For many in Argentina, Jorge Rafael Videla is the personification of evil. As de facto president for five years during the 1976-83 military dictatorship, Videla is universally known as the leader of a regime responsible for the capture, murder, and disappearance of thousands of people. But only now, 29 years after the return to democracy, can Argentines read his account of what happened and why.
‘Disposición Final: La confesión de Videla sobre los desaparecidos’ (‘Final Disposal: Videla’s confesion about the disappeared’), reconstructs the seven-year dictatorship for the first time through the words of its leading protagonists.
Journalist Ceferino Reato based his third book on 20 hours of private interviews with Videla, who is serving many life sentences in the Campo de Mayo military prison, as well as conversations with other military chiefs, politicians, and guerrilla fighters of that era.
The idea for the book came by chance. Reato, whose first two books are about political violence in Argentina in the early 1970s, crossed paths with Videla when interviewing other inmates in Campo de Mayo for a book about events in Cordoba in 1975.
He took advantage of the meeting to request a face-to-face interview. “I wanted to include Videla’s words as part of one chapter,” says Reato, “but what he said was so hard-hitting and unprecedented that I decided to change the subject of the book.”
According to Reato, Videla, who is 86, remains in good physical health and lucid, able to recall “very precisely, in cold, stark, martial terms” the history he shaped over three decades ago.
Videla’s testimony included his first, frank admission about the disappeared: “there were some 7,000 to 8,000 people that needed to die to win the war on subversion; we couldn’t shoot them. Nor could we deliver them to the justice system.”
The book’s title comes from another shocking revelation: ‘Final Disposal’, a military term for getting rid of items like clothing that were no longer serviceable, was the name give by the junta to the method in which “subversives” were kidnapped, killed, and disappeared.
Why do you think Videla chose to speak now?
He says he does not regret anything, but that he has a ‘pain in his soul’. I think it had to do with his age: he is 86 years old and presumes he won’t ever get out of prison, and I suppose for him this is a way of clearing things up with society.
He is also very religious…
He is extremely Catholic, belonging to a very conservative and fundamentalist branch of Catholicism that at one time was very strong in Argentina. He says, for example, that the fight against the guerrillas was a ‘just war’, in the words of St Thomas…I think he is, or was in that moment, the expression of the alliance between the military and the church, two pillars that were supposed to safeguard the nation’s Catholic values.
How did you feel interviewing the man who is a figure of evil to so many in Argentina?
I think a journalist has to interview everybody, and writing about political violence implies that the sources are going to have some crimes. Videla has thousands, and using the state apparatus, which is even more severe […] It’s an old dilemma, whether you interview everybody or only the good people. I think if you want to report on the history of the 70s you have to be prepared to do it all, and I think readers appreciate that. For me, it would have been really bad if he had died without telling these things.
Were you surprised by any particular part of Videla’s testimony?
Many things surprised me. For example, he says that when the 1976 coup arrived, the military chiefs agreed that a large number of people needed to die or be eliminated, but they didn’t know how to go about it.
I thought that was interesting because, notwithstanding the differences between both histories, the Nazis also arrived in power without knowing what to do with the Jews. It wasn’t until 1942 that they made a decision on the ‘Final Solution’. Furthermore, the title of the book comes from that idea: I asked Videla about what the internal term was [for the method of disappearance] and he said ‘Not final solution, but final disposal’.
Many other things he said were expected and well understood, but it is also new to have it confirmed by the actual figurehead of the dictatorship.
Were all the interviewees for the book unrepentant?
Videla is someone who shows no regrets, but General Albano Harguindeguy [interior minister during Videla’s presidency], for example, is more self-critical. He talks about how the main error of the dictatorship was to think they were omnipotent, and didn’t realise the political situation they had got themselves into until what they had done was beyond remedy.
Do you hope the book can bring some closure?
I don’t think you can find closure because the tragedy is so big, and those responsible don’t talk about it. In recent years, particularly since 2003, the reconstruction of the 1970s is from the point of view of the victims, which is really important, but also incomplete because victims only know what happened to them.
A lot still needs to be clarified, and political groups don’t help with that. They are not interested in the historic truth – and not just Kirchnerists but any of them. For example, the classic Peronists don’t want to find out about before the 1976 coup because the disappearances began during the previous constitutional government [of Isabel Perón], where there were guerrilla groups on one side and violent parastatal groups from the right on the other, who were both Peronists.
The Radicals, when they had a chance to govern, created the theory of two demons [guerrillas and military], which was artificial and wrongly compared two types of violence that could not be compared. This government uses another theory, in my view, that of angels on one side and demons on the other, which is also false.
Do you think Videla and other former repressors are still withholding information?
Videla says there could be lists of the disappeared, though incomplete and untidy, and that the military chiefs of that era are in contact but are not in agreement about where to give information where the remains of the disappeared are located.
You have to bear in mind that the military officials in prison have a wider group of relatives, friends, and sympathisers that is not insignificant. I’d like it if this book could penetrate that group and convince them that the truth important, but it isn’t easy.
Why do you think Videla has now denied saying some of the things that appear in your book?
I imagine he was pressured by relatives or friends, because he focused on two issues that went down badly with the public – the number of disappeared and the fact that he did not have any regrets. In the prison I couldn’t record the interviews, but I took notes and then gave them to him to correct as I was interested in what he really wanted to say – I have those copies.
He said there were seven to eight thousand and that he had no regrets about anything, and now he wants to modify that because it went down so badly, especially with his children, who were always against him giving interviews, as well as friends and lawyers. These groups still think the solution to all this is a general amnesty for military chiefs, and so to talk like that without showing regret is counterproductive.
The book includes a lengthy chapter on the period before the 1976 coup, the same period you covered in your first two books. What do you find so interesting about this period?
I’m especially interested in the early 1970s because I believe the context is so important. The two guerrilla groups – ERP and Montoneros – were born in 1970, but they can’t be understood without previous dictatorships, especially the coup by Juan Carlos Ongania, which drove many middle-class youngsters to Peronism and the armed struggle. Similarly, you can’t understand the 1976-83 dictatorship without appreciating the guerrilla challenge.
People understand this, especially those living at the time, but the problem is that political groups don’t take it on because it would oblige all of them, especially those in traditional Peronist or Radical families, to critique themselves, and they don’t want that. This is a country that is always redefining itself and always starting from the present and moving forward – no one wants to look too hard at the past.