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Hebe de Bonafini, who led the Argentine mothers of the “disappeared”, dies at 93

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Hebe de Bonafini, who led the Argentine mothers of the
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There were times when Hebe de Bonafini inspired the world: defying Argentina’s military junta to lead a campaign of mothers demanding justice for thousands of people ‘disappeared’ by the dictatorship – including her two sons and daughter-in-law .

There were also moments of disunity and contempt. Her strident views divided the famous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo movement, and her caustic tongue could leave her isolated due to comments considered anti-Semitic and justifying the attacks of September 11, 2001 as a reward for the intimidation of the America.

His contrasting legacy – unwavering and alienating – became a fixture of Argentine political life for more than four decades as the country grappled with the horrors of right-wing junta rule from 1976 to 1983 and rebuilt a still haunted democracy. in the past.

Ms. de Bonafini, once a mother with a high school education, walked through this arc as a voice of conscience on the regime’s “dirty war”, but also as a guardian of her own combative political brand that did not allow almost no middle ground.

“It’s true that I am very radical,” said Ms. de Bonafini, who died on November 20 in a hospital in La Plata, Argentina, at age 93. “Mothers always ask for the maximum, and what is the maximum that we ask for: to have justice, to maintain principles and to live with ethics.

The group was initially galvanized by rage and grief. Ms de Bonafini and 13 other mothers – all with children or missing relatives – gathered in 1977 outside the main government palace in Buenos Aires. It was a courageous challenge to the dictatorship and its violent repressions against anyone it perceived as a threat, including journalists, authors, professors, leftist students and political opponents.

The mothers came back every Thursday. And more joined each week, strolling around a clock tower and holding pictures of their missing loved ones. A simple white scarf, decorated with the names of the disappeared, becomes the hallmark of the movement. Ms. de Bonafini was rarely seen without a headscarf with locks of hair – chestnut, then gray – sticking out over the years.

When police seized one of the protest’s early leaders, Azucena Villaflor, in December 1977, Ms. de Bonafini herded the group into the square and quickly shifted the tone of the marches in a more aggressive direction. Ms de Bonafini then brought megaphones and loudspeakers, shouting insults at the junta and shouting the names of missing people. (Villaflor was taken to a prison camp and her remains were found by forensic teams in 2005.)

An estimated 30,000 people are “disappeared” and presumed killed by the military regime. Argentine mothers have inspired similar movements over the decades, including women-led peace rallies during the Balkan wars and Russian mothers opposing the war in Ukraine.

“We are not fighting to find out whether our children are alive or dead,” Ms. de Bonafini said in 1986. “We have a much larger fight. We seek justice, and all that might mean: that people don’t forget.

In February 1977, security forces took away Madame de Bonafini’s eldest son, Jorge, who was part of a left-wing guerrilla faction. In December 1977, her other son, Raúl, was taken away. Six months later, Jorge’s wife, María Elena Bugnone Cepeda, was arrested. None were seen again by their families.

“Before my son was kidnapped, I was just another woman, another housewife,” Ms de Bonafini said in 2017.

Miguel Etchecolatz, enforcer of Argentina’s ‘dirty war’, dies at 93

Even after the collapse of the junta, Ms. de Bonafini maintained her confrontational style with her democratically elected successors to demand answers and mete out sanctions. Throughout this time, she said, the threats against her never stopped. In biographer Alejandro Diago’s 1988 book, “Hebe Bonafini, Memoria y Esperanza,” she describes herself as an always-hunting “mother-lion.”

This zeal, however, caused divisions and recriminations. The mothers’ movement split in 1986 along the line with me or against me drawn by Madame de Bonafini. Some joined her. Others split into a separate faction, complaining that Mme de Bonafini’s political leanings had become too extreme and her temperament too unpredictable.

She took strong anti-American views — a principled stance, she said, given American support for the Argentine dictatorship and other right-wing regimes in Latin America — and embraced some of Washington’s chief enemies, such as as Fidel Castro in Cuba, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the FARC guerrillas in the Colombian civil war. After the September 11 attacks, Ms de Bonafini said she felt “happiness”.

“The blood of so many at that time was avenged,” she said, pointing to NATO bombings, US embargoes and military alliances with authoritarian governments. “It was because of this power that these men attacked, with their own bodies,” she added. “And everyone knew it.” (Others, too, around the world are making connections between the attacks and US foreign policy.)

Argentinian journalist Horacio Verbitsky called her for remarks. She retaliated by noting his Jewish faith and calling him a “servant of the United States,” bringing charges of anti-Semitic libel.

In 2005, she also denounced Pope John Paul II, saying he would “go to hell” for his acknowledged role in helping communism collapse. She later sought support for her poverty-fighting efforts from Pope Francis, who was born in Argentina and became the first Latin American pontiff.

Yet a plan led by Ms. de Bonafini to build apartments for slum dwellers in Buenos Aires unraveled in 2011 in a scandal that deeply tarnished her image as a social activist.

Ms. de Bonafini’s political ally, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, then Argentina’s president, set aside $45 million for Sueños Compartidos (“Shared Dreams”), a charitable group founded by Ms. de Bonafini’s group, the Foundation Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Ms de Bonafini’s choice of builders raised eyebrows: a company called Meldorek, linked to a friend and adviser, Sergio Schoklender, who had been imprisoned with his brother Pablo for torturing and killing their parents in 1981. Ms de Bonafini s was befriended by Sergio Schoklender in prison over common human rights issues before his release in 1995.

Allegations were soon raised about alleged overcharging by Meldorek and non-payment of workers’ pensions. Meanwhile, Schoklender traveled on a private plane and reportedly used company money to buy a Ferrari and yachts – although he claimed he did not own the company.

Schoklender was charged with fraud and tax mismanagement. A judge in 2017 extended the indictments to Ms de Bonafini. She claimed the allegations were fabricated by political enemies. The case is still open.

Argentine leaders, however, were effusive with tributes after his death. “We have lost a tireless fighter,” said a statement of President Alberto Fernandez. “She faced genocide when collective common sense went in another direction,” he added.

Hebe María Pastor was born in Ensenada, southeast of Buenos Aires, on December 4, 1928, and left school after elementary school to help support his family. In 1942, she married Humberto Alfredo Bonafini and they had three children together. (Her husband died in 1982.)

After the restoration of democracy in 1983, Ms. de Bonafini denounced the limited scope of the trials of former junta officials. Then, in 1986, an amnesty was passed that covered many security officers in attempts to avoid post-junta upheavals in the military and police. His protests grew.

In 1996, Ms de Bonafini was beaten by the police during a student demonstration against the introduction of university entrance exams. “Never before had blood flowed onto a mothers scarf,” Ms. de Bonafini told The New York Times. “If they could, I believe they would have killed me.”

Its polarizing effect was evident in the aftermath. An interlocutor on a morning radio show grumbled that Ms de Bonafini “always puts her militant nose where it doesn’t belong”.

Five years later, Ms de Bonafini said she had received anonymous threats that attackers would hit her “where it hurts the most”. In May 2001, two men posing as employees of a telephone company entered her home and beat her daughter, María Alejandra Bonafini, and burned the woman’s arms with a cigarette.

The death of Mme de Bonafini was announced by her daughter, her only survivor, and statements by Argentine political leaders. No cause was given.

The election of left-wing president Néstor Kirchner in 2003 brought about a new political alliance with Madame de Bonafini. Kirchner lifted the amnesty and resumed prosecution for the alleged “dirty war” crimes. Ms de Bonafini has backed the family, including Kirchner’s widow, Cristina, and her political successor, amid corruption allegations. (Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is the current vice president.)

“We are their voice, or try to be their voice,” Ms de Bonafini said of the missing.

U2 paid tribute to the protests in their 1987 song “Mothers of the Disappeared”. When U2 visited Argentina in 1998, singer Bono took the time to meet Mme de Bonafini.

She gave him a white scarf.

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