A demonstrator holds a sign reading in Spanish "Never Again"...

A demonstrator holds a sign reading in Spanish "Never Again" during a march commemorating the anniversary of the 1976 military coup in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, March 24, 2024. Credit: AP/Natacha Pisarenko

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — As Argentina on Sunday marked the most traumatic date in its modern history — the 1976 military coup that ushered in a brutal dictatorship — President Javier Milei posted a startling video that demanded justice. Not for those who suffered repression under the junta, but for those victims of leftist guerrillas before the putsch.

Milei posted the video as tens of thousands of protesters, raising banners vowing “Nunca Mas,” or never again, filled downtown Buenos Aires to commemorate the 48th anniversary of the coup and the seven years that followed when as many as 30,000 people were killed or forcibly disappeared in a systematic campaign that still haunts the country.

The video by the president, a far-right economist who took office in December, referred to “the other dead” before the coup, part of a contentious effort to change Argentina’s memory of its recent history.

Opponents see the cause as equating guerrilla violence with state terror, justifying the junta's repression of anyone deemed subversive.

“FOR A COMPLETE MEMORY SO THAT THERE IS TRUTH AND JUSTICE,” Milei wrote on X Sunday with the video, which featured a cast of obscure figures — a woman whose father and sister were killed by guerrilla groups, a repentant leftist militant and a former intelligence official — all recounting the dictatorship's repression in the context of a wider war.

“Those responsible for these crimes cannot go unpunished,” posted Vice President Victoria Villarruel. Her caption: “It wasn’t 30,000.”

Before becoming vice president and senate leader, Villarruel was best known as a fringe activist who paid prison visits to military junta leader Jorge Rafael Videla, challenged human rights groups’ estimate of 30,000 disappeared people and founded an organization championing victims of leftist militants. Her uncle, Ernesto Guillermo Villarruel, was accused of committing crimes against humanity in a clandestine detention center.

Demonstrators display photos of people who disappeared during the 1976-1983...

Demonstrators display photos of people who disappeared during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship during a march commemorating the 48th anniversary of the coup in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, March 24, 2024. Credit: AP/Natacha Pisarenko

In a dramatic display of defiance Sunday, Argentines of all ages brought downtown Buenos Aires to a halt — singing, drumming and waving signs insisting “There were 30,000."

“This is an attack against memory, and that's why we're here with our granddaughter, for her to understand," Mariela Bruno said from the march, 8-year-old Mia tugging on her arm in the haze of firework and barbecue smoke.

The extreme views of Villarruel, once dismissed by Argentines united in pain over their country’s memory, are now being discussed in mainstream circles, cracking a consensus that has held through Argentina’s 41 years of democracy.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a government defying the narrative we’ve had for decades,” said 46-year-old Matias Reggiardo, one of 500 Argentines born in captivity and stolen from his dissident parents before they were killed by the military. “It’s terrifying to find people in Milei’s government cast doubt on our stories.”

Demonstrators carry a banner with photos of people who disappeared...

Demonstrators carry a banner with photos of people who disappeared during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship in a march commemorating the 48th anniversary of the coup, at the Playa de Mayo square in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, March 24, 2024. Credit: AP/Rodrigo Abd

There is also alarm that changing how the country understands its dictatorship could put the country's main rallying cry, “Nunca Mas,” at risk.

“Our society is being confronted with the question of its future — whether the era of human rights under which we lived for 40 years is coming to an end or not,” said Gaston Chillier, a human rights lawyer.

“It’s a global trend,” he added, referring to far-movements that gained momentum with former U.S. President Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, a defender of his country’s military dictatorship.

For years, human rights groups have lauded Argentina as a beacon of progress in settling accounts. Unlike Brazil and Chile that buried their past, Argentina has investigated crimes and imprisoned generals.

The leftist governments of Nestor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in the early 2000s advanced Argentina’s historical reckoning. The Kirchners revoked pardons granted to junta members and converted the country’s most notorious clandestine detention site, the Naval Mechanics School, into a UNESCO-recognized Museum of Memory.

“In the world they have settled the discussion regarding what happened in Argentina during the last civil-military dictatorship," Cristina Kirchner posted Sunday on X, formerly Twitter, addressing “those who still refuse to reflect.”

Milei's administration has offered a starkly different view.

On the campaign trail, the radical libertarian played down the military’s crimes as “excesses." Villarruel has described the state terror as “an internal armed conflict” and proposed turning the Memory Museum into schools “that could be enjoyed by all the Argentine people.”

Both have rejected estimates that 30,000 were disappeared, pointing to an independent commission that could identify only 8,960. Advocates concede the number is imprecise, due to the state’s failure to return bodies and produce evidence.

“It's clear this new government wants to make things hard for us,” said 82-year-old Carmen Arias, who joined a group of Argentine mothers seeking to learn the fates of their disappeared children after her younger brother vanished in 1977. The women, known as Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, have circled the same Buenos Aires plaza in protest every Thursday for 47 years.

“As long as we’re alive, we’ll keep going, and after we’re gone, the youth will keep it going,” Arias said last Thursday, straining to be heard over crowds chanting against Milei.

Protesters fear the creep of authoritarianism. In Milei’s first 100 days, his government has banned protests involving roadblocks, scrapped the Women’s Ministry and National Institute against Discrimination, closed Argentina's state news agency Télam, citing its political bias, and loosened rules on police shooting. Security Minister Patricia Bullrich has floated the idea of deploying the army to fight spiraling drug violence, a previously taboo topic that dredges up painful memories.

Yet for their supporters, Milei and Villarruel have vindicated grievances over the left-wing political establishment that won the country’s peace and, they say, wrote its history.

“Argentine society must recognize that there were a lot of lies that excluded us from the memory of our past,” said Arturo Larrabure, whose father was held hostage and killed by a Marxist guerrilla group.

Protesters say they have no issue expanding national commemoration efforts. But they are wary of rewriting a nightmare that isn’t even over.

“One side has more to hide than the other,” 69-year-old Osaldo Bonomo said from the clogged streets Sunday.

It was only 10 years ago that Reggiardo discovered he had been living a lie — that his father was no ordinary policeman with an explosive temper who had rescued him from the streets, but a member of the death squads that abducted his mother.

Rights groups are still working to track down hundreds of stolen babies. There are 17 trials still underway — the verdict in one case involving the disappearance and torture of 23 pregnant women is expected Tuesday.

“I think about mothers marching every week at the plaza, and I imagine my own pregnant mother, being hungry and tortured, and I am in tears," Reggiardo said. “Justifying that is a problem for me.”

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