Five Lessons Bush Learned from Argentina’s Dirty War and Five Lessons for the Rest of Us

It began as a far-reaching war against a vague enemy. Any questions about the war were considered unpatriotic and dissenters risked being violently repressed by the government. The government helped the economic elite profit at the expense of the poor. When the regime was losing its grip on power, it turned to a conventional military war that became a disaster. This synopsis describes the Dirty War of 1976-1983 in Argentina…and the current US "War on Terror." 

The Dirty War in Argentina is a complex story that can be viewed through a variety of lenses. During the six months I recently spent in Argentina, I found that the more I learned about the Dirty War, the more I was learning about the "War on Terror."  To say that the current state of repression in the US is exactly like the Dirty War would be an insult to the 30,000 people who were disappeared and tortured in Argentina. The similarities between the two "wars," however, can indicate in what direction the US may be headed and how progressives can steer the country in another direction.

The Dirty War has its roots in the anti-communist sentiments generated by the US during the Cold War. After the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s, governments throughout Latin America began cracking down on leftist groups including student organizations and unions. Fearing the spread of communism, the US government actively supported this repression by training Latin American soldiers in torture techniques at the School of the Americas and refusing to criticize or sanction human rights violations committed by right-wing governments. Under the military dictatorship in Argentina of 1966-1973, some leftist groups responded to the absolute ban on political activity with armed resistance.

In 1973, the people of Argentina democratically elected Juan Peron, but when he died the following year his wife took power and her leadership was dominated by the military. On March 24, 1976, the Argentine military overthrew President Isabel Peron and remained in power until 1983. The military began its rule by restructuring the government. The local police departments were put under military control. The General Commander of the Army was placed in charge of executing military operations necessary to "neutralize and annihilate" subversive elements. The "Process of National Reorganization" announced by the military re-established the death penalty, outlawed unions and political organizations, and established military jurisdiction over civilians.

The military government detained, tortured, disappeared and killed anyone who was suspected of being subversive, including student leaders, critical journalists, and union leaders. Squads made of members of the armed forces and local police departments kidnapped suspected "subversives" from their homes, workplaces and even the streets. There were 14,000 political prisoners. Another 30,000 people were kidnapped by government agents. Because their bodies were never located and the military and police would deny that these people were in their custody, these 30,000 are considered "disappeared." Over 500 children were taken from detained parents and raised by families of members of the military. Many activists chose to flee the country. Thus, among other things, the government effectively eliminated a generation of leftist leaders.

Twenty years later, the students of the School of the Americas have become the teachers. In the current "War on Terror" Bush is using lessons learned from the Dirty War. The US government is using tactics like those used by the Argentine dictatorship, namely, waging a vast war against a vaguely defined enemy and creating a culture of fear. Likewise, the US government is using those tactics to achieve the same goals that the Argentine military dictatorship had: to consolidate state power, to suppress dissent and to mobilize economic resources to benefit the elite.

1. Wage a vast war against an undefined enemy

The Argentine military dictatorship justified the need for heightened security due to the unique nature of a war against communist revolutionaries that extended throughout many countries. The military government of Argentina projected its battle against "subversives" beyond the borders of the country by colluding with the dictatorships of nearby countries to repress dissenters. Plan Condor, the conspiracy between the dictators of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay, resulted in, among other things, Argentines being detained in Brazil and Uruguayans and Chileans assassinated in Argentina.

In addition to extending the geographic scope of the war, the Argentine dictatorship extended the definition of "enemy" by vaguely defining who was an enemy. Paradoxically, this vague definition simultaneously allowed for the blurring and sharpening of the definition of the entities involved. On the one hand, there was a sharp dividing line between the two sides– the "you’re either with us or against us" mentality. On the other hand, all those who were defined as being against the government were blurred together. Trade unions, student groups, and communist party members were all lumped together and labeled as anti-state, and they were equally likely to be targets of government repression.

One tool used to make a distinction between the two sides in war is torture. During the Dirty War, if someone was arrested or disappeared, silent onlookers often thought "serà por algo." (It must be for something.) According to the circular logic of a silent onlooker, because torture is a crime and should only be done in extreme cases—if at all—people who are tortured must deserve the treatment.

In its "War on Terror" the Bush administration, too, is waging a vast war against an undefined enemy. Vice President Cheney has said that the War on Terror could involve 40-50 countries and last a century or more. (1) Like the military dictators, the US government is taking advantage of the assumption that suspects in custody deserve the abuse they receive. For example, when Guantanamo Bay first began to be used as a detention center for al Qaeda suspects, even human rights activists conceded that the detainees were the worst of the worst, while demanding that their human rights be respected. In fact, as of January 2005 only four of the 550 detainees in Guantanamo had faced charges. The six who were released to the custody of Great Britain after their case went to the US Supreme Court were released from British custody without charges. This begs the question: how many other detainees are innocent?

2. Create a culture of fear

The Argentine military dictatorship stirred up a culture of fear so that people were not only frightened and intimidated by the government, but also by one another. Activists I spoke with in Argentina agreed that both the fear of retribution by the military and fear of public scorn prevented family members of the disappeared from speaking out. For example, Herminia Severini told me that when she went to the police station after her daughter disappeared, the desk officer taunted her, telling her that she was a bad mother and that her daughter was caught in the midst of a sexual orgy. While Herminia remained determined to track down her daughter, many parents were too ashamed and frightened to inquire further. Years after the dictatorship, when the extent of the abuses by the government was revealed, many parents realized that their children were not dangerous enemies as alleged, and they admitted that their children were disappeared. Of course many families did speak out during the dictatorship, most notably the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo.

Fear is being used as a tool for public manipulation in the US in subtler ways. In his speeches, President Bush has played off the fear, which he and his administration have instilled through red alerts and threats of an infinite war, by offering complete trust in himself as the only option for security. As Dr. Renana Brooks wrote in The Nation, "To create a dependency dynamic between him and the electorate, Bush describes the nation as being in a perpetual state of crisis and then attempts to convince the electorate that it is powerless and that he is the only one with the strength to deal with it." (2)

3. Suppress dissent

The culture of fear managed to suppress dissent effectively in Argentina during the Dirty War. Additionally, through censorship of the media and the banning of unions and political parties, voices that questioned and critiqued the government were effectively muted.

The Bush administration’s use of torture is succeeding in suppressing dissent just as the use of torture and disappearance by the Argentine government did. Members are withdrawing from Muslim political organizations for fear of being associated with a terrorist group.(3) This fear was flamed by the example the US government made of the Canadian Maher Arar, who on a lay-over in the US was detained and extradited to Syria, where he was tortured for ten months without having a single charge filed against him. (4)

The USA PATRIOT act has suppressed dissent by broadening the definition of a terrorist act and restricting entry into the US. For example, engaging in conduct that "involves acts dangerous to human life" to "influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion" is considered a terrorist act. Moreover, under PATRIOT II, it is unlawful for US citizens to be members of a designated terrorist organization. Both "terrorist organization" and "acts dangerous to human life" may be interpreted broadly. In the past, the US government designated the anti-apartheid African National Congress, EarthFirst and the Irish Republican Army as terrorist organizations. Terrorism is thus defined to include threats against establishment interests in foreign policy or the environment, for example. This broad understanding of terrorism has led to visas being denied to a professor who was once associated with the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and to a Swiss Muslim professor. (5)

The administration is even explicitly saying that dissent and questioning of the administration is not acceptable during the War on Terror. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, criticism of the administration’s policy "hurts" the war on terror. (6) In a speech, over four years after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, President Bush implied that anything less than national unity concerning the war in Iraq would aid the "enemy." (7)

4. Consolidate power

Once a national security state has created a culture of fear and suppressed dissent, it may safely consolidate power, with minimal questioning by the media or challenges from dissident voices. In Argentina, power was consolidated in the military, which was given full control in the fight against "subversion." There was no separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches – the military ran all three. There were no local or provincial elections either, and all local leaders were appointed by the dictatorship.

A key strategy of the Argentine dictatorship was to strip the judiciary of its powers. The National Commission for the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), a commission created by the first democratically elected government after the dictatorship, specifically cited the elimination of the writ of habeas corpus as a constitutional guarantee as part of the apparatus that allowed forced disappearances to continue.

Similarly, the Bush administration is trying to consolidate power in the Executive Branch. At the President’s request, Congress agreed to handover its war-making powers to the president first in Fall 2001 with the Authorization for Use of Military Force and next in Fall 2002 with the Iraq War Resolution. (8) The Department of Homeland Security was created to manage a variety of previously independent government agencies including: the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Coast Guard.

The Executive Branch is also trying the limit the power of the judiciary to review executive actions. In the cases of US citizens held as enemy combatants and denied access to attorneys, the US Attorney General argued that the Executive has the power to determine who is an enemy combatant and in effect determine when Constitutional rights apply to a detainee and when they do not. Justice O´Conner rejected the government’s argument in "Hamdi v. Rumsfeld", writing, "history and common sense teach us that an unchecked system of detention carries the potential to become a means for oppression and abuse of others who do not present that sort of threat."

5. Mobilize economic resources to benefit the elite

Besides maintaining power, one of the consequences of developing a culture of fear and consolidating state power is to make economic changes that benefit the elite at the expense of the poor. One of the first acts of the Argentine military dictatorship was to ban unions, suppressing their opposition to the implementation of neo-liberal Chicago School economic policies, such as privatization of public resources and cutting federal spending on social services. Landowners and factory managers provided the military with lists of targets, such as union organizers, who were interfering with their attempts to maximize profits.

Currently, the US government is cutting social spending to fund the War on Terror. Private corporations are profiting from the War in Iraq, as many of the security and military duties are being outsourced. Iraq is being privatized and its laws rewritten to favor corporations. For those who think the Military Industrial Complex is a relic of the paranoid 1960s, the New York Times recently reported that the Pentagon’s weapons procurement program is $300 billion over budget, indicating that defense contractors are profiting quite well. Corporations with close ties to the Bush Administration, such as Halliburton and Bechtel, have been favored with lucrative no-bid contracts for the destruction and reconstruction of Iraq.

Both Argentina during the Dirty War and the US during the War on Terror have managed to consolidate state power to benefit the elite by attempting to instill fear in the people and minimize dissent. But such repression cannot last forever. By the early 1980s, the military dictatorship in Argentina faced an increasing amount of criticism from workers, students, neighborhood groups and other movements. Two days after tens of thousands of people amassed in the Plaza de Mayo of Buenos Aires to protest the government, the military invaded the Falkland Islands, a British protectorate over which Argentina had long claimed sovereignty. This attempt to squelch opposition by stirring up patriotic fervor worked for a short time. After the British utterly defeated Argentina, however, the dictatorship lost all credibility and held elections in 1983 for the first time in seven years.

Five Lessons for the Rest of Us

For the past twenty years, Argentina has been working to ensure that its dark history will not be repeated. While Argentines have not developed a foolproof recipe for toppling an oppressive régime, approaches used by Argentines for the past thirty years can inspire and aid North Americans seeking to challenge the "War on Terror." In fact, this is probably the only time that I would suggest taking a cue from GW; he has learned from The Dirty War, and it’s time for us to learn some lessons from it as well. Effective strategies used in Argentina may be grouped under five categories: clarify the facts, remember, identify common causes, create citizens who are critical thinkers, and build alliances abroad.

1. Clarify and publicize the facts

Journalists, government commissions, and the courts have all played a role in clarifying the facts of what happened during the dictatorship. Less than a year after the first democratic election, a government-appointed commission published Nunca Màs (Never Again) an exhaustively researched report about the forced disappearances during the Dirty War. Shortly before its publication and subsequent climb up the bestseller lists, Nunca Màs was presented as a documentary on national television.

Activists also used courts to clarify and publicize facts regarding human rights abuses under the dictatorship. When trials against members of the military were stopped in 1986, Argentine human rights lawyers used the right to truth guaranteed by the Argentine Constitution to begin trials for truth. The purpose of these trials was not to punish, but to use the power of the courts to establish a historical record. Argentines then read the transcripts of the trials in their newspapers. Recognizing the effectiveness and force of a right to truth, a petition demanding the recognition of such a right was recently presented by Argentina and approved by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.

2. Bring the past into the present

It is not enough to merely clarify the facts; they must be remembered as well. Through museums of memory, public demonstrations on the anniversary of the military coup, and works of public art, Argentina is building a collective memory of the atrocities committed during the dictatorship. In the city of Rosario, for example, there are 380 stencils of bicycles painted throughout the city, representing the 380 disappeared of the city. The image of the bicycle is a haunting reminder that the military often nabbed youths in the street, leaving their rider-less bicycles behind.

Unions and social movements bring the past into the present by carrying out the ideals of activists who were killed or tortured during the military dictatorship. For example, the bankers’ union maintains a comprehensive scrapbook documenting the lives and stories of the disappearances of union members during the dirty war. But the union is not content with merely relegating remembrances to scrapbooks. Graciela, a union member who was a political prisoner herself in the 1970s, explains that the recent fight against privatizing the state bank was viewed by the union as a continuation of the fight of their disappeared colleagues for a "just and socialist society." Similarly, the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo, who have marched in front of the presidential house carrying pictures of their disappeared children for nearly 30 years, are not simply demanding that the faces of their children be remembered, but that their ideals continue to be enacted. Thus, the Madres have started a popular university and bookstore.

3. Identify common causes

During the dictatorship and afterwards, Argentines have often managed to link the different causes they are fighting for, and oppressed groups have found ways to support one another. Currently, Argentine activists see issues of police brutality and paying the external debt as the continuation of the repressive policies of the military regime. Indeed, the personnel of the police departments did not change after the dictatorship. The unpunished killings of unemployed piqueteros or community activists during the 2001 crisis by the police are viewed as a continuation of the impunity police forces had during the dictatorship.

The Madres currently march carrying a banner that declares, "no to the external debt." They claim that because Argentina’s external debt was accrued by the corrupt, undemocratic, military regime, it should not be the burden of the Argentine people to forgo social services to repay it.

Even during the dictatorship, there were moments of solidarity, which alleviated the suffering of the political prisoners, however slightly. For example, some prisons that housed and tortured political prisoners also housed non-political prisoners. In one prison, the non-political prisoners went on strike because the cries of the people being tortured prevented them from sleeping at night and disturbed their families during visiting hours. Consequently, the guards ceased torturing the political prisoners during nights and visiting hours.

4. Create citizens who are critical thinkers

Creating opportunities for citizens to learn to think critically and value human rights is one way to prevent future human rights violations. This can be done in a variety of venues, including municipal programs and universities.

One of the goals of many of the social and cultural programs in the city of Rosario is to create an engaged, critical citizenry that will prevent the rise of another dictatorship. The exhibits on history in the city’s children’s museums cover topics such as union organizing and student protests, in order to demonstrate that ordinary people, not just presidents and generals, make history. Moreover, these spaces do not present science, art, music and language as topics that an expert must explain in order to be understood. Rather, children are given opportunities to explore and discover what science, art, music and language mean to them, that is, to think for themselves. Even the city’s job training program teaches values of solidarity and democracy, in addition to labor skills. As the director of Rosario’s Museum of Memory, Ruben Chababo, put it, the goal is to create citizens who will have the courage to stand up for their own rights and the rights of others, should the country be threatened by another military regime.

One of the missions of public universities in Argentina is to create active citizens, according to student organizer Oscar Montenegro. Political activity on university campuses was especially vital after the Dirty War, since a generation of leaders had been de-politicized or disappeared. Elections of student representatives to university governing counsels are highly contested, partly because students play a large role in university decision-making.

5. Build alliances abroad

When I interviewed activists who struggled against the dictatorship, they emphasized how much the support of activists from other countries helped them. Argentines living in exile helped other Argentines escape and drew international attention to the country’s human rights violations.

An important component of international alliances is understanding the history of the struggles of others in similar situations. This understanding can help prevent what Norma Rios, a leader of the Association for Human Rights, calls the biggest mistake of the Argentine resistance: underestimating the enemy. By examining the strategies of the current US government in their historical context, we can better understand what they might lead to and avoid underestimating them. By looking at how other countries have dealt with and are dealing with atrocities committed by their governments, we too can learn from the abuses of the present and the past, and learn how to prevent their continuation and repetition.

Renate Lunn is a criminal defense attorney working in New York City and a regular contributor to, an online magazine about activism and politics in Latin America. She recently traveled in Argentina. This article was previously published in, a progressive perspective on world events.


(1) John Pilger, The Colder War (Available at:

(2) Renana Brooks, "A Nation of Victims, The Nation (June 30, 2003) (Available at:


(3)Naomi Klein, "Torture’s Dirty Secret: It Works," The Nation, May 20, 2005 (Available at:

(4) Id.

(5) David Corn, "The Missing Patriot Debate," The Nation, May 20, 2005 (Available at:

(6) Associated Press, "Rumsfeld: Criticism Harms War on Terror," Sept. 8, 2003 (Available at:,2933,96716,00.html)

(7) George Bush, Speech in Tobyhann, Pennsylvania on Nov. 11, 2005 (Available at:

dyn/content/article/2005/11/11/AR2005111100987.html) "These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America’s will… And our troops deserve to know that, whatever our differences in Washington, our will is strong, our nation is united and we will settle for nothing less than victory."

(8) Iraq War Resolution, Oct. 10, 2002 (Available at: