With a global focus on the new Roman Catholic pontiff the contents of a 2010 interview with Jorge Videla, the Argentine coup leader responsible for massive human rights abuses during the country’s military dictatorship, are again coming to light. Speaking to El Sur, the former caudillo implicated the country’s Catholic Church in his crimes against humanity. Videla claimed that during ‘many conversations’ with Cardinal Raúl Francisco Primatesta, and also papal nuncio Pio Laghi, he had kept the Catholic hierarchy up to speed on the policy of disappearing people. It in turn offered advice on how to manage the policy. Through its ‘good offices’ the Church:
advised us about the manner in which to deal with the situation ... In the case of families that it was certain would not make political use of the information, they told them not to look any more for their child because he was dead (the Church ) understood well . . . and also assumed the risks ...
That the Church in Argentina would take such a stance is not inconsistent with its attitude towards the military regime from the outset. Buenos Aires was not Santiago where the Chilean Church stood up to the regime of Augusto Pinochet, something testified to by Michael Chossudovsky, a Visiting Professor at the Social Policy Institute of the Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, Argentina during the rule of the generals.
In the immediate wake of the coup in Chile, I witnessed how the Cardinal of Santiago, Raul Silva Henriquez – acting on behalf of the Catholic Church – confronted the military dictatorship.
Argentine Catholicism had an entirely different relationship to the military, at one point seemingly urging it to seize power:
A few months before the military coup was launched, in a homily delivered in the presence of the army chief of staff, Bishop Victorio Bonamin asked aloud, 'May not Christ some day want the armed forces to go beyond their normal function?'
Nor was this an isolated case, some lippy loose cannon within the hierarchy shooting from the hip.
On the eve of the coup, Videla and other plotters received the blessing of the Archbishop of Paraná, Adolfo Tortola:
who also served as vicar of the armed forces. The day of the takeover itself, the military leaders had a lengthy meeting with the leaders of the bishop’s conference. As he emerged from that meeting, Archbishop Tortolo stated that although “the church has its own specific mission . . . there are circumstances in which it cannot refrain from participating even when it is a matter of problems related to the specific order of the state.” He urged Argentinians to “cooperate in a positive way” with the new government.
While it will create discomfort in some circles it is important that outlets like El Sur continue to publish the account of the former dictator. Another Spanish magazine Cambio 16 sustained a barrage of criticism for interviewing the war criminal in which he expressed no remorse, only pride. It is hard to see how such a criticism can be sustained other than on grounds of outright censorship. Yet the irony would not be lost on those who risked everything in a country where a homocidal military junta relied on censorship and a general media indifference to the disappeared referred to by John Simpson and Jana Bennett in their book The Disappeared. A small number of editors and journalists broke the military sound barrier, punching holes in it and getting their voices through to irrigate an arid information desert. Jacobo Timermann was tortured and jailed while Richard Cox eventually had to flee the country to protect the safety of his family. Censorship of the military's Dirty War narrative albeit for reasons different to military censorship have nothing to offer free inquiry.
As with all ‘accomplice’ evidence it serves no purpose to rush in fool-like and take at face value, independent of corroboration, everything or anything Videla has to say. At the same time, while viewing his narratorial history as self serving it is foolish to dismiss his account as false on that basis alone. His voice, strident, hateful and unapologetic nevertheless helps to fill the gaps caused by the unwarranted silences of others.