US President Barack Obama will move to declassify American military and intelligence records related to Argentina's 'Dirty War', the White House said on Thursday, aiming to bring closure to questions of US involvement in a notorious chapter in Argentina's history.
Obama's visit to Buenos Aires next week coincides with the 40th anniversary of the 1976 military coup that started Argentina's 1976-83 dictatorship. Little is known about the US role leading up to that period, in which thousands of people were forcibly disappeared and babies systematically stolen from political prisoners.
Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, said Obama would use his trip to announce a "comprehensive effort" to declassify more documents, at Argentina's request. She said Obama would also visit Remembrance Park in Buenos Aires to honor victims of the dictatorship.
"This anniversary and beyond, we're determined to do our part as Argentina continues to heal and move forward as one nation," Rice said in a speech ahead of Obama's trip.
The announcement promised to reverberate across Argentina, where even today the events of the dictatorship are a major topic of national interest and concern. "This is transcendental. We believe it's a huge gesture," Marcos Pena, Argentine President Mauricio Macri's Cabinet chief, told local channel Todo Noticias.
The US has previously released 4,000 State Department documents related to that period, but those documents tell only part of the story. Notes from a 1976 meeting between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Argentina's foreign minister, for example, seemed to show Kissinger urging his new counterpart to clamp down on dissidents they referred to as "terrorists".
"If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly," Kissinger said, according to a transcript the US declassified more than a decade ago.
In Argentina, human rights advocates have repeatedly called for the US to divulge the rest of the information it has in hopes of exposing any wrongdoing.
As part of the new declassification effort, the US will search for additional records related to rights abuses committed by the junta, said a senior Obama administration official, who wasn't authorised to discuss the program by name and requested anonymity. That search will for the first time include records from US intelligence agencies, along with the Pentagon, US law enforcement agencies and presidential libraries, the official said.
Claudio Avruj, Argentina's human rights secretary, said opening the archives could shed light on Argentine soldiers trained at the School of the Americas and the so-called Plan Condor, a coordinated effort between South American dictatorships to stamp out dissent through assassinations, torture and repression. "This is also going to help in the search for grandchildren taken during the dictatorship," Avruj wrote on Twitter.
In an interview with AP on Wednesday, Macri sidestepped questions about whether he would ask Obama to declassify documents, a question activists had been raising ahead of Obama's trip. He also dismissed criticism that Obama's visit overlapped with the 40th anniversary of the coup that ushered in one of Latin America's most brutal dictatorships.
Such opponents "need to realise that important world leaders have a very busy schedule," Macri said, adding that Obama has been a staunch defender of human rights and should be welcomed.
Argentina's government estimates that at least 13,000 people were killed or disappeared during the crackdown on leftist dissidents that became known as the "Dirty War". Activists believe the figure was as high as 30,000.
The South American nation spends millions every year in search of the remains of people who disappeared and are presumed dead, along the way developing a large national DNA bank.
Former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, oversaw massive efforts to try alleged perpetrators of crimes. Hundreds of former military officials have been convicted and jailed for their roles.
"These documents could help both in judicial cases of human rights abuses in Argentina and in the public debate about the role of the United States during the dictatorship," said Gastón Chillier, executive director of the Buenos Aires-based Center for Legal and Social Studies.