Buenos Aires, Argentina – Martinez de Hoz, the minister of economy during Argentina’s last dictatorship, was arrested Tuesday at his home in the upscale Retiro neighborhood in Buenos Aires. For decades, de Hoz, 84, has been the face of civilian complicity in the Argentine dictatorship, which, from 1976-1983 suppressed union activity and political organizing by forcibly disappearing thousands of citizens. Praised during the 1970s as a pragmatic and neoliberal policy maker who would expand the free market philosophy in South America – much as the Pinochet dictatorship was doing in Chile – he has endured as one of Argentina’s most controversial figures.
De Hoz is accused of orchestrating the extortion of two Argentine businessmen, Federico and Miguel Gutheim, by using his connections in the military government. According to the indictment, the Gutheims were illegally detained in 1976 and forced to renegotiate a cotton export contract they held with Hong Kong. The Gutheims have stated in court papers that while in prison, they were visited by officials from the government and later taken from prison to business meetings to meet with visiting businessmen from Hong Kong and members of de Hoz’s staff. The Gutheim’s lost over $2 million dollars after being pressured in these meetings; de Hoz is suspected of pressuring the Gutheims either because of personal connections to a business associate who benefitted from the transaction, or to help boost imports to Argentina and bolster his economic policies.
The prosecution of de Hoz is part of a society-wide reassessment of Argentina’s repressive past since 2003, when a series of amnesty laws protecting human rights violators were repealed by the Argentine congress at the behest of then-President Nestor Kirchner. (Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernandez, succeeded him as president in 2007).
The results have been extensive. On April 20, Argentina’s last dictator, Reynaldo Bignone, was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Jorge Videla, Argentina’s first dictator, was recently accused of 49 forced disappearances, added to an already expansive investigation. In total, nearly 700 people have been indicted for crimes committed a generation ago.
As evidenced by de Hoz’s prosecution, the investigations reach beyond the military. The church, too, has been a target. In 2006, Catholic priest Cristian Federico Von Wernich was convicted of human rights abuses, after the father perverted the confession into an interrogation tactic of the torturers who secretly held prisoners. More recently, Argentine investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky has written a series of articles in the country’s left-leaning daily Pagina 12 accusing Jorge Bergoglio, currently an Argentine cardinal, of participating in the kidnapping of two liberal priests in 1976.
Opponents, however, say that de Hoz is a victim of a politically charged investigation, meant to bolster the popularity and credibility of the Kirchner administration.
After reopening human rights cases, the Kirchners have gained the backing of a wide segment of the human rights movement. Critics say the Kirchners have used human rights to shield themselves from criticism in other areas, such as inflation; a fight with Argentina’s largest media group, Clarin; and a simmering conflict with the country’s farmers and ranchers.
The judge investigating the case, Norberto Oyarbide, has also colored the investigation because he has released a series of decisions closely aligned with the interests of the Kirchners. In December, Judge Oyarbide absolved the Kirchner couple of corruption charges, even though the Kirchners made nearly $7 million dollars in 2008. (The couple is now worth more than $11 million, an increase of 158 percent in 2008 alone). Judge Oyarbide is also leading an investigation against Mauricio Macri, the conservative businessman-turned-mayor of Buenos Aires, who is suspected of participating in an illegal wiretapping network. Macri is a possible presidential contender against the Kirchners in 2011.
Elisa Carrio, an opposition leader in congress, has called Judge Oyarbide “horribly corrupt” and has asked he be impeached.
De Hoz was first charged with the crime in 1987, four years after the return of democracy, but benefitted from a presidential pardon in 1989 before the case went to trial – part of a series of pardons which benefited high ranking military officers accused of human rights abuses.
On April 27, however, the Supreme Court declared the pardon unconstitutional, arguing that de Hoz’s suspected crimes amount to crimes against humanity and cannot be pardoned. Three days later, Judge Oyarbide revoked de Hoz’s passport, and, on Tuesday night, he was arrested.
In court papers, de Hoz said that he does not know the reason why the Gutheims were detained. His son, Jose, who is representing him in the case, suggested that the charges were politically motivated, after President Kirchner called for his arrest on the 30th anniversary of the coup in 2006. Jose de Hoz also said that his father was already indicted before he was pardoned and said that the case amounts to double jeopardy.
Interpol agents met him at his apartment in the Kavanaugh building – South America’s first skyscraper, an art deco landmark in an elite Buenos Aires neighborhood – and took him to a local clinic on the orders of a doctor who was checking de Hoz’s health. Images of the aging defendant carried out on a stretcher were broadcast live across the country.
Secretary of Human Rights Eduardo Duhalde praised the arrest of the man he called the “civilian chief” of a “terrorist coup.”
On March 24, 1976, tanks rolled through Buenos Aires and ousted Isabel Peron from the casa rosada, beginning seven years of military rule. A week before Peron was ousted, the plotting military officers asked de Hoz to brief them on a plan to restructure the faltering economy. The week after the military took over, de Hoz – a steel magnate from a traditional landowning family – was named minister of the economy.
The generals took a backseat to de Hoz, hoping that by placing a civilian in front of the international community they could avoid criticism.
During the first week after the coup, de Hoz spent more than two hours of uninterrupted airtime on national television to explain his economic policies to the Argentine people. By contrast, military President Jorge Videla’s speech to the country had been just 15 minutes.
The plan initially worked. De Hoz – a friend of David Rockefeller – was praised internationally as a new breed of neoliberal policymakers sweeping the Southern Hemisphere, who could wrest industry from state control and open up Southern markets to foreign capital. As activists were being kidnapped off the streets and prominent opponents jailed, The New York Times ran a profile of de Hoz, touting his professional bona fides. It would take several years before human rights became the principal news story coming out of Argentina.
In a country where the press was routinely censored about human rights abuses, a degree of criticism of the government’s economic policies was tolerated, an indication, the government said, that the military had not restricted basic freedoms. It was, however, a veneer of freedom which helped distract attention from the dictatorship’s secret repressive campaign.
De Hoz stepped down in 1980, and had taken important steps toward curbing inflation. The military, however, was forced out of office three years later, after a failed war with Britain over the disputed Falkland islands and a series of strikes by workers over a drop in real wages during the dictatorship.
It could take years before de Hoz sees a courtroom. A backlog of human rights cases has left many languishing in the pretrial stage for years. Judge Oyarbide will now have to decide whether to hold de Hoz in preventive detention at his house, or hold him in prison as he awaits trial.