80. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Human Rights and United States Relations with Argentina


  • Lieutenant General Rafael Videla, President of Argentina
  • Col. Malea Gil, Presidency
  • David D. Newsom, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
  • Ambassador Raúl Castro
  • Fernando Rondon, ARA/ECA

The Under Secretary met with President Videla for approximately 90 minutes.

Mr. Newsom opened the conversation, outlining the purpose of his mission, on behalf of the Secretary of State, to seek an improvement in bilateral relations. The Under Secretary said that he recognized the problems Argentina confronted and the extraordinary steps that had to be taken to face the situation. He acknowledged important Argentine steps to restore normalcy, including Christmas releases, action on the Deutsch and Timerman cases, and Red Cross visits.2 The Under Secretary further acknowledged President Videla’s interest in good relations as manifested by the ratification of Tlatelolco, a new civil air agreement and the resolution of all but one investment dispute.3

President Videla welcomed the dialogue he said he began with President Carter and Secretary Vance.4 He commented that dialogue is worthwhile even if disagreeable things are said.

[Page 269]

Mr. Newsom noted that he had read the reports of conversations between Videla and President Carter, Secretary Vance, and Assistant Secretaries Todman and Derian. Newsom remarked that Ambassador Castro has also conveyed the views of the United States, so that President Videla has participated in more than his share of dialogues.

Mr. Newsom then outlined the political situation existent in the United States after the sixties, stemming from Vietnam and controversies over relations with other governments. He stated that there is a strong feeling in the U.S. Congress, represented, for example, by Senator Kennedy and Congressman Fraser, that while we should not interfere in other states, we should not appear to be endorsing the policies of other governments through our assistance programs, when it appears the human rights situations in these countries are not consistent with normal international standards. This predates President Carter’s election. When he ran, human rights was part of his platform and, at the time, Patricia Derian was one of his national campaign managers.

The Under Secretary cited the Eximbank situation as an example of a case where the Executive does not have a free hand. The Bank currently has authorizing legislation before the Congress, part of which deals with lending to human rights problem countries. Eximbank therefore does not wish to take steps which could complicate its dealings with Congress. This is not an embargo as some have pictured.

President Carter, Secretary Vance, and Secretary Brown all recognize the importance of relations with Argentina, Mr. Newsom observed. In confidence, he said he is in Argentina because Secretary Brown raised with Secretary Vance the implications for the U.S. of a possible termination of military relations with Argentina. It was his task to determine, Newsom continued, whether present and future prospects for normalization are such that we can go before Congress and defend the resumption of military relationships on the basis that the Executive is confident of a favorable trend for human rights in Argentina. We recognize there are those who do not want good relations between our two countries. Actions may take place outside the control of Argentina which, nevertheless, affect the climate for relations. We had hoped that the Christmas amnesty would have helped us to demonstrate to Congress that resumption of normal relations is justified. Then we had the disappearance of mothers and nuns and we could not demonstrate a positive trend.

Mr. Newsom said that all you can tell me regarding future hopes for normalization, including control over disappearances, plans for the release of prisoners, right of option plans, will help me to present a positive picture when I report to Washington.

President Videla responded that Argentina confronted two types of subversive action: one armed and the other ideological. Both sought [Page 270] to destroy the Argentine way of life and seriously undermined the governing institutions. The armed forces had to step in to save the country.

Having engaged in combat, borne the brunt of subversive action, and proven to be the only unified institutions, the armed services could not now risk internal disunity (within the military) and destabilization in order to prove Argentina is “western”. Argentina had had no choice but to adopt certain measures. These were matters of Argentine internal affairs.

Videla stated that Argentina will have full democracy when its house is in order, economically, socially, politically, and in the field of internal security.

He would not be sincere if he were to give dates and numbers in order to save Mr. Newsom’s visit.

President Videla stated there are no “loose groups” operating any longer. He added that the “right of option” would be applied with increasing generosity.

As an example of those we are interested in, Videla referred to a recent German request for information on eight of their citizens, six of whom have been charged and are being tried, one who has disappeared, and one who is a two-time murderer who was released in the 1973 amnesty and jailed again by the military government. This latter individual cannot be brought to trial legally by the military government because of the amnesty, yet he is unquestionably dangerous to society.

Mr. Newsom thanked Videla for his comments but noted the American tendency to ask for statistics and figures. Because we do get information from sometimes inaccurate sources, Mr. Newsom asked for statistics on detainees and a guess on the number of releases that might occur over time. Newsom suggested this information might be given to him later in the day.

Mr. Newsom referred to four categories of detainees, according to the Minister of Interior:

—those arrested under military law and tried by military courts;

—those being held for terrorist acts against whom there is insufficient evidence for a conviction;

—those who are being tried under civilian law and courts; and

—those who will be permitted to exercise the “right of option”.

The President observed that 2,000 of 3,200 prisoners were arrested before March 24, 1976. All these cases are under review. He could not say how many of the cases would be subject to military courts and how many to civilian courts. The review would determine who should be held because they are dangerous and who can be released or given option.

[Page 271]

In answer to the Under Secretary’s question, Videla responded that those being examined by the review commission do not have access to counsel or the right to appear personally before the commission. Videla said the commission is not a court.

Mr. Newsom asked if President Videla might give us an idea of how many prisoners might be released by August 1 or September 15. Videla replied that commitments of this kind would be difficult.

Mr. Newsom continued, asking whether the release of 500 prisoners might be possible in 1978. President Videla stated that there would be an important number of releases and options by Christmas.

President Videla acknowledged that a U.S. parole program would help to implement Argentina’s right of option program.

As Mr. Newsom moved to sum up his impressions, President Videla said that he wanted to place a positive weight on the Under Secretary’s scale. Argentina would facilitate a visit by the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, and this decision will be communicated to the IAHRC in June when Foreign Minister Montes travels to the UNGA. Until then, Videla asked that this decision be held confidentially.5

Mr. Newsom then outlined positive signs, notably Minister Harguindeguy’s decision to enforce humanitarian treatment of detainees by the police and security forces and Argentina’s willingness to accelerate the “right of option” if we receive more prisoners. Newsom said he would have difficulty, however, with the question of indefinite detentions.

After discussing the desirability of calls on the Supreme Court and other Junta members, Mr. Newsom said he would paint an honest picture of his conversations. Whatever decision is reached by the United States Executive, it would not reflect a lack of interest in Argentina. A decision would be made in light of the total political circumstances in the Executive and Congress. He noted that if progress continues, we will seek to reverse the Kennedy/Humphrey Amendment6 but that will take time and probably cannot be faced until next year.

One way or another, Mr. Newsom promised that Ambassador Castro would convey the results of this trip.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 84, Lot 81F93, Embassy Buenos Aires Post Files, 1978, Box 48, POL 7—Newsom Visit. Confidential; Nodis. Drafted by Rondon on May 25. There is no indication as to when or where the meeting took place. At the top right-hand corner of the first page of the memorandum, an unknown hand wrote: “Key point is last paragraph of p. 4. See also—don’t know where—’scope paper’ for this visit.”
  2. In a meeting with Christopher, May 19, Aja Espil said that the GOA had “taken steps to meet United States expectations. A Christmas amnesty was granted to 389 prisoners, lists of executive detainees have been published, four of the Deutsch family members have been released (even though David Deutsch who escaped Argentina was a terrorist). Timerman was transferred to house arrest and a decision to ratify the Treaty of Tlatelolco has been publicly announced.” (Telegram 133806 to Buenos Aires, May 25; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780221–0927) Red Cross visits to Argentina resumed in January 1977. (Telegram 130078 to Bogotá, May 22; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780216–0068)
  3. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XXVI, Arms Control and Nonproliferation, Document 437.
  4. See Document 63.
  5. An unknown hand highlighted this paragraph, referenced in marginalia on the first page of the memorandum. See footnote 1 above.
  6. See footnote 5, Document 60.