60. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Argentina1

192822. Subject: Derian Visit With Admiral Massera For Chargé Chaplin

Begin summary

1. At his request, U.S. Coordinator for Human Rights Patt Derian met with Junta member Massera on morning of August 10. The Admiral stressed that Argentina was in the process of returning to normal legal procedures and that much progress had been made since Ms. Derian’s [Page 214] last visit.2 Mrs. Derian expressed her hope that normalization could be accomplished soon and in such a way that all levels of the security apparatus would understand it. End summary.

2. The Admiral started the conversation by stressing that progress was being made in controlling the situation. While noting that false information circulates, and some incidents continue to occur (“some groups still escape us”) he stressed that the end was in sight. Mrs. Derian expressed her hope that this was the case and noted two things of particular concern to the USG: (1) the large number of disappeared and (2) the conditions of being held incomunicado where people are treated too harshly. She said she hoped new procedures will be introduced.

3. Admiral Massera said he did not know what numbers President Videla or Admiral Allara had provided regarding the number of people charged or taken illegally but he said the last few months showed rapid progress. He explained that the Argentine Army was somewhat different from others in that its organization contained core commanders who had some independence in administering internal security but said that this did not mean that President Videla was not in control. He advised that there could be a difference between the impression received of the current situation and the actual reality.

4. Mrs. Derian expressed her concern over the number of people who don’t know if members of their family are dead or alive. She mentioned that labor leaders and others have been in jail since 1975. She said that the system seems to have ground to a halt, e.g., people were picked up and never charged, some were held with no evidence against them, some were tried and found innocent but still detained. She explained that after a period of time the government, having won the fight against terrorism, should show its strength by saying to the people that it has won but it needs help in this mop-up phase. She said the terrorists achieve their main objective of destroying the legal institutions of the state if the government doesn’t admit it has won the war and must now return to the judicial system by bringing those detained to trial. She cited the case of Jacobo Timmerman as an example, adding he has been mistreated while under detention.3 Admiral Massera said he didn’t believe Timmerman had been mistreated although he may have said he has been.

5. Returning to the general situation, Mrs. Derian said that many people in the Argentine Government had told USG representatives [Page 215] that the navy is responsible for abuses which occur when people are taken into custody and interrogated before they enter the system. Admiral Massera responded that, while he doesn’t wish to give the appearance of “washing his hands of the matter,” internal security is not the navy’s responsibility, that the navy has not territorial jurisdiction4 and when it does do something in this area it does so with the knowledge of the army. He said that those who say otherwise are trying to deceive. Mrs. Derian said that on her prior visit she had been told that one of the worst interrogation centers was the Navy Mechanical School in Buenos Aires. The Admiral denied this, saying that the navy’s entire anti-subversive role was carried out by no more than thirty people.

6. Mrs. Derian said that when she was in Argentina before there was a general attitude that the war against terrorism was coming to an end but was not really over. This time she got the distinct impression that everyone concludes the war is now over and the government has now reached the equally difficult phase of getting back to normal democratic procedures. She advised that the people become impatient if this phase takes too long to carry out. She mentioned that she had discussed this problem with the Minister of Economy and that he gave her the impression that he, too, was worried about time. She referred to the legislation passed in the U.S. Congress which sets a one year time limit on continuing certain relationships which we have with Argentina.5 She said that international opinion was becoming more and more critical of the Human Rights situation in Argentina and said it would be devastating if Argentina became the next Chile in the eyes of the international community. Mrs. Derian explained that she thinks there are people of great integrity in the government who hold the same values that both our constitutions inscribe for our citizens and that she feels very unhappy that there is such a difference between theory and practice.

7. The Admiral responded that, while he couldn’t talk of a time period, that he had no crystal ball with which to predict, Argentina [Page 216] was on the road to normalization. He admitted that in the rough battle against terrorism some things got out of hand, but that there has been real improvement since March. He referred to one of his officers especially designated to receive people looking for their relatives and said his case load has dropped markedly.

8. Mrs. Derian referred to the recent case of the lawyers and their wives who had been kidnapped and the case of the Argentine Ambassador to Venezuela.6 Admiral Massera said the Ambassador’s case was clearly political, that he knew some people blamed the navy for it, but that something else was involved, perhaps, a leftist group trying to make trouble for the government. He said he doesn’t believe that one of the government’s forces out of control is responsible, as this would go against the government and doesn’t make sense.

9. Mrs. Derian said that because of the disorder so many can operate thinking they have the approval of either the government or the people, that the left wing has been licked but a monster created. Admiral Massera said he didn’t see it that way. He said the right wing is very small in Argentina and the government has taken steps, like the closing of the magazine Cabildo. He said the right exists only as a political force. Mrs. Derian mentioned that the incident against the lawyers couldn’t have occurred without some official support. Admiral Massera asked what President Videla had told her about this incident and, when she responded that they hadn’t discussed it,7 he said that incidents such as it could be counted on the fingers of your hand.

10. Mrs. Derian asked what the chances were for either a complete or partial reinstatement of the right of option.8 Admiral Massera explained that this constitutional right had been suspended for six months, that this time was nearly up, and that the thought was to reinstate it. He explained that in the beginning many people were under executive judgment and it was difficult to clarify cases. He expressed a desire to get cases moving and brought to trial so that [Page 217] there could be releases and a restoration of the right of option. He asked Mrs. Derian to maintain an equilibrium realizing that while these cases were important, they were old and few and the junta was on the road to normalization.

11. Mrs. Derian said she had the sense but was worried about uncertainty among lower grade officials and wondered whether when the changes come they would be direct and clear so that people won’t feel themselves in jeopardy and the process of locating the disappeared will be enhanced rather than hurt. Admiral Massera said the government could, at least, publish a list in the newspapers of all the people it has stating it doesn’t know what has happened to others. He said the list wouldn’t be long, that some lists are being published and that while many have been brought to trial he realizes there are some in a grey zone and that this hurts the government.

12. Mrs. Derian ended by referring to the habeas corpus petitions submitted to the executive by the Supreme Court saying it was much on people’s minds and that she would be glad when all this was over. She said that the reinstatement of legal procedures would certainly help relations between our two countries and stressed that we were anxious to return to normal good relations.

13. Action requested: Please add comments and suggest distribution.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770294–0106. Confidential; Immediate; Stadis; Limdis. Drafted by Bova, approved by Derian. In telegram 6644 from Buenos Aires, September 7, the Embassy forwarded the corrected text of this cable for information to Asunción, Brasília, La Paz, Montevideo, and Santiago. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770345–0462)
  2. See footnote 6, Document 54.
  3. Jacobo Timerman, the publisher of the Buenos Aires daily newspaper La Opinion, was arrested in April 1977.
  4. In telegram 6221 from Buenos Aires, August 23, Chaplin suggested “that ‘navy has no territorial jurisdiction’ be changed to ‘virtually no’ or ‘no Buenos Aires jurisdiction’ (as I recall Massera skated very close to being misleading on this point but did not flatly state they had no jurisdiction. This would be obviously false, since the navy controls considerable area in the south of the country.)” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770304–0650) In telegram 6644 from Buenos Aires, September 7, the relevant text was changed to “the navy has virtually no Buenos Aires jurisdiction.” See footnote 1.
  5. Reference presumably is to the Kennedy-Humphrey Amendment to the International Security Assistance Act (H.R. 6884), which prohibited U.S. military aid, training, and weapons sales to Argentina after September 30, 1978. Congress cleared H.R. 6884 for the White House on July 22, 1977, and Carter signed it into law on August 4 (P.L. 95–92). (Congress and the Nation, vol. V, 1977–1980, p. 39–42)
  6. In telegram 5217 from Buenos Aires, July 15, the Embassy reported that “eleven persons—eight lawyers and three of their wives—have been abducted by heavily armed, unidentified persons in Mar del Plata in the past week.” Three were later released and one had been found dead as of July 15. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770253–0668) On Hidalgo Sola, see footnote 6, Document 59.
  7. In telegram 5889 from Buenos Aires, August 11, the Embassy reported Derian’s August 9 meeting with Videla. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770290–0318) In telegram 193418 to Buenos Aires, August 15, the Embassy reported Derian’s August 10 meeting with Harguindeguy. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770309–0751) In telegram 5943 from Buenos Aires, August 12, the Embassy reported Derian’s meeting with Martínez de Hoz. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770291–0575)
  8. The “right of option” was the constitutional right of a prisoner held under the state of siege laws to leave the country. The junta had suspended this right in March 1976.