Daniel Posthumus ’24 – Blog #3


The conclusion of my internship with the sitios team was a whirlwind. We largely focused on honing the biographies we had written about the victims of the military junta—for me, María Cristina Lanzillotti and Víctor Vázquez. Telling these stories can be a delicate task. As I wrote in my previous blog post, emphasizing the individuality of the victims while recognizing that these crimes were hardly personal in intent but instead were part of a deliberately-planned genocide that touched every sector of society.

Part of this balancing act is placing the victims’ stories in a larger context and highlighting how their persecution fit into what the junta was seeking to achieve through genocide and repression. María Cristina Lanzillotti’s story is part of the junta’s brutal persecution of university students in the political opposition. The junta planted propagandic stories in newspapers about María Cristina’s husband murdering an elected official.

María Cristina Lanzillotti

This false story is part of a larger pattern of propaganda the junta created to justify brutal tactics towards its opponents, such as members of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (PRT) and the Revolutionary Army of the Republic (ERP)—both of which included María Cristina and her husband among their ranks. Through this, the junta isolated its political opponents from the rest of society.

We encountered an excellent example of this isolation when we visited a memory site in La Plata in which the junta brutally murdered another family of political opponents, in a very public and gruesome display in an upper-middle class neighborhood. By falsely justifying its crimes, the junta demarcated a line between the “lawless” and the “lawful”—removing any stake those not persecuted felt in the fate of the persecuted. Thus, despite the plethora of neighbors who witnessed the brutal murder, they didn’t speak out because of fear and they felt they didn’t have a stake in the outcome. Understanding the junta’s strategy to create the conditions that enabled their human rights violations is critical for understanding how we can prevent human rights violations.

Víctor Vázquez

Víctor Vázquez’s story is part of a longer tradition in Argentina—the brutal repression of organized labor. Víctor devoted his entire life to the cause of labor, through his participation in the Communist Party of Argentina and the railroad union. He rose to amazing heights and ran in nationwide union elections. He was also arrested on nearly a dozen occasions, by the repressive forces of multiple military dictatorships that ruled the country. He had suffered persecution at the hands of many, revealing how the junta built upon on the tradition of the repression of previous military dictatorships.

Víctor’s story also revealed how different the repression of the junta was, in contrast to that of previous dictatorships. As Víctor’s granddaughter told me, Víctor’s disappearance was particularly brutal in that the family had no closure over the fate of their beloved. The 30 Thousand Disappeared faced a brutal fate as the junta embarked on an unprecedented campaign of genocide and disappearances. Víctor’s story also reveals how widespread the repression was, touching every single sector of society. It’s important to illustrate the variety of stories of the disappeared, to demonstrate the humanity that distinguishes one victim from another.

These instructions for storytelling and more mechanical help with our Spanish were crucial in the final week of the internship. One thing I loved about my internship was that I didn’t just learn a series of technical skills or learn a set of facts about human rights, but instead learned a whole host of ephemeral challenges associated with maintaining and protecting human rights. Collective memory is as important for preventing the re-occurrence of abuses as anything else, and collective memory isn’t an algorithm and doesn’t require a regression model to solve. Instead, it requires something more difficult, recognition of feeling. I was incredibly honored and happy to have this experience and learn what only such an in-depth and immersive experience could have instilled in me.

Daniel Posthumus ’24 – Week 2

When writing the biographies about the two desaparecidos I had chosen from the city of Pergamino, I was immediately faced with daunting challenges. First, was the language—Argentinean court records are, obviously, entirely in Spanish. And these records are not in the conversational Spanish in which I have vastly improved over dinner with my host mom or in conversation with other Argentineans, but instead in a technical, formal, and often outdated Spanish. Second, was the lingering footprint of the propaganda of the junta. To give cover to their brutal persecution of political dissidents, the junta (or “la ultima dictadura” as it is often referred to here) crafted false stories of dissidents fomenting violence. They then used these pieces of propaganda as evidence of the “subversion” that supposedly required the draconian junta to counter. Third, was that many descriptions and biographies about the desaparecidos seemed to gloss over what made them human, instead solely focusing on political activity. It was up to us to paint the pictures of the desaparecidos in as human a way as possible.

Daniel, Silvia Fontana and Laina

This third challenge, in particular, was one that sprouted from a discussion that our team of human rights fellows had with Silvia Fontano, a key member of the organization Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. The organization emerged during the dictatorship and consisted of women whose daughters were detained and disappeared while pregnant. The dictatorship would leave the newborn children of these disappeared mothers in the care of Junta sympathizers or with adoptive families in random places throughout the country, and it has often taken years to recover the identity of these children. In some cases, their true identity has yet to be recovered. They and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo would march in front of government buildings to protest the junta’s persecution of dissidents, boldly defying the dictatorship even at the height of its repression.

Silvia Fontano’s sister was disappeared. She is a woman marked by great tragedy and great strength, having devoted her life to telling the stories of her sister and other victims of repression to ensure that the abuses which occurred under the junta never occur again. Our conversation with her was critical for understanding how to tell the stories of these victims most effectively. Though they lost their lives for the political causes in which they were involved, they were not solely defined by their politics: they were human beings who dreamed, wept, and loved.

After our conversation with Silvia, I was inspired to be more proactive in seeking out the human details at the core of the lives of the two desaparecidos I was studying—Víctor Vázquez and María Cristina Lanzillotto.

In the case of Víctor, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with a granddaughter of his, Susana Corradini Vázquez. After a fascinating conversation that stretched nearly two hours, I came away replete with anecdotes about who Víctor was. Víctor devoted his life to the cause of the worker in Argentina, entering the Communist Party and the railroad union as a teenager and throughout his life was arrested nearly a dozen times. He was unique among the desaparecidos given his age—most on the list for Pergamino were college students when disappeared and Víctor was in his 60’s—and for his experiences—Víctor had experienced 43 years of the yo-yoing of Argentinean politics, between democracy and autocracy. From Susana, I learned of his relationship with his father, who would take the pre-adolescent Víctor to workers rallies and read with him alongside his mother. I learned Víctor once organized a peace debate with a future senator of the nation of Argentina in high school. I learned of Víctor’s love for books and how passionately intellectual he was and how he expected nothing less from his daughter or three grandchildren. How the last thing he did with Susana was take her to a book fair.

In the case of María Cristina Lanzillotto, I found two poems written by her twin Ana María, also disappeared. One described their childhood as one of many fathers and many mothers, a wondrous time in a household filled with energetic activists and a father who, from an early age, instilled a political consciousness in his daughters that would later in life sprout into deep participation in activism. Ana María’s other poems described her experiences in the ‘land of warlocks’ and the experiences of the ‘orphans’ of the junta’s crimes, experiences which María Cristina, detained in some of the same prisons and who also had two children disappeared, would have shared.

These details add to the humanity of the victims of the junta, a humanity that is essential to understand. There were 30,000 desaparecidos during the dictatorship—yet, in an oft-repeated framing by Comisión employees, these 30,000 victims aren’t just a collective but instead 30,000 individuals, individuals whose stories must be told with granular attention and detail. If we lose the individuals, we give in to the de-humanization and forgetting of the victims and do dishonor to their memory.  

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.