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New State Department documents show conflict between Washington and US Embassy in Buenos Aires over signals to the military dictatorship at height of repression in 1976

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 73 - Part II
Edited by Carlos Osorio

Assisted by

Kathleen Costar, research and editorial assistance
Florence Segura, research assistance
of the National Security Archive

Natalia Federman, research assistance and Spanish translation

Washington, D.C., 21 August 2002 - State Department documents released yesterday on Argentina's dirty war (1976-83) show that the Argentine military believed it had U.S. approval for its all-out assault on the left in the name of fighting terrorism. The U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires complained to Washington that the Argentine officers were "euphoric" over signals from high-ranking U.S. officials including then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The Embassy reported to Washington that after Mr. Kissinger's 10 June 1976 meeting with Argentine Foreign Minister Admiral Guzzetti, the Argentine government dismissed the Embassy's human rights approaches and referred to Kissinger's "understanding" of the situation. The current State Department collection does not include a minute of Kissinger's and Guzetti's conversation in Santiago, Chile.

On 20 September 1976, Ambassador Robert Hill reported that Guzzetti said "When he had seen SECY of State Kissinger in Santiago, the latter had said he 'hoped the Argentine Govt could get the terrorist problem under control as quickly as possible.' Guzzetti said that he had reported this to President Videla and to the cabinet, and that their impression had been that the USG's overriding concern was not human rights but rather that GOA 'get it over quickly'."

After a second meeting between Kissinger and Guzzetti in Washington, on 19 October 1976, Ambassador Robert Hill wrote "a sour note" from Buenos Aires complaining that he could hardly carry human rights demarches if the Argentine Foreign Minister did not hear the same message from the Secretary of State. "Guzzetti went to U.S. fully expecting to hear some strong, firm, direct warnings on his government's human rights practices, rather than that, he has returned in a state of jubilation, convinced that there is no real problem with the USG over that issue," wrote Hill.

The U.S. Embassy also disagreed with the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence 19 July 1976 assessment that there was a "murderous three-cornered battle going on in Argentina amongst left-wing terrorists, government security personnel and right wing goon squads." On 23 July 1976, Deputy Chief of Mission Maxwell Chaplin cabled Washington that "The battle is a two-sided affair, not tri-cornered" since "the only 'right-wing assassins' operating in Argentina at this point, however, are members of the GOA security forces."

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Document 1: Subject: Conversation with Undersecretary of the Presidency, May 25, 1976
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During May, several Argentines working with U.S. universities and Ford Foundation grantees, and at least two American citizens, were kidnapped or abused by Argentine security forces. The Department and the Embassy discussed asking the Videla government for reassurances that his government did not plan to expel refugees as the rumor went. The Embassy suspected that Argentine security forces were involved in the killing of two Uruguayan former Senators living in Buenos Aires - Michellini and Gutierrez Ruiz.

This cable summarizes a cordial morning conversation between Ricardo Yofre, the Undersecretary General of the Office of the Presidency, and Ambassador Robert Hill. Although five pages long, Ambassador's Hill's concern for the human rights situation in Argentina is evident in only three lines at the beginning of the cable and there is no reaction to Mr. Yofre's forewarning of more human rights violations:

"Dr. Yofre noted that there are two distinct complications in checking the hardliners and in bringing the human rights problem under control: a) the first is that the country is in an all-out war against subversion. In the heat of the battle there will inevitably be some violations of human rights. And Yofre warned that the government plans to drastically step up its campaign against the terrorists very shortly. b) Secondly, he said, there are a number of groups who are operating on their own…"

Document 2: Subject: Request for instructions, May 25, 1976
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At noon on May 25, the Embassy was shocked to learn of the kidnapping of Fulbright program coordinator, Elida Messina, and in this cable asked for the Department's permission to launch a demarche on human rights on these terms:

"We fully understand that Argentina is involved in an all-out struggle against subversion. There are however, some norms which can never be put aside by governments dedicated to a rule of law. Respect for human rights is one of them. The continued activities of Triple A-type squads which have recently murdered Michellini, Gutierrez Ruiz and dozen of others and have just kidnapped a member of the Fulbright Commission, Miss Elida Messina, damaging the GOA's generally good image abroad. These groups seem to operate with immunity and are generally believed to be connected with Argentine security forces. Whether they are or not, their continued operation can only be harmful to the GOA itself and cause consternation among Argentina's friends abroad."

Document 3: Subject: Demarche to Foreign Minister on Human Rights, May 28, 1976
Full Document (PDF)
"I then proceeded with demarche as outlined in refs A and B. I concluded by noting that some sort of statement on part of GOA deploring terrorism of any kind, whether from left or right, and reaffirming GOA's resolve to enforce law and respect human rights might have very salutary effect."

"Comment: Though [Foreign Minister] Guzzetti indicated his understanding of the problem, I did not have the impression he really got the point. We will keep working on him and others in GOA. Hill"

Document 4: Subject: Murders in Argentina - No intergovernmental Conspiracy, June 4, 1976
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For the previous two weeks, the Department of State had requested its Embassies in the region to analyze suspected cooperation among Southern Cone security forces (subsequently known as "Operation Condor"). Edgardo Enriquez, leader of the Chilean MIR, had been captured by Argentine security forces and handed to the Chileans, along with Maria Regina Pinto Marcondes, a Brazilian; former Bolivian president Juan Jose Torres has been killed in Buenos Aires; and several refugees mainly from Chile and Uruguay had been kidnapped.

This report from the head of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research to Secretary Kissinger denies the cooperation, and outlines a somewhat benign view of Southern Cone security forces and of President Videla's responsibility for human rights violations during all 1976 - claiming that the killing of refugees in Argentina is not coordinated between intelligence agencies and President Videla's government is not involved in the Argentine carnage. This view was repeated in subsequent INR reports, to which the Embassy objected (see Chaplin cable below): Here INR concluded:

"There is no evidence to support the contention that Southern Cone governments are cooperating in some sort of international "Murder Inc." aimed at leftist political exiles resident in one of their countries…

The fact that these incidents are occurring in Argentina and not elsewhere in the Southern Cone suggests that they are attributable to a uniquely Argentine set of circumstances. Amidst the murderous three-cornered battle going on in Argentina amongst left-wing terrorists, government security personnel and right wing goon squads, exiles can become victims for a number of reasons:

  • Operational involvement with one of the Argentine terrorist groups, as appears to have been the case with Chilean MIR leader Edgardo Enriquez.
  • Past association with foreign and/or Argentine leftist groups, a fact that, in and itself, is sufficient cause for death in the eyes of fanatical Argentine right-wingers. This may have been the crime of Michelini, Gutierrez Ruiz and Torres.
  • Efforts by hardliners in the Argentine government to force President Videla into more stringent suppression of terrorists, a motivation which also may lie behind the death of the prominent Uruguayan and Bolivian exiles.

In all likelihood, the assassinations are the work of right-wingers, some of whom are security personnel. Argentine President Videla probably does not condone or encourage what is happening, but neither does he appear capable of stopping it."

Document 5: Subject: Secretary's Calendar of Events (Santiago/Mexico City), June 10, 1976
Full Document (PDF)
The recent declassification does not include a single document reporting on the meeting of more than one hour between U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Argentine Foreign Minister Cesar Augusto Guzzetti at the OAS General Assembly (OASGA) meeting in Santiago, at Hotel Carrera. Kissinger was traveling later to Mexico City. The National Security Archive obtained this copy of Secretary Kissinger's agenda for that day (from files at the National Archives) and has filed MDR and FOIA requests to obtain any other related documents.
Document 6: Subject: Abduction of Refugees in Argentina, June 16, 1976
Full Document (PDF)

Deputy Chief of Mission, Maxwell Chaplin reported on a meeting held on June 14 with "Mr. Pereya," the highest civilian in the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Chaplin was acting under instructions of the Department of State to raise concern for the recent kidnapping of Uruguayan and Chilean refugees in Buenos Aires who had been tortured and released on June 12.

"2. Charge expressed USG concern over refugee abductions, and raised broader issue of human rights. To illustrate for him how foreign press covered such matters and how Congressional critics dealt with them, he was also provided with copies of Washington Post story on abduction and remarks of Congressman Koch at CIAR on June 7…

3. [excised] response was an impassioned, almost fanatic defense of GOA. With regard to substance of the issue, Pereya [sic] contended that GOA was doing best it could in an all-out war with extremists; that it was not possible to prevent occasional excesses by embattled security forces… he and president Videla were as deeply and genuinely concerned about the problems of human rights as any foreign observe. He did not comment directly on the truth or falsehood of the abduction reports

4. When he reached the topic of the UNHCR, [excised]'s indignation was barely controlled. He said that Argentina had provided refuge for over 500,000 Aliens since 1973 most of them Chileans. The country had made an enormous effort to deal with this problem, and the effort was totally unrecognized…

5. In a review of events at the OASGA, [excised] expressed satisfaction over his conclusion that Secretary Kissinger was realistic and understood the GOA problems. On human rights, he stated that the Secretary had quoted from Herodotus a reference to refugees taking over the city that gave them refuge, and this indicated his implicit agreement with the GOA's position."

Document 7: Subject: South America - Southern Cone Security Practices, July 23, 1976
Full Document (PDF)

Deputy Chief of Mission, Maxwell Chaplin disagreed with two points of recent report No. 526 by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) in Washington. Chaplin wrote Washington that cooperation between Southern Cone countries was tighter than the INR estimates, as evidenced by the presence of Uruguayan and Chilean military operating with Argentine security units. In addition, Chaplin clarified that it was inaccurate to portray the situation in Argentina as a struggle between the extreme right, the extreme left and the government in between. Chaplin asserted that "The battle is a two-sided affair, not tri-cornered" since "the only 'right-wing assassins' operating in Argentina at this point, however, are members of the GOA security forces."

Document 8: Subject: Other aspects of September 17 conversation with Foreign Minister, September 20, 1976
Full Document (PDF)
Ambassador Robert Hill had just come back from Washington where massacres of prisoners and widespread human rights violations by Argentine security forces, as well as mounting evidence of assassinations of foreigners under Operation Condor, were cause for concern. Hill was charged to raise the human rights issues at the highest level of the Argentine government. But, as Hill reported to Washington, "the Foreign Minister said that GOA had been somewhat surprised by indications of such strong concern on the part of the USG in human rights situation in Argentina. When he had seen SECY of State Kissinger in Santiago, the latter had said he 'hoped the Argentine Govt could get the terrorist problem under control as quickly as possible.' Guzzetti said that he had reported this to President Videla and to the cabinet, and that their impression had been that the USG's overriding concern was not human rights but rather that GOA "get it over quickly."
Document 9: Subject: Ambassador discusses U.S.-Argentine Relations with President Videla, September 24, 1976
Full Document (PDF)
"President said he had been gratified when FONMIN Guzzetti reported to him that Secretary of State Kissinger understood their problem and had said he hoped they could get terrorism under control as quickly as possible. Videla said he had the impression senior officers of the USG understood situation his govt faces but junior bureaucrats do not. I assured him this was not the case. We all hope Argentina can get terrorism under control quickly - but to do so in such a way as to do minimum damage to its image and to its relations with other governments. If Security Forces continue to kill people to tune of brass band, I concluded, this will not be possible. I told him Secretary of State had told me when I was in US that he wanted to avoid human rights problem in Argentina."
Document 10: Subject: Foreign Minister Guzetti Euphoric over visit to United States, October 19, 1976
Full Document (PDF)
Transcription (Microsoft Word format)
Admiral Guzetti had just returned from the U.S. and Ambassador Robert Hill wrote what Assistant Secretary of State Schlaudeman termed "a sour note" to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger protesting that the Argentine military were not receiving a strong disapproving signal from Washington for their human rights violations. Hill wrote that the Embassy was now in an awkward position to present demarches on human rights.

Hill wrote that:

"Guzzetti's remarks both to me and to the argentine press since his return are not those of a man who has been impressed with the gravity of the human rights problem as seen from the U.S. Both personally and in press accounts of his trip Guzzetti's reaction indicates little reason for concern over the human rights issue. Guzzetti went to us fully expecting to hear some strong, firm, direct warning of his govt's human rights practices. Rather than that, he has returned in a state of jubilation. Convinced that there is no real problem with the USG over this issue. Based on what Guzzetti is doubtless reporting to the GOA, it must now believe that if it has any problems with the U.S. over human rights, they are confined to certain elements of Congress and what it regards as biased and/or uninformed minor segments of public opinion. While that conviction lasts it will be unrealistic and unbelievable for this embassy to press representations to the GOA over human rights violations."

Document 11: Subject: U.S.-Argentine Relations, February 2, 1977
Full Document (PDF)

As Jimmy Carter assumed the presidency, the Department of State informed the U.S. Embassy in Argentina of the points that were raised with Political Counselor Beauge at the Argentine Embassy in Washington. The Department told Beauge that the new administration attaches tremendous importance to human rights. Beauge remarked that "it is essential for your same message to come from all channels. This did not happen in the past."

Document 12: Subject: Henry Kissinger Visit to Argentina, June 27, 1978
Full Document (PDF)

U.S. Ambassador Raul Castro expressed concern that while visiting Argentina, former Secretary of State Kissinger's "repeated high praise for Argentina's action in wiping out terrorism and his stress on the importance of Argentina may have gone to some considerable extent to his hosts' heads." Castro feared that the Military Junta will use "Kissinger's laudatory statements as justification for hardening their human rights stance." 

Document 13: Subject: Evolution of U.S. Human Rights Policy in Argentina, September 11, 1978
Full Document (PDF)
This INR study for Viron P. Vaky, Assistant Secretary for Interamerican Affairs, highlighted that before the Carter administration, the Argentine Military Junta thought the U.S. government's human rights policy was mainly rhetoric and that "Argentina would be protected for the duration of its 'dirty war' by friends in the US executive and Congress and/or the Pentagon."
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