“History has a way of repeating itself.” No. The progression of time doesn’t make the same mistakes, people do. Governments do. An increasing gap in understanding between opaque leadership and a furious public perpetuates itself, but the day the inflictors take responsibility is the day these patterns are broken. Today, we find Argentina in the midst of this blame game. “WHERE IS SANTIAGO MALDONADO?” This is a phrase I see plastered on the face of every wall. It’s an undeniable reminder that my time away from the US does not mean time away from a nation in political turmoil. No matter how colorful the mural, warm the breeze, or lovely our smiles, Santiago Maldonado is gone and so he is everywhere.
Since August 1st of this year, a man named Santiago Maldonado has been missing from the Patagonian town of El Bolsón where he was living at the time. His disappearance is notable in the political realm because it occurred at an indigenous-rights demonstration where he was participating in protest. The demonstration was in support of the Mapuche community, which has claimed ancestral rights to a privately owned area in Chubut. In a flurry of arrests, Maldonado went missing, and the police have denied detaining him. October 1st marks two months that Maldonado has been missing. This unaccounted for disappearance is directly reminiscent of Los Desaparecidos, a still unfolding tragedy of tens of thousands of people gone “missing” from 1976 to 1983 in the time of the dictatorship. Because the government still refuses to take responsibility for over an estimated 30,000 disappearances, the Argentine people have become understandably weary of the government’s role in Maldonado’s disappearance. The Mapuche community claims Border Control took Maldonado, which has added to an already growing hostility between the government and the Mapuche community over the land rights. Denial and shaky, sometimes redacted testimonials have made the case of Maldonado a dark relapse of the dictatorship, when the people of Argentina learned just how little a life is worth to the government. Officials like Christina Kirchner, former president of Argentina, have insisted that the government and the public alike are in common pursuit of the truth of Maldonado’s disappearance, but the public continues to rise against the administration.
The unavoidable comparison of Maldonado to Los Desaparecidos sheds a bleak light on the reconciliation of the recent disappearance. Maldonado’s now-iconic face represents both political activism and repression, a push for sight in devastating darkness. How can the people of Argentina endure another period of systematic repression and kidnapping when the first one is still unresolved? Maldonado was not an exceptional threat to the current administration, he was a person like you and me who believed in equal human rights. If that profile is worthy of demonization to whatever body is responsible for his disappearance, then the long, upward battle rooted from the dictatorship continues. The grandmothers of Los Desaparecidos have adopted Maldonado in their prayers as they continue to protest the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday, still waiting for their family members to return.
Note: I wrote about the disappearances as a political issue, but I would like to remind us that the problem does not begin and end with gavels and legislature. We must also acknowledge this fight as one against the weight of decades of emotional distress and struggle for the affected families. Treating the current state as solely a political issue inappropriately distances the cause from its devastating effects.