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March 24, 1976 – 2016: Human Rights’ History and Ritual

Pablo Palomino, Postdoctoral Lecturer, Center for Latin American Studies/History

This past March 24 marked the 40th anniversary of the coup d’état of 1976, providing, like every March 24, an opportunity for Argentina to re-elaborate the links between past and present. Too somber and fateful was that March 24, 1976, that changed the course of Argentine history irremediably. And history was very much alive this time, due to three converging circumstances.

The first is Argentina’s judiciary progress over the past decade regarding the violations of human rights during the State Terrorism of 1976–1983. More than 600 perpetrators of violations to human rights, mostly members of the military and other armed agencies, were condemned by federal courts to sentences ranging from less than three years to life sentences. (Another 300 cases, i.e., one out of three accused, were either absolved, dismissed, or are still in process). This is the result of a history, still ongoing, that started in 1985 with the trial sponsored by President Raúl Alfonsín that condemned the top military commanders—a trial based on the 1984 report Nunca Más and on the evidence collected by the Argentine human rights movement since the very beginnings of the dictatorship. The 40th anniversary of the Coup was hence an opportunity to remember the thousands of missing loved ones, and to publicly support a successful process of justice.

The second circumstance was related to the recently elected government of President Mauricio Macri, a political leader hostile to the human rights cause. Macri’s campaign rhetoric included the critique of what he called “el curro de los derechos humanos” (“the human rights scam”), referring to the close relationship between the human rights movement and the administrations of Néstor Kirchner (2003–2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007–2015) under which most of that process of justice took place. Once in office, the new government began dismantling state agencies, such as the Human Rights Office at the Central Bank, that had been mandated to provide evidence to support the judiciary in a further step: the investigation of the civilian and economic accomplices of the military government. The anniversary happened thus in the midst of a shift in official policy vis-à-vis the past.

Finally, and unexpectedly, President Barack Obama’s visit to Argentina was planned precisely for March 24—Macri’s advisors probably prioritized the visit over any concern about such an awkward date for a visit by the US President. After 12 years of a rather distant relationship with the Kirchners, the US diplomacy decided to support its new hemispheric ally with a presidential visit, giving the anniversary of the coup an unexpected geopolitical twist. White House officers, in view of the date, anticipated that Obama would order the declassification of official US documents regarding the dictatorship. Obama flew to Buenos Aires directly after his historic visit to Cuba. On the morning of March 24, as French President François Hollande had done in February, Obama visited Buenos Aires’ Parque de la Memoria, a quiet and windy edge of the city on the shore of the Rio de la Plata, turned by virtue of mesmerizing art works and architectural devices into an urban symbol of human rights. Obama threw flowers to the river, in homage to the men and women who, sedated and chained inside bags, were thrown there from military airplanes in the 1970s. But whereas Hollande was accompanied by the Madres and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo and human rights activists, in recognition to the support given by France’s Socialist Party to their cause in the 1970s and 1980s, the US head of state was joined by Macri alone—no human rights organization attended the ceremony.

Why did human rights organizations turn their back to Macri and Obama, and why, despite that rejection, did both presidents decide to visit the Parque de la Memoria anyway? How should we interpret the two parallel policies, the one by Macri blocking the prosecution of civilian and economic accomplices of state terrorism, and the one by Obama to declassify military and intelligence files in favor of historical truth? What do the human rights of the 1970s mean to both countries today?

France and the United States are two countries at war against an enemy represented as the nemesis of Western freedoms. Human rights are the ultimate moral justification in the international arena against terrorism, and Argentina represents an essential chapter in that history. Paying homage to the desaparecidos became thus essential to Argentina’s friends—as essential as Jorge Luis Borgesdancing tango, or kicking a soccer ball. But since Macri’s political biography never intersected the human rights agenda, his words and gestures that day were odd and elusive, avoiding words like “military” or “desaparecidos” and instead blaming the past on “intolerance” and “divisions among Argentines,” expressions he routinely uses to criticize opponents. Macri’s support of the imprisonment of social activist Milagro Sala and the formulation of a repressive security protocol by the police to handle public demonstrations—a step backward from the peaceful tactics adopted after the massacres of demonstrators during the crisis of 2001–02—turned the human rights movement away from him. And yet, paradoxically, the presence of both heads of state at the Parque de la Memoria was a sign of that movement’s success in the public sphere.

Obama’s remarks at the Parque invoked the longer history of US Democratic administrations in this realm. He mentioned the role of the State Department under President Carter (1977–81) in support of the human rights movement, specifically through the pressure on the military by Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Patricia Derian, and the invaluable collection of data on disappeared citizens by diplomat Tex Harris at the Buenos Aires embassy. He reaffirmed the orders he gave in anticipation of his visit: like President Clinton in the late 1990s, he ordered the declassification of US documents, this time not from the State Department but from the Pentagon and the CIA. The awaited official recognition of the role of the US in the coup, however, did not happen. The fact of being in Argentina on such a symbolic date, exactly 40 years after the events, was apparently not enough to make that decisive step forward. Nor was the proven fact, recognized by historians in both countries, of the explicit blessing of the coup and its human rights violations by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. President Obama just said the US had been “slow to speak out for human rights” and referred to its stance in 1976 vis-à-vis the Argentine coup as a matter of “controversy” still requiring examination. He focused the visit, like Macri, on “the future:” economic relations and security cooperation, with respect for human rights. Some local and international press misleadingly took these as words of autocrítica and regret, but Obama’s remarks carefully avoided both.

Human rights appeared hence as more of a rhetorical instrument—with potential judiciary consequences in the very long term—than an actual matter of diplomacy. This reflects a particular balance of forces both in the US and in Argentina regarding the links between past and present. The history of the coup d’état and the state violations of human rights is an uncomfortable one to some Argentine domestic constituencies and policies, as well as to the ethical conundrums of US policies in Guantánamo, Honduras, and the Middle East.

A crowd flooded the Plaza de Mayo in the afternoon. Like every March 24, a multitude of organizations, families, and individuals marched towards the pyramid at the center of the plaza, on top of which a statue of the Republic symbolizes the history of the fight for human rights that started in 1977 right there—the epicenter of previous histories as well, from the recovery of democracy in 1983 back to the Independence Revolution of May 25, 1810, the one that gave the colonial Plaza Mayor, then de la Victoria (for the popular victory against the British invasion of 1808) its current name, de Mayo. The Obamas had by then flown to Bariloche, in the Andes, to take a rest before returning to Washington, DC. But there they received a final visit from Macri and his wife, doubling their diplomatic alliance as personal friendship. Hence, while a multitude commemorated the National Day of Memory, Truth and Justice—a day of mourning and remembrance of which the public TV channel offered no coverage—Macri posed exultant before the cameras with the POTUS. It was perhaps the most egregious contrast of this last March 24. Two rituals of power taking place simultaneously (1)—the mise en scene of an alliance between the presidents of Argentina and the US while the collective remembering of the citizenry took place at the plaza—in one more chapter of the convoluted history of hemispheric relations.

Far from settled, human rights in Argentina and the rituals that surround them are history still in the making. I take the expression “rituals of power” from Pablo Ortemberg’s Rituales del poder en Lima(1735–1825): de la monarquía a la república (Pontifica Universidad Católica del Perú, Lima, 2014), to illuminate the changes and continuities enabled by official ceremonies and gestures.

Buenos Aires, Madres de Plaza de Mayo, 1981. Archivo General de la Nación, Argentina, Inventario 348582.

Vera Jarach and portrait of her disappeared daughter, Franca. Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos, Argentina. Wikipedia Commons.Vera Jarach and portrait of her disappeared daughter, Franca. Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos, Argentina. Wikipedia Commons.


I take the expression “rituals of power” from Pablo Ortemberg’s Rituales del poder en Lima (1735–1825): de la monarquía a la república (Pontifica Universidad Católica del Perú, Lima, 2014), to illuminate the changes and continuities enabled by official ceremonies and gestures.

Please note:

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.

Revisiting the US-Cuba Diplomatic Thaw

Revisiting the US-Cuba Diplomatic Thaw

Revisiting the US-Cuba Diplomatic Thaw

A good grasp of US-Cuba relations is elusive, often clouded by partisanship and stale Cold War logic. It then came as a great surprise when Barack Obama announced his intention to lift America’s 54-year-old embargo on Cuba. While President Obama has vowed to “cut loose the shackles of the past,” breaking away from decades of isolation and hostility between the two nations, opponents like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both likely Republican presidential candidate frontrunners and both representatives from Florida, made clear their opposition: “a victory for oppressive governments the world over,” Rubio called the decision. Only “the heinous Castro brothers, who have oppressed the Cuban people for decades” will benefit, said Bush. Cuban-American Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart sulked, calling Obama an “appeaser-in-chief.”

María De Los Angeles Torres, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Ana Carbonell, managing partner of The Factor, Inc., a Miami-based political consulting firm, gathered in an event earlier this month co-hosted by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Institute of Politics. They debated the contention that has kept Republicans and Democrats busy over the past few months: whether the United States should lift its embargo on Cuba and normalize relations with the country. The two guests, one in person and one over Skype, disagreed on most questions posed, which is, perhaps, representative of a national conversation.

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   But, encouragingly, national opinion generally supports improving US-Cuba relations, and an opinion poll in Florida demonstrates even higher levels of support. In Cuba, a fifth of the work force is private sector, citizens have unprecedented access to the Internet. All are encouraging signs that Cuba itself seeks normalized diplomatic relations.

Torres challenged logics of the embargo and leveled many of the same points used by President Obama—among them, that after 50 years, America has little to show for isolating the Cuban people. She argued that a minuscule number of diplomatic points have been conceded, relations are, as always, chilly, and few things have changed politically. This last point is important—after all, the purpose of the embargo was to topple to the Castro regime, an objective that has not come close to fruition. Most of Latin America seems to have noticed the manifest failure of the embargo and taken actions to normalize relations with Cuba long ago, a fact that has put America at diplomatic odds with those countries.

But, Carbonell pointed out, we should not usurp the Cuban people’s rights to self-determination. While this line of reasoning seems at odds with the embargo’s original goal—ridding the Cuban people of an undemocratic regime—Carbonell insisted that until all political prisoners are freed, Cubans are guaranteed the right to free association, and internationally-supervised elections are held, lifting the embargo would be unprincipled and unproductive. If borders were opened suddenly, Cuba could become a ‘capitalist-dictatorship’ cocktail like China or Vietnam, which would be, Carbonell claims, a very bad thing.

16297648898_62097f2f9c_o (2)_0.jpgPhoto credit: Institute of Politics

   It would not be difficult to leave the event with the impression that this discussion was not really about Cuba. Those who support Obama cheered his latest actions and those who do not said he was “coddling a dictator.” This discussion took place between a Republican strategist and Chicago academic at the Institute of Politics—without knowing any further background, most could guess before the event with which side each speaker would align. But what will happen in the future in Washington, Havana, and Miami, is much harder to guess. With the many developments sure to come in the next few months and years, it will certainly be not only interesting to watch, but also important to stay informed.

Please note:

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.

Defeminizing Diplomacy

Defeminizing Diplomacy

Rogério de Souza Farias I Associate Member at CLAS (*)

“Diplomacy is essentially a feminine art”, wrote Brazilian feminist Elizabeth Bastos in February 1935 (1). She was an active participant in the defense of divorce, of the right to abortion and of the professional freedom for women. Working as a typist in the conservative Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she waged a particular war to open the diplomatic career for women.

Diplomatic history is currently a minor field in the discipline of history. It is usually associated with antiquated methods and démodé historiographical approaches. In the last decades, however, the area is undergoing internal criticism and renewal. Particularly important is how a new generation of students are bringing fresh and imaginative theoretical frameworks, sources and questions to the forefront of a renewed and vibrant area (2).

I see my research as a small contribution in this larger historiographical trend. Since I arrived at the University of Chicago as an Associate Member to CLAS, I have been studying not the substance of diplomatic history itself, but diplomats as a social group. They have a privileged standing between the dynamics of transnational cultural forces, international society and national politics. My main focus has been on Brazilian diplomats.

One particular aspect of this research agenda is the rise of the Brazilian female diplomat. Until 1918 the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not have a single female employee either at its headquarters in Rio de Janeiro or at any of its posts abroad; almost one hundred years later, they comprise less than 20% of the diplomatic career. Change in this field, therefore, occurred (and still happens) too late and too slow. Why?

We can answer this question by examining the origins of the diplomatic profession. Its tenets were shaped in Renaissance Italy, Louis XIV’s France and European 19th century courts. It was a male profession. But not for all. Only a privileged minority had any chance to be a part of it.

A diplomat was not just a representative of its home country abroad; he embodied the state itself. As a consequence, he behaved according to a set of ideas about what image should be portrayed to others. This was broadly defined by beliefs that placed a premium on manners, politeness, chivalry and protocol — all aspects influenced by European aristocratic values.

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Photo 1. A traditional diplomat, wearing fancy clothes in an ostentatious room, is told by the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Nilo Peçanha) that he needs to relinquish his posh possessions and start working in a commercial desk. This transition reinforced gender discrimination. O Malho. 1918.

   This had, however, critical consequences in terms of gender relations, as they carried with them anxiety about effeminacy in a male-dominated world. It was this aspect that Elizabeth Bastos and other feminists tried to explore in their quest to open the career to Brazilian women. Tactically, they accepted the idea of differences based on gender to argue that the diplomatic profession was associated with female values. A proper representative of the Brazilian state in international politics, in this opinion, had to be elegant, polite, and discrete; and also have tact, manners, astuteness, a keen eye to detail and a refined taste in clothes (3).

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Photo 2. Above (center): Maria José Mendes, the first women to sit for a Ministry of Foreign Affairs exam in 1918. She succeeded and was the only female among seventy-three employees. In the photo below the exam committee. Careta. 1918.

   What Bastos and other feminists failed to appreciate at that time was how the diplomatic profession was evolving away from those values. After the First World War, democracies around the world blamed traditional diplomacy for the crisis in international politics. Intellectuals started to use a new model of maleness. They portrayed the diplomat in a pattern of hegemonic masculinity to transcend the old diplomacy, now associated with female traits (4).

One writer, for example, criticized the “frivolity of a diplomatic life purely representational, ridden by vanities, capricious and affected attitudes” in order to defend a more business-oriented approach to foreign policy (5). Another lambasted a recruitment process privileging “elegance”, which resulted in hiring “brainless idiots with greasy hair and flashy gaiters” (6). Diplomats themselves worried about their images and strived to adopt a new model of manliness and refute the association with values considered feminines. Guerra Duval was one of them. He complained about diplomats being portrayed as “venerable old ladies with trousers” and also the compliments — like, “He is a perfect diplomat.  He is a gentlewoman!” (7)

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Photo 3. The diplomat Barros Moreira wearing a traditional diplomatic uniform. He was described as displaying a noble presence, having gestures of restrained grace and muttering gallant and soft words. It was this kind of professional that proponents of diplomatic reform criticized. Careta. 1910

   The route for defeminizing diplomacy was particularly associated with trade promotion. The profile of a perfect diplomat, therefore, was the blunt, pragmatic and practical businessman who worked hard and did not embrace European aristocratic values (8). Lofty and refined manners now morphed into a work ethic suited to the Darwinian struggle in international markets. In this new rhetoric, a gendered division of labor in diplomacy was reinforced.

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Photo 4. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Commercial Services in 1929. It was the model for a new diplomacy, which would replace the traditional “effeminate” traits of the profession. In the center, a female typist. Revista Fon Fon.

   We live in a world with unprecedented equality in gender relations. But as this case demonstrates, the social construction of sexual difference can adapt and change in order to sustain discrimination.Today, there are no restrictions on female engagement in diplomacy in Brazil; the phase of tearing down the legal framework which entrenched gender discrimination is over. There is, nonetheless, the battle to change a discriminatory culture.


1- Elisabeth Bastos. A mulher na diplomacia. Jornal do Brasil. 1º de fevereiro de 1935.

2-Karl W. Schweizer and Matt J. Schumann, ‘The revitalization of diplomatic history: renewed reflections’, Diplomacy and Statecraft, v. 19, nº 2 (2008), 149-186; Stephen E. Pelz, ‘A taxonomy for American diplomatic history’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, v. 19, nº 2 (1988), 259-276; Thomas W. Zeiler, ‘The diplomatic history bandwagon: a state of the field’, The Journal of American History, v. 95, nº 4 (2009), 1053-1073; Charles S. Maier, ‘Marking time: the historiography of international relations’ in: (ed), The Past before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States (New York: Cornell University Press, 1980), 355-387.

3-About the values associated to Brazilian diplomats until the First World War see Maria Helena Castro Azevedo, Um senhor modernista: biografia de Graça Aranha. (Rio de Janeiro: Academia Brasileira de Letras, 2002), 42; Gilberto Freire, Ordem e progresso [6ª edição]. (São Paulo: Global Editora, 2004), 584-585; Afonso Arinos De Melo Franco, A alma do tempo. Memórias (formação e mocidade). (Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1961), 91-92.

4- Tim Carrigan, et al., ‘Toward a new sociology of masculinity’, Theory and society, v. 14, nº 5 (1985), 551-604; Robert W. Connell and James W. Messerschmidt, ‘Hegemonic masculinity rethinking the concept’, Gender & society, v. 19, nº 6 (2005), 829-859,

5- A obra econômica do Itamaraty. Crítica. 26 de setembro de 1929.

6- Ricardo Pinto. Falta capacidade. Crítica. 27 de agosto de 1929.

7- Adalberto Guerra Duval, ‘A diplomacia no Estado Novo’, Revista do Serviço Público, v. III, nº 3 (1938), 10-11, 10

8- É necessário ver com olhos brasileiros os problemas nacionais. A Noite. 11 de março de 1929; Diplomacia prática. Gazeta de Notícias. 7 de fevereiro de 1930; A reforma do Itamaraty. Correio da Manhã. 22 de outubro de 1938; O Itamarati e o acordo com a Grã-Bretanha. Correio da Manhã. 22 de março de 1950.

(*) I would like to acknowledge the corrections kindly made by Dain Borges. All errors remain my own.

Please note:

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.