BUENOS AIRES — President Obama paid homage Thursday morning to the victims of a military regime that came to power 40 years ago — initially with the support of the United States.
The coup on March 24, 1976, launched a dark period in Argentina known as the “Dirty War,” during which a military junta targeted leftists it viewed as an ideological threat. As many as 30,000 people were killed or “disappeared” — abducted and never heard from again — over the course of the next seven years.
Many Argentines have expressed dismay that Obama’s visit to their country coincides with the solemn anniversary. But the president has sought to use the moment to try to put to rest the United States’ fraught legacy in Latin America — a region that Washington dominated for decades, sometimes at the expense of those who did not belong to a small, wealthy elite.
On Thursday, Obama joined Argentine President Mauricio Macri at the Parque de la Memoria, or Remembrance Park, which lies alongside the Río de la Plata and features a long, gray stone wall with the names of 20,000 of the junta’s victims and their ages. The two leaders walked along the wall, onto a bridgehead, where they each took three white roses and tossed them into the river. They then stood for a moment with their heads bowed.
Speaking afterward to the assembled press corps, Obama both tacitly acknowledged U.S. support for the regime under the administration of President Gerald R. Ford and emphasized that the United States turned a corner after the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976.
“There’s been controversy about the policies of the United States early in those dark days, and the United States when it reflects on what happened here has to examine its own policies as well, in its own past,” he said. “Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for and we’ve been slow to speak out for human rights. And that was the case here.”
Praising Carter as “a president who understood that human rights is a fundamental element of foreign policy,” Obama argued that “that understanding is something that has influenced the way we’ve strived to conduct ourselves in the world ever since.”
And Obama, who noted that the U.S. government will now declassify military and intelligence records related to that period, said the global community needs to recognize that human rights violations continue to present a challenge around the world.
“Each of us have a responsibility each and every day to make sure that wherever we see injustice, wherever we see rule of law flouted, that we are honest witnesses,” he said, “that we’re speaking out and that we’re examining our own hearts, and taking responsibility to make this a better place for our children and our grandchildren.”
Macri said the 40th anniversary was “a marvelous opportunity for all of the Argentine people together to say and claim, never again. Never again in Argentina to political violence, never again to institutional violence.”
And he thanked Obama for collaborating with his country on the issue of human rights.
“This gives us an opportunity again to work together, the way you have been doing it, for the defense of these causes around the world,” Macri said.
But others did not feel as charitable toward the U.S. president.
Carlos Pisoni was just 37 days old in the summer of 1977 when both of his parents, who were members of the Montoneros, an urban guerrilla group, were arrested and disappeared. He was handed over to his grandmother, who raised him.
“For us, it’s a provocation that the U.S. president is here, because the U.S. government took part in the coup here as well as in other parts of the region, as declassified documents show,” said Pisoni, who joined a demonstration Thursday in Plaza de Mayo, where the mothers of the disappeared have been marching every Thursday afternoon for nearly four decades.
He noted that many of the military officers who tortured and killed people during the Dirty War were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, a Pentagon-run military institute formerly based in Panama. And even though Pisoni welcomed the new round of declassification, he said none of the survivors or victims’ families decided to participate in Thursday’s event with Obama because there were too many “open wounds.”
Daniel James, a history professor at Indiana University Bloomington, said that Obama is far less controversial here than George W. Bush, who faced protests when he visited in 2005 for the Summit of the Americas. But James added that many Argentines still view the United States through the prism of its interventions in Latin American affairs during much of the past century.
“The idea of the U.S. as an ideological hegemon is still part of their ideological makeup,” he said, adding that “50 to 55 percent of Argentines don’t have a positive view of the United States and its role in the world.”
Irene Caselli contributed to this report.