May 29, 2005

Cuban dissident, a human, not a political issue


Foreign Ministry’s Human Rights Secretary Horacio Méndez Carreras first interview

Coming back to the time when you replaced Alicia Oliveira, did Alberto Fernández ask you at any time how you saw the problem with Cuba and how you proposed to tackle it?

At no time, it was always France etc. But once I had moved into the Foreign Ministry, Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa did ask me to take charge of the case of Dr Hilda Molina, the Cuban brain surgeon seeking to visit her son Dr Roberto Quiñones and her grandchildren here. I was present at all the Ministry’s meetings with the Quiñones family and also met them several times myself.

It is well known that you have devoted a lot of time to studying this case so after all that study, what is your conclusion?

Not only have I met repeatedly with Quiñones but also with Cuban officials in Geneva prior to the United Nations Human Rights Committee vote on the island’s human rights record last April, pointing out to them the problem they have created. Our diplomatic efforts are necessarily reserved but I can tell you that we basically regard this as a humanitarian rather than political problem — that is the heart of the matter. President Kirchner has involved himself personally in this case, which the government follows closely — especially with the upcoming visit of President Kirchner to Cuba at the beginning of June (Ed. — postponed since the interview). Kirchner plans to bring up the Molina case with all the appropriate discretion in his meeting with President Fidel Castro.
I would also like to point out that there is a lot of disinformation about this case, seeing it only from one angle. It is important to mention certain facts such as that the Quiñones family has been offered every guarantee to travel to Cuba, backed by the Foreign Ministry. Castro has sent President Kirchner a letter assuring him that the family can travel without any problems. I don’t know if they will go but Quiñones hinted to me that his family would go in the course of this year with or without him. A family reunion would certainly be very good for bilateral relations.

A more general question now. The state terrorisn of the military dictatorship (when you began your human rights work) so surpassed the terrorism it was countering that it came to be repudiated by the entire world and the rights and wrongs seem pretty simple then. Today an anti-terrorist climate against a much more serious terrorism prevails worldwide and the planet is much more divided. What balance would you make between human rights and anti-terrorism today?

Since 9/11 there has been a deterioriation in the protection of human rights. Severity has replaced flexibility even in European countries with a strong human rights record, never mind the United States. Countries like Spain are really clamming up, cracking down on entry instead of simply enforcing the law, but at the same time I see advances in Spanish justice, sentencing a ”dirty warrior” like Adolfo Scilingo to hundreds of years of imprisonment. Meanwhile Chile is progressing with the investigation of the Cóndor Plan of regional repression, especially after the recent statements of General (Manuel) Contreras on the activities of the DINA intelligence he headed which also had people killed in the United States and here.
I myself continue with various human rights cases here, the French nuns, the disappearance of Mariana Erize in San Juan, etc. Thanks to the repeal of the amnesty legislation there is now a favourable trend for re-opening old cases.

President Kirchner’s critics sometimes accuse him of being ”stuck in the 70s.” To what extent do you see yourself as ”stuck in the 70s” and how much does your human rights agenda refer to current events?

What happened three decades ago in the absence of democratic government was an entirely different order of magnitude. Today we have to deal with the cases against Argentina brought before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IHRC). There are hundreds of these. We have to appear in Washington twice a year to explain them. Most of the charges concern abuse of power even though we live in democracy. Prison overcrowding is a major problem. There are also many complaints against the police all the time — triggerhappy behaviour and other infringements of civil liberties.
One problem is defining state responsibility. Most of the offences are actually committed under provincial jurisdiction but many provincial administrations are reluctant to assume their responsibilities and even if they did, it is still the national government which must necessarily explain things in Washington. We need better co-ordination and more awareness on the part of provincial governors.
As for more recent events than the ”dirty war,” we have the AMIA terrorist attack (1994). Argentina has assumed the responsibility here and pledged its clarification with no letup. This involves many Foreign Ministry meetings so as not to slacken the pace.

And what has been your main concern most recently?

I have been correcting a mistake which we actually did not commit but that does not make it any less our responsibility. A previous administration carelessly included in a plaque honouring diplomats who helped save lives in the Second World War the name of Luis Germán Yrigoyen, an illegitimate son of the great Radical leader Hipólito Yrigoyen who served as second secretary at Argentina’s Berlin embassy between 1937 and 1943. He had fluid contacts with the Germans but instead of trying to repatriate Jews with Argentine passports facing deportation (as was assumed, the reason for his appearance in the plaque), he gave the Nazis to understand that Argentina could not care less — with fatal consequences. All this has been thoroughly documented by the Wallenberg Foundation.
Correcting this mistake was a debt we owed the Jewish community. Earlier this month Foreign Minister Bielsa issued a resolution to remove the offending plaque and leave its future form up to a new commission including members of the Wallenberg Foundation, which will pronounce an opinion in 90 days. There are 11 other names on the plaque and at least some of them definitely deserve to be there so it is unfair on them. But I understand the original plaque had only three names so more investigation is needed as to what those diplomats really did, case by case, 70 years later. So far there have been no objections to the removal of the plaque.
All this is taking up time we do not really have because we have hundreds of IHRC cases alone but we do not have any choice if we wish to rectify an error.

Coming back to the question of human rights versus anti-terrorism, some human rights groups have gone beyond condemning abuses (Guantánamo etc.) to expressing sympathies with terrorism. What position do you and the government take on that?

I have many links with all human rights groups. I join the Madres in the Plaza de Mayo, I’m in permanent contact with CELS, the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights and all the others. The first thing I did when I started this job was visit them all and place myself at their disposal. They’re all friends going back many years whom I really admire. They have struggled all these years; I have just accompanied them. They have made my work possible.
I assume you are referring to Hebe de Bonafini. Not all groups toe the same line, not even within the Mothers — there are important differences. Whenever I go to the Plaza, I always greet both groups, which does not mean I agree with them all on everything.
I see my job as having to build bridges everywhere — also within the government, for example, the Human Rights Department of the Justice Ministry (I have an excellent relationship with Eduardo Luis Duhalde). I also have excellent contacts with Anti-Corruption Office chief Abel Fleitas Ortiz de Rosas and with the AMIA investigators. Every now and then I go to La Plata to see Buenos Aires provincial Security Minister León Arslanian (a very old friend from the days he presided over the 1985 junta trial) to deal with cases under his jurisdiction — I feel sorry for him because he has a very difficult job.

How do you feel about being in government after having been an independent voice for human rights in your legal career and also as a Herald columnist in the past?

No doubts at all — after five months here, I have been very happy from the start with the confidence vested in me. Thank heavens my job is more political than technical. I have just had lunch with Cabinet Chief Fernández and he is following my work with human rights in the Foreign Ministry very closely and is highly satisfied.
The independence I had in the past is less important than being able to apply the vast resources of the state to my experience — I can use all the human resources and information at the disposal of the state to advance the cases with which I have always worked. With this government I cannot feel uncomfortable from any viewpoint because of all the governments we have ever had, this has done the most to defend human rights and all the principles for which I have ever fought — that is quite objective. Moving from the private to the public sector thus does not sacrifice any of my principles.
But having said that, I have fond enough memories of writing for the Herald and of the Cox family amid all the pressures of the dictatorship to be now giving you the only interview I have granted to the media. To all the other media I say: ”You’ll have to judge me by my record, not my words” but with the Herald (the only newspaper to take a stand) it is a very special link — I cannot say no to you.