Daniel Posthumus ’24 – Week 1

Everyone told me my first day in La Plata contained everything essential to Argentina—a Peronist rally and a football game. And choripan. After arriving at 5:00 that morning, I certainly felt welcome in this country after a whirlwind of a day, jam-packed with passion and the most Argentine of things. What struck me most was that the Peronist rally was filled with idealistic young people, motivated to come out in the cold not by an impending campaign or by any sense of self-interest, but instead because it was only natural, their civic duty.

That day, the Vice-President and former President and former First Lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner spoke—the same leader who was a prominent force in her husband’s Presidential administration that repealed the 1980s law that muzzled investigations into and prosecutions of the junta government. The tandem of Cristina and Nestor, who served as Presidents back-to-back, was the key stabilizing force of Argentina democracy following the disruptive December 2001 riots. Rather than a coup in response to political and economic chaos following 2001, Argentina was ushered into a period of democratic relative stability with Nestor’s election in 2003—a signal of how far the country had come in just the 20 years since the military junta fell.

The next week our cohort of human rights fellows sat through a series of lessons and chats (“charlas”) about the history of the military junta and Peronism—that indefinable force that animates everything in Argentine history yet that is seemingly possible to explain (my host mother laughed at my confusion at how the Peronist party could go from the neoliberal Carlos Menem to the thoroughly progressive Nestor in less than a decade). One of the Kirchners’ central political goals was the centering of human rights at the center of politics, a remarkable advance considering it was under Juan Peron’s second government the Triple-AAA that carried out so many brutal executions and disappearances was formed.

At the rally for Cristina, I saw a different kind of political activism than what we’re accustomed to in the United States. It was like a party—everyone had a half-dozen songs memorized, there was a full band that came along, food, and joy. At the heart of the students’ political activism with whom I tagged along, was hope, joyous hope. It was fascinating to observe this activism and learn about the historical context of Peronism and democracy here in Argentina—a useful lesson in how quickly change a political context can change and potentially a guide for strengthening the role of human rights not only in the lawbooks, but also in the hearts and minds of the people.

After the welcome wagon greeted me that Saturday, the following week we began to learn about the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria’s (CPM) work. Each day, we would meet with a different team and talk about their work, understanding memory and how memory of past abuses can be channeled towards preventing present and future abuses. The Comisión has both: a team that focuses on remembering and honoring the desaparecidos through biographies, maintaining an archive of official documents, and memory sites as well as a team that actively visits prisons throughout the province to combat the abuse of power that so thoroughly characterized the police during the time of the junta. The third option for our internship was the public-facing Communications team, through which we would largely be preparing English materials to bring the Comisión’s work to a larger, multinational audience.

Choosing the team with which to conduct my internship with was, needless to say very difficult. I am interested in being lawyer and going to law school and thus the team focusing on investigating prisons appealed to me because of how it used the law to protect the most vulnerable, a deliberate inversion of how the law was used to shield perpetrators of human rights abusers in the junta and more generally, such as in the United States. At the same time, I’ve worked extensively with Dr. Kelebogile Zvobgo at the International Justice Lab, here at William & Mary about transitional justice, at whose core is memory and centers victims of past abuses—which aligned perfectly with the team focusing on writing biographies about victims of the desaparecidos. I ultimately chose that team, looking forward to diving into the lives of desaparecidos in the city of Pergamino in the Province of Buenos Aires.

A throng of young students with flags held aloft surge to get a glimpse of the Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in a suburb of La Plata.

Giselle Figueroa ’23 – Week 1

Arriving in Argentina: History and Political Mobilizations

Our group’s bonding started as soon as we met up at the Richmond International Airport on July 2nd: Emmy Giacoia, Astrid Garcia, Laina Lomont, and I travelled on the same flights to Buenos Aires. From our previous experience travelling to Spain and Gibraltar together as part of an embedded program with Professor Francie Cate-Arries, Emmy, Astrid, and I knew just how important our time at the airport can be for creating a bond in groups travelling together. The three of us quickly bonded with Laina, who we were meeting for the first time. Time flew by at our layover in New York as we shared stories of William & Mary, airport horrors from our previous Spain trip, and our experience in Hispanic Studies.

Once we arrived in La Plata, our group was split up and Emmy and I went to Eliana Bacci’s house where we were greeted by Eliana and two W&M students, Zoha and Ramona, who were spending the semester in La Plata. Before we could settle down in our room, Eliana told us we were having family lunch at her sister’s house. The first lunch is memorable because we met not only our host family, but their extended family. Even though at the time it was extremely overwhelming to meet so many new people, I will always be grateful that Eliana was so welcoming and inclusive from the start of our stay with her.

Our first week at the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria (CPM) started the very next day. Like Eliana, Malena and Diego were equally as inviting and allowed us to feel part of the CPM team from the beginning. The first week, we explored the history of the CPM and Argentine dictatorships. I had never studied Argentina in depth, but I quickly found myself captivated by the stories we were hearing from the team at the CPM and the guests that they brought in to speak.

Specifically, I remember hearing the stories of two women who had family members that were disappeared during the last dictatorship. I appreciated how they emphasized that people who were disappeared cannot be assumed dead—until evidence is found, the disappeared are assumed to be alive. One of the speakers shared that many of the women disappeared by officials were pregnant and their children were also disappeared. That was very impactful, since they also noted that many of the children are still missing today. What makes this so moving is the fact that it all happened so recently, and people are still trying to cope with the trauma and grief of losing their loved ones without an explanation.

Although it is in a completely different context, I saw parallels in the stories of the disappeared in Argentina in my own research on femicidio in Mexico. Just as family investigation and unity played, and keeps playing, an important role in Argentina through organizations like the Madres and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, families play an important role in getting justice for victims of femicidio because of the impunity given to their perpetrators and the lack of investigation by government and security forces.

During our first weekend in Argentina, the group took a trip to Buenos Aires. We visited Plaza de Mayo and spontaneously became part of a protest. When we first arrived at the plaza, the space was calm with a few tourists dispersed throughout the area. As we were leaving, we heard drums in the distance and saw a group of people walking toward us. We stopped and observed what was happening around us. What we saw was powerful: multiple left-wing organizations were coming together at the plaza—each organization came out of a different street leading up to the plaza and met in the middle. The political mobilization was thrilling. It was, without a doubt, the liveliest mobilization I have ever been a part of. We ended up staying at the plaza for part of the event. There, we met a couple named Wally and Monica; I believe both were professors, and they explained a bit about the history of mobilization and politics in Argentina to us.

Two things I discovered these first few weeks: 1) I’m starting to love Argentina and 2) drums should be more widely incorporated in protests in the United States.

Giselle, Emmy, Laina, and Astrid at the JFK Airport patiently waiting for their flight to Buenos Aires.
All five of us in Buenos Aires
The political organizations met in the middle of Plaza de Mayo.
The group of protesters we saw as we were preparing to leave Plaza de Mayo.
The group of protesters we saw as we were preparing to leave Plaza de Mayo.

Laina Lomont ’24 – Week 2

One of the most impactful moments I have experienced in Argentina so far was on our fourth day in La Plata. After returning from lunch, we had the incredible opportunity to hear from two women who work as activists with the Abuelas and Madres de Plaza de Mayo. One of the women, Silvia Fontana, talked to us about the biography she wrote about her sister who was pregnant when she was disappeared in 1977. Silvia’s mother dedicated the rest of her life to finding her missing daughter and grandchild. In 2006, with the help of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, Silvia’s family recovered the identity of her nephew. He became the 84th lost grandchild to be restored by the Abuelas. After her mother passed away a few years ago, Silvia explained how she now works to honor and preserve the memory of both her sister and her mother. It was so inspiring to hear from the women behind such powerful human rights organizations. Silvia came into the Commission again last week to speak with us a bit more in depth about the process of writing a biography. As she was leaving, she asked how old we were. When I told her that I am 20 years old, she teared up and said her sister was 20 when she was kidnapped and murdered.

Within our internship with the CPM, we are each working on different teams that have different areas of focus. My team is writing short biographies about people who were disappeared from Pergamino using sources we find on the internet as well as the DIPPBA archives. DIPPBA, the Dirección de Inteligencia de la Policía de la Provincia de Buenos Aires (the intelligence unit of the Buenos Aires province Police Force), operated in La Plata between 1956 and 1998. In 2001, the Comision Provincial por la Memoria (CPM) was created to preserve the DIPPBA archives, which contain hundreds of intelligence documents tracking “subversive” activity. It has been so unique to have such hands-on experience with the documents and their history. Constructing these biographies is a reminder that 30,000 is not just a number. Each number represents a person with a life, family, interests, hopes, and plans. I always think about Silvia and her family while I am working. Jorge Rafael Videla, one of the most brutal orchestrators of the “War Against Subversion,” famously said that the “disappeared” do not exist. Writing these biographies, which memorialize the lives of people whose identities were stolen, feels like a small way of helping the fight against the state terrorism which occurred in Argentina.

When we visited Buenos Aires for the first time we went to see the Plaza de Mayo, where the Madres and Abuelas have famously held protests every Thursday at 3:30 since 1977. They were not allowed to congregate in large groups when they first began protesting, so they would walk in pairs around the Plaza wearing white handkerchiefs, or “pañuelos,” embroidered with the name of their missing child. The bricks in the Plaza are painted with large white pañuelos, forever marking the Madres’ place in Argentine history. As we were leaving the Plaza, we heard loud noises coming from the streets around the Plaza. When we walked to see what was going on, we saw a mass of people carrying flags and banners. We learned that different leftist groups coordinated a protest together. A large banner in front of the Casa Rosada, the office of the president, read “No al Pago de la Deuda Externa – Fuera el FMI” (No to foreign debt payment – IMF Get out).

The idea that multiple political groups, all with different views, could organize, coordinate, and mobilize that many people was mind blowing. We saw banners for socialist groups, anarchists, Trotskyists, center-leftists, and Marxists. As the economic situation in Argentina continues to worsen, it has been incredible to see people come together. That Saturday reminded me of the power of protest and the energy of mass mobilization. It also reminded me about the importance of place and legacy. I am so excited for the rest of our time in Argentina, and I know I will be taking many powerful lessons back to the United States with me.

Laina, Daniel with Silvia Fontana
MST (Workers’ Socialist Movement) protesters in the Plaza de Mayo
A banner hanging in the Plaza de Mayo, with the Casa Rosada in the background
Protesters from the Movimiento Libres del Sur, a center-left political party, marching toward the Plaza de Mayo

Emmy Giacoia ’22: Week 2 and Week 3

Week 3

This was the first full week of individual work, and the first week that I’ve felt productive and fulfilled when I leave the Commission each day. As I read more and more interviews with prisoners, I realized that they shared a feeling of resignation and dismissiveness. These people were describing acts of extreme torture and cruelty with the detachment of someone discussing the weather or what they had for dinner. What’s more, there were thousands of prisoners on file and even more thousands of interviews. Unless the prisoner was new to the system, it wasn’t uncommon to click on one’s file and see a list of at least 10 interviews, each with multiple human rights violations. It was frustrating to read an interview with a prisoner asking desperately for medical help, knowing that he got medical help because we took legal action, and then reading the next interview about how he was never taken for follow-up appointments. Although I don’t know about all the work the Committee and the Commission overall do, I wish there was something more tangible and long-term that we could do to help the prisoners. It seems like right now, we’re just putting Band-Aids on a gaping wound.

Week 4

There are two teams within the Commission that work directly in prisons. One team performs general inspections in different areas of prisons. First, they observe the prisoners’ living conditions and to what extent basic human rights (e.g. properly cooked food, mattresses to sleep on, access to showers) are being met. Then they conduct individual interviews with prisoners, who tell them what specific needs they have so their legal team can be informed. One of the materials we used to prepare for our first inspection was a manual called the Istanbul Protocol, which was written by the UN and sets global standards for investigating and documenting torture and mistreatment. I was impressed by the depth and breadth of this manual. Since I’ve never worked in human rights before, I didn’t know that there were so many guidelines. I’m happy that there are guidelines, but I wish torture wasn’t so widespread that we need them.

On Wednesday, we visited Unidad Penitenciaria No. 1 (de Olmos), about 30 minutes outside of La Plata. The plan was to visit the university center there and interview the students about both their education and the general living conditions. As soon as we drove up to the prison, I could sense this feeling of sadness and resignation. It was made worse by the SPB (Servicio Penitenciaria Bonoaerense) guards, who were all joking around with each other in the lobby and cheerfully greeted us as they unlocked each door. I saw the smiles on their faces, and I thought about all the interviews I read the week prior and how these friendly guards treated the prisoners when we weren’t there. Thankfully, the university center was lively and notably lacking SPB presence. We took a tour around the school, and we sat down in a classroom to listen to them talk about the structure of their education, the degrees they could get, and the problems they had getting school supplies and exams. Although I’m not sure why I expected anything different, the prisoners were friendly, and I didn’t feel like I was within prison walls. I know, though, that it would have felt different if we had entered the actual prison.

On Sunday, a few of us took the train into Buenos Aires to visit the Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos (ex ESMA), which was a naval academy turned into a clandestine confinement and torture center during the last Argentine military dictatorship, from 1976-1983. It was horrific, to say the least. We only went into a few buildings, but the Officer’s House was the most impactful. This was where most desaparecidos were first taken when they were detained. We visited the dark, cold basement where many were kept and tortured, and we read the testimonies from survivors. It was heartbreaking, and it helped me understand the impact of the dictatorships in Argentina. Knowing that people were tortured and assassinated where I was standing, less than 40 years ago, made me realize how important and relevant the work is that the Commission does.

At the end of the week, we began planning our work with the second Committee team, which works on complex cases with specific prisoners.

A mural inside ex ESMA that says “silent no more”
Outside of ex ESMA in Buenos Aires
The outside of UP 1. The university center is located behind the prison.
The view from one of the bell towers of the Cathedral
In Plaza Moreno, facing the Cathedral of La Plata

Emily Giacoia ’22 – Week 1 and 2

Week 1

The Monday after we arrived, we began our internship at the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria (CPM), where we were welcomed with open arms. This first week was an introduction to the organization’s mission, as well as the different teams we could work with. We also had the honor of hearing the stories of two women whose siblings had disappeared during the dictatorship. This was one of the most impactful moments I’ve had this trip. Prior to coming to Argentina, I had only surface knowledge about the dictatorships, and I don’t think I understood their impact on this country until I heard these stories from real people.

By the end of the week, I had a pretty good idea of which team I wanted to work with. I enjoyed learning about archiving and writing biographies for the desaparecidos (disappeared people), as well as the outreach possibilities that would come with the communications and culture team, but I knew I wanted something more hands-on. On Friday, after we finished touring the CPM museum, we all sat down to discuss which projects we wanted to do. I chose to work with the Committee against Torture, which protects the human rights of prisoners here in the province of Buenos Aires. I knew I would have the opportunity to form face-to-face relationships, which was the one goal I had when I accepted this internship. Plus, I would get to work with three different teams within the Committee, each of which would teach me new things.

We visited Buenos Aires for the first time that weekend. None of us had seen it before, so obviously our first stop was Plaza de Mayo, where the mothers of desaparecidos have marched each week for almost 30 years. Since we visited on July 9th, Argentina Independence Day, there were thousands of people in leftist political groups marching in the Plaza. I’ve never seen such a large protest before, and I was stunned by the sheer amount of people and the diversity of the protesters – young adults, older people, teenagers, mothers with their children. We met several people in the Plaza, including a couple we talked to for almost an hour about the political parties marching, education in the US and Argentina, tango, and more. Like everyone else I’ve met here, they were extremely gracious and welcoming, and I felt like I had known them for many years.

Week 2

I spent my first week with the Committee Against Torture working with the team that receives reports of abuse and torture in prisons. At first, I felt overwhelmed by the number of prisoners and cases that the Committee works with on a daily basis, and how incredibly oppressed the prisoners are here. But we eased our way in by working together on a few cases. First, we uploaded interviews from prisoners into the CPM system so we could flag human rights violations. Then we uploaded the corresponding reports that the Committee’s legal team sent to the courts to resolve each of the violations. The interviews were difficult to read, but they allowed me to better understand the conditions inside the prison. Once I started working on my own, I was able to move through cases faster. It was the first time I felt like I was being productive and making at least some difference in the lives of the prisoners.

This week, I was able to settle into a routine and feel more comfortable with my host family. Then, I received some amazing news – that I have family here in Argentina. On Sunday of this week, I was able to meet some distant cousins (they share my last name, though!) that I never knew existed. It was incredible, and I feel much more connected to Argentina now that I know there is a piece of my family here.