Obama Says U.S. Was Slow to Sound Alarm on Argentina's Dirty War

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U.S. President Barack Obama and Argentinian President Mauricio Macri throw white flowers into the River Plate as they pay homage to war victims in Buenos Aires on March 24, 2016.

Photographer: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
  • President visits Buenos Aires park commemorating era's victims
  • First family to visit Bariloche in Andes later Thursday

President Barack Obama said he regrets that the U.S. was too slow to speak out about abuses by Argentina’s military government in the 1970s and 1980s as the two countries work now to rebuild relations after years of distance.

Obama stood side by side with Argentine President Mauricio Macri Thursday to pay tribute to the thousands of victims of what is known as the Dirty War on the 40th anniversary of the coup that precipitated it. Both presidents said there are human rights lessons for today to learn about when to intervene in government and societal wrongdoing.

"There’s been controversy about the policies of the United States early in those dark days," Obama said at the memorial to the victims in Buenos Aires. "The United States when it reflects on what happened here has to examine its past. When we’ve been slow to speak out for human rights, and that was the case here."

He spoke as he visited Parque de la Memoria -- Memory Park -- on the banks of the River Plate, the wide waterway where some of the Dirty War’s victims were dumped from planes to drown. The memorial’s focal point is a long wall bearing the names and ages of 20,000 victims of the era and space for up to 10,000 more who have yet to be identified.

Obama’s visit coincides with the 40th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew Isabel Peron’s government in 1976 and marked the formal beginning of the Dirty War as a military junta ruled the country. Human rights groups led by the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo criticized Obama for making his first visit to Argentina on the anniversary, which is Thursday. Children and infant grandchildren of the groups’ members were killed or disappeared.

Macri on Wednesday thanked Obama for promising to release U.S. military and intelligence records pertaining to the Dirty War as transparency advocates had sought. An earlier U.S. release declassified State Department records related to the period.

“We all need and we are actually entitled to know what the truth is,” Macri said through a translator at a news conference with Obama on Wednesday. “For the Argentinian people that has been a very clear indication that if we engage in dialogue with other countries and do so seriously and respectively, other countries will very quickly respond to our requests.”

Obama addressed the Dirty War during Wednesday’s news conference without offering details of U.S. involvement in the episode. He said present-day U.S. administrations are more willing to stand up against governments that oppress their own people.

It was a different era when the U.S., including then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, lent at least tacit support to the tactics the Argentine military used to kill or "disappear" as many as 30,000 people from about 1976 to 1983.

Obama, with his family plans to travel to San Carlos de Bariloche, a tourist destination in the heart of the Andes, later today to sightsee.

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