The Cold War in Latin America was anything but a tension-charged standoff. Many countries fell under bloody and terrorizing dictatorships that waged “dirty wars” against their own people and established the Latin American Cold War as a battle of both politics and nationalistic identity. The formation of inter-American alliance strategies and subversive operation programs pitted leftist political ideologies against capitalist sympathies throughout Central and South America. In true Cold War fashion, political fervor and polarization predicated an atmosphere in which the divided camps urgently pursued internal solidarity, sometimes by means of drastic dissident elimination efforts. Among these conditions the fight for the future of Latin America became as much of an internal struggle as it was a global interest.
Argentina and Chile: The Cold War from an Inter-American Perspective
In the cases of Argentina and Chile, politicized military forces were able to exert influence in legislative and administrative affairs. Rather than the socially derivative nature expected from a constitutional military, the armed forces in Argentina and Chile during the 1970s made up their own social factions, and were thus able to utilize domestic violence and seize power. In 1973, amid social unrest and economic inflation, a military coup d’etat led by Chief of the Chilean Army Augusto Pinochet, bombed the presidential palace in Santiago, causing the death of sitting president Salvador Allende as well as routing primary members of his staff. Allende, who in 1970 had become the first democratically elected Marxist in Latin America, had begun to implement his plan for “The Chilean Path to Socialism”. Allende had also enjoyed a friendly relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and had likewise become an enemy to the CIA’s Cold War agenda and the security of Richard Nixon’s influence in the west. Shortly after the coup, the Chilean constitution, legislative bodies, and civil protections were suspended.
Three years later under similar conditions, an Argentine military junta led by General Commander of the Army Jorge Rafael Videla detained then president of Argentina Isabel Peron. Videla immediately declared martial law and was quick to subordinate Argentine police forces to his military, marking the dawn of what would come to be known as the “Dirty War” against subversion, and effectively cementing his control and capacity for enforcement. The reigns of Pinochet and Videla would become infamous for “annihilation” policies towards dissent, information control, and violent abuses of human rights.
Under the annihilation policies adopted by the succeeding juntas, leftist political enemies of the military, which included state officials of the deposed authority, students, and especially guerilla activists were kidnapped (according to the perspective of the martyred constitutions), tortured, and often killed. By 1975, six countries making up the “Southern Cone” of South America had launched a clandestine network of alliances, information swaps, and prisoner exchanges designed to strengthen anti-left initiatives in South America and assist in the oppression of any dissent to the current seats of power. Operation Condor, as it was called, is now attributed with 50,000 to 60,000 deaths, and upwards of 400,000 illegal imprisonments. Confounding these numbers are the countless people “disappeared” by militant forces during the tenure of the dictatorships. The desaparecidos would cease to be accounted for – arrests, imprisonments, and deaths remain undocumented. Taken wordlessly by nameless uniforms, off the street or from their homes, they were torn from the record of history.
Patagonia’s Historical Imagining and Relation to the State
Far removed from the upheaval experienced in Santiago and Buenos Aires, Patagonia has long been excluded from the popular history of the dictatorships. However, the expanses of Patagonia presented both a threat and a resource to the dictators and were in fact involved in, and victimized by, the greater initiatives of the Argentine and Chilean juntas. Indeed, both Videla and Pinochet recognized the role of Patagonia in their regimes – long understood as a void of humanity, an antithesis to civilization, Patagonia was seen as a challenge to the authority of the state. Here was a place resistance could hide, but here also could be a great receptacle for the operations and evidence of atrocity. Vast and sparsely populated, seemingly isolated in time itself, Patagonia embodied the character of disappearance.
“The site of a violent, meaningless world, deserted by God, which, oblivious to human needs and desires, turns all cultural undertakings into nothing” – Gabriela Nouzeilles
In the popular historiography of the Southern Cone, the reaches of Patagonia have eluded the northern-centric seats of power. Known as gale-swept, isolated, and harsh, Patagonia has been characterized as a geographic void in time. Beginning with Charles Darwin’s first account of native Tierra del Fuegians, who became popular candidates among the budding anthropologic community as functional models of archaic man, the characterization of Patagonia in many ways became an impenetrable adversary to the civilization that would sprout beyond its borders. Seemingly beyond the reach of the state, the coastal south of the continent remained a frontier. In the mid 1800s, the Chile sought to legitimize its stake in Patagonia. Two previous attempts to establish colonies among the southern archipelago had resulted in failure. Succumbing to the elements and oppressive barrenness of the environment, the colonies of Nombre de Jesus and Puerto del Hambre became victims of Patagonia’s famed erosion of humanity. One hundred years prior to the dictatorship of Jorge Videla, Argentina sought to exact dominion in Patagonia via a final Conquest of the Desert, which would serve doubly as an assertion of territory and as an elimination of the native Mapuche and Tehuelches tribes inhabiting the area.
“There, immensity is everywhere: immense plains, immense forests, immense the rivers, the horizon always uncertain, always confused with the earth amid fleeting clouds and tenuous haze, which allow no discerning of the point where the land ends and the sky begins” – Domingo Faustino Sarmiento
Patagonia Under Dictatorship
The role of Patagonia in the history of the state later served as a precedent for the 1970s. Patagonia’s ambiguity needed to be secured, and in doing so its space and obscurity could become a resource. The successful establishment of penal colonies in Punta Arenas and Ushuaia finally became footholds of sovereignty. The penal colonies, guarded by their end-of-the-world desolation, acting as a natural vault for the undesirables of the state, served to strengthen the idea of Patagonia as “people-less” despite developing the population. As prisoner Pedro Espada said of his sentencing in 1909, “I will not return, the Ushuaia prison is my grave, I have no doubt about it.” Far beyond the context of civilization, the early prisoners of Patagonia were as good as disappeared.
Appropriately, Patagonia served in the 1970s as the inspiration and the birthplace for the political disappearances that would characterize two decades of conflict in the Southern Cone. In 1972, 110 left-wing guerrillas attempted an escape from the Rawson prison in the Chubut province of Patagonia. Out of the few who made it beyond the gates, 16 were recaptured while they attempted to flee to Chile and were soon murdered under authority of the Argentine Marines. Publicly, the military navigated what became a media spectacle by providing an official report of the incident as a renewed escape attempt in which the recaptured guerrillas were killed. Lieutenant Commander of the Argentine Marines Louis Amilio Sosa reported that Argentine forces had sustained no casualties in the renewed assault. In reality, the recaptured prisoners were ordered out of their cells and swiftly executed. The fallout from the massacre reached international relations (in which Allende was called upon to deport the remaining six escapees) and galvanized dissident demonstrations in Argentina for years following the incident. Trelew, then, became “an object lesson not so much in the need to cover-up as in that of having no body at all, dead or alive, to account for in the first place”.
In a 2013 interview with NPR following the death of Jorge Videla, Alicia Partnoy, a former prisoner of “La Escuelita”, a detention center in Argentine Patagonia, described the advantage of disappearance for the purpose of a dictatorship. “The disappeared is an entity. She is not dead, or she is not dead if she’s not alive. It’s a commodity”. Similarly to the extrajudicial “Death Flights” conducted by Argentina and Chile, Patagonia offered the same ocean-depth of concealment and silence. Disappearances would become the weapon of choice for the Latin American dictatorships, and stricter control over the press would be prescribed to mechanize efficient and effective dominion. Indeed, within ten years of their flight from Rawson, three of the six successful escapees had been disappeared.
“What seems to render deserts exceptional are the extreme manifestations of nature’s chaotic forces, whose severe power endangers both the subject’s physical integrity and his ability to think” – Yi-Fu Tuan
Despite the historiographical understanding of activity under the dictatorships as largely urban, evidence shows that Patagonia was included in the junta’s greater plans to seize power early on in the events of the coup d’etat. Under Pinochet, the utilization of Patagonia resembled that of state sovereignty in the 19th century. The establishment of prison camps on the southernmost reaches of the continent served as a way to solidify the presence of Pinochet’s regime as well as provide the space and isolation required to securely detain instruments of the former state. Dawson Island (featured image above), perhaps one of the most infamous prison camp establishments in Patagonia, was immediately occupied days after the 1973 coup d’etat with former staff members and close associates of Salvador Allende. Sergio Bitar, who had served as the Minister of Mining under Allende and was himself an inmate of Dawson Island, described the torture and maltreatment of fellow state officials-turned-prisoners and other suspected dissidents, but he also described ways in which the prisoners were denied information and communication. Departed from their families and society, the prisoners were censored and ignorant to the outside world. Again operated as a kind of domestic exile, the Patagonian archipelago provided Pinochet with the privacy and desolation needed to insulate his highest-level political opponents beyond intellectual potency and de facto existence.
Videla favored a strategy of austere dissuasion in Patagonia. Operation Independence, a counter-insurgency mission violently waged against the guerilla forces of the People’s Revolutionary Army in the province of Tucuman during the early stages of Videla’s presidency, was an example to the regime of the necessity of dissent control, and also an example of the kind of character successful anti-guerrilla operations would demand. As opposed to the direct threats associated with the urban north, Patagonia was seen as a viable location for housing new insurgency movements and as a shelter for the regroupment of rival ideologies that had already been routed by Argentine forces. Once again, Patagonia’s vastness was a challenge to internal cohesion under the state.
Intelligence operations conducted in the months before the coup identified several locations in Argentine Patagonia that were perceived to be opposition-friendly (mostly because known militant activists or Peronistas resided in the area). The province of Neuquen in particular was noted for its subversive character because of leftist student movements associated with the Universidad de Neuquén. Between the 9th and the 15th of June 1976, six raids on suspected centers of subversion were conducted in the northern regions of Patagonia. Videla’s swift violence established fear and control in Patagonia, just as military kidnappings in Buenos Aires had done. From that period onward, intelligence operations continued in Patagonian detention centers and sought to monitor the mountainous and forested regions of the Andes. Of particular concern was the “infiltration of social and political Chilean militants fleeing the Pinochet dictatorship”. In this way, Operation Condor also served as a mechanism of retaining sovereignty in Patagonia.
Forced disappearances as a political move are impactful on the characterization of a conflict. Videla defined himself the terms of the “internal war” he waged on dissension, expanding the definition of a terrorist to be more than “someone with a gun or bomb”, but also “someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian Civilization”. In the context of martial law and the suspension of habeas corpus and constitutional protection, the disappearances and torture of thousands of people were sanctioned as the mitigation of security concerns. Enacted and overseen by militant forces, disappearances are void of trial and protective rights. Buried alive by their absence, swallowed by the oceans or the Patagonian desert, the disappeared were dehumanized further than their captivity, and became nonexistent even before their deaths.
“Through fossilization [in Patagonia], life has been transmuted into rock as well” – Gabriela Nouzeilles
Despite the attention placed on the events of Santiago and Buenos Aires during the dictatorships of the 1970s, the Patagonian experience is still in the process of working its way into the historiography of the era. Acknowledgment and atonement for the human rights violations attributed to Videla and Pinochet have proven difficult for both urban and rural victims, but the recognition of Patagonia as a strategic instrument of the dictatorships aids in the now almost 50 year wait for justice and closure. In 2012, three former Argentine officers were sentenced to life in prison for their involvement in the Trelew Massacre. In 2014, victims of torture and kidnapping on Dawson Island continued to petition for compensation, and in 2018, trials finally commenced in Neuquen for crimes against humanity perpetrated under the annihilation initiatives . Patagonia is often rendered timeless and people-less in popular imagination. To its own states, it has been reduced in anthropologic and historic value as a frontier to be commodified or a void to be contained. Patagonia’s role under Pinochet and Videla, though overshadowed by widely documented urban events, has not been “disappeared” and dehumanized. Hidden from record and eroded by time, los desaparecidos seem to have dissolved into history, but their lives left an imprint in the collective memory that does after all reside in Patagonia. A fossilized history, the “lost generation” left behind an empty space in the shape of itself, an indelible scar upon the landscape. Like the cut of a glacier, continued activism for recognition and justice slowly reveals the humanity stored even in the ends of the Earth.
Sources and Further Reading
Bitar, Sergio, Erin E. Goodman, and Peter Winn. Prisoner of Pinochet: My Year in a Chilean Concentration Camp. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2017.
Child, Jack. Miniature Messages: the Semiotics and Politics of Latin American Postage Stamps. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
Dunkerley, James. “The Civilised Detective: Tomás Eloy Martínez and the Massacre of Trelew.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 31, no. 4 (2012): 445–59.
Edwards, R. “From the Depths of Patagonia: The Ushuaia Penal Colony and the Nature of ‘The End of the World.’” Hispanic American Historical Review 94, no. 2 (2014): 271–302.
Grigera, Juan, Luciana Zorzoli, and Pablo Scatizza. “The Argentinian Dictatorship and Its Legacy: Rethinking the ‘Proceso.’” Essay. In The Argentinian Dictatorship and Its Legacy: Rethinking the “Proceso”, 47–66. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Herrera, Genaro Arriagada. Pinochet: the Politics of Power. Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman, 1988.
Lewis, Paul H. Guerrillas and Generals: the “Dirty War” in Argentina. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2011.
Loveman, Brian. “Conflict in the Southern Cone: The Argentine Military and the Boundary Dispute with Chile, 1870-1902.” Hispanic American Historical Review 80, no. 2 (2000).
McSherry, J. Patrice. Predatory States Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012.
Moss, Chris. “Reclaiming Territory: Latin American Narratives.” Essay. In Patagonia: a Cultural History, 211–32. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Nouzeilles, Gabriela. “The Iconography of Desolation: Patagonia and the Ruins of Nature.” Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas 40, no. 2 (2007): 252–62.
Power, Jonathan. Ending War Crimes, Chasing the War Criminals. Leiden: Brill Nijhoff, 2017.
Seth, S. “Darwin and the Ethnologists: Liberal Racialism and the Geological Analogy.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 46, no. 4 (2016): 490–527.