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OPENING OLD WOUNDS

Between 1976 and 1983, tens of thousands of Argentines were murdered or "disappeared" under a brutal military dictatorship. Some of the survivors of the infamous Dirty War call themselves the "devastated generation." They represent a star-crossed cohort of young people whose left-wing politics were forged by the turbulent years of Peronist rule in the mid-1970s, only to run into the murderous maw of the generals and admirals who deposed Isabel Peron in 1976. Of the estimated 30,000 Argentines who were killed or disappeared, about 60 percent of the victims are believed to have been in their teens and 20s. Those young Argentines were not alone: their Brazilian and Chilean peers suffered similar though somewhat less systematic campaigns of persecution under the military regimes that ruled those neighboring countries in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Now balding, graying and well into their 50s, some members of Argentina's Dirty War generation occupy positions of power in the left-of-center Kirchner administration. But none of them has forgotten their missing comrades who fell victim to the worst military reign of terror ever seen in Latin America. "These were the people who would have occupied all levels of the government," says Congressman Miguel Bonasso, a journalist and author who joined the pro-Peronist Montonero urban-guerrilla movement in the 1970s. "That presents us with a terrible lack of leaders."

It also weighs down the country with a never fully resolved trauma. President Nestor Kirchner, who was an active member of the radical Peronist Youth movement in the 1970s, is the first product of that generation to reach the presidency in Argentina. And it's clear that providing succor for the victims of the Dirty War is one of his priorities. He's focused much of his energies on social-justice and human-rights issues since taking office 15 months ago. Among his first acts as president was the repeal of a decree blocking the extradition of current and former members of the armed forces who are wanted by European prosecutors on charges of gross human-rights abuses. In August of last year Kirchner strong-armed the Argentine congress into annulling two controversial laws, enacted by a democratically elected government in the late 1980s, which ended all pending human-rights trials involving military personnel. To date, approximately 100 retired and active-duty military officers and enlisted men have been jailed under Kirchner for alleged human-rights violations.

In Kirchner's view, these moves are aimed at healing the old wounds of the Dirty War. But some right-wing critics and political opponents argue they're having the opposite effect, exposing again the country's thoroughly polarized culture. In their view, the 54-year-old Kirchner's emphasis on justice smacks of setentismo--a political buzzword meaning "seventyism," as in the 1970s. For Kirchner's political foes, it's an irrational, idealistic and unduly biased fascination with the political and often armed struggles of that decade. They say a relentless rehash of the country's blood-stained past is simply not conducive to the building of consensus and the healing of still festering wounds. "The country cannot allow itself the luxury of really delving into human rights," insists Patricia Bullrich, a former cabinet minister in the center-right government of President Fernando de la Rua. She, like Kirchner, was a Peronist firebrand in her student days. "It is too busy working out how it will survive [economically]. The Kirchner government is recreating a society that was split into two sides, when it should be above that."

The right-wing opposition does not limit itself to carping about a supposed witch hunt for Dirty War-era killers. Some leading foes of Kirchner have accused the president of cozying up too closely to Venezuela's populist President Hugo Chavez, needlessly picking fights with the International Monetary Fund and favoring a larger role for the state in the Argentine economy. They lay much of the blame on several former Montonero guerrillas who hold prominent government positions under Kirchner, who himself apparently never had any links to armed groups. Among the better known Montonero alumni are Kirchner's influential deputy chief of staff Carlos Kunkel, Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa and deputy foreign minister Jorge Taiana.

An armed leftist movement that professed loyalty to Gen. Juan Domingo Peron, the Montoneros carried out a series of spectacular kidnappings of retired generals and captains of industry in the 1970s and executed some of their hostages. The Montoneros' marauding furnished the military with one of its most important rationales for overthrowing Peron's widow, Isabel, and some independent commentators condemn them in language nearly as harsh as that reserved for the disgraced armed forces of that period. "The Argentine people hate the Montoneros more than anything else in the world," says Sylvina Walger, a prominent journalist and author who was a Peronist militant in her youth. "They see them in the same light as the military."

Walger and others take strong issue with what they term Kirchner's sometimes revisionist portrayal of his fellow ex-radicals. During a ceremony at the Navy Mechanical School in Buenos Aires last March, a torture center during the Dirty War that will be converted into a state-run Museum of Memory, Kirchner told the gathering of bereaved relatives and human-rights activists, "When I saw the [raised] hands as you sang the national anthem, I saw the arms of my comrades of the generation who believed and continue to believe... that this country can change." The right-wing columnist Mariano Grondona accuses Kirchner and his allies of a deliberate campaign to distort history by "underlining the atrocities of the military [while] ignoring their own barbarity."

Not true, retort the Kirchneristas. One of the president's more outspoken partisans is Miguel Bonasso, a bearded, 65-year-old ex-Montonero who spent nearly all seven years of military rule living in exile in Europe and Mexico City. In recent years Bonasso has written enthusiastic stories about Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez in the Argentine press, and as a newly elected freshman congressman he lost no time staking out a position for himself as the resident Jacobin among Kirchner's loyalists in the National Legislature. But he dismisses unsubstantiated charges from the opposition that Kirchner wants to muzzle the country's increasingly critical news media and would like to give the government a preponderant role in the economy harking back to discredited populist policies of the 1940s and 1950s. "The idea of a [social] revolution is the furthest thing from today's project," says Bonasso. "We haven't abandoned our hope for a more just world, but 30 years have not passed by for nothing. Nobody of this generation would dare have an undemocratic attitude."

Argentina's neighbors to the west and northeast have also witnessed the ascent of their ' 70s generations. Jose Dirceu de Oliveira e Silva personifies that changing of the guard in Brazil. On Sept. 7, 1969, the rangy, 23-year-old student organizer stood on the tarmac of Rio de Janeiro's international airport in handcuffs along with 14 other jailed comrades awaiting their flight into exile. The military dictatorship then ruling Brazil had agreed to release the young leftists in exchange for the freedom of the U.S. ambassador, who had been kidnapped by a group of Dirceu's fellow revolutionaries. Thirty-three years later Dirceu, a hefty, bespectacled man, stood on a dais inside the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia as Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took the oath of office to become Brazil's first left-wing president. Dirceu had just finished walking up a long palace ramp to become Lula's chief of staff, a job widely considered to be the second most powerful position in the entire government. "Upon climbing this ramp, I am rising with my generation," said Dirceu in January 2003. "So my first words, without rancor or resentment, are for those who lived, fought and could not be here with us."

But the rise of Dirceu and his once insurrectionary peers has been relatively free of the vitriol and name-calling that has stamped the Kirchner era in Argentina. Part of that has to do with the degree of difference between the repression practiced by the generals who ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985 and that of their more fanatical counterparts in Buenos Aires. Unlike Argentina, the dead and disappeared victims of the Brazilian police state number in the hundreds instead of the tens of thousands. Members of Generation 68, as Dirceu's cohort is now called, have helped consolidate one of the region's crucial democratic rebirths. In the process, Generation 68 has recognized the tough compromises that mark good fiscal management. "What we see now is the collision of their utopian ideals with the bitter reality of running a government," says Zuenir Ventura, a seasoned journalist and author of the acclaimed book "1968, The Year That Hasn't Ended."

The 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet more closely resembled the Dirty War nightmare of Argentina in both its ferocity and style. But like Brazil, Chile has integrated its militant generation into government with far less friction. The cabinet of President Ricardo Lagos features a number of veterans from the Salvador Allende era, notably Education Minister Sergio Bitar and Defense Minister Michele Bachelet. A student leader in the early 1960s, Bitar served in Allende's cabinet and later spent more than a year in a concentration camp after Pinochet's bloody 1973 coup. He subsequently joined Lagos in exile and became a vocal critic of Pinochet when he came back home in 1984. Bachelet's father, Alberto, was an Air Force general under Allende who was arrested, tortured and eventually died in Pinochet's jails. Bachelet also went into exile after the coup. Her appointment as Defense minister in 2002 raised eyebrows among the top brass in Santiago. But Bachelet has struck a modus vivendi with the stern commanders of what many military experts call the world's last remaining Prussian army, and she is widely touted as a possible presidential candidate for Lagos's Socialist Party in next year's general election.

Meantime the political bitterness in Argentina shows no sign of abating. Kirchner's supporters cite recent polls indicating that most Argentines approve the president's human-rights policies. "We are not motivated by resentment or hatred," declared Kirchner in his off-the-cuff speech at the Navy Mechanical School earlier this year. "I am motivated by justice and the fight against impunity." Whether one accepts or rejects that impassioned defense, it's clear that Argentina's battle over its past is not over.

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