In the past two weeks, the Unesco World Heritage Committee has discussed more than 50 natural and cultural sites worldwide, deciding which ones to add to its World Heritage List and providing legal protections to those deemed “of outstanding value to humanity”. Among the newly inscribed sites is the ESMA Museum and Site of Memory in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a former clandestine centre turned memorial, where major human rights violations occurred between 1976 and 1983, during the country’s military dictatorship. Reaching World Heritage status has been a goal since the museum’s inception in 2015, during the government of then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. But, if the ultra-right presidential candidate Javier Milei and his running mate Victoria Villarruel are elected on 22 October (they won the primary in August with around 30% of the vote), their tendency to question established historical facts and distort the legacy of the dictatorship may put the ESMA museum at risk, just eight years after it was inaugurated.
In 1977, a year after the right-wing military junta declared martial law in Argentina, a 40-acre property belonging to the Navy School of
Mechanics (ESMA) was turned into one of the country’s more than 600 clandestine centres of detention, torture and extermination. That same year, 25-year-old Ana María Soffiantini was kidnapped with her two children and brought, blindfolded, into the ESMA building. She was imprisoned for a year, experiencing and witnessing countless acts of torture committed by members of the military—who would murder and “disappear” 30,000 people nationwide over the course of the regime. “The ESMA was a place inhabited by horror,” Soffiantini tells The Art Newspaper.
Soffiantini’s story is now part of the ESMA museum exhibition Being Women at ESMA. Through film, photography and recorded archives of the 1985 judicial testimony of more than 130 survivors, the exhibition tells of rape and other horrific violations. “But it is also our attempt to talk about life once we survived the ESMA, to make a reconstruction together and move forward,” Soffiantini says. The exhibition, which began in 2019, is ongoing and continues to evolve as more survivors add their testimonies. It has also travelled to Bilbao and Washington, DC.
Soffiantini was among 5,000 students, workers, activists and other civilians labelled “subversives” or “communists” who passed through ESMA, and one of less than 200 who made it out alive. Others were sedated and dropped into the river or Atlantic Ocean in the infamous “death flights”. Pregnant women gave birth in the building before they were murdered, their babies taken away and handed to other families who hid their origins. (Today, hundreds of people who were born in captivity are in their 40s and live with false identities—still disappeared in life.)
The ESMA officers’ club building, where some of these harrowing events occurred, now houses the ESMA museum, a national monument that includes permanent and revolving exhibitions and archives related to human rights. The building has not been altered, and the space still serves as judicial proof in cases against murderers who remain at large. (The ESMA mega-case, against dozens of people accused of crimes against humanity, has proved that atrocities were committed inside the building.) The museum’s permanent exhibition includes archival film projected on its walls, documents, recorded testimony from trials, photographs and objects from victims left behind. The walls themselves, left intact with marks made by the imprisoned, create a sense of suffocation and inescapable eeriness.
“What is unique about this museum is that, to understand Argentina, it is indispensable to know what happened in the last dictatorship,” says Mayki Gorosito, the museum’s director. “This helps us realise causes and consequences. But it is also a view towards the future.” Becoming a Unesco World Heritage site grants the ESMA museum “symbolic and material protection”, she adds. “The government will have a responsibility to sustain internationally that these realities happened. The world will have more awareness about our necessity to preserve social memory, so that these events never happen again.”
Depending on who wins Argentina’s presidential election next month, the history that the ESMA museum seeks to safeguard may be at risk. Milei is a libertarian economist who rose to prominence as a television commentator, and his goal of dollarising the economy (getting rid of the peso and making the US dollar the country’s sole legal currency) has attracted people of different ages and socio-economic statuses. Yet the ideology his party promotes veers into the ultra-right, with negationist narratives regarding history and climate change. Identifying with leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, Milei has declared countless times that he detests “leftists” and “communism”, and he has described socialists as “garbage” and “human excrement”. Milei has also publicly questioned the number of people murdered by state terrorism and mocked those with jobs at human rights organisations.
Villarruel, Milei’s vice president and a military apologist, holds even more extremist views of Argentina’s history. She is the daughter of a colonel who participated in a violent military operation to repress workers in 1975, and she, too, has publicly doubted the number of disappeared people, stating that the “victim” narrative is fake and a “construction of the Left” and that the military was “fighting subversives” at the time. Recently, Argentinian media discovered that Villarruel had organised visits to the late junta dictator Jorge Rafael Videla while he was under house arrest in the early 2000s. Earlier this month, she staged a tribute to the “victims” of 1970s leftist groups.
Regardless of political polarisation, there is a strong social consensus in Argentina about what happened during the dictatorship due to legal proof. In 1985, Argentina became the only country in Latin America where a civilian government went to trial against its own military junta—part of this testimony is what appears in the exhibition Being Women at ESMA.
“I remained silent for years,” says Soffiantini, who spoke up for the first time when she testified as a witness in the 1985 trial. “It was too painful to talk about what happened there, but now, we won’t stop advocating for truth, memory and justice. When I was imprisoned at ESMA, I could never hear birds. Now, I go in there, and the museum is full of visitors, young people, human rights organisations and art. Some survivors and family members of disappeared friends returned to work there and are now my dear friends. The birds are back. Beyond all the death, I now encounter life.”