Hebe de Bonafini, the mother who stood up against Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship, passes away at 93.

Hebe de Bonafini, Villa Martelli, 29 de marzo de 2015
Credit: Margarita Solé, Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación Argentina, CC BY-SA 2.0

by Payam Solhtalab

Liberation is saddened to learn of the passing of Hebe de Bonafini, the iconic co-founder and leading member of the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, on the morning of Sunday 20 November 2022 at the age of 93.

Sra. Bonafini became a noted and passionate advocate for the defence of human rights in Argentina following the abductions and forced disappearances of two of her three children, Jorge Omar and Raúl Alfredo, during the country’s military dictatorship (1976-1983) headed by General Jorge Rafael Videla.

This dark period in the history of Argentina saw the ruling military junta institute a so-called “National Reorganisation Process”, which was in reality the launching of a Dirty War against the country’s political left.  This encompassed and drew in a wide swath of people – from social democrats; dissident artists, journalists, and intellectuals; advocates for the indigenous and poor communities – through to dissenting priests and liberation theologians; student, labour, and trade union activists; and members of the ‘Peronist Left’ and Communist Party of Argentina.  (In many cases, merely falling under the suspicions of the state, its dreaded intelligence apparatus, and death squads was enough to have one’s fate sealed.)

Around 30,000 people are known to have been disappeared or confirmed murdered by the military dictatorship during its seven years in power.  Accounts from witnesses and survivors testify to a system of arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, rape, and murder – of state violence on a terrifying scale – carried out with complete impunity.  Many political prisoners, once deemed no longer of use to their captors, were loaded onto planes, drugged, and stripped before being thrown mid-flight to their deaths in the South Atlantic Ocean below.  Pregnant captives would be kept alive until they gave birth only to then have their babies taken away and put up for ‘adoption’ by pro-regime families in a practice that took place on a near-industrial scale, the after-effects of which still reverberate throughout Argentine society to this day.

Sra. Bonafini first came to prominence when she and 13 other mothers of “desaparecidos” bravely began gathering in the Plaza de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires in 1977 – at the height of the military junta’s power – to hold vigils and demand answers as to the fate of their loved ones.  The women were distinctive in their appearance, readily identifiable by the white headscarves they all wore.

As time went by, and with the realisation of the sheer horror that had befallen Argentina, the Mothers’ campaign began to morph from one of finding their children into determining the identities of the culprits responsible and making sure they were then brought to justice for their crimes against humanity.

This was a fraught and dangerous endeavour and the Mothers were soon faced with intimidation, including death threats, and regular attacks.  Tragically, some of their number were subsequently abducted and murdered themselves.

The dignity, fortitude, and steadfastness of the Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo made ripples not just in Argentina but much further afield – notably in Iran, where, inspired by their example, groups like the Mothers of Khavaran and the Mothers of Laleh Park were set up by the mothers of leftist prisoners who had been forcibly disappeared in their thousands by the Islamic Republic dictatorship under an eerily similar set of circumstances in the 1980s.

Following the restoration of civilian rule under President Raúl Alfonsín in 1983, divisions emerged between the Mothers preceding a split in their movement.  These differences largely related to a perceived over-cautiousness on the part of the Alfonsín government in progressing the prosecutions of the perpetrators of the Dirty War as well as their limited scope.  This was exacerbated by the acquittal of five of the nine leading members of the military junta originally brought to trial and a growing belief that further prosecutions were being waived by the government for the sake of political expediency.  Of the two groups that emerged from the split, the one headed by Sra. Bonafini was viewed as representing the more radical tendency.

Sra. Bonafini was a vocal supporter of the progressive Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner presidential administrations.  It has been reported that, such was the closeness and warmth of this relationship, the late Néstor Kirchner received Sra. Bonafini in the Casa Rosada (the presidential palace in Buenos Aires) and would regularly consult with her during his time in office.  Her support for the Kirchners owed in no small part to their success in having the two main legal impediments to further Dirty War prosecutions – the ‘Full Stop Law’ and ‘Law of Due Obedience’, essentially amnesty provisions – declared unconstitutional.  This paved the way for several leading figures from the military dictatorship era, including General Videla himself, to be tried and finally face proper justice.  Thus, Argentina was set on a path to begin the process of forthrightly addressing its painful recent past – as well as the fault lines and legacy stemming from those times.

Over the years, Sra. Bonafini not only earned a reputation as a champion of human rights and progressive politics but also as a fiercely outspoken no-nonsense critic of what she saw to be the two main evils of capitalism and US-led imperialism, including NATO.  This was not without significant controversy.  She defended to the very end her previous support for guerrilla organisations, including FARC and ETA.

Sra. Bonafini consistently and forthrightly made clear her opposition to social democratic politics; capitalism, specifically neo-liberalism; globalisation; and the International Monetary Fund.

Conversely, she declared her support for political figures such as her compatriot Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Augusto Sandino, Yasser Arafat, Hugo Chávez, and Evo Morales – as well as the mothers of ETA prisoners.

Upon the news of Sra. Bonafini’s passing, tributes have poured in from across Argentina and the wider world as a sign of the high esteem in which she was held by so many.  The Argentine government has called for three days of national mourning.

“Dearest Hebe, Mother of Plaza de Mayo, you are a world symbol of the fight for Human Rights, and a pride of Argentina,” wrote Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on Twitter.

“The Argentine government and people recognise in her an international symbol of the search for memory, truth and justice for the thirty thousand disappeared,” read a statement issued by the office of President Alberto Fernandez.

“As founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, she shed light in the middle of the dark night of the military dictatorship.”

Liberation mourns the passing of Sra. Bonafini and pays tribute to her legacy.  Indeed it is testament to that same legacy that over 45 years since those incredibly courageous fateful first steps taken by a small group of women in the public square in front of the Casa Rosada, under the menacing glare of a wicked military regime, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo endure as a symbol of hope, truth, and justice – not only in Argentina, but around the world.  Their campaign lives on…

Sra. Bonafini goes to her grave having never found out what happened to her two beloved sons.

Hebe María Pastor de Bonafini (4 December 1928 – 20 November 2022)

Payam Solhtalab is a peace activist, member of the National Executive Council of the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR), member of Liberation, and regular contributor to Liberation Journal.

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