Convinced that understanding the guerrilla groups that operated in Argentina in the years 1969-79 is central to understanding Argentine politics of the past 20 years, María José Moyano has produced what is clearly the most comprehensive and sophisticated analysis of the political violence that engulfed the country during that earlier decade.
The book’s title, which is taken from a statement made by the writer and guerrilla leader Rodolfo Walsh, suggests a certain sympathy with the guerrillas’ initial objectives and directs attention to the question that led the author to undertake the study in the first place. Argentine guerrillas contributed, through their violent actions, to the military government’s decision to summon the 1973 elections and to Juan Perón’s restoration to power after 18 years in exile; they were granted amnesty and given job opportunities. Why then, did they resume and intensify their armed activities against the elected government? Those activities, accompanied by the increasing militarization of their movement, alienated much of the popular support the guerrillas had enjoyed before 1973 and provoked illegal repression, first in the form of death squads under the Peronist government and subsequently in the “Dirty War” carried out by the successor military regime, whose extralegal actions the guerrilla activities did much to legitimate.
The volume consists basically of three sections. The first provides an overview of Argentine politics after 1955 and focuses on the development of the guerrilla movement from its origins in the 1960s to 1976. The historical overview, while generally accurate, suffers from a number of factual errors. The term Onganiato did not apply to the entire 1966-73 military regime (p. 11); the burning of the churches took place in 1955, not 1954 (p. 13); the pro-Peronist rebellion of 1956 took place in Buenos Aires and La Pampa provinces, not in Corrientes (p. 14). Unlike Presidents Frondizi and Illia, Guido was not forced out; nor did military presidents serve for specific terms, as implied (pp. 15-16). The issue of Héctor Cámpora’s eligibility to run for office related to his absence from the country after August 25, 1972, not on that day, when, contrary to the assertion, he was present (p. 31). General Julio Alsogaray was I Corps commander, not army chief of staff, when the 1966 coup was organized (p. 134). The Federal Penal Chamber was created in May 1971 during the Lanusse presidency, not under Onganía (p. 164). Apart from factual errors, the author’s dogmatic observation about Alejandro Lanusse’s responsibility for the Trelew massacre is open to question, as is her interpretation of his motives in calling for a political understanding to precede the 1973 elections. It was not simply blind ambition that led to this effort.
The second section of the book is devoted to analyzing patterns of violence. Utilizing data from a variety of primary sources, including interviews, the author establishes the scope and intensity of all types of political violence in Argentina, whether committed by clandestine groups, paramilitary squads, or collective protest. Through a series of tables, she shows how the character of political violence changed over the course of the decade and how guerrilla activities evolved from attacks on property to operations that inflicted an increasing number of deaths.
The final chapter in this section examines the wider context. Here the author makes some of her most penetrating observations about the “Dirty War” and the responsibility of Argentine civil society itself for what took place. She points out that the guerrilla movement, contrary to some interpretations, was still carrying on military operations in 1976 and, by the time of the March coup, had suffered a political but not a military defeat. Its leaders had defined their operations as a war, and thereby created some justification for the military to see itself as engaged in a war. The military’s war, however, was directed not against the guerrillas but against society at large, against the sectors that had become politicized between 1973 and 1976. The military, she argues, could have infiltrated the guerrilla movement and could have won over the general populace through an active propaganda campaign, thereby making the “Dirty War” unnecessary. But neither the guerrillas nor the military operated in a vacuum. It was “a radicalized civil society,” she observes, “which first glorified violence as an agent of social change and then justified a ruthless repression as the only means of returning to the status quo ante” (p. 96).
The last section of the book attempts to explain the behavior of the individuals who chose to participate in the guerrilla movements. It provides data on the sex, age, place of origin, and occupation of the combatants, insofar as they could be ascertained. Through interviews with former members, Moyano discusses the personal and environmental factors that motivated people to join a clandestine movement, the development of a group ideology, and the impact of membership on their personal lives, both before 1973 and since, even down to the time of the research. In the final chapters, the author returns to the issue of the militarization of the guerrilla movement, a process she attributes more to intrinsic factors than external ones. She also reviews why, after 1976, rank-and-file members continued to accept orders, at risk to their lives, from leaders who enjoyed the safety of exile.
Moyano has produced an important work that helps to explain a tragic period of Argentine history. It deserves to be read not only by students of contemporary Argentina but by anyone concerned with the phenomenon of political violence in Latin America or elsewhere.