Argentine Default Reopens 'Dirty War' Wounds

By: Larry Rohter
The New York Times, March 12, 2002


Buenos Aires, March 11 - First her leftist husband disappeared and then all four of her daughters and two sons-in-law. The "dirty war" that took them ended long ago, but Elsa Oesterheld has never stopped feeling that pain.

"The disappearance of a person leaves those who loved him with a sensation of permanent and irreversible anguish," she said. "Even though you have the conviction that they are dead, they're not really dead to you because you have no proof. To this day, I do not have any death certificates, and it all leaves me wondering: why did they kill them and not me?"

Now, a quarter of a century later, the Argentine state has again made Mrs. Oesterheld, 77, a victim. After admitting its responsibility for the deaths in her family and promising to pay a sizable indemnity, the government has broken its word.

Millions of Argentines are suffering from the government's decision to freeze bank accounts and suspend payments on its debts. But as the country's worst economic crisis ever drags on, the families of the 30,000 people killed by military and security forces during the "dirty war" of the 1970's here are being forced to bear a uniquely painful burden.

"Money cannot repair the damage done us, but this makes the situation doubly painful," said Estela de Carlotto, director of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group representing relatives of the disappeared. "Not only do we not get our children back and have to endure the state letting their jailers go free, but now we have to put up with the additional injustice and indignity of seeing the money that was paid to us confiscated."

For many years after the fall of the military dictatorship here in 1983, the families of the disappeared fought to get the government to admit its guilt and punish those directly responsible. They failed on the latter count as a result of an amnesty that ruled that death squad members were just following orders. But in the mid-1990's the government finally agreed to pay the relatives up to $256,000 as restitution for each death.

An additional 12,000 people were held as political prisoners but survived, according to the estimate of Mabel Gutiérrez, director of Relatives of the Disappeared and Political Detainees, a human rights group. They are entitled to compensation based on how long they were jailed and whether they were tortured.

The state had a choice, through the law it passed, of paying in cash or with bonds, and it opted to pay with bonds," said Rodolfo Ojea Quintana, a lawyer who represents the families of the disappeared. "But with the default in December, it has now reneged on payments to all bondholders, including the families of the disappeared."

The government's decision to suspend payments of interest and principal on its foreign and domestic debts has meant material hardship for families that have been suffering emotionally for decades. The most affected are also the most vulnerable: aging retirees like Mrs. Oesterheld, and the young grandchildren of those killed.

"I'm not asking to redeem the bonds completely," she said in an interview in her small apartment. "All that I am asking is the payment of interest so that I will have enough money to live on."

Her husband, Héctor Oesterheld, who disappeared in 1977 at the age of 58, was a popular cartoonist and a sometime screenwriter whose style has been described as "equal parts Stan Lee and Albert Camus" by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a group that defends cartoonists worldwide. As the author of a comic book version of the life of Che Guevara, he was regarded with suspicion by the military, and finally he went underground because of his sympathies with the left-wing Montonero guerrillas, sealing his fate.

"I never liked politics in any form, and when Héctor did the Che book, I warned him he would be marked as a Communist, even though he wasn't one," said Mrs. Oesterheld, who sold the rights to her husband's work after his death because she needed money. "He laughed that off, but he was terribly naďve, and it led him to make the big mistake that cost him his life."

After Mr. Oesterheld, one by one the couple's four daughters, students with leftist sympathies, also disappeared: first Beatriz, 19, after a lunch with her mother on June 19, 1977; then Diana and Estela, and their husbands; then Marina. Only Beatriz's body was ever recovered.

Lawyers and government officials say that although they recognize the moral force of the claim of Mrs. Oesterheld and other relatives, to make an exception for them would infringe the legal principle that all creditors must be treated equally, and would expose the government to a flood of lawsuits from other bondholders and bank depositors.

"It is extremely painful to us to see that people are being victimized by this situation," said Eduardo Amadeo, the spokesman for President Eduardo Duhalde. "We will make the greatest effort possible to resolve this, taking into account the legal restrictions that are in place."

But relatives of the disappeared find it offensive that the Argentine state, whose systematic use of violence against their family members violated every canon of the rule of law, now cites that same principle as the reason it cannot provide compensation. "We became creditors not by choice but because the state finally assumed its responsibility for the death of our loved ones," Mrs. Gutiérrez said. "They took our children and never answered our questions about what was done with them, not where, how, why, or when. Then they tried to clean their consciences giving us these bonds, and now there's not even that. It's too much too bear."

Alcira Ríos, another lawyer representing the families of the disappeared, said that if the government failed to resume payments promptly, a complaint would be filed with international tribunals. "These are victims of state terrorism, not investors," she said, "so it is simply not permissible to make them victims again by treating them as if they were any ordinary creditor."

In Mrs. Oesterheld's case, she split the indemnity for her husband's death with the only surviving members of her family, a pair of grandsons: Martín Mórtola Oesterheld, 27, and Fernando Araldi Oesterheld, 26. They have filed separate claims for reparations for the deaths of their parents, but have not been compensated and say that they need the money now being denied them.

"At the moment, there isn't even any work for us because the economy is in this huge mess," said Mr. Mórtola, a graphic artist and stage designer who was largely raised by Mrs. Oesterheld. "So the symbolism of this action by the state is very strong, like a slap in the face or a punch in the stomach."

Mrs. Oesterheld was also awarded $160,000 as compensation for the death of her youngest daughter, Marina, who was eight months pregnant when she was abducted and is reported to have been allowed to give birth while in detention before being executed. But Mrs. Oesterheld has always refused to touch that account. "It's not my money," she said firmly. "It may be set away in my name, but it belongs to Marina's child, who could appear at any moment."

If Mr. Araldi is compensated, he intends to do something similar, he said. His mother, Mrs. Oesterheld's daughter Diana, was also pregnant when she disappeared and is known to have been kept alive long enough to deliver her child, so he hopes eventually to be able to share the money with the younger brother or sister he has never met and whose identity remains unknown.

"I don't know whether my sibling is going to show up tomorrow or 40 years from now, but I'm sure he or she will eventually appear," Mr. Araldi said. "I don't think life can be so unjust that I would never get to meet him.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Action on Aging distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.