Gabriel Boric visits the largest detention center of the Argentine dictatorship: “It’s shocking” | International

The president of Chile, Gabriel Boric (left) and his counterpart from Argentina, Alberto Fernández, talk this April 5 at La Capucha, the place where the dictatorship housed the disappeared detainees within the ESMA, in Buenos Aires.ESTEBAN COLLAZO (AFP)

Gabriel Boric closed his official tour to Argentina on Tuesday with a visit to what was in the seventies the largest center of torture and extermination of the dictatorship. “It was shocking,” summed up the president of Chile. For an hour and a half, Boric toured, accompanied by his Argentine peer, Alberto Fernández, the facilities of the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), converted in 2015 into Memory Space.

The visit was a symbol of the profile that Boric wanted to give to his first trip abroad, in a country that has judged the crimes of the dictatorship and makes historical memory part of its political culture. “There are those who believe that remembering this is putting the finger in the sore spot, and this is so that it does not happen again,” Boric said. It was a clear message to his country, where the transition endured the burden of the figure of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, active as head of the Army until 1998 and then senator for life.

5,000 disappeared detainees passed through the ESMA. A tour of its interior gives an idea of ​​the suffering of the prisoners, who endured long torture sessions and spent their days hooded and isolated in tiny spaces. “It is very strong to see the places where women gave birth, in such a small space. It has been very strong and very exciting,” says Defense Minister Maya Fernández, granddaughter of President Salvador Allende.

The Chilean delegation was accompanied within the ESMA by representatives of human rights organizations, survivors of the detention center and relatives of the disappeared. The Grandmothers and Mothers of Plaza de Mayo gave Boric one of her traditional white handkerchiefs. “Thank you to those who keep memory alive,” Boric said. “Alberto Fernández told me how it was possible that they didn’t know what was happening here. The rooms were there, below the Hood. One feels the horror and also the solidarity, and the history of the women who gave birth in two square meters”, said Boric at the end of the visit.

La Capucha was the main place of confinement for prisoners. The detainees remained handcuffed at the feet and hands, with a hood or cloth mask over their faces, and slept on mattresses placed on the floor. To enter the Hood was to lose the last vestige of identity: as in the Nazi death camps, the prisoners were identified there with a number. The building that housed the Capucha was the officers’ casino of the ESMA, a property of the Argentine Navy that trained new cadets. The clandestine detention center did not stop the classes or the life of the neighborhood. The contrast between the interior and exterior of the property was brutal. The ESMA is located on Libertador Avenue, a long tree-lined artery that houses the most expensive buildings in the city and the French-style parks that are a trademark of Buenos Aires.

Gabriel Boric receives as a gift the traditional white handkerchief from the Argentine Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo.
Gabriel Boric receives as a gift the traditional white handkerchief from the Argentine Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo.AGUSTIN MARCARIAN (REUTERS)

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In 1998, the Government of Carlos Menem proposed the demolition of the ESMA, in an attempt to turn the pages of the horrors of the dictatorship and “relegate the clashes of our recent history.” The relatives of the victims managed to stop the plan in court, arguing that there could be evidence of torture and murder that was still under investigation. In 2015, finally, the ESMA buildings became a center to remember the horrors of State terrorism.

Boric said that Chile will support “the candidacy of ESMA for UNESCO heritage.” And he promised to “encourage collaboration with the Museum of Memory of Santiago and with the regions. We want that memory to cross the capitals. And we are going to work to promote human rights throughout the continent,” he added. Chile has a Museum of Memory inspired by similar ones, such as the Holocaust Museum, but it does not work in a place where there were actually detainees. Hence the impact felt by the Chilean delegation at ESMA.

The tour of the ESMA was the most relevant activity of the second and last day of Boric’s visit to Argentina. In the morning he held a meeting with Chilean businessmen and in the afternoon he visited the Museum of Fine Arts at the exhibition of paintings by Argentine painter Ernesto Deira, returned this week to Argentina by the University of Chile after 50 years of holding them. In his last official activity, the president met with representatives of the Chilean community in Argentina.

Boric has given his first visit to Argentina a friendly tone, full of gestures. He did not hide his good relationship with Fernández, whom he considered an accomplice in the fight against inequality, and insisted on his idea of ​​leading a new Latin American unit “that is not linked to the political affinity of the Heads of State.” In her suitcase, she takes a Charly García album, a gift from Fernández, souvenirs from the ESMA and a new haircut.

As it was an official visit, the President of Chile met with authorities from the Argentine Parliament and Justice. In the entourage they expressed their surprise at the absence of Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who as head of the Senate was supposed to receive Boric. Kirchner preferred to travel to El Calafate, the city in Patagonia where he has his private home. The Chilean delegation was especially careful not to consult about the fight that keeps the vice president at a distance from Fernández.

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