The Born kidnapping in Argentina
History of the seventies still has to be written but Maria O’Donnell takes first steps with Born
Some books have a way of marking a time, a moment in the history of a society. They might be novels or essays or reports on just about anything that concerns us. The impact is acknowledged as the pages are turned.
One of these books could be the one that launched on May 10 in the closing stages of the Buenos Aires Book Fair. I confess an interest, I was one of the two speakers — the other was Magdalena Ruiz Guiñazú — at the launch of María O’Donnell’s Born (Sudamericana). It is the history of the abduction in Vicente López and ransom of Juan and Jorge Born who were held for nine months in 1974-75 by the Montoneros guerrillas. The ransom paid by Jorge Born senior for the release of his sons was US$60 million, then, a price which when projected to the present day represents US$260 million.
The story’s fullness is achieved in part by the impact of those figures, but much more with the narration by captive Jorge Born speaking to María, Born’s description of his chief captor, Mario Eduardo Firmenich, and the way the author presents the side-show issues of many long months in the seventies between 1970 and the military coup in 1976. It is smooth, it is well written and it is informative more than any other book on the seventies in Argentina.
Apart from all that, it reads like the first history of that dark decade. Rewind to how books sometimes mark moments. There have been quite a few in recent Argentine history. One of the landmarks is still the Nunca Más report in 1984 that led to the trials of the military tyrants in 1985. On my list, I would put Pablo Giussani’s La soberbia armada / Armed Arrogance, about the conduct of the Montoneros, Marcelo Larraquy’s biography of Rodolfo Galimberti (second in command of the Montoneros) or Ceferino Reato’s account of the murder of trade union leader José Ignacio Rucci. On the Carlos Menem years, Horacio Verbitsky’s Robo para la corona / Loot for the Court, and Luis Majul’s two-volume, Los dueños de la Argentina / The Owners of Argentina still stand out.
There must be several novels, but first choice might be the late Tomás Eloy Martínez’s The Perón Novel and soon after, Saint Evita. The value of these two was that they put an end to the neo-religious concept that you could not be critical of the Perón’s (in the late sixties, documentary maker Roberto Vacca published his Notes for a Biography of Perón, and was openly threatened by at least one trade union, and received a barrage of insults by phone). Other people will want to expand that list, for sure.
Argentina does not have a comprehensive history of the seventies. In fact, evidence abounds that such a history is not wanted by a large number of Argentines who themselves or their families would not like to see their names pop up on page. As a society we do not want that history to be published.
María O’Donnell’s book takes the first faltering, but competent, steps to revealing one part of those years while tangentially she mentions many other issues happening simultaneously. Will she go on writing as well as this? Who knows. Maybe somebody else will. Perhaps an outsider might come along and write our history, as did British historian Paul Preston with his biography of Francisco Franco and thereby led Spaniards to discover themselves. Previously Hugh Thomas had tackled The Spanish Civil War, taking an account of the bloody conflict to Spain while Franco was still alive. Perhaps we need another Tulio Halperin Donghi who unfortunately died last November.
It is a fact that here in Argentina we think we know everything, until we have to face the reality and the horror of what we must have done. Then it is always much better to blame somebody else. The British navy or the US “vulture” funds or the rapacious Chileans or the expansionist Brazilians, they’re all responsible for our misfortunes. Which is one good reason why several generations were (are?) still arguing whether Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (liberal) or Juan Manuel de Rosas (nationalist landowner) are our true patriots.
We still don’t know the details of many events in our recent history because too many important names are stuck to evil, as are those of their followers. We ignore facts. We don’t know enough about the betrayals within the guerrilla organizations or even within the military regime. We don’t know why so many are still afraid to provide accounts of their own wrongdoings and treason. We can guess, but are not certain about the deal struck by two evil men, the Montoneros chief Firmenich, and the Junta’s naval partner, Emilio Massera, when they met in Madrid. Shortly after that secret encounter, the Montoneros announced their “Counter-offensive” campaign and sent back to Argentina a number of their fugitive militants who were being awaited, gun in hand, by the military regime. The lie about a Montoneros’ chance of recovery in Argentina was probably Firmenich’s criminal idea for down-sizing his organization by cutting the maintenance cost of his troops in exile who were a drain on the Born ransom cash.
Shortly after that secret encounter, the Montoneros announced their “Counter-offensive” campaign and sent back to Argentina a number of their fugitive militants who were being awaited, gun in hand, by the military regime. The lie about a Montoneros’ chance of recovery in Argentina was probably Firmenich’s criminal idea for down-sizing his organization by cutting the maintenance cost of his troops in exile who were a drain on the Born ransom cash.
And we should be clamoring, belatedly, for an explanation of Carlos Menem’s pardons in 1990 and 1991. Mario Eduardo Firmenich bought his release after five years, though sentenced to 30, with a hefty contribution of Born ransom to the Menem election campaign in 1989. And Menem arranged his part of the deal by freeing Firmenich with the generals and the clever claim that he could not govern while there were “political” prisoners.
Perhaps most serious is that we cannot know, or understand, how intellectuals of the quality of poet Juan Gelman or Francisco “Paco” Urondo or a journalist of the quality of Harry (Enrique or “Jarito”) Walker joined Montoneros and submitted to the orders and authoritarian rule of the intellectual inferior (even though a student at the Colegio Nacional) that were Firmenich and Galimberti.
We don’t know much about the dictatorship’s economic activities or about the freelance business ventures which included pillaging, smuggling, rotten deals in the meat packing industry, the freelance estate agents who became property owners by torturing their captives — soon to be “disappeared” — and forced them to hand over their homes. All this in addition to the quite shameless scramble by generals, police commissioners and admirals to grab a chunk of Born’s ransom cash, wherever it might have been in foreign banks.
Never mind the human rights policies. A few dirty old men (in all senses) were put on trial only to have them not say a word in court, and then the proceedings were scattered in different depots, probably to be untraceable in a few years’ time. We are still lacking a history of the seventies, so there is a lot we still don’t know.
The book on available in Spanish at this time.
Reviewed by the BA Herald