The ESMA Museum and Site of Memory’s traditional monthly event was held on Saturday, September 26th. The theme was “Media Operations Orchestrated by Dictatorships in Uruguay and Argentina – The Construction of Fear”, and it was organized together with the Sites of Memory Ex-SID in Uruguay and Former CCDT&E “Orletti Automobiles”.
Participants of this event included Virginia Martínez, documentary filmmaker, coordinator of the SIte of Memory Former SID in Uruguay; Marisa Ruiz, a historian and researcher in gender and human rights issues; Sara Méndez, a teacher who survived Orletti and SID and was victim of the Chalet Susy media operation; Luis”Lucho” Ruiz, a human rights activist in Argentina and Uruguay and documentary filmmaker; Emilio Vanhoutte, a Communications major and member of the communication and research team at the Orletti Site of Memory; Daniel Cabezas, an audiovisual producer and witness in the ESMA Case on behalf of his mother Thelma Jara; and Cora Gamarnik, a PhD in Social Sciences and coordinator of the Photography Studies area of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires.
This time, the chronicler was Adriana Taboada, a psychologist and researcher at the Center for Genocide Studies (UNTREF) and an expert witness in cases for crimes against humanity.
Virginia Croatto, head of Contents and Museographic Production at the ESMA Museum and Site of Memory, welcomed everyone and introduced the activity:
“With the Five O’clock Tour we’ve tried to create a space for gathering and reflection”. She added: “This tour was co organized with two other sites of memory, and we were able to set it up despite the difficult conditions of the pandemic, which nevertheless enables us to work and continue to connect and expand the construction of memory on a national, Latin American, and global levels, together with sites from other countries.”
Following Virginia’s words the audience saw an introductory video about the theme of the tour. Once it was over, she commented: “The South Cone dictatorships attempted to establish a repressive political project, which always included the control of communications and a monopoly of it. But their hegemonic control wasn’t just limited to mass media, they also created media operations, psychological action campaigns in which they just fabricated lies and passed them as news.”
Croatto introduced the first guest of the gathering, Luis “Lucho” Ruiz, an Uruguayan activist and documentary filmmaker, who addressed the “resistances” in Uruguay, which started to emerge even before the coup in that country.
“In Uruguay, the coup was against the workers’ movement and social organizations. In the very first minutes of that coup, a 15-day general strike was organized, and that’s when counter-information began, they handed out leaflets in the factories and even organized demonstrations. Throughout that period, we tried different ways to repudiate and stop repression with small acts of resistance.”
Ruiz also stressed the important role these resistance actions had in the fall of the dictatorship. “Dictatorships didn’t leave on their own, there were different political forces everywhere, both in Uruguay and abroad, there were resistance campaigns. Every report that was made about our fellow activists, every leaflet, every case we were able to inform about abroad, really made a difference. I believe dictatorships don’t just fall, there are people who fight for that. Finally, I wanted to remember some words from the documentary film ‘Kollontai’, which ends with the phrase of an activist who says ‘as long as there is a dictatorship, there will be people resisting it, fighting it”.
Emilio Vanhoutte, from the communications team of the Site of Memory Former CCDT&E “Orletti Automobiles”, began by thanking survivors of the neighbor country: “We always thank the Uruguayan people and Uruguayan survivors for risking themselves not only during but also after democracy was restored. They were essential in trying to find the people who went through the clandestine center.”
Vanhoutte explained how Orletti worked in the context of the Condor Plan: “As we saw in the video, Orletti was the Argentine headquarters of the Condor Plan that operated between May and November 1976. Every political prisoner in the South Cone was taken to Orletti, a clandestine center (CC) run by Side, which operated under the Army, specifically the 601 Battalion. It was also a base of operation for officials of the repressive apparatus from every country that had prisoners at the CC”.
Then it was the turn of Virginia Martínez, coordinator of the Site of Memory Former SID (Uruguay) who mentioned the role of media during the Uruguayan dictatorship: “Media operations are a subject that hasn’t been really addressed, specially in Uruguay. The Uruguayan dictatorship gave a special importance to communications, especially psychopolitical operations. The Chalet Susy operation was led by SID, an central organism with a key role both within the country and abroad. They had a department of psychological actions, which had the mission of setting up psychological operations to turn them into military actions”.
In order to present the particular case of the media operation called Chalet Susy, Martínez shared images of the operation, adding: “The Chalet Susy operation to ‘whitewash kidnap victims’ aimed to debunk the reports of human rights violations. The alleged disappeared were alive in our country. To show that the subversive enemy was alive and the fight against them was a permanent task, it was a way of legitimizing the de facto government.”
Historian Marisa Ruiz referred to the importance of organizations, such as Amnesty International and the Latin American Network, in the reports of human rights violations committed by dictatorships in the South Cone. “My presentation will express optimist and kind memories. These are memories of organizations that formed a counter-memory. The memory of the facts that helped victims survive, denounced torture and endure through the lies and the impunity.”
In turn, Sara Méndez, a survivor from the Orletti and SID CCs spoke about the Chalet Susy operation she was victim of: “The final goal of these operations was the forced disappearance of people. The Condor Plan was formed and expanded. Armies would enter into these countries to kidnap and interrogate us in order to obtain the information they needed and then execute us. But, here, another country’s army enters to kidnap us and introduce us to other Uruguayan military officers in Orletti, and we were left alive. It seemed as if none of this was planned. That there were last minute changes. I believe the reason was that the Uruguayan dictatorship was under some heavy international pressure, but they also needed to show that subversion was still active.”
Daniel Cabezas described the kidnapping of his mother Thelma Jara Cabezas, and the interview with her published by Argentine magazine Para Ti, in which they distorted her real situation and the disappearance of her son. Then, he explained the use of media outlets as instruments of dictatorships, both in Argentina and Uruguay: “They used the press as a weapon of war. They bombed the public with false news in order to create a reality that would allow them to install fear and convince people that those who resisted against the dictatorship were criminals, subversives, terrorists. This is where we start to find parallel elements with the actions of the Uruguayan dictatorship. All those kidnappings, tortures, rapes, murders, disappearances and thefts were committed in order to establish an economic system that would answer only to the interests of powerful economic groups.”
Cora Gamarnik, a doctor in Social Sciences, offered a presentation that included images, articles and photos of media outlets during the Argentine, Uruguayan and Chilean dictatorships, clearly showing how they used the media to legitimize their repressive methods.
“Dictatorships had a policy of replacing one culture with another. And just like they hid the things they did, they shed light on others. That is why it is so important to study the media surface in order to see what they intended to show us through the press. Media outlets were not only complicit, but also key players in helping dictatorships develop and do what they did”, she said.
Finally, it was the turn of the chronicler, psychoanalyst and researcher Adriana Taboada, who spoke about the psychological actions of dictatorial governments, which had their origins in 1950s France and were included in our country’s military training.
“The notion of war was then viewed as action, and so the issue of communication became essential. What these operations show is that there is a target, the persecution of activists, but they are also used as a message to the population in order to discipline them by creating representations. Some representations are related to weapons, who is the bad guy and who is the good guy. And they also build fear, a natural emotion that can also be boosted by establishing a threat, and that’s how they go on creating fear and terror”, she said.
Lastly, she added: “This was conceived, planned and executed. It was built over time, assessing the success or failure of what they did. Today’s theme has been presented and it has given us a lot to think about, to research, and I am deeply motivated to do so. We started with the persecution of a few, but there was a plan and a strategy for everyone, and that was clear today.”