Will Venezuela Have its Own 'Juicio a las Juntas' à la Argentina 1985?

The Argentinean film tells a true story, but stops at a happy ending that was just a part of a longer–and uglier–sequence of events

Chances are scant and Cold War Argentina remains an exceptional case, yet our differences may cast some lessons

¿Metiste en cana a Videla, para toda la vida?” Javi asked his dad in disbelief, moments before the credits. A disgruntled Julio Strassera–the lead prosecutor in the historic Trial of the Juntas–nodded after learning that five junta bosses were sentenced. 

But democratic transitions very often exist in the realm of uncertainty and bitter compromise, so the real-life story didn’t end there. Far from it.

As witnesses of another gruesome yet very different authoritarian regime, an unavoidable thought pops up when watching the film: Can the country ever do it? Will Maduro and his cronies ever stand on trial in a Venezuelan courtroom, never mind be convicted? 

It sounds like a naive question given the context–the guy sitting in Miraflores, the state of national institutions, and a vast network of political control that will take a long time to dismantle. Let’s be mindful that Argentina’s military junta lasted seven years and the chavista government has ruled for over two decades. While Jorge Videla and the other dictators ruled from the barracks and relied on violence from day one, the PSUV became deeply ingrained in the State for 15 years before systematically resorting to lethal force for survival and consolidation.

How did Argentina manage to pull it off, then? 

There was plenty of willingness from above from the beginning–the 1983 democratic elections–and military circles were still shaken and humiliated by defeat in the Malvinas War. President Raúl Alfonsín was personally involved with Argentina’s human rights movement and even co-founded a key watchdog organization just before the 1976 coup. At a heavy price, the Alfonsín government came up with a big package of transitional justice measures right after taking power–releasing political prisoners, canceling the self-amnesty laws, setting up a truth commission for forced disappearances and encouraging the Juntas Trial. As expected, the generals were uneasy and instilled fears of another coup. When the trial became deadlocked in the military courts, in came Strassera and the events of the film.

A sensational trial, however, would not translate into a clean break with the past. To make the story short, the governments of Alfonsín and his successor Carlos Menem had to appease demands of impunity from army leaders who launched four revolts starting in 1987. Courts were banned from charging officials (involved in torture and murder) below the rank of colonel, and hundreds of defendants were released before Alfonsín left office. 

In 1989, a set of decrees by Menem pardoned all officials involved in crimes against humanity and military rebellions, including Videla and his crew.

The former was re-indicted for the systematic theft of babies in 1998, and spent the following decade under house arrest. Imprisoned again and twice convicted during the first CFK presidency, Videla died in his cell in 2013.

The road to some form of justice is usually long, bumpy, reversible, and never perfect: such a 30-year saga wasn’t an exception, but Argentina remains the only Latin American country to have tried its own former dictators in a collective trial.

Is Argentina simply an outlier, or did it have an institutional advantage to push through this process in the first place? It didn’t seem like it, and the feat sounds more astonishing considering how the judiciary dealt with human rights violations just months before the transition. 

Most relatives of desaparecidos and their lawyers weren’t even recognized as plaintiffs and couldn’t access investigation files until trials commenced, if they ever did. Judges turned a blind eye to the military co-optation of the Judicial Morgue of Buenos Aires, which illegally issued death certificates and arranged burials at the request of colonels.

Venezuelan courts haven’t been in better shape since at least 2009 (see the case of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni) and got worse after the demise of former AG Luisa Ortega Díaz. A government resolution from 2018 established that every Public Ministry official could be arbitrarily appointed and removed, meaning that nearly all Venezuelan prosecutors are provisional and thus serve the interests of Maduro and the security apparatus.

Punishing the architects of gross repression and billion-dollar plundering is one spectacular way to try to restore institutional confidence, but the truth is, the chavista cúpula is unlikely to face a heavy blow like the Malvinas invasion.

The remedy wouldn’t be as simple as revamping the judiciary in a “democratic restart” if we ever have anything remotely similar. Argentina is a notable exception, but authoritarians often get benefits, protections and guarantees of non-prosecution when they are set to leave office–just check out how well the Pinochet and Stroessner elites were doing in the 1990s and 2000s. The Maduro regime wouldn’t want to be an exception in that regard.

Fortunately, transitional justice has come a long way since the end of the Cold War. Campaigns of extreme violence and ethnic cleansing gave rise to international tribunals that may give a hand regardless of domestic politics. But these institutions are far from faultless, and authoritarian regimes spend a lot of energy trying to curb them. The International Crime Court has only indicted Africans to this date and needs the cooperation of home states to try their criminals (although it recently took a symbolic stab at Putin). For instance, the international court for the Balkan Wars had to wait 15 years for Serbia’s extradition of the masterminds of genocide in Bosnia.

Save a miracle in the next few years, hopes of justice for crimes against humanity rest in The Hague rather than Caracas, but Venezuela’s human rights defenders are undoubtedly the backbone of this pursuit. 

The strength of Argentina’s civil society and groups of victims was instrumental in exposing its former oppressors and demanding proceedings from successor governments. 

Our local watchdogs have followed suit, but crucial questions remain: Will society at large, opposition parties, and their international partners sit still while Maduro wipes out our domestic NGOs? Will the quest for justice be part of a long term agenda that transcends 2024?