Todas las Puertas Están Cerradas All the Doors Are Closed: The formation and significance of early

groups opposing Argentina’s 1976-1983 military regime

Sarah Mirk Professor Silva – Labor in Latin American seminar December 21, 2007


When General Jorge Videla and the Argentine military launched Argentina’s “Dirty War” with a coup in March 1976, the new regime immediately attempted to shut down space for democratic dissent within society. Knowing full well labor unions’ histories as the nation’s most powerful and divisive opposition forces, in the days following the coup the military specifically persecuted union leaders and any suspected worker agitators. Within weeks of seizing power, the military had imprisoned 1,400 union leaders, suspected labor militants and Peronist Youths – many of whom would never be seen alive again.1 By April, the number arrested stood at 10,000 and the surviving top labor leaders fled the country.2 Decapitated, infiltrated and tamed, the major trade unions which had for decades been the primary voice of populist protest in Argentina were no longer viable channels of resistance and reform. In the wake of the regime’s destruction of Argentina’s traditional mediums of protest, new social forces became the outlets of opposition and the pioneers of later mass uprising. With the exception of the leftist guerrilla movements, early domestic resistance groups were loosely organized, disparate groups of inexperienced activists forced to protest due to the lack of established channels of criticism and dissent. As one previously apolitical mother explained after the disappearance of her children led her to protest the government weekly in Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo, “We went everywhere to make a complaint. All the doors are closed. Where did we wind up? The plaza de Mayo.”3

Donald Clark Hodges. Argentina, 1943-1987: The National Revolution and Resistance. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1988) pp. 194 2 Hodges, pp. 194 3 Susana Muñoz and Lourdes Portillo. Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. trans. Sarah Mirk. (New York, NY: Women Make Movies, Inc. 1985)


In studying resistance to General Videla’s regime, historians emphasize the significance of the nation’s mass protests, which began to occur only after 1981. By that time, illegally-resurrected unions led by an old guard of Peronist activists had once again became potent mobilizing forces.4 From 1981-1983, these nationallyorganized unions channeled citizens’ general anger over Argentina’s economy, repressive government and the Falklands War flop into marches hundreds-ofthousands strong through the streets of Buenos Aires. It was these mass protests which eventually ousted the regime. However, while mass protest to the regime beginning in the early 80s, the government was unable to completely shut down all space for social dissent even during the initial years of rule. During this time, significant resistance movements formed and spread precisely because the military blocked traditional channels of protest. The government did not recognize the resistance groups which grew from 1976-1980 as potential threats, since non-traditional activists not aligned with any of the established channels of dissent such as political parties or national unions formed them. These early anti-authoritarian groups can be divided into three categories: small unions, which remained relatively free from government intervention and mobilized workers on local levels against specific factory owners and local factory rules; the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who staged the most prolonged and perhaps most effective protest of the era, and underground publications, which spread anti-authoritarian ideology. All three of these groups set a tone of dissent in society which helped facilitate later, larger protests – exactly

In a 1985 interview, the imprisoned military governor Ricardo Obregon Cano distinguished four forms of resistance to his old regime, in order of importance: the resistance of organized labor, guerrillas, relatives of the disappeared and, finally, the opposition political parties allowed by the government. Interview by Hodges, March 1985, pg. 203


what Videla’s regime had tried to avoid by destroying democratic avenues of opposition.

Small Unions and Independent Workers in Resistance Previous repressive regimes in Argentina had placed legal restrictions on populist and communist political parties to limit popular dissent. However, Videla’s regime quickly embarked on “el Proceso” of completely replacing the nation’s liberal-democratic infrastructure altogether with a new bureaucratic-authoritarian model that limited mass political participation and aggressively attacked both the legal and extralegal powers of unions.5 These measures, which placed military officers in direct control of worker movements and intimidated both union leaders and dissident workers into accepting neoliberal economic austerity measures, drastically reshaped the legal and social context of possible labor protest.6 In the absence of strong national labor unions, small unionists and rank and file workers kept resistance alive during the early years of the regime. The efforts of these inexperienced activists facilitated the resurrection of a viable and wellmobilized national labor movement in the early 80s. The military regime immediately set out to destroy both the legal and social power of labor.7 On March 24th 1976, just after the guerrilla group Monteñeros staged violent protests in several of Argentina’s left-leaning industrial cities to support angry trade-unionists demanding wage increases at factories there, the military acted to

Hodges, pp. 168 and Gerardo L. Munck. Authoritarianism and democratization soldiers and workers in Argentina, 1976-1983. (University Park, Penn: Pennsylvania State University Press. 1998) pp. 67 6 Munck, pp. 67 7 Munck, pp. 65


swiftly break the power of the labor unions. On that day, the regime imprisoned the leaders of the Peronist Party, the Confederacion General de Trabajadores (CGT) and other major labor unions.8 Additionally, Videla’s followers dissolved the powerful 62 Organizations, the labor branch of the Peronist Party which had for decades coordinated local and national actions between major unions. The following day, armed soldiers occupied the headquarters of Buenos Aires’s strongest unions. Soon, the labor minister ordered an “intervention” of the nation’s large unions, replacing any elected union leaders with military appointees. With merciless military swiftness, the regime had efficiently ousted the top leadership of unions representing 80-90% of Argentinean workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, destroyed their mobilizing infrastructure and left the nation’s recently-vociferous unions “partially decapitated and quite firmly muzzled.” 9 Controlling the unions allowed the military government to curb worker protest against the regime’s neoliberal economic austerity plan, which slashed industrial jobs, eliminated price controls and announced higher prices for public utilities.10 In addition to its economic practicality, the destruction of union infrastructure dissolved the nation’s most powerful voice of populist dissent. Under previous regimes, union-linked guerrillas like the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Monteňeros coordinated work stoppages and strikes with violent guerrilla attacks to effectively win pro-worker policy concessions. However, this model was helpless in confronting the “clandestine terrorism” of el Proceso, since the military killed off many guerrillas and used state apparatuses to intimidate workers out of becoming
8 9

Hodges, pg. 194-195 Munck, pp. 65-67 10 Hodges, pg. 196


“factory guerrillas” themselves or providing the guerrillas essential aid.11 The majority of workers disappeared under the regime were rank and file members from uppity, strong-union towns like Rosario and Cordoba; any worker suspected of subversive activity or thought more likely to “harbor troublemakers” risked being disappeared by the military. 12 Large unions and union-linked guerrillas, for decades the primary voices of Argentine popular protest, were unable to stage a significant protest again until after December 1980. As the traditional doors of worker protest slammed shut, new labor forces took up the resistance against the regime during its initial years and lay the groundwork for the mass uprising of the early 80s. The military’s intervention of large unions thrust small, previously unimportant union leaders into a unique position: they became the only union leaders legitimately elected by workers, running the only unions still relatively controlled by labor rather than the military. The destruction of national union federations left local unionists the choice of acting on their own or not at all.13 Thus, though they had little experience in the national spotlight, these small union leaders increased in national visibility and importance, rising to become important players in the labor field during the initial years of the regime.14 These inexperienced leaders and regular rank and file workers were the only active and vocal voices of worker dissent during the late 70s. With the framework of national labor mobilization crumpled, small-union-led worker resistance during the regime’s initial years was localized and disparate.
11 12

Hodges, pg. x, 189 and 198. Munck, pp. 67 13 Paul Drake. Labor Movements and Dictatorships (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1989.) pp 169. 14 Munck pp. 79


However, the minor nature of most strikes and their lack of connection to traditional protest forces is what allowed them to occur even under the oppressive authoritarian regime. Despite the legal threat of one to six years in prison for striking, inexperienced small union leaders and rank and file workers led hundreds of “wildcat” strikes from 1976-1980.15 From the time of the coup in 1976 to the revitalization of the major national labor organizations in 1980, an estimated 1,911,340 workers participated in strikes.16 These strikes were not tied into larger national protests or opposition political parties. As labor historians Bernardo Gallitelli and Andres Thompson write, “In the absence of union solidarity, strikers remained isolated, offering at best a ‘vigorous, though defensive and disparate resistance’ to the government’s policies.”17 The vast majority of these strikes represented an inversion of the traditional tendency among Argentinean workers to protest en masse, led by large unions at a national level. Instead, they were mostly staged by rank and file workers in factories employing less than 100 people, protesting local problems.18 When strikes did gain too much visibility, they were brutally shut down. Buenos Aires electrical power workers staged one of the period’s largest strikes, walking out on the job for 16 days in October 1976 and from January 21 to mid-February 1977. The strike ended when one of the leaders, Light and Power union general secretary Oscar Smith, disappeared.19


Paul Drake estimated 590 (pp 167) while Ricardo Falcon recorded 321 in “Conflicto Social y Regimen Militar: La Resistencia Obrera en Argentina” from Sindicalismo y Regimenes Militares en Argentina y Chile, ed. Bernardo Gallitelli and Andres A. Thompson. trans. Sarah Mirk. (Ámsterdam: CEDLA. 1982) pp 92-101 16 Falcon, pp. 92-101 17 Falcon and Gallitelli quoted by Munck pp 80 18 Falcon, pp 101-103 19 Munck pp. 81


Instead of aligning with national opposition groups, most workers focused their complaints and protest locally. The reasons given for striking overwhelmingly reveal that most workers protested factory-level problems rather than national issues or politics. Argentinean historian Ricardo Falcon provides a specific breakdown of strike causes, with 200 of the 321 recorded strikes stating low salaries as their motivation, followed by 41 strikes due to working conditions and 36 due to “lack of work”. Strike activity escalated in 1979 even while disappearances and arrests slowed, argues historian Paul Drake, because workers were upset about falling real wages.20 In all the strikes before 1980, workers cited “defense of union organization” only 24 times as the reason for striking and “state or para-state repression” only nine times.21 The government may have believed there was nothing to fear from these unorganized strikes with their typically local and apolitical goals and therefore not felt any strong incentive to shut most of them down. However, these strikes should be recognized as significant acts of resistance against the government even if anti-government protesting was not their stated goal. These small strikes willfully broke the law and attacked the government’s economic plan of lower wages, looser laws regarding working conditions and higher industrial unemployment. The surprising number of strikes occurring during the regime’s most oppressive years indicates that as the government brutally shut down traditional channels of protest, opposition movements not recognized as traditional antigovernment threats were able to gain ground.

20 21

Drake, pp 167 Falcon, pp 101


The small and disorganized nature of early strikes allowed small union leaders to legally reform national unions confederations – a key step to linking workers in later nationwide uprising. In 1977, a group of small union leaders convinced the military government that forming a national committee of union leaders would allow unions to better rein in wildcat strikes.22 The heads of small unions made up the new confederation, dubbing it the Group of 25. In this way, the years of small unions keeping protest alive led directly to a resurrection of national anti-regime activity. The Group of 25 quickly became a relatively confrontationalist organization, since it was the only legal place union leaders could discuss issues with one another outside the government controlled mediums.23 Soon, leaders of several military-controlled unions formed a rival organization, the Comision Nacional de Trabajo (CNT), to steer workers toward negotiating with the government for change rather than heeding the Group of 25’s calls for a more democratic society. The Group of 25 vociferously resisted the regime, rejecting the CNT’s “collaborationist” position that unions could push for workers’ interests within the military framework and instead linked worker gains with the defeat of the military regime.24 The Group of 25’s demand for democracy and staging of a general strike in April 1979 profoundly impacted the redevelopment of a strong national union movement. The Group of 25 realized the need to link disparate worker protests into nationally mobilized groups if it was going to overturn the military regime. To this end, the small union leaders heading the Group of 25 called for a general strike on April 27th, 1979, daring to push for a national work stoppage despite both the
22 23

Munck pp. 80 – 83 Munck pp. 83 24 Munck pp. 90


government and the CNT’s vehement disapproval. Military threats of 10-year imprisonment for striking kept participation in the strike very low compared to preregime years and the strike itself had no significant impact on the Argentine economy. However, not only did the strike demonstrate that unions would keep workers actively protesting regardless of government intimidation, the communication leading up to the strike and the Group of 25’s fashioning itself as a national protest leader helped reconnect labor on a national scale. Significantly, notes historian Gerardo Munck, the strike and the Group of 25’s brazen public rejection of the regime had deep social implications: “Through its open confrontation with the government, the Group of 25 had also helped break with a culture of fear that had led to a paralysis of action in people of all walks of life.”25 Throughout the early years of the Videla regime, small labor unions and rank and file workers carved out a significant space for protest because the government destroyed and co-opted traditional channels of dissent. Their resistance facilitated the resurgence of a national worker protest movement. Labor historian Donald Hodges outlined the role of large labor union resistance to the regime: though initially, national unions were slow to begin protesting the regime and also slow to build momentum, they eventually became the principle resistance the military government.26 Though Hodges avoids much discussion of early labor opposition to the regime, it was small labor unions and independent workers who kept up resistance to the regime and built the momentum and infrastructure which carried through to later large union-organized national protests. After December 1980, when the

25 26

Munck pp. 92 Hodges pp. 204


national economy began to worsen and populist feeling turned strongly against the government for its failure in the Falkland Islands, the Group of 25 illegally spearheaded a resurrection of the CGT. This national union group, revived by small union leaders, again became the nation’s most potent channel of resistance, mobilizing widespread worker strikes in 1981-1983. These strikes included an increasing number of workers and proved increasingly debilitating – the last three were more than 90 percent effective in shutting down Argentine industry.27 The overwhelming popular discontent expressed in these massive marches and strikes eventually led the military to restore democracy. The resistance roles taken up by small labor unions and rank and file workers directly facilitated these later, crippling strikes and their significance in the ousting of the regime should not be underestimated. Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo: Apolitical mothers forming the center of early resistance Like the independent workers and small unions which protested Videla’s regime early on, the mothers who marched weekly in Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo were social actors new to politics who would never have organized a significant resistance movement if traditional protest groups had remained viable. Initially dismissed by the government as inconsequential and the general populace as “las locas,” las Madres were able to mobilize hundreds of relatives of the disappeared and became the most visible and memorable group to resist the regime during its early years. The military did not initially repress las Madres because it did not

Hodges, pp. 205


recognize the group as a legitimate subversive movement or threat, allowing las Madres time to build momentum and solidarity for their weekly protests. Eventually, las Madres’ links with international human rights groups and their relentlessly outspoken attitude provoked both legal change within the government and a larger societal change, opening Argentineans’ eyes to the brutality of the military and the need to vocally demand reform. At first, both Videla’s regime and las Madres themselves didn’t view the mothers as anti-government subversives. Las Madres were women driven to protest due to the lack of established channels of criticism and their initial goals were apolitical, relating only to their tragic personal situations. The group of women protestors initially formed in early 1977, as Argentinean women who vainly searched for information about missing relatives began to recognize one another as they waited together in government offices, morgues and cemeteries.28 At first, several women organized only through word of mouth and arranged to meet and discuss what could be done to find their relatives.29 Appeals to government employees, the Catholic Church and the military went nowhere. The lack of any legitimate channel of protest or inquiry and the obscurity of their relatives’ fates frustrated many women.30 The major democratic institutions of discourse and support had gone out the window, along with the familiar system of using personal acquaintances to gain privilege or information. Elida Busi de Galletti, for example, desperately called upon a friend high up in the army to inquire about her disappeared daughter. His reply days later shut off

Jennifer G. Schirmer. “Those who die for Life cannot be called dead: Women and Human Rights Protest in Latin America” in Surviving Beyond Fear ed. Majorie Agosin (Fredonia, N.Y.: White Pine Press, 1993) pp 35. 29 Marysa Navarro. “The Personal is Political: Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo” in Power and Popular Protest ed. Susan Eckstein (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001) pp. 241-258. 30 Navarro, pp. 248-249.


further discussion: her daughter was alive, but asking any more questions would cause “problems” for her.31 In early April, 1977, a sixty-year-old mother named Azucena DeVicenti told thirteen other women gathered to discuss their situations that the only place to go was straight outside the president’s office, the Plaza de Mayo. Las madres began meeting there for weekly protest marches, carrying photos of their disappeared and demanding information. Essentially, feeling that all traditional channels of protest were closed to them, the women carved out their own new protest space on the streets of Buenos Aires.32 While many of the mothers-turned-marchers disappeared relatives were unionists and guerrillas, las madres’ activists themselves were typically apolitical before they joined at the Plaza de Mayo and thus lacked suspicious connections to traditional opposition groups.33 Neither political ideology nor party allegiance motivated these mostly working-class madres to march on the plaza, instead woman after woman joined the group due to the huge emotional burdens and questions raised by the disappearance of her relatives. As female protest researcher Jennifer Schrimer argues: These protagonists are not the traditional political actors from parties or unions… [but] women who, by their condition as mothers, sisters or daughters of the victims, have been intensely culturally mobilized by repression without precedent in Latin America.34 Las madres’ goals also demonstrate their apolitical nature. The women did not demand the restoration of democracy or the reinstatement of Peronism, but instead pushed for long-term changes relating only to their personal goals: the return of their

Elida Busi de Galletti quoted in Matilde Mellibovsky, Circle of Love over Death: Testimonies of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. (Connecticut: Curbstone Press, 1997) pp. 33 32 Schirmer pp 52 33 Schirmer pp. 32 34 Schirmer, pp 33


missing relatives. “Preaching any ideology was something we did not allow,” remembered mother of two disappeared children, Marta Vazquez, “The only thing that moved us, always, was the search for our children.”35 Since the military did not recognize las madres as an anti-authoritarian political group, the regime initially did not repress them but instead ridiculed them as “las locas de la Plaza de Mayo.”36 It is clear from the stigma and ridicule las Madres faced that neither the government nor mainstream society took their protests seriously at first. Government officials and regular Argentineans alike told the mothers of disappeared that their children were communists and that they themselves were bad mothers.37 Several women who eventually joined the group said they shied away from las Madres because of the stigma.38 Despite their dismissal by society, more and more mothers came to the marches and all donned the white headscarves the marching Madres wore for solidarity and visibility.39 Since both the regime and society dismissed their actions, las madres enjoyed relative safety from persecution at a time when the army would kill workers attempting any sort of mildly subversive behavior. This lack of violent oppression allowed las madres to build a solid, if small, movement. Las madres began in April 1977 with only the 14 mothers who had met in the hallways of government buildings, but by October 1977 the group included around 300 mothers.40

35 36

Marta Vazquez quoted in Mellibovsky pp 101 Navarro, pp 251-252. 37 Susana Muñoz and Lourdes Portillo. Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. (New York, NY: Women Make Movies, Inc. 1985) and various testimonies in Mellibovsky 38 ibid. 39 Navarro, pp 251 40 Schirmer pp 35-36


As las madres became more visible and began criticizing the government on an international level, the military recognized their politically-hazardous potential and began cracking down on the group. With the weekly marches creating a solid cornerstone for an entire madres-led resistance movement, the group began additional protests, such as creating petitions and placing an ad in a major newspaper. When las Madres gathered in la Plaza de Mayo in October 1977 to present a 24,000 signature petition to the president demanding information about the disappeared, federal police launched tear gas grenades and arrested many of the mothers. 41 In December 1977, las Madres gathered money among themselves and from a supportive group of French Catholics to place a full page ad in La Prensa with the names of 800 disappeared. Days before the ad went to press, the military kidnapped ten leading members of las Madres, including principle organizer Azucena Villaflor, and two of the French nuns. As the country began to take the resistance of “las locas” seriously, the military sought to deal with their subversion the same way it had silenced their relatives. By that time, however, las Madres believed their momentum was unstoppable. “There wasn’t just one Azucena,” said one mother after the leader’s arrest, “there were thousands of Azucenas now.”42 Due to the lack of viable domestic channels of dissent, las Madres turned to international human rights groups and foreign leaders for assistance and attention. Through these contacts, las Madres built a strong base of international awareness and support which put pressure on the military and drew unwanted attention to the regime’s brutal methods. Appealing to international groups worked well, in part,

41 42

Schirmer pp 36 Rene Epelbaum in Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo.


because foreigners were freer than Argentina’s publications to issue reports critical of the government. In response to the kidnapping of their core members and the French nuns, for example, las Madres held a press conference which only foreign correspondents and the English-language newspaper The Buenos Aires Herald attended.43 Throughout the early years of the junta, las Madres worked to establish contact with human rights groups, lobby foreign politicians and meet with influential foreign journalists and policy-makers whenever possible. When the Organization of American States (OAS) sent representatives to investigate Argentina’s human rights abuses for three weeks in 1979, las Madres mobilized relatives of the disappeared to testify to the investigators. For weeks, the line to testify wrapped around the OAS building in downtown Buenos Aires, reaching 3,000 people.44 By 1981, a 24-hour “March of Resistance” around the plaza drew several thousand spectators as well as photographers and reporters for international news outlets.45 The international connections and publicity las Madres created significantly impacted foreign powers’ policies toward Videla’s regime and the stance of the regime itself. Due to the surfacing of the mothers’ stories about their disappeared relatives, in 1978 U.S. President Jimmy Carter cut off military aid to Argentina and, a year later, blocked a $270 million Export-Import bank loan.46 In August 1979, the Argentinean military admitted that it (and the former Peronist government) had disappeared some individuals and introduced a law allowing relatives of the disappeared to collect cash compensation. While las Madres saw the law as an
43 44

Navarro, pp 252 Navarro pp 253 45 Mellibovsky pp 126-127 46 Navarro pp. 254 and in Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Patricia Derrien cited las Madres’ stories as crucial evidence used to argue for the sanctions.


indecent offer of money for blood, the legislation proved that the protesters were not “crazy” and had not invented their stories, as the military previously claimed.47 Driven by passionate personal goals and using nontraditional channels of resistance, las Madres successfully created a visible space in society for dissent. In part because Argentina’s traditional protest groups – large unions, guerrillas and leftist organizations – all failed to raise their voices during the early years of the regime, las Madres saw themselves as a group “screaming for help” when all others were silent.48 The public protests of las Madres against the government brought their private and often-dismissed plights into Argentina’s mainstream political discussion until the government could no longer ignore the outcry over the disappeared. The social changes pushed by las Madres’ protests were significant. In addition to countering the government’s campaign of silence, the simple nature of las Madres’ public protest and ceaseless demand for information countered a society of willful ignorance and complicity with military disappearances.49 One of the organizers of the 1981 March of Resistance explained that the march was meant to change Argentina’s social landscape wherein “a tacit agreement of silence oppressed millions.”50 The hundreds of mothers who joined those marching in the plaza de Mayo in 1981 built an anti-silence and anti-obscurity culture of resistance in Argentina.

Underground Publications: Shaping a resistant society

47 48

Navarro pp 254 Munoz and Portillo, Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. 49 Schirmer pp 56. 50 Mellibovsky pp 131.


Las Madres were not the only anti-authoritarian movement speaking up in the streets of Buenos Aires in the late 1970s. Available in select stores and newspaper racks were cheaply-printed underground magazines and periodicals with names like Mutantia, Expreso Imaginario and Antimitomania which consciously sought to create a strong social counterculture in Argentina. The popularity of these publications came from the closure of traditional channels of discourse, such as a free press, which resulted in a lack of accurate news. Political but not outright anti-government, the underground papers provided the only media forum for discussing a mishmash of alternative art, culture and youth movements. During the early years of the regime, Buenos Aires’ underground publications saw themselves as social reformers rather than legal or anti-Videla crusaders: they did not publish analyses or tirades against government legislation or leaders, nor did they mobilize their readers for union protests on given days. However, their work should be seen as significant resistance to the regime, since their coverage of taboo subjects and glorification of nonconformity pushed anti-authoritarian values. Like the protests of las Madres, the underground publications Mutantia, Expreso Imaginario, Antimitomania run by young, politically inexperienced editors, built a more open and antiauthoritarian social landscape in Argentina. Like las Madres, their lack of connections to traditional protest groups helped rather than hindered their influence. Mutantia, the most overtly political of three Buenos Aires underground publications whose archives are easily accessible in the U.S., stridently pushed for a more pacifistic society – a controversial stance under a military regime. The back


cover of one issue featured a white skull and toothbrush on a black background, large letters sneering satirically, “Can nuclear energy give you whiter teeth? Bet your life it can!”51 In that same issue, a four-page long article obviously relevant to Argentina’s own plight decried the “military extremism” of German concentration camps and Russia’s gulags. “There are no statistics about the collective social frustration, social impotence, spiritual misery and moral genocide,” under such conditions, it reads.52 A second 1979 issue of Mutantia laid out the problems repressive societies create for young people and put forth a list of “human obligations” that clearly called for an end to government and societal violence and more democratic spaces for dissent. “In this part of the world, it’s frequently suspected that behind every nonconformist is a Bolshevik,” the article reads, “many members of our generation, during the 70s, fell into the abyss of drug use and terrorism” because society did not allow young people a voice in decisions about the future of the country and community.53 The “human obligations” listed include several clearly relevant to the Argentinean political situation: “ - The obligation to publicly condemn homicide, to plant without fear seeds of a pacifistic future where no one will be shot down and where all can contribute without fear to the triumph of truth. - The obligation to not bow ourselves for any tyrant, any conquistador, any one who puts us and those we love in danger, whoever we may be, whatever we may have.”54 While Mutantia’s pages flowed with discussion of pro-pacifistic prose and arguments for a less conformist society, Expreso Imaginario and Antimitomania were
51 52

Mutantia. 1, 2. trans. Sarah Mirk (1979) ibid. 53 Miguel Grinberg. “Deberes Humanos.” Mutantia. trans. Sarah Mirk. 1, 1 (1979) 54 ibid.


art-oriented publications which linked alternative music and poetry with ending social repression. These publications peppered their pages with the work of famous counterculture writers like Aldous Huxley and Dylan Thomas as well as work by young, unpublished Argentineans. Expreso Imaginario reported on Czechoslovakian rock bands persecuted by the authoritarian government there, glorifying their resistance as heroism.55 Writing in the fourth-anniversary issue Expreso Imaginario, editor Pipo Lernoud gave independent publications credit for making rock into “a territory of free music” in Argentina.56 Current writers describe Lernoud’s publication as one that “defended rock under the dictatorship.”57 In addition to non-conformist art, music and political themes, all three periodicals reported on a variety of taboo subjects meant to expose readers to new perspectives and push the social envelope. Mutantia, for example, issued a graphic report of the lack of women’s gynecological health services in Argentina and carried stories of life on American communes. The theme behind these topics was the creation of a freer social culture in Argentina: expanding new, liberating forms of art, music and literature to create greater societal freedom. While they vociferously covered a variety of alternative issues and saw art itself as political, one striking element of these publications is their lack of antigovernment content. This lack is definitely a result of the very high stakes associated with any subversive activity, but it is also an indication that the editors’ main goals were not specifically anti-Videla nor in favor of any opposition political party. 58 In
55 56

Expreso Imaginario, no. 48 (July, 1980). Pipo Lernoud. Expreso Imaginario. no. 48 (July, 1980). 57 Logo Radar – I have no idea how to cite this. 58 Andrew Graham-Yooll described self-censorship in Argentine newspapers as ubiquitous: “There is no doubt that much of the daily course of the newsroom is dictated by individual fears, owing to the general climate of terror in Argentina in recent times.” The Press in Argentina (London: Writers and


his introduction to the first issue of Mutantia, Grinberg explained that the military police had never bothered him, “But it’s true that I have nothing to say against this government. I have nothing to say in favor of it, either. My only party is poetic, not political.”59 This avowed apolitical content may have saved Grinberg from persecution and lack of ties to leftist political parties probably was part of what helped keep Grinberg’s and others’ counterculture papers running. Newspapers which were connected to banned opposition parties, such as the long-running socialist paper La Vanguardia, quickly folded under the new regime. While Mutantia and the other publications were devoid of directly anti-government content, in Argentina’s repressive, authoritarian society, distributing non-conformist and free-thinking topic was an inherently political act since it could be labeled a “subversive” act. The military clearly viewed some underground publications as subversive threats, since officials occasionally shut down small alternative periodicals and arrested their editors. A run-down of direct military censorship of print media includes the closure of several satirical, social and literary magazines and the abduction of their leaders.60 In one example, police imprisoned the editing staff of Alberdi, a south Buenos Aires paper with content similar to Mutantia, Antimitomania and Expreso Imaginario – the editor even identified as a poet.61 Publication of these alternative topics qualified as resistance to the government not just because they shaped a social scene interested in expanding freedom, but
Scholars Educational Trust 1979). pp. 14 59 Miguel Grinberg. “La Construccion del Futuro.” Mutantia. trans. Sarah Mirk 1,1 (1979) 60 Known examples include the closure of the literary and social-commentary magazine Crisis for “political reasons”, the closure of Cronica for publishing a critical interview and the disappearance of the editor of the small periodical Prensa Libre. Graham-Yooll pg. 118 – 151. 61 Graham-Yooll describes Alberdi as “a tabloid, at times very badly printed, published short essays, poems and short fiction by leading Latin American writers.” The Press in Argentina. pg. 121


because they ran directly contrary to the legal principles and procedures demanded of media under the regime. The junta outlined 16 general rules for media in a proclamation issued March 24, 1976 and they included defense of the family institution, promoting social models to youth based on the values of “order, labor, hierarchy, responsibility, etc, within the context of Christian morals” and a ban on all obscene or shocking words and images as well as a ban on publishing opinions “of those not qualified to give opinions on subjects of public interest” including interviews and street polls.62 Almost all the writing in these underground publications directly violated these codes, since non professional writers (mostly poets and young people) wrote the papers’ frank discussions of music, sex and teenage rebellion. Buenos Aires’ underground periodicals existed because more established and mainstream means of discourse and information-gathering were cut off under Videla’s regime. British journalist Andrew Graham-Yooll, who worked in Argentina for 30 years, wrote that the military could not conceive of the idea of a free press.63 The information officials would provide to news outlets in staged press conferences was unreliable and often inaccurate. Graham-Yooll characterized the dissemination of news throughout Argentina in the regime’s early years as an “erratic” spread of information, thoroughly supplemented by rumors. In this environment, “Constant confusion tends towards fear. In the last few years [before 1979] Argentines were too confused to worry about the veracity of reports.”64 In this context of misinformation and heavily censored media, underground publications formed to talk about what mainstream publications would not. As

“Principles and Procedures to be Followed by Mass Communication Media” in Graham-Yooll pp 118-119. 63 Graham-Yooll, pp. 14 64 Graham-Yooll, pp. 15


Graham-Yooll explained, “Magazines are published to report what the newspapers and radio stations do not.”65 Ubiquitous throughout Mutantia, Expreso Imaginario and Antimitomania is language praising truth and clarity in society and condemning fear, lies and obscurity. Antimitomania’s bold title (“anti-pathological liars”), was a direct response to the feeling that Argentina abounded with misinformation and lying leaders. Expreso Imaginario’s slogan was also unmistakable pro-truth: “Lucidez Implacable” or Relentless Clarity. Since both extensive government and a culture of self censorship tied the hands of domestic journalists, only young and inexperienced writers published non-conformist, pro-“lucidez” literature. In the words of La Nacion, the editors of Mutantia, Expreso Imaginario and Antimitomania “jóvenes inquietos” who had little experience publishing.66 Miguel Grinberg, editor of Mutantia, was one of the most established editors and only 29. While it is difficult to completely gauge the extent to which underground magazines created an anti-authoritarian current in society, the editors of the publications, supportive contemporary publications and present publications believed their social effect of was profound. As the first issue of Mutantia rolled off the presses in 1979, American syndicate Alternative Media noted, “Grinberg must be congratulated for his enormous courage in publishing Mutantia and his uncompromising character for speaking out in the face of the repressive political atmosphere that exists in Argentina.”67 On Pipo Lernoud’s 60th birthday, one Argentine newspaper gushed that Expreso Imaginario “opened minds to talk about

65 66

Graham- Yooll, pp. 15 Daniel Amiando, “La incredible aventura de Expreso Imaginario.” La Nacion (18 August 2006): 4. 67 Antonio Huneeus. “Mutantia – Brash New Mag From Argentina” Alternative Media. 12, 2 (1980): 10.


liberty and the counterculture in the middle of the last dictatorship.”68 Reflecting in an editor’s note in the fourth anniversary issue of Expreso Imaginario, Lernoud wrote, “When we started, we were alone, speaking in a desert where those who wanted to think did not find a channel to express themselves or receive information… [now] the space for free circulation of ideas has grown, basically due to the force of circulating independently-produced publications.”69 A 2006 article in La Nacion agreed, saying, “In the darkest times, Expreso Imaginario opened a new and distinctive communication possibility; publicizing topics which then seemed unrelated… [the publication] replanted a new world, a new way of life, a new way to relate to culture.”70 All of these comments indicate that underground publications created a space for alternative thinking, discussion and criticism even during the years of the military’s harshest repression of non-conformist and subversive behavior. In Buenos Aires’ underground publications, the social effect of closing traditional channels of dissent and discourse are clear. With no free press and all nonconforming discussion potentially labeled as “subversive,” young Argentine writers and artists created a freer-thinking alternative to mainstream repressive society. The military allowed the papers to continue printing due in part to their apoliticism and lack of connections to established protest groups. These inexperienced publishers were able to find an audience precisely because doors of traditional information spread had been closed and people now found it necessary to pick up magazines to discover what topics more rigidly controlled newspapers and radio ignored. And the spread of these young peoples’ new ideas had real social effects. Whether their

Juan Andrade. “El Club de Pipo.” (Pagina 12, 2006) suplementos/radar/9-3412-2006-11-30.html (accessed November 2007) 69 Pipo Lernoud, Expreso Imaginario no. 48 (July, 1980): 1 70 Daniel Amiando, La Nacion


editors acknowledged politics or not, creation of a free thinking and critical populace was an important step to creating a more open political situation. As La Nacion put it, looking back on Expreso Imaginario’s 30 years of publication: “It changed the concepts, it changed the culture, it changed the world.”71

Conclusion While General Videla’s military regime leveled daily fear and repression on politically active and leftist Argentineans, for many Argentineans, the days continued on normally after the 1976 coup. Shops remained open, movies were made, Buenos Aires held the World Cup; life, for those outside the military’s 365 interrogation camps, went on. Resistance movements, whether old or new, thus faced not only government repression but a widespread culture of silence and complacency born of ignorance, fear or genuine contentment with authoritarianism. However, the hundreds of thousands of Argentineans who took over the streets of Buenos Aires during massive protests from 1981 - 1983 did not evolve anti-regime stances overnight, nor did the labor unions which led these protests spring up instantly from their shattered infrastructure and crumbled organizations. The regrouping of national resistance movement and the creation of a populace ready for protest were gradual events created over the first several years of the regime. Small unions, las Madres and underground publications helped mold Argentina’s resistant populace by shaping a more open and active social environment – spaces where Argentineans were encouraged to demand truth and question the culture of conformity the military pushed. The untraditional protestors who led these

Daniel Amiando, La Nacion.


movements found themselves rising to resist authoritarianism and Argentina’s culture of silence because the military destroyed the channels of dissent Argentineans were accustomed to utilizing. As the military brutally shut many doors of opposition, it inadvertently opened several others.

Works Cited Andrade, Juan. “El Club de Pipo.” Pagina 12, (November 2006). suplementos/radar/9-3412-2006-11-30.html (accessed November 2007). Antimitomania. 2, 3 (1979): Underground Press Collection microfilm. Drake, Paul. Labor Movements and Dictatorships. 1989. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press. Expreso Imaginario. Lernoud, Pipo, ed. 4, 48-50 (1980): Underground Press Collection microfilm. Falcon, Ricardo. 1989. “Conflicto Social y Regimen Militar: La Resistencia Obrera en Argentina (Marzo 1976-Marzo 1981)” in Sindicalismo y Regimenes Militares en Argentina y Chile. Bernardo Gallitelli and Andres Thompson, eds. Sarah Mirk, trans. Ámsterdam: CEDLA. Graham-Yooll, Andrew. 1979. The Press in Argentina, 1973-1978. London: Writers and Scholars Educational Trust. Hodges, Donald Clark. 1988. Argentina, 1943-1987: The National Revolution and Resistance. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.


Huneeus, Antonio. “Mutantia – Brash New Mag from Argentina.” Alternative Media 12, 2 (Fall 1980): 10. Mutantia. Grinberg, Miguel, ed. 1 - 2 (1979-1980): Underground Press Collection microfilm. Mellibovsky, Matilde. 1997. Circle of love over death: Testimonies of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press. Munck, Gerardo L. 1998. Authoritarianism and democratization soldiers and workers in Argentina, 1976-1983. University Park, Penn: Pennsylvania State University Press. Muñoz, Susana, and Lourdes Portillo. 1986. Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo the mothers of Plaza de Mayo. San Francisco, CA: Xochitl Films. Navarro, Marysa. 1989. “The Personal is Political: Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo” in Power and Popular Protest: Latin American Social Movements. Eckstein, Susan, and Manuel A. Garretón Merino, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press. Schirmer, Jennifer G. 1993. "Those who die for life cannot be called dead: Women and human rights protest in Latin America" in Surviving beyond fear women, children and human rights in Latin America. Agosín, Marjorie, and Monica Bruno, eds. Fredonia, N.Y.: White Pine Press.


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