In the Núñez neighborhood, one of the richest in the north of Buenos Aires, luxury apartment towers, gym chains and specialty coffees coexist with one of the bloodiest memories of the Argentine military dictatorship. On its busiest avenue, the Military Junta that governed the country between 1976 and 1983 hid its largest clandestine detention center. Behind the bars surrounding the ESMA, the Mechanics School of the Argentine Navy, the dictatorship detained, tortured and murdered thousands of militants, union members, students, artists and religious people. The epicenter of the horror was the old Officers’ Casino, now converted into a museum that UNESCO has just declared World Heritage as “the most prominent symbol of state terrorism.”
The ESMA basement was one of the first places where people kidnapped during the dictatorship arrived. Today it is part of a tour that tells its story.Mariana Eliano
The old ESMA still stands with the same layout that the Argentine Navy designed in 1924, when the Government of the City of Buenos Aires gave it the 17 hectares that comprise it to build its non-commissioned officer school there. Its 34 buildings were completed in the mid-1950s, and the detention center began operating in 1976, the same year of the coup. This operated while the school was still open; Human rights organizations estimate that around 5,000 detainees passed through there and that around 30 women gave birth in captivity. Less than 200 people survived.
Emiliano Hueravilo was born there. His parents, Lautaro Hueravilo, 22, and Mirta Alonso, 23, were kidnapped on May 19, 1977, accused of being members of the Communist Party. She was six months pregnant. Hueravilo – like half a thousand babies, according to organizations such as Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo – was born in a clandestine detention center during the dictatorship. He was one of the first: he was born on August 11, 1977, and four months later he was abandoned by the military in front of a hospital in Buenos Aires. His parents are still missing.
“The recognition by UNESCO is very important because it confirms to the world that there was state terrorism in that place. It is one more step to guarantee that this place survives as physical proof of what happened in our country, as part of the memory of the Argentine people and, now, of the world,” says Hueravilo. “Argentina has always mobilized for his memory, mothers and grandmothers, children and grandchildren have done so. In this generational change, it is necessary to point out to those who come that the clandestine centers existed and were next to our homes. Here, in the city of La Plata, in Córdoba, Tucumán… the entire country was a clandestine detention center,” he says.
For Hueravilo, the recognition of the old Officials Casino as world heritage has more practical than sentimental value. The old ESMA property is still evidence in the mega judicial case that investigates crimes committed only in that detention center, among which there are almost 300 judicial cases that are still open. The building has not been modified after its recovery for this reason.
The Haroldo Conti Cultural Center, which organizes artistic exhibitions and film series in one of the buildings on the former ESMA property.Mariana Eliano
It was an uphill job. The Navy School continued to function for almost 20 years as an educational center after the end of the dictatorship while Argentine society debated what to do with that space. In 1998, then-president Carlos Menem even proposed its demolition. Menem wanted to move the school to a naval base in the south of Buenos Aires and build a park in its place as a symbol of national unity, but the initiative was stopped by human rights organizations. His presidency was about to end, and with it the tolerance for pardons and statutes of limitations that had benefited the military since the late 1980s. In 2004, President Néstor Kirchner signed the eviction of the Navy, and in the following years the property opened to the public.
The recovery of space, promoted since the return to democracy by human rights organizations, gained momentum when Kirchnerism began. While the old ESMA was being rehabilitated as a museum after the eviction of the Navy, human rights organizations such as Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo or the organization of recovered children settled on the property. The consonance between organizations and the Governments of Néstor (2003-2007) and Cristina Kirchner (2007-2015) was such that, when Mauricio Macri won the elections in 2015, his Government spoke of “deskirchnerizing” the property.
The ESMA changed along with the neighborhood in which it is located. While in Núñez houses began to be demolished to build buildings with views of the Río de La Plata, the old Navy Mechanics School became a space of memory that is narrated in the voice of witnesses of the crimes that occurred among its members. walls. In addition, it became a living space, which programs educational and cultural activities. A cultural center operates on the property that manages one of the best microcinemas in the city; there is a bar run by a cooperative; Art exhibitions; sports; and the headquarters of the Secretariat of Human Rights and organizations such as Abuelas y Madres de Plaza de Mayo operate. On some sunny days, among its tree-lined streets, groups of young people can be heard rehearsing carnival music.
An artistic intervention on the walls of a building on the grounds of the former Mechanics School of the Argentine Navy.Mariana Eliano
“Memory is a field of dispute, the significance of the past is always under review,” says Florencia Larralde Armas, doctor in Social Sciences and author of a book on the process of resignification of the ESMA. For Larralde Armas, a Conicet researcher, the multiplicity of actors who participated in the achievement of the memory space was “positive.” “Everything that happens there is highly discussed,” says the academic and rejects that the perspectives within the space are homogeneous. On the contrary, she assures: “Within the property there are also disputes over meaning, as in society.”
The Site of Memory Museum, inaugurated in 2015, is located at one end of the property. There were the officers’ quarters and dining room. The detainees were entered into the building and taken to the basement, where they were tortured. Many of the survivors remember the low beam on which they bumped their foreheads on the way down. Some were then taken to the third floor, blindfolded and shackled on their feet, and kept in small spaces.
Thousands of people who disappeared during the Argentine dictatorship were detained in the attic of the former ESMA Officers’ Casino, which today tells its story through the testimonies of the survivors.Mariana Eliano
Today, the wooden walkways on which visitors gather mark the distance from the historic space. There are no objects, only the testimonies of the survivors projected on the walls. “There was an unbearable smell, the smell of accumulated sweat, the smell of terror,” described detainee Alberto Girondo in a 2010 hearing. “I can’t forget the rats walking over everyone’s bodies,” Lidia Cristina Vieyra said the same year. . Names, telephone numbers, initials, dates and drawings written by the detainees are also preserved on the walls.
The current managers of the space propose that the museum be a place of thought and discussion. But archaeologist Antonela Di Vruno, director of Institutional Relations of the Museo Sitio de Memoria ESMA, draws a line in the face of denialist discourses that suggest that the Museo Sitio is a “space of forgetfulness” or those who question the proximity of the space to Kirchnerism: “This is not our story: it is the story of the national State through the voice of the survivors, whose testimonies were verified by justice,” he defends. “There are sentences, there are people who are prosecuted and serving a sentence for this.”
The efforts to present the candidacy to UNESCO began in 2015 and in January of last year the Government presented the nomination file. The objective was for the building that housed the largest torture center of the last Argentine dictatorship to be recognized as a space that contributes to the international visibility of State terrorism. Argentina proposed as background spaces such as the Auschwitz extermination camp, in Poland, or the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
The announcement came last Tuesday. “It is the most prominent symbol of state terrorism,” determined the conclusion of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which considered that the space has “exceptional universal value” and is representative of the illegal repression carried out by the dictatorships of Latin America in the decades of the seventies and eighties on the basis of the forced disappearance of people.
The Argentine delegation that had traveled to Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, was moved to tears. In a recorded video, President Alberto Fernández, who was in New York on an official trip, expressed his gratitude: “I cannot tell you how calm it gives me that the Navy Mechanics School is a site of memory declared by Unesco for “That no one in Argentina can deny or forget the horror that was experienced there.”
The entrance to the space of memory rising in the old Casino of Officers of the Argentine Navy, in the north of Buenos Aires.
The space received more than 44,440 visits last year and this August, the last month with registration, it had about 230 visitors per day. Those in charge of the space expect many more people from now on. The challenge is not only that increase in influx. “A large majority of the public was born in democracy. It is a challenge to be able to generate that empathy with the place,” says Di Vruno. Part of that path has already been done. Most of the visits that the memory space receives are from high school students. “Hundreds of young people pass through here,” says Di Vruno, “and from a few years ago they are encouraged to intervene more during the visits, even asking uncomfortable questions, which did not happen before.”
The old Navy Officers’ Casino is, as of this week, the universal symbol of the horror of Latin American dictatorships. Its recovery as a memory space will turn 20 years old on March 24, and Argentina awaits the anniversary amid the uncertainty of elections marked by the radical right and the resurgence of denialist voices. The country has already demonstrated its commitment to historical memory, and the declaration is one more step: starting this week, UNESCO makes the Argentine State responsible for the preservation of the place.
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