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Fernandez de Kirchner spoke—the same leader who was a prominent force in her husband’s Presidential administration that repealed the 1980s law that muzzled investigations into and prosecutions of the junta government.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.