic government put them on trial and convicted them. Afterwards, amnesty laws were passed that made it impossible to prosecute lower ranking officers, and then there were presidential pardons decreed for the generals that had already been convicted.
So there was a period of time there of about 20 years in which we knew who the officers were who had committed these crimes but they were walking free amongst us; nobody was going to jail. They would appear on television, giving the [LAUGHS] details of what they did. It was a shocking situation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of them discussed the death flights.
UKI GONI: Absolutely. Admiral Massera, the man who had met with Patricia Derian at the Navy Mechanics School would appear on news talk shows and pretend he had done nothing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That must have been unbearable.
UKI GONI: It was, it – yes, but over a decade ago all those amnesty laws were overturned and trials restarted. And since then, 1,000 officers have been put on trial and close to 600 have of been convicted so far. And it’s important that it happens as soon as possible. And, and hopefully these documents that the US will declassify soon will help because the mothers of the victims are getting quite old. We don’t have that much time so that not only justice is done but that it’s seen to be done by the relatives of the victims.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve been to some of these trials. What are they like?
UKI GONI: I’ve actually been a witness at, at two of the trials. I actually knew people who were disappeared. I worked at a newspaper called the Buenos Aires Herald, which was a small English language daily, and we became the only newspaper that was publishing what was happening in Argentina.
These trials are – God, the emotional content is so high because you’re having survivors of the camps, mothers and relatives testifying, and you’re having the suspects, the men who, who committed these crimes sitting in the same room with you. So the, the atmosphere is quite tense, and it’s, it’s painful for everybody, I think. At the same time, at last justice is done.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Uki, thank you very much.
UKI GONI: Oh thank you, Brooke, and glad to be of help.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Uki Goni is an Argentinian journalist and the author of The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Peron’s Argentina.