Twenty years ago, the mothers went to the plaza in front of the presidential palace and confronted the bureaucracy of horror.
The mothers were fed up with futile visits to military chaplains wearing boots under their cassocks and to the “complaint office” where the dictatorship received inquiries about people whom it systematically was kidnapping, robbing, torturing and killing.
When the women congregated at the plaza, police snapped at them to keep moving. So the 14 mothers walked the plaza in slow circles. They kept coming back to protest, braving nightsticks, police dogs and military spies who infiltrated the group and killed three leaders.
“They say the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were fearless,” said Maria Adela Antokolez, now 85, who moves with slow, tottering steps and dignity. “But we were scared to death. We learned to walk with fear, to live with fear. We had an obligation: to find our children.”
The mothers still march every Thursday afternoon demanding justice. The ritual moves bystanders to tears and applause. The women are elderly and fragile now. They walk arm in arm, hunched beneath the white head scarves that have become an international symbol of the fight for human rights.
But time has brought change and conflict to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Their divisive evolution is part of Argentina’s philosophical quandary about the phantoms of history. The debate about the battles of the past and present sharpens even as the mothers are being showered with accolades this month, the 20th anniversary of that first defiant walk.
“It is a very inspiring story,” said U.S. philanthropist Alan Gleitsman, whose Malibu, Calif.-based foundation will award a $50,000 prize for social activism to Antokolez here April 30. (Previous winners include South African President Nelson Mandela.) “The mothers created an effective organization that has been replicated successfully in other places.”
Luis Moreno Ocampo, who prosecuted Argentina’s deposed military leaders in the 1980s, observed of the women: “They are a living myth. The mothers were not Batman and Robin. They were ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. … And they brought down a military government.”
Moreno and Argentine human rights leaders are less enthusiastic, however, about some of the group’s current exploits. While Antokolez and a small, breakaway faction largely stick to the original mission, a larger faction has evolved into a vehement, all-purpose voice of protest.
At the urging of their firebrand leader, Hebe de Bonafini, this faction wades into the fray at strikes and demonstrations, denounces the government of President Carlos Menem at every turn and jets off to other nations to support leftist causes.
Last month, the group tried to mediate in the 4-month-old hostage crisis in Lima at the invitation of a Peruvian guerrilla sympathizer in Germany; the reception in Peru was chilly.
The image of the mothers is complicated by democratic Argentina’s uneasy relationship with the past. Because of amnesties and pardons granted by Menem and his predecessor, Raul Alfonsin, former leftist guerrillas and military killers and torturers walk the streets; some hold posts in the security forces and appear on television talk shows.
The unresolved conflicts of the “dirty war,” which claimed an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 lives between 1976 and 1983, still make headlines. A Spanish investigative magistrate last month indicted former dictator Leopoldo Galtieri and other notorious figures in the deaths of about 400 Argentines who held Spanish citizenship.
Bonafini said she will be satisfied only when the perpetrators and architects of the repression are behind bars. The atrocities were committed by an unjust system that has changed only in appearance, she said, explaining why the mothers have broadened their mission. “We realized that human rights are violated when a man does not have a house or a job, when he has to send his kids to eat scraps from the garbage dumps,” she said.
Under Bonafini, who lost two sons and a daughter-in-law during the military regime, the mothers have taken on an unabashedly leftist identity. “People have called me Marxist, Leninist, all the ‘ists’ you can think of,” she said. “I am all of that and more. I don’t care. I don’t want to see kids eating garbage. I don’t want to see shantytowns by the river full of rats and worms. And capitalism brings this: always death, always death.”
Fellow activists assert that Bonafini is authoritarian. They question the wisdom of her alliance with a former convict-turned-lawyer who did prison time for killing his wealthy parents in a confused case involving allegations of sexual abuse. He has become a high-profile adviser.
Bonafini’s militant politics threaten her group’s moral authority, colleagues say. Her faction has failed to adapt to democracy, said Martin Abregu of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, a longtime human rights agency.
“It’s clear that justice was not done in Argentina, but in their enormous hate for the state, they insist that the government (consist of) the same people as during the dictatorship,” Abregu said of Bonafini and her followers. “Hebe attacks without differentiating. We cannot accept the accusation that Menem and Alfonsin are the same as (former dictator Jorge) Videla. It is wrong.”
Various philosophical disputes - Bonafini rejects proposed government reparations to the families of victims as “blood money” - motivated the split with Antokolez’s group, known as the Founding Line. “We were afraid that the mothers were beginning to lose the dignity with which we had always fought,” Antokolez said. “We felt there was no democracy within the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.”
Antokolez is one of the oldest surviving founders. Although she stumbles occasionally over names and dates, she learned the value of oral history in the Plaza de Mayo. “It was our educational academy,” she said. “The plaza saved us from the madhouse.”