A collection of 19 feature-length press articles was released in book-form last week in Argentina. One of the articles, El caso Poblete (The Poblete Case), tells the story of José Poblete, his wife Trudy Hlaczik and their daughter Claudia and specifically caught my eye because of the questions it sparks about a country’s need to revise its past.
Poblete, who lost both legs in a train accident as a teenager and used orthopedic ones, and Hlaczik were two of the thousands of people who “disappeared” under the 1976-1983 Argentine military dictatorship. The couple were active in one of the many social movements that assisted residents of the villas the Argentine name for “shantytowns”, very much like the world-famous Brazilian favelas and were detained because of their activism. Claudia was eight months old at the time and became one of the scores of babies whom the military took from political prisoners and gave up for adoption, either to officers or acquaintances. Poblete and Hlaczik were never seen again and the whereabouts of their bodies is unknown.
The official count of people killed by the dictatorship is around 12 000, but human rights groups put the total of “disappeared” at 30 000. The term “disappeared” is a legal figure created in Argentina and refers to illegally detained people whose bodies were not found (the dictatorship had a judiciary system but political prisoners usually did not go through it).
According to estimates by the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, a human rights organisation created by women whose grandchildren were abducted by the regime, some 400 to 500 babies were stolen from political prisoners. So far, 88 have been recovered. Claudia Poblete is one of them.
After democracy was restored in 1983, probes were opened and in 1985 the members of the juntas (heads of the army, navy and air force) were imprisoned. During the trials, Argentines became accustomed to the terrible stories of the victims, stories of torture and murder, many as terrible as that of [Directory General of the Presidency of South Africa] Frank Chikane, many even worse (as hard as it may seem to believe). In 1986 and 1987, two laws were passed to shield all lower ranked officers from standing trial. The president at the time, Raúl Alfonsín, said the laws were necessary to keep the armed forces at bay and thereby ensure the continuity of democracy.
Both laws were scrapped under the current administration, trials have re-started and two officers have been sent to prison. The first of these sentences was against Héctor Simón for the torture and disappearance of Poblete and Hlaczik and the abduction of their daughter. The terrible stories have returned to the press and Argentines have heard, for example, how soldiers gang-raped a detained, blind friend of the the Pobletes and how José Poblete was made to walk around a cell floor on his stumps surrounded by laughing soldiers. There is only one “nice” side to the story: the Pobletes’ living relatives have been able to re-unite with Claudia, now in her 20s. Or at least you believe this may be the upside to the tragedy until you read El caso Poblete.
The article tells how Claudia was “adopted” and raised by a well-off couple. Her false father was a army officer and she never knew her true story until the Grandmothers stepped into scene and she underwent DNA tests. After the results were known, she slowly got in touch with her biological family and formed a good relationship with several of her cousins and her maternal grandfather, Trudy’s dad. However, much to the bafflement of her “real” family, she continued to live with her “adoptive” family, people who surely knew all along what happened to her real parents. Many “real family” members blamed Claudia’s behaviour on their own poverty.
The breaking point came when Claudia married and wanted two parties, one with her adoptive parents and one with her real family. This was not acceptable for many of her blood-relatives, starting with Poblete’s mother, Buscarita, who is quoted in the article saying “She chose them and I cannot understand it”.
Since the wedding, Buscarita and many other blood-relatives have not spoken with Claudia. They believe she chose to ignore the truth about her past in order to continue living her life as usual. Unlike Buscarita, Trudy’s father dismisses his granddaughter’s choice and continues to see her. In the article, Buscarita says the man told her “That was all a long time ago. What’s the use of keeping those feelings alive?”
While the story may seem like a family drama to some, it is far more than that. Many other “recovered” grandchildren have decided to continue living with their adoptive parents while others have severed all ties with their abductors. The former outsiders wonder: What was the use of so many investigations, of all the unveiling of past crimes, if they are going to continue living with their fake families?
The different choices and reactions also pose questions for all countries with violent pasts, whether they are due to political reasons (such as Argentina or post-civil war Spain) or to racial or ethnic circumstances (as in post-World War II Germany or post-apartheid South Africa): How far and deep must we to look into our pasts? What are we looking for when we go through the past? Who should decide how much of the past must be investigated? The victims themselves or society as a whole? And finally, what should be done when the victims themselves shun the search for justice?