BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Celeste Perosino was investigating possible crimes committed by Argentina’s central bank during the “Dirty War” military dictatorship decades ago before her team was disbanded by the new conservative President Mauricio Macri.
Days ahead of President Barack Obama’s arrival in Argentina for a rare visit by a U.S. leader, Perosino scoffs at praise from the White House for Macri as a “strong voice” for human rights.
“The decision to shut down the bank’s human rights office was a decision that we see as a form of political and ideological persecution,” Perosino said.
She is not the only one concerned. Obama’s visit, which coincides with the March 24 anniversary of the 1976 coup that installed a military junta, initially supported by the United States, has riled victims of the seven-year dictatorship and raised questions about Macri’s credentials as a staunch defender of human rights.
Macri, who took office in December, has said that his leftist predecessor former President Cristina Fernandez’s push to punish military repressors smacked of revenge.
His government’s human rights office held its first meeting with families who suffered at the hands of leftist militants in the 1970s and early ‘80s, rather than victims of the military’s crimes.
Then, in February, the government reinstated the rights of military officials who participated in atrocities to receive treatment in military hospitals.
Rights campaigners talk of troubling infringements on civil rights. Macri was criticized for the arrest of a popular community activist and came under fire for the police’s use of rubber bullets against a community group rehearsing for Carnival that included children. The president has also moved to grant police increased powers to shut down public protests.
Fernandez was widely praised by human rights groups and the left for re-opening trials dealing with abuses committed during the dictatorship, though right-wing opponents accused her of reopening old wounds.
The security forces killed up to 30,000 people. Many of them were “forcibly disappeared” - a euphemism for kidnapped and murdered - and hundreds of children were stolen from their imprisoned parents.
Macri’s human rights chief, Claudio Avruj, said the government is committed to defending human rights and that perpetrators of dictatorship-era crimes would continue to face trial.
“We categorically reject everything the military coup stood for, the persecution, the disappearance and death of Argentine and foreign citizens,” Avruj said.
Obama’s trip marks the first bilateral visit by a U.S. president to Argentina in nearly two decades. Relations soured sharply during Fernandez’s leadership.
During last year’s presidential race, Macri pressed for Venezuela’s suspension from the regional Mercosur trade bloc, citing alleged rights abuses by President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.
“President Macri has been a strong voice for democracy and human rights in Latin America,” Obama’s deputy security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said last month.
But rights campaigners fret that Macri, whose PRO party has previously voted against investigating economic crimes under the dictatorship, is already unraveling some of the progress made under Fernandez.
At the central bank, Perosino’s four-person team had been investigating financial crimes and how extensively civilian bank employees colluded with the military during the 1976-1983 crackdown against Marxist rebels, labor unions and other left-wing opponents.
The team was established by Fernandez. Perosino said they were only six months into their work and were still in the early stages of pouring over the bank’s archives.
Among lines of investigation, Perosino said she was delving into the kidnap and murder of five central bank employees, ties between the bank and the former SIDE spy agency, and how the bank helped large private companies which complied with the generals by assuming their debt.
A central bank spokesman said the office was shut down in January “after it found nothing”.
“Our work wasn’t close to being done,” said Perosino, standing among protestors outside the central bank demonstrating against job cuts at the regulator.
In a move to unearth new details about the “Dirty War,” U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice on Thursday said the United States would declassify documents from U.S. military and intelligence agencies related to that period at the request of the Argentine government.
Carlos Munoz, a graphic designer who survived imprisonment and torture in 1978 by agreeing to fabricate false documents for the military, said shedding new light on the dictatorship would be a welcome sign “the United State is real about human rights.”
But he voiced concern that Macri’s record on human rights has been thin so far.
“We had made a lot of progress in ending dictatorship-era impunity. I hope that we don’t go backwards,” said Munoz.
In an open letter to Obama earlier this month, Argentine Nobel peace prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel urged the U.S. president to acknowledge that Washington was an accomplice in military coups throughout Latin America.
“Certainly you cannot deny that your country has many pending debts with our country,” wrote Esquivel, who was tortured and detained without trial by the military junta.
Esquivel on Friday hailed the declassification of more U.S. documents as an “act of good faith”.
Faced with the threat of anti-U.S. protests, Obama will meet Macri on March 23 and honor victims of the dictatorship era before spending the coup anniversary in the Patagonian city of Bariloche some 1,000 (1,600 km) miles away.
Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Buenos Aires and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Christian Plumb and Alistair Bell