General Jorge Rafael Videla waves from the Casa Rosada in 1979.

Source: AFP/Getty Images

Castro Helped the Devil in Argentina

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Pick a Latin American dictatorship, scroll the official transcripts and you'll get an eyeful about the good fight against godless communists. Argentina's military government from 1976 to 1983 was the benchmark, waging a dirty war against "flagless and atheist Marxists," as General Jorge Rafael Videla (1976 to 1981) put it. That's the sort of blunderbuss that fed the Latin American Cold War and persuaded Western leaders such as Ronald Reagan to back brutes like Videla.

Now, thanks to the latest trove of official documents made public last week in a huge data bank by the Argentine foreign ministry, we know Reagan had company: Fidel Castro. For the record, Cuba and Argentina were sworn enemies at the time. The Argentine junta made a point of hunting down, torturing and "disappearing" 10,000 to 30,000 dissidents, many of whom took their cues from Havana. Castro, meanwhile, was building his brand by exporting socialism, thanks largely to the efforts of Argentine-born physician-cum-guerrilla Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

Off mic, it turns out the two tyrannies were working epaulet to epaulet, bound in a nonaggression pact to advance mutual interests, cause and comrades be damned. Suspicions of such collusion had long been vented by Cuba critics, such as Martin Guevara, Che's nephew, and commented upon by historians.

A search engine -- created recently as part of Argentine President Cristina Kirchner's campaign to strengthen democracy by lifting the veil on human-rights crimes committed under the military -- confirms those suspicions.  (Kirchner, a devoted Peronist, has been less eager to bare the secrets of other friendly authoritarian regimes, starting with that of the iconic Isabelita Peron) Argentines may now scour some 5,800 sealed documents from the dictators' crypt. The digging has just begun, but already media and civic groups have found a rare window on  Latin America's blackest years, when guerrilla insurgency and bloody repression coexisted with a complex skein of cloaked commercial and strategic interests.

Although they kept it quiet, Argentina's dictators had a gentlemen's agreement with Castro. Under the pact, Videla supported Cuba's bid in 1977 to join the Executive Council of the World Health Organization, a diplomatic feather in Castro's beret. The quid pro quo was that Havana stump among nonaligned nations to name Argentina to the United Nations prestigious Economic and Social Council. Apparently Cuba's vote was the 18th and decisive ballot, landing Argentina the coveted UN seat.

Both sides profited from the arrangement. "The Cubans always, always supported us and we supported them," Gabriel Martinez, then Argentina's ambassador to Geneva, said, though no one appeared to be listening at the time.

The secret cables help explain the prolonged bonhomie between the two otherwise inimical regimes, highlighted by the cordial encounter between Castro and Argentine General Reynaldo Bignone, during a summit of nonaligned nations, in New Delhi, in 1983.

It also shines a light on why Castro could carry on for hours in the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana railing against right-wing tyrants but never raise his voice against the Argentine junta, even as it threw scores of discontents in the dungeon or into the Atlantic.

Guns and butter trumped ideology through the early 1980s, when Argentina sought international support for its claims to the British-controlled Falkland Islands, known to Latin Americans as the Malvinas.

Cuba effusively supported Argentina's disastrous South Atlantic war against Great Britain, which lasted 74 days and hastened the end of the crumbling dictatorship. It may even have funneled Soviet guns to the junta. Moscow had its eyes on wheat and imported 20 million tons of Argentine grains between 1980 and 1985, flouting the U.S. grain embargo against the Soviet Union.

And so the Cold War took a strange turn in the Antilles, where a cynical left-wing dictator, blessed by the Kremlin, befriended a right-wing junta, and looked the other way when the generalissimos disposed of the bodies. Now history has brought them both out into the light, with Latin America the better for it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net