Expert: 1978 World Cup was boon for rights activists in Argentina

By Veronica Dalto

Buenos Aires, Dec 16 (EFE).- Just as this year’s World Cup in Qatar has served to highlight human rights violations in that Middle Eastern country, the 1978 edition of soccer’s showcase in Argentina brought greater visibility to a human rights movement challenging the ruling military junta of that era.

The Argentine rights organizations Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) and Memoria Abierta (Open Memory) obtained insight into that tournament’s ramifications from their review of 27 declassified documents released by United States government agencies.

That World Cup, which was held 44 years ago and ended with Argentina being crowned champions for the first time on June 25, 1978, at Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires, was not just “another event that transpired in those years,” the coordinator of CELS’ research area, Federico Ghelfi, told Efe.

The tournament, on the one hand, had “strategic value” for the military junta at a time when it was facing “major economic concerns,” he said.

At the same time, Ghelfi said the event served as a platform for rights activists, who had an “additional space to denounce the (regime’s) crimes and to an extent elevate their denunciations to the regional, international level,” especially from 1979 onward.

Both the Argentine government and the US embassy were alert to potential attacks during the tournament, which ran from June 1-25, 1978.

However, the documents also referred to a “dilemma” facing the military government, which wanted to “prevent terrorist incidents during the tournament while trying to not further tarnish Argentina’s human rights image,” Ghelfi said.

The military government was careful to protect its relationship with the United States (its crucial ally) through “double talk,” on the one hand denying its crimes against suspected leftists while also asserting its “strategic objective to resolve the national security question,” Ghelfi said.

Nevertheless, some internal cracks were starting to show within the junta, with the documents showing “critical exchanges” stemming from the organization and investment in the World Cup, how government funds had been used and certain acts of corruption, although “there was always consensus” on an iron-fist approach to law and order, he said.

Meanwhile, the documents also showed the satisfaction that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo felt at being able to denounce disappearances of leftist dissidents to international journalists during their weekly Thursday afternoon vigils in the Plaza de Mayo, a public square in Buenos Aires located in front of the presidential palace.

The bright lights of the World Cup enabled them to carry out their activism without interference from the authorities, and “that began to have international repercussions,” Ghelfi said.

A cable from the United States said the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo’s extensive exposure on television in June 1978 had made them an international symbol of the human rights issue in Argentina and perhaps provided them with a shield of protection, he recalled.

“We can undoubtedly say that helped in some way to legitimize and (for them) to have greater protection,” Ghelfi said, adding that “starting in 1979 they had more legitimacy to bring in international actors to assess their denunciations,” including a visit by a delegation from Washington DC-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The 1978 World Cup was held two years into Argentina’s 1976-1983 military regime, whose dirty war against leftist subversives and political enemies is blamed for anywhere from 18,000 to 30,000 deaths, depending on the source. EFE


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