The passage of the bill represents a huge victory for secularists in a predominantly conservative Catholic country. The debate inevitably included religious and moral undertones; for instance, when Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio called for protests, he described the proposed legislation as a “destructive pretension against the plan of God.” This provided rich political fodder for the Left, whose leaders compared the statement to the language of the Inquisition.
The bill is especially important in a country with a long history of human rights violations. It is estimated that as many as 30,000 Argentines disappeared in the state-sponsored “Dirty War” in which General Jorge Rafael Videla’s military junta targeted left-wing activists as part of Operation Condor during the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Since the restoration of democracy in 1983, Argentina has attempted to heal its broken past through progressive steps such as initiating the unprecedented Trial of the Juntas, which put members of the de facto military government on trial. Argentina also overturned an amnesty decree in 2005 that had formerly absolved military officials accused of crimes against humanity. The passage of last Thursday’s law represents monumental progress in a country that previously tortured and killed its left-leaning citizens.
Perhaps even more surprising than the extent to which the new law advances human rights throughout the hemisphere is its obvious defiance of the powerful Catholic Church. An estimated 92% of Argentines are baptized as Roman Catholics, and the country’s Constitution states, “the Federal Government supports the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion.” Every year, the Congress appropriates funds to the Church, covering, among other expenses, the salaries of all Church functionaries. Leaders of the Church are generally held in high esteem in Argentina, and they are often invited to political ceremonies to stand among ministers and other government officials.
Catholic leaders in Argentina have admitted that the Church was complacent during the Dirty War of 1976 – 1983. Before active “counter-terrorism” efforts had even begun, Catholic groups were already combating left-wing activists by resorting to practices outlined in Jean Ousset’s Le Marxisme-léninisme, which called for “profound faith, an unlimited obedience to the Holy Father, and a thorough knowledge of the Church’s doctrines.” A naval chaplain later introduced the film “The Battle of Algiers” to counter-insurgency classes in Argentina. As cadets would later testify, the chaplain used the film to justify the use of torture against a civilian population that posed a threat to the Church’s hierarchy.
Furthermore, some Argentine Church leaders played an insidious role during the dictatorship. For example, Father von Wernich, former chaplain of the Buenos Aires Province Police, attended torture sessions in clandestine detention centers while simultaneously offering comforting words to family members of the disappeared. He was not the exception, and if such a transgression occurred under rule of law, he and approximately thirty other priests would have been charged for involvement in torture. Evidently, last week was not the first time Church leadership has taken decisive action that could be construed as anti-human rights.
Thirty years after a violent dictatorship was unleashed on the country, Argentina has come full circle by putting a stop to legalized discrimination against an increasingly visible segment of its society. In doing so, the government has repudiated one of Argentina’s most powerful institutions by advocating legislation that sides with human rights. The decision leaves tantalizing questions about the future of homosexual communities in other parts of the hemisphere. Most Latin American countries, including Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia, and most of Central America do not even allow civil unions. Furthermore, the gay rights movement has now been active in the United States for over forty years, but a federal law protecting homosexuals has not yet been passed.
In the United States, our leaders are particularly talented at pointing out human rights shortcomings in other nations, yet they continually fail to recognize infringements within our own borders. Argentina, with its deplorable history of human rights delinquencies and the powerful influence of the Church, was able to purge itself of legalized discrimination. Meanwhile, for the majority of the hemisphere, intolerance remains acceptable. For those who are consistent in their support of human rights, one can only hope that the mood of open-mindedness will eventually work its way north.