AFTER THE disappearance of a protester in Argentina’s wild and inhospitable south, the country stands divided. With memories still fresh of the thousands disappeared during the country’s Dirty War, one single missing protester has given rise to emotion and debate that could have the power to turn Argentina’s government upside down.
WHERE IS Santiago Maldonado? It’s the question on everyone’s lips. On every rabidly, drama-fed TV channel, radio show and website. On banners in the streets of Buenos Aires, borne by protesters who set rubbish bins aflame and crowd the Plaza 25 de Mayo, beneath the storied balconies of governmental seat the Pink House.
And it’s the uneasy joke that shortens the three-hour drive through the parched and frozen scrubland of Mendoza’s Andean foothills from San Rafael to the provincial capital. Bleak and black humour – after all, the protester is still missing. But the hysteria of the physical and ideological search for this advocate of rights for the indigenous Mapuche is surreal.
“Hey look, we found Santiago!” says Martín, lifting a hand from the steering wheel and gesticulating to two bearded, barefoot bohemians practicing their slackline walking beside the road. We all giggle.
“Che, we should ask them if they’ve seen Santiago,” I pipe up, as we pass a checkpoint manned by armed Gendarmeria, the same force accused of perpetrating and covering up Maldonado’s disappearance.
WHERE IS Santiago Maldonado? The answer, in Argentina’s divided political landscape, depends on whom you talk to.
For devotees of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, two-term ex-president and widow of Nestor Kirchner, the president who preceded her and gave up his office to see her elected, Maldonado’s disappearance foreshadows the current government’s pretentions to dictatorship.
Fernandez implores her adoring crowds to rise up and demand answers, invoking the spirit of Eva Peron in all her populist glory. She incites fear and emotion at her rallies – sometimes enraged, sometimes close to tears – that resound echoes of Argentina’s brutal “Dirty War” – in which up to 30,000 government opponents and civilians were “disappeared”, tortured and murdered from 1974 to 1983 at the hands of a military dictatorship.
The white-scarved Madres de Plaza 25 de Mayo, (Mothers of Plaza 25 May), whose fearless demands to know where their children and grandchildren were in the 1980s helped to topple the dictatorship, are eagerly wheeled out on talk show after news report. Nunca mas, goes their battle cry – never again.
But for arch Macristas, supporters of President Mauricio Macri’s centre-right government, Maldonado could very well be fishing quietly in Patagonian Chile.
As the first non-Socialist president of Argentina since 1916, Macri has been a divisive force in Argentine society. He offered change for those wearied of the seeming excess and alleged corruption of the Kirchner dynasty. But for a country where Peronism reaches almost religious heights, his opposition has treated him with great suspicion.
A president for the rich, they say. Taking away everything, they say. But for Macristas, he is simply bringing the previous government’s unsustainable spending to a controllable level.
And as far as Santiago Maldonado is concerned, his alleged disappearance could well be a technique dreamed up by Fernandez to incite controversy and reverse her rapid fall from grace. After all – just as the military dictatorship in the 1980s understood – nothing brings a country together against a common enemy like the threat of a good war, whether that’s a jolly caper to take back some disputed islands or a more sinister fear of a war by the government against its own people.
Painted as a ne’er-do-well slacker, Maldonado’s character has been called into question. There have been accusations of his association with Colombian FARC rebels and even connections with Fernandez herself – none of them proven.
SILVINA STOPS her car at a red light in Mendoza, and picks up her phone to check three WhatsApp messages that have just buzzed through. She gasps.
“They’ve found Santiago,” she says, ashen-faced. “He has turned up dead, beaten and with a stab wound to the throat, in Ezquel. Look, there’s even a picture.”
She passes the phone to me as the lights turn green and we push on through the city’s genteel blocks. I peer at the bloated and bruised corpse in the photograph. No doubt it’s a dead body, and sure enough, there’s a stab wound just above the collarbone. But the greying beard hairs and middle-aged spread betray the poor wretch’s age – this is no lithe twenty-something bohemian. Santiago lives to die another day.
“Who’s dead?” pipes up Silvina’s six-year-old from the back seat.
“Nobody darling,” I assure her. “Nobody’s dead.”
WE DON’T know where Santiago Maldonado is, so what do we know?
The 28-year-old artisan was last seen on the August 1 2017, when Gendarmeria evicted a group of indigenous Mapuche from Patagonian land belonging to Italian clothing giant Benetton.
Maldonado and a group of protesters blocked a road in the southern province of Chubut, demanding the release of a jailed Mapuche elder wanted by Chilean authorities. Maldonado’s family say that the protester was detained by border police, and that was the last time he was seen.
Witnesses to his arrest gave their evidence to a traditional Mapuche social group, unidentified and with their faces covered. Tens of thousands of Argentines have since staged protests up and down the country, demanding answers from Macri’s government. But the response has, as yet, been slow and faltering. Minister of Security Patricia Bullrich has been criticised for a string of rushed and disproven statements concerning the protester’s disappearance, causing the Maldonado family to call for her resignation.
“Che, so, have they found Santiago yet?” asks Facundo, during a lull in the conversation. We smirk.
“I feel bad about laughing,” Nacho says over café con leche and alfajores at Café Havanna. The winter bite has just let up enough to allow us to sit outside, looking across at provincial city San Rafael’s Plaza de San Martin, and enjoy thin afternoon sunlight.
“But the truth is, the whole thing has been so politicised that you just can’t take it seriously. The guy is missing and I feel bad for him and the ones who are looking for him, but it’s been ridiculous.”
Facundo says: “The only ones I feel sorry for are him and his family.
“Everyone else is benefitting from the situation.”
Maldonado wasn’t spirited away in a dark green Ford Falcon after a midnight raid on his home, as so many of the Dirty War’s disappeared were.
Maldonado wasn’t a powerful enemy of the government, capable of bringing evidence against those at the very top – unlike lawyer Alberto Nisman who, in 2015, was discovered dead from a gunshot to the head hours before he was due to give evidence about a 1994 bombing which could have implicated Fernandez.
The investigation into his death continues, as it remains unclear whether his death was suicide, “forced” suicide or murder. A year after Nisman’s death, protests took place all over Argentina. But questions about his apparent suicide, at least in public life, have since petered out.
It’s dark in my in-laws’ living room. The only light comes from the incessant flickering of the TV and the harsh energy-saving bulbs over the dining table. My father-in-law, who almost lost his life running from military police bullets in the 1970s, sits transfixed by the images on the screen.
My mother-in-law watches armed police drive back protesters from outside the seat of Argentina’s colonial governmental. “Military in the Cabildo, oh my god,” she whispers.
My father-in-law jumps up from his seat and gestures toward the police on the TV. “Sons of bitches,” he shouts.
“They are in civilian clothes with their hoods up! Let us see your faces!”
This scene plays out each night in my suegros’ living room. The TV is constantly tuned to the anti-government C5N channel, with its wild theories and obvious desire to discredit the government.
But what’s on the other channels is no better – balance has been lost in Argentina’s media, especially when it comes to Santiago Maldonado. You’re either with the government or against it, and my in-laws – staunch Peronists and passionately pro-Fernandez – are most definitely against.
“I’m not saying that the government is a dictatorship,” says my mother-in-law, pausing to clear her throat. “It was elected democratically and it’s the government the people chose. But what I will say is that they are acting like a dictatorship. And I’m afraid for the future.”
And all the while, Santiago Maldonado is absent. Debates rage, protesters are bussed into the capital and political points are scored on both sides. This controversy is equally good for Fernandez’s cause and for of Macri’s supporters. Another question is raised: does anyone really want the mystery to end?
IT’S BUSY in the hospital’s paediatric department, and my daughter is coughing non-stop. We whip through the waiting room, led by my father-in-law – a retired surgeon – to his former colleagues waiting inside. After a round of kisses and a quick consultation and X-ray, we leave with a prescription for antibiotics.
But before we can go, my father-in-law has one more question for the paediatrician.
“Flaco, where do you think Santiago Maldonado is?” he implores, eyes searching for his fellow medic’s worldly take. With facts scarce even more than a month on from Maldonado’s disappearance, it’s possible we’ll never know. But that won’t stop us all from asking.
The doctor replies, eyes lowered: “I think the real question is, was Santiago there at all?
“Did Santiago ever exist?”
Why is ‘disappeared’ such an emotive word in Argentina? It’s thanks to the brutal actions of a military dictatorship during the 1970s and early 1980s, in what became known as the Dirty War.
How many died: 30,000 civilians (approximately)
Who:Opponents of Argentina’s military government, protestors or civilians who became the victims of mistaken identity.
What happened: Forced disappearance, torture and death. The most notorious forms of torture included rape, electric shocks with a cattle prod and ‘death flights’, which dropped disappearance victims over the ocean to their deaths. Other desaparecidos were simply shot and buried in mass graves in the countryside.
What else: Expectant mothers who were disappeared were kept until they gave birth, then their babies were given to childless supporters of the military government who passed them off as their biological children. Many of these babies have since been reunited with their still-living relatives, thanks to coordination by the Madres de Plaza 25 de Mayo (otherwise known as ‘las Abuelas’ – the grandmothers) who vocally and fearlessly sought their children and grandchildren during the time of the dictatorship and continue their campaign to this day. Each year more grandchildren come forward for DNA testing.
Legacy: Nunca mas – never again – became the refrain of the Argentine people with reference to this period. The mere suggestion of Maldonado’s disappearance being a forced, government-approved action has been enough to whip the entire country into a frenzy.
By Rachel Ball