Argentine on Argentine

Living through the coup on March 24, 1976 in Argentina was interesting.

English: Argentine Air Force A-4AR Fightinghaw...

Argentine Air Force A-4AR Fightinghawk during Air Fest 2010 show at Moron Air Base, Buenos Aires Argentina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The violence you associate with a coup happened largely in Western provinces, not in the capital city of Buenos Aires, where we lived.

We had been told even before we moved to Argentina that the reason my husband and the team of contractors he joined were hired was because Americans were being kidnapped for ransom.

Large American companies were thought to be easy targets if their employees were kidnapped.

By 1975, most international companies had withdrawn their employees because of this danger.

For this reason, the American electronics company that won an award to install a computerized air traffic control system for the Argentine Air Force decided to hire contractors for the job.

After all, if contractors were kidnapped, they would not feel obliged to pay to ransom them back.

We knew this going in and went anyway.

Why Did We Go?

My husband was fluent in Spanish and I took a year at the local community college to prepare for the trip.

Our research on Argentina showed us it had a large, educated middle class.

It is considered the Paris of South America for its wealth and sophistication.

We found it distinct from other South American countries for its mix of Parisian style, Italian fashion, American education and British soccer (futbôl).

They had imported the model for their universal public school system from our own Horace Mann, for its emphasis on open discussions and questioning, after looking at and rejecting the memorization model of German schools.

The country is rich in natural resources, with the broad plains, known as the Pampas, suited for grazing cattle, steak being the country’s chief export.

It was said that, where Iowa, our own breadbasket, has six inches of topsoil, the Argentine Pampas have six feet.

Can You Trust Contractors?

As it turned out, the American company decided not to leave unsupervised contractors doing the work, so they sent some of their own engineers down to Argentina to oversee the project.

The contractors had been told by the American embassy, in advance of the trip, not to establish a pattern of routes to work and trips around town that could be observed and anticipated, so kidnappers could set up an ambush point.

We varied our schedule and routes, wore clothes we had bought in Argentina to blend in, and spoke only Spanish in public.

We lived in a German neighborhood, where our light hair would not draw attention.

I once wore one of my American sweaters into a neighborhood drug store and, before I opened my mouth, was greeted with, “You’re an American, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I confirmed, “but how did you know?”

“You are wearing a sweater with bands of color.”

“No Argentine clothes are color-fast, so we would never make a sweater like that.”

“Only Americans have color-fast clothes.”

I never wore the sweater out again.

The American engineer employees, by contrast, stayed together in a big, Western hotel chain, wore American clothes, did not speak Spanish, and were picked up and dropped off by a limo driver at the same time every day.

They came to understand they might as well have a bulls-eye on their backs.

When one of their Argentine manufacturing plants was attacked, and the local Argentine manager killed, the American engineers fled across the river to Uruguay.

Then, they called back to the contractors and told them they still had to go in to work, if they wanted to get paid.

My husband pointed out that the engineers had the keys and, as long as the contractors were willing to work, but prevented from doing so for lack of keys, the company must pay them.

And, they did.

The American engineers returned a week later when there were no further attacks.

Were the American Engineers At Risk of Being Kidnapped?

As it happened, by the time we arrived, the kidnappers had moved on.

So many international companies had withdrawn their employees that there weren’t enough targets anymore.

They started kidnapping rich Argentines instead.

I read one such story by the wife who’d been kidnapped and later released.

She and her husband had developed a strategy that, if either of them were kidnapped, they’d tell the kidnappers that they were in the process of getting divorced and would not pay a ransom.

She was able to convey, through the way the kidnappers asked her husband questions, that she was using this strategy.

He understood her indirect message and refused to pay a ransom.

Finally, in negotiations, he agreed that, as they had been married a number of years, he should pay something for their happy years together, so arranged for the kidnappers to receive a modest sum.

She was returned safely.

Still, government officials were so fearful for their safety that one-third of the Buenos Aires police force was dedicated to personal guard duty.

Was It Safe in the Suburbs?

Unlike in the U.S., in Argentina, it was considered much safer to live in the city than in the suburbs.

Crime could more easily be controlled in a small, contained area.

But, from time to time, we went out to the countryside.

One such lovely Sunday afternoon, after the coup, we ate at an outdoor restaurant, set in a beautiful meadow, next to a small farm.

Near the end of the meal, we heard shots.

Ducking under the table, we saw armed men chasing someone through the fields onto the farm next door.

Soldiers, apparently, were chasing rebels fighting the now military-led government.

Our waiter picked up the edge of the tablecloth to find us, asking, “Will there be any dessert, then?”

Looking around, we realized we were the only ones who had ducked under the table.

My husband replied calmly, “No. Just the check, please.”

We came out from under the table, paid and left.

Between 4,000 and 30,000 people “disappeared” and are presumed dead, in the seven years the military ran Argentina, from 1976 to 1983, in a period known as the “Dirty War.”

And, yet, we had been there before the coup, when citizens disappeared and the police claimed no knowledge.

It must be tempting for a government, once a policy of extrajudicial detention and executions has started, to continue, even when the target of such actions changes.

When we left the country, rebels were leaving bomb-filled toys in the streets for children to find.

That is war.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers


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