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Dirty wars: on the unacceptability of torture--a conversation with Olga Talamante.

"THE BURLAP BAG FELT ROUGH AND SCRATCHY AGAINST MY CHEEK, BUT IT ALSO smelled earthy and deceptively comforting. Thick bandages already covered my eyes so the bag's only purpose was to frighten me. And it worked. I knew I had entered another dimension. "Are these words from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison? From the detention center at Guantanamo? From Afghanistan? They very well could be, but these are the words" of Olga Talamante, a 55-year-old Chicana activist from California, describing her experience as a torture victim 32 years ago in an Argentina prison in 1974.

Talamante's memories of when she was tortured are never far from the surface. The publication of the long-suppressed pictures of Abu Ghraib victims last year and the report from the U.N. Commission on Human Rights finding that practices conducted at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo amounted to torture (Brecher and Smith, 2006) lifted the curtain on the uses of torture in President Bush's war on terrorism and rekindled memories of Talamante's horror. "'Every time I read a new story about U.S. forces participating in similar acts, it takes me back to that secret torture room," she says. The fact that a debate has arisen and even exists" regarding the use of torture outraged her and prompted to speak out about her experiences again after over 30years. It is our hope that this interview contributes to strengthening the human rights and social justice perspective within the present discourse on torture, in addition to denouncing the current increased U.S. practice of using and legitimating torture to ostensibly obtain a greater benefit or good.

In May 2006, a U.N. anti-torture panel of nine experts in Geneva charged with monitoring U.S. compliance with the Convention Against Torture ratified in 1994 by President Clinton (see Box 1) rebuked the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies and recommended closing the Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba and stopping the transfer of suspected terrorists" to countries where they may face torture. Acknowledging that there had been mistreatment of detainees, the U.S. made a commitment that all government agencies, including contractors, were to be prohibited from engaging in torture at all times and in all places, and that suspects would not be transferred to countries where they were more likely to endure torture. However, the U.N. committee was skeptical about the sincerity of the U.S. in complying with such pledges and challenged its assertion that some parts of the 1994 anti-torture convention do not apply in times of war (Lynch, 2006). Their skepticism is understandable, given that the Bush administration has usurped the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution (Savage, 2006). Among those he can ignore are military rules and regulations, which would cover the treatment of detainees and torture. The week before, the Council of Europe issued a separate investigative report that said that the U.S. had created a "reprehensible network" of dealing with terror suspects, highlighted by secrete prisons believed to be in Eastern Europe and other nations around the world.
Box 1 : CIA's Hidden History of Torture

Despite claims to the contrary by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
and others that "we don't torture," the fact is that torture is neither
a recent nor an aberrant U.S. practice. Alfred W. McCoy (2006b) points
out that the U.S. has long relied on a psychological, not physical,
form of torture, which is masked by the absence of any visible scars,
complicating any legal definition of torture.

A closer examination reveals a hidden history of CIA torture. From 1950
to 1962, the agency led a costly effort to crack the code of human
consciousness, an endeavor that culminated in the creation of
psychological torture--the first revolution of this cruel science in
centuries. Experimenting with sensory deprivation, researchers found
they could induce a state of psychosis in just 48 hours of total
sensory isolation. They also explored self-inflicted pain (i.e.,
forcing victims to stand for days, etc.) and found it was effective in
breaking prisoners' resolve. With its legitimating scientific aura
and avoidance of obvious brutality, in 1963 the CIA combined these two
methods of psychological torture in the KUBARK Counterintelligence
Interrogation Manual that soon spread among allied agencies at home and
abroad. In a dissenting opinion in a European Court of Human Rights
investigation, Judge Demetrios Evrigenis of Greece wrote concerning
allegations that the British had committed torture when they were found
using the CIA techniques against IRA suspects in 1971: "there are new
forms of suffering that have little in common with the physical pain
caused by conventional torture, which can produce the disintegration
of an individual's personality and the crushing of his will."

In 1994, President Clinton signed the U.N. Convention on Torture. To
preserve the U.S. prerogative to continue using psychological torture,
however, Clinton issued a signing statement subscribing to reservations
drafted earlier by the Reagan administration; it evaded the use of the
word "mental;' thus redefining torture to exempt psychological
techniques. This contradiction remained buried until it exploded 10
years later at Abu Ghraib. The photographs of the Iraqi torture victims
bear the trademarks of these techniques, adding to them attacks on
cultural sensitivity, particularly Arab male sensitivity to issues of
gender and sexual identity, and identification of individual fears and
phobias to exploit them. For more information on the history of torture
and the CIA, see Alfred McCoy (2006b).

Furthermore, Pentagon officials headed by Vice President Dick Cheney's office and by the Pentagon's intelligence arm decided to omit a key tenet of the Geneva Convention from its new detainee, policies, signaling a shift away from strict adherence to international human rights standards. The provision, which bans "humiliating and degrading treatment," had been the subject of a lengthy debate at the Pentagon (and opposed by uniformed officers, military lawyers, and the State Department) as the policies on detainees and interrogations were being redrawn for a new U.S. Army Field Manual that was to be issued in April of 2006 (Barnes, 2006). This forms part of a broader pattern in which the Bush administration has usurped power to increase its jurisdiction over key issues, including torture. (See Box 2 for other changes in the legal underpinnings of the practice of torture.)
Box 2: Legal Underpinnings Are Modified

Since unleashing the war on terror after September 11, 2001, President
Bush's legal advisers in the White House and Justice Department
translated his otherwise unlawful orders into legal directives,
crafting controversial legal principles that allowed for the widespread
use of torture. The notion that Bush's executive power allows him to
override laws and treaties eviscerated the Geneva Conventions so that
a captured fighter became an "enemy combatant" instead of a "prisoner
of war," effectively removing the protections afforded by the
Conventions and allowing the U.S. to employ false imprisonment and
torture in secret prisons. This shift and the doctrine of pre-emptive
strikes represent a dangerous departure from domestic and international
norms. Even former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor decried
the administration's attack on the judiciary as starting the country
down the road to dictatorship. The descent into the "moral abyss" of
torture (in the words of the ACLU) was facilitated by the policies and
decisions taken at the highest levels of the Bush administration, with
Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General Albert Gonzalez
bearing responsibility for creating the legal framework and climate in
2002 that led to the recent unraveling of domestic and international
law in Iraq, Guantanamo, and Afghanistan. For more information, see
McCoy (2006a) and Romero (2005).

On June 10, three detainees at Guantanamo committed suicide (Risen and Golden, 2006). Advocates for the victims said they believed the suicides were a result of the deep despair felt by inmates who are being held indefinitely. Their families are calling for an independent investigation, stating that the victims were pushed to it by torture and the lack of attention paid to their health (Shihiri, 2006). President Bush has expressed a desire to close Guantanamo the future, but postponed that decision due to unresolved issues before the Supreme Court that will determine the jurisdiction in which detainees should be tried: military or federal courts (Risen and Golden, 2006; Cloud and Lewis, 2006).

Peronista (the progressive youth organization of the larger Peronist Movement), joining in its efforts to bring about social change. I was 24 years old, and a long way from the garlic fields of Gilroy, California, where my parents and I had worked while I was growing up and where my parents were still employed.

SDT: This was quite a drastic change. What were the experiences that politicized you as a young woman, leading you to university and ultimately to Argentina?

OT: Growing up in Gilroy, the agricultural area of the Santa Clara Valley, was my initiation in political awareness. We lived in a labor camp, in a warehouse that had been divided into single, various-sized rooms, to which families were assigned according to size. My family--my parents, my two brothers and I--was one of the smallest in the camp. Most families had at least five children, and some had as many as 10. Our single room had no furniture, no stove, no refrigerator. It did have a sink, running water, and a kerosene stove. There was a communal outhouse and shower room for all families to use. We rose at the crack of dawn, worked all day long, and came home to get in line for the shower room. My mother got up earlier than any of us and had breakfast ready and lunch packed by the time we got up. At the end of the day, she would make dinner and make sure we were all in bed before she finally went to bed. My father had concocted a separating screen for their bed; my brother Mario slept on a couch and my little brother Eddie and I shared a bed. My oldest brother, Arturo, had stayed in Salinas working as a cook in a bracero-like labor camp for men. Although I helped with the usual chores expected of the girl in the family and we all worked very hard, it was clear that my mother carried the heavier load. She worked in the fields the same hours we all did, but she also provided the infrastructure that kept us all working: feeding us, clothing us, cleaning the house, etc. It struck me that just like in the relationship of our family to the ranchers, there was something not quite fair in this situation.

We were not paid wages on a regular basis. To ensure that families would not leave in the middle of the harvest, we were allotted a certain amount of cash, based on what the bosses thought we might need. At the end of the season, the total pay would be doled out. It was infuriating to see Don Lalo and Dona Cuca, as everyone in the camp respectfully addressed my parents, having to stand in line to get our weekly allotment of whatever the patrones were going to give us for the week. I felt really insulted. I remember discussions in which the adults did not like this one bit, and some even proposed some kind of collective action.

We continued to live and work in the labor camp from 1961 to 1969, and I became increasingly aware of the basic inequity inherent in this relationship. During the winter I babysat for the ranchers, so I was poignantly aware of how our "homes" did not have heat in the winter or air conditioning in the summer, as theirs did. It was my first awareness of class differences, you might say. My trajectory through the school system continued to heighten that awareness.

When I started attending school in the U.S., I was put back a year because I didn't know English, and ended up in the fourth grade. After that first year, I had caught up enough to be skipped through fifth grade and so was moved up to the sixth. As I struggled to learn English and become accustomed to the educational system, I saw more and more class and race inequalities. The school system had a tracking system with three tracks, X, Y, and Z, which separated students, supposedly by ability. Students in the X track were college bound, taking college prep and honors classes. The sons and daughters of all of Gilroy's "main families" were in the X track: the judge's daughter, the veterinarian's daughter, the ranchers' sons and daughters, the local politicians' sons and daughters. About 90% of the kids in that track were white.

The Y track was a mixture of lower-middle and working-class Latino and white kids, most probably going on to community college, the army, or vocational schools. And the Z track, which the students commonly referred to as the "MR" (for mentally retarded) class, was about 90% Latino and poor white. Although before learning English I had to spend some time in the Z and Y tracks, by high school I was one of handful of Latino students in the X track, graduating from high school as the Outstanding Student of the Year and as the vice president of the student body. I received several scholarships and a lot of support from some teachers and administrators, who encouraged me to go on to obtain a college education. Most important, though, my mom and dad had only made it to the third and fifth grades, respectively, so they were always very clear about the importance of education and instilled in me a respect for learning.

Several of my teachers were very supportive and took it upon themselves to help me understand the social context of my life. One of them in particular, the only Latina teacher in the school, encouraged me to attend the American Friends Service Committee (Quaker) Student Camp on Non-Violence and Civil Disobedience, which was held at Asilomar in 1967 and 1968. After hearing the description of the voter registration drives in the South, I became convinced that if you wanted to effect change, you had to take action, you had to take a stand and be true to it. Joan Baez and David Harris were there and argued for nonviolence as a principle for organizing, while Black students refuted those arguments based on their experience of being hosed down and beaten as they registered people to vote. There were passionate, in-depth discussions about the role of students in the movement, and regardless of the polemics, I knew I wanted to be part of a movement that worked for social change.

When I went on to UCSC, it was a natural progression for me to become involved in the United Farm Workers movement, as a field organizer and also as part of the student-based support movement. We organized picket lines against the Teamsters' goons in the fields, as well as at the Safeway stores that carried scab Gallo wines and grapes. We marched in the historic marches from Salinas to Coachella, carried on food drives, organized educational events on campus, etc. I was also very involved in MeCHA, the Chicano student organization, participating as an officer and statewide representative. All of this I did in my freshman and sophomore years.

In my junior year, I did field study in Chiapas, Mexico, where the class issues became even clearer for me. Mexico also introduced me to the Latin American reality and I became aware of the young Cuban Revolution, of Che Guevara's example of internationalism, and the various struggles going on in the continent. The rise of revolutionary organizations in Uruguay, Peru, and the resistance against the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, provided a new context within which to understand our own struggle as Chicanos in the U.S. We were part of a larger political movement throughout the American continent, which had as its epicenter the impact of the policies of the U.S. government on the working classes and the poor of all those countries, as well as oppressed communities and communities of color here in the U.S.

While I was in Mexico, I met Hugo and Norma, two Argentines who had been traveling throughout Latin America and were on their way back home. They were enthusiastic about the changing political climate there, which promised a return to democracy. Inspired by their vision of a continental movement, which, very importantly, included the Chicano and other progressive movements in the U.S., I decided to travel to Argentina.

SDT: Can you describe what was going on in Argentina when you arrived and provide some background to the political situation?

OT: When I arrived in 1973, Juan Peron had just returned from exile in Spain and won the presidency. At the start of the 20th century, Argentina was the richest nation in Latin America and one of the world's 10 wealthiest countries. After being ruled by various unstable parliamentary governments, in 1930 there was a military coup, the country's first against a constitutional government. In 1943, a nationalist military junta ousted another attempt at a civilian government. In 1946, they held elections, and Juan Peron became president as the candidate from the Argentine Labor Party, later to become the Peronist Party. Peron's charismatic wife, Evita, boosted his popularity. The reforms he made in the legal structure, the infrastructure, and the economy, i.e., strong labor laws and other reforms, favored the working classes and initially won him their support, and my friends and I, as well as many others, were inspired by what we perceived to be a true democratic opening. However, his ultra-nationalistic approach also planted the seeds for fascism. In fact, he was an admirer of Benito Mussolini and the "caudillo" style of leadership. So when the economy began to falter and there was unrest, the Peron government began to use repressive measures, including censorship of the media, restrictions on freedom of speech, and the imprisonment of dissidents. In 1952, riots broke out against Peron in many cities. Despite the protests, Peron won the election, but in 1955 the military staged a rebellion, forcing Peron to resign and go into exile. His supporters, the Peronistas, were politically marginalized by the military for the next 20 years.

There was confusion in the following decades, with military and civilian administrations trading power while trying to deal with economic and social problems caused by a faltering economy and political instability. Community groups from the Right and Left were dissatisfied and they resorted to violence. In 1958, civilian government was restored; the military took over again from 1962 to 1966, and so forth. Between 1969 and 1973, instability and violence in the streets escalated, with leftists, Peronists, and rightists all engaging in armed struggle. Among the guerrilla groups was the Montoneros, the Left's youth arm.

Juan Peron returned from exile to Buenos Aires in 1973, ran for president after his stand-in, Hector Campora, resigned, and won the election with more than 60% of the vote. His third wife, Isabel, was elected vice-president. In November of 1974, Juan Peron died and Isabel, backed by the right wing of the Peronist movement, took control of the government. There was a struggle between the left and the right within Peronism and Isabel Peron set loose the armed forces on the guerillas, ordering the "annihilation of subversion and terrorism." On November 7, the junta dissolved Parliament and proclaimed martial law, filling all important government posts with military personnel, and it began to rule by decree. Civil courts were closed; political parties and meetings, labor organizing, and antigovernment demonstrations were banned; and organizers were labeled "subversive." In fact, all government opponents became "subversives" and were persecuted as the government's prime targets expanded to include intellectuals, students, professionals, teachers, housewives, nonconformist members of the military and security forces, journalists, academics, actors, nuns and priests, the friends of the "subversives," and the friends of their friends.

Everything that we were doing had become illegal. All right of assembly had been taken away, and there was censorship of the press. You could be arrested for being suspected of even thinking antigovernment thoughts.

SDT: What kinds of things were you doing, was the organization doing?

OT: While the duly elected civilian governments were in power, the Peronist Youth concentrated on forming grass-roots, barrio-based organizations that were centered around neighborhood, labor, and student demands. Labor, youth, and women's groups, together with the natural leaders of each barrio, worked to identify needs and propose solutions. I worked for several months in Barrio San Francisco, one of the most disenfranchised neighborhoods in the outskirts of Azul. This was largely due to its distance from the main part of town, where resources such as health care were located. The community identified the lack of emergency health services as one of its key needs. After trying and failing to pressure the municipality to provide more frequent and geographically more accessible bus service to existing health resources, the community decided that we should build our own emergency health clinic. Literally build it. So we had work sessions every afternoon and every weekend, excavating the foundation and then carrying bricks from an old cemetery wall, doing fundraisers to buy cement, etc. Meanwhile, we had neighborhood meetings to advocate for pro bono health workers and to continue applying pressure for better bus service. We organized local delegations and marches to the municipality, and also participated in regional and national mobilizations, such as the famous May 1, 1974, demonstration in Buenos Aires, where Juan Peron denounced the Peronist Youth as troublemakers and our contingents were attacked by the right wing's paramilitary shock troops. That was the beginning of the crackdown.

SDT: Can you describe how you and your friends were rounded up?

OT: Our arrest took place on November 11, 1974. We were at a political strategy meeting/barbeque trying to figure out where to go from there given the imposition of martial law. They burst into the house, came in and got us at gunpoint, and took us into custody at the local Azui police station, which had been taken over by the federal police. As we found out later, this was because the local Azul police weren't necessarily with the repressive program yet, and could not be trusted to carry out the capture and interrogation activities. Some of our group managed to escape arrest and get away, only to be rounded up later, with worse consequences.

SDT: What happened then?

OT: We were kept there incommunicado for four days. When my friends' relatives came to ask about them, the authorities denied that anyone was there; this was a secret prison, right there within the walls of the local police station. I was taken to a torture chamber to be interrogated. My eyes were bandaged and my head was covered with a burlap hood.

SDT: Can you describe what that was like?

OT: Throughout those four days, we were held with hands and feet bound, constantly beaten, and threatened with execution. On one occasion, hands grabbed and pushed me up stairs. I could feel furniture around me and tried to use the contour of a chair, the edge of a table, and sounds to get my bearings. I wanted to know exactly where I was: to the left of the table, to the right of the credenza, or in front of the water fountain?

My torturers didn't care. They pushed me here and there. But I was determined to locate where I was, even if it was within a space that I could not see. With my elbow I felt the corner of a table, then a chair. Victory! They wanted me to be confused, but I knew my exact position. I was between the table and the chair. As long as my position was clear, some odd reasoning assured me, survival would follow.

They took me to another room. I sensed several new people. I heard men's voices. They untied my hands and feet. They ordered me to take my clothes off. I hesitated and they made it clear that it was not a request, but a demand. Now completely naked except for the heavy bandage over my eyes, some hands sat me down on a bed and then pushed me back and spread my arms and legs, tying them to the posts of the bed. The thought became less convincing that if I knew where I was, I could survive.

Electric currents shot through my body.

All I could do was scream. The terror came after the electric shock. They are going to do it again, I thought. Someone put a pillow over my head to muffle my screams. I panicked. To survive, I reasoned, I must be able to breathe and scream.

After about the third time the electric current surged, I figured out what I thought was a brilliant maneuver. I waited until the pillow was put on my head, then right before the hands holding it pushed down, I turned my head sideways and took a breath. The timing of this took complete focus. It was a project. Now, new reasoning kicked in. As long as I could get the timing right, I would survive.

The interrogators taunted, insulted, and humiliated me as they applied electric shocks to the most sensitive parts of my body. They were trying to get me to give them the names and addresses of other political activists and force me into admitting to activities that I had not been involved with.

They told me that the others had talked and had implicated me. That I was being a total fool, that I was so stupid for being involved in this foolish political enterprise and resisting their questions. However, it turns out none of us had talked.

Torture always has a sexual component to it. I was not raped. At one point, they asked whether I wanted them to continue giving me electric shocks or be raped. I must have asked myself, "What is the right answer here?" I just kept saying, "I don't want either, I don't want either." They will do whatever they want, anyway, I thought, so I'm not going to make the choice for them.

SDT: Sort of like Sophie's Choice, the film in which the main character was supposed to choose which of her children was to be killed by the Nazis. How long did this go on for?

OT: Yes, it was like that. The interrogation and torture went on for four days. It was a horrendous experience.

SDT: You are very strong to have withstood such a painful and frightening experience and not given in. When they finished with you, where were you taken? How badly were you injured during the torture? How did you adjust to being incarcerated?

OT: It was all very frightening. After the beatings and torture at the police station, we were transferred to the local prison in Azul, where I was examined by a doctor and where the prison authorities clearly wanted it on the record that my injuries had happened before we arrived. In fact, the prison doctor included in his examination file that I had "red, burn-like marks of unknown origin throughout her body," which basically documented that I had arrived with those marks, but he would not write down that they were inflicted by electric shocks and rope burns.

Once we were in the prison, it was clear that we were being held prisoner. There was an air of formality and procedure: they took our names, issued us uniforms, and officially recorded us as being held by the prison.

It was a prison primarily for men, with a capacity of about 300 inmates, but it also had a small separate women's section that could hold about 20 women. We were put into a jail cell 20 feet by 25 feet. There were 20 to 25 of us in one cell. Five of us were political women.

As I think back to those days, I recall that I felt a bit in a trance, shaky, physically weak, somehow not believing what had happened and yet also knowing that this type of "interrogation" was such a common practice. Although I felt that I had been terribly violated physically, I was very firm in my political beliefs and knew that what had happened to me was a consequence of an ideological and political struggle. It helped that the comrades were very sweet and very supportive, taking care of me and making me rest. We talked specifically about the beatings, the torture, the details of what the interrogators wanted to find out, and how we had all answered their questions. I was fortunate to have spent the aftermath of the torture among a circle of comrades, where for 16 months I could process, analyze, and integrate what had happened to me, understanding it not as an isolated case, but as part of an ongoing political reality. These were not the actions of "deranged" individuals, but part of a state-sponsored methodology to deal with political dissidents, of which I certainly, and proudly, was one.

SDT: Was there a trial? Did they ever convict you of anything and sentence you?

OT: Although there was a judge assigned to the cases, there really wasn't a trial to speak of. Actually, the judge was a fairly decent person, as we found out later, but there was not much he could do; moreover, he had received death threats. We were convicted of violating the new decrees and were sentenced to three years.

SDT: What was it like on a day-to-day level in prison? How did the others regard you? How did you fit in, as a "foreigner?"

OT: The first few weeks involved getting accustomed to the routine, learning the rules, both the written and the unwritten ones, and figuring out how we were going to function as a political unit and maintain communication with the outside world; in other words, how to survive.

The challenge of managing the reality of prison and daily survival in the prison system was a multi-layered process. There was a complex set of relationships and power structures among the nonpolitical prisoners that was important to understand. Our main goals were to try to stay healthy and build for ourselves a prison life as individuals, as a group of political prisoners with our own dynamics and structure, and as part of the larger group of prisoners, all of whom had to be able to relate to each other in all those capacities. We actually learned a lot from each other.

By coincidence, when we arrived at the prison, there had just been a transfer of about eight inmates from the larger Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires. Not political prisoners, but "comunes" or "common" prisoners, as the prison authorities called them. Unbeknown to us, they were mostly lifers, hard-core offenders who had been involved in a riot in Villa Devoto, so they had been transferred to Azul in an attempt to separate them from Villa Devoto's general prison population. So here we arrive, political activists, idealists, very young, bright eyed, and bushy tailed, and we had to learn how to manage our relationships with the prison authorities and within the prisoners' own system. By trial and error, we established fairly good, mutually respectful relationships with the comunes: we shared smuggling techniques and made agreements about not snitching on each other, understanding what issues were important to each group, most of which were essentially the same, but with some differences in priorities. Both groups wanted to maintain as much communication with the outside world as possible. To keep informed of the evolving political situation, we would get political analysis from comrades on the outside, "real" news about the repression, while they would get x-rated letters from their boyfriends, who were either outside or in prison. At times, we wondered who had the better correspondence! I was the coordinator of the group due to my organizing experience while we were outside, thus the de facto negotiator with the prison authorities and the comunes. The comunes had their undisputed leader in "La Loba" (The She-Wolf), a powerful, intimidating woman from Buenos Aires' lumpen proletariat, who had been captured after their gang of robbers had tried to rob a truck of mink stoles.

To my political comrades, I was known as "La Chicana" and "La Negra" (in many Latin American cultures this is a term of endearment, and it certainly was in my case); to the people in the barrios and the comunes, as well as to prison guards, I was "La Mexicana." I think "Chicana" was a bit too unfamiliar for them. Even though I was a foreigner, a "non-Argentine," the mass political organizing I did in the barrios had integrated me into Argentine life and I really felt accepted and respected. Physically, I was fairly thin and to some perhaps even fragile-looking, but I was always held up as a strong comrade and trusted with leadership positions. I also had the respect of the comunes because they knew I had been tortured (as some of them had been) and had not talked.

Prison life had many facets to it: intrigue, moments of fear, moments of desperation, and moments of hilarity. And part of it was really mundane. Getting through the day meant dividing up who was going to make breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and who was going to wash the dishes, because we had to do all that ourselves. It was an advantage in a way--we didn't have to suffer mass-produced institutional food, and we had a kitchen and a long table for communal meals. Of course, the guards were always there. I learned how to make cannelloni and various Argentine dishes. One of the comrades had a baby while imprisoned, whom she named Natalia. That was both very exciting and sad. Fortunately, the practice of taking babies away from political prisoners had not yet begun and we were able to care for the baby until she was 10 months old, after which she went to live with her grandparents. A dove made its nest right outside the prison window, and I wondered why it did this when it could be anywhere else it wanted. We took it as a reminder that freedom was a possibility.

But the fear that you could be killed anytime was always there. The guards were right there all the time. We knew of a lot of people who were taken for a ride and never came back. I actually faced the most danger at the beginning and the end of my incarceration.

SDT: You mention twice that the guards were always there. What was your relationship with them?

OT: Two female guards patrolled the women's section at all times. They were there day and night, at times even sharing meals or afternoon chitchats while we all did our nails. Argentine women are famous for their attention to their physical image, so once, during a period when the top prison brass was not breathing down the guards' necks (most knew the political prisoners since they were all native from Azul and had been schoolmates), one of them brought wax so we could wax our facial and leg hair. Somehow we managed to have a "beauty shop" for a few weeks, and I experienced my first waxing ever in my life! The female guards were clearly lowest of the low in the prison hierarchy, standing at attention whenever any of the male guards came in, which they tended to do unannounced, precisely to catch any special dispensations the women guards might be giving out.

SDT: The human spirit has managed to rise above horrendous things throughout history. It would be interesting to hear how, under these conditions, you were able to survive spiritually.

OT: Being tortured and finding oneself in prison certainly takes away control over one's actions. As I mentioned, one of the things I struggled for the most while I was blindfolded, tied up, and being tortured was to eke out whatever quotient of control I could exercise: feeling around for my surroundings, sensing when the pillow was going to be put over my face so I could take a slight turn and be able to breathe. In prison, I had a similar approach. I could not control when the guards would burst in early in the morning to shout and shake the beds to wake us up, which infuriated me to no end, but I could be alert and hear them coming down the hall and be up before they could shout at me and shake my bed. I got to the point where I woke everyone up before the guards had a chance! Similarly, I gave up smoking because that was one of the few things I could decide for myself.

Although we were incarcerated, the context within which we were living that experience was conducive to inspiring hope and dreams for the future. We were idealists, we were fighting for a better world for all people; we looked for hopeful signs, like birds making their nests atop the prison walls, waiting for us to be freed. We wrote poems like, "The present is for planting seeds underneath the prison walls, the future is for smashing them down so that we may pick the flowers."

SDT: Revolutionary poets or poet revolutionaries? Definitely seeking hope. How and when did you finally get out?

OT: For the next 16 months, as I later found out, I was one of thousands of political prisoners and torture victims being persecuted under the aegis of Operation Condor (see Box 3). We were lucky, because all of us who were imprisoned at that time survived. This was very early on in the repression and they didn't have the "disappearing acts" in place yet.
Box 3: Operation Condor

Operation Condor was a top-secret component of a larger inter-American
counterinsurgency strategy, financed, led, and overseen by Washington
to reverse social and political movements in Latin America that favored
structural change. It was part of the U.S. Cold War effort to contain
communism. A network of secret intelligence and operations systems
created in the 1970s allowed participating states to share intelligence
and to seize, torture, and execute political opponents in one another's
territory. Parastatal structures were set up to carry out
"counterterrorist" campaigns that were easily concealed from domestic
or international scrutiny. It was a multi-leveled, transnational
criminal operation involving cross-border surveillance and abductions,
torture, permanent "disappearances" and assassination, working with
counterpart intelligence agencies, other militaries or police
commanders, or with extreme right paramilitary networks in member
countries. In Latin America, Condor made the military dictatorships
more lethal by allowing them to retain the appearance of legality and
legitimacy, enabling them to better avoid international law and human
rights guarantees, prevent public scrutiny of their actions, and expand
the powers of the state over society. In Predatory States: Operation
Condor and Covert War in Latin America, McSherry (2005) details how
Washington collaborated with and took advantage of the Condor system
to advance perceived U.S. interests, but it also played an
indispensable role in its genesis and functioning. U.S. military and
intelligence forces provided its crucial technological infrastructure,
and sanctioned, encouraged, and actively collaborated with it,
producing widespread human rights violations and crimes against
humanity in Latin America and elsewhere.

Thanks to my family and friends in the United States, who won my release on March 27, 1976, I survived. I say we were lucky because friends of ours who got away when I was arrested and were rounded up later didn't fare so well. Many did not survive; in fact, there are people who were disappeared whose bodies still have not been found, including my friend Norma. Several of my comrades were exiled and others were kept in prison for up to eight years. In contrast, I was only in prison for 16 months.

SDT: How did your release come about?

OT: When my family and friends in the U.S. learned of my arrest from friends in Argentina, they quickly organized to work for my freedom and formed the Olga Talamante Defense Committee (OTDC). In the end, although President Gerald Ford's State Department gave the final orders to Argentine authorities to release me, my freedom really came as a result of an unusual campaign led by the committee, headed up by my parents and my good friends, in which they galvanized the support of labor unions, religious organizations, political groups, and thousands of individuals from the San Francisco Bay Area and across the country. The committee obtained 32 "Dear Colleague" letters from Congress people, and support came from the United Farm Workers Union, the National Council of Churches, the United Auto Workers, and the National Women's Political Caucus. There had been mounting pressure against Isabel Peron, and the military took over on March 24, 1976. Although the new Argentine government would turn out to be more repressive, the political moment, with its new relations with the U.S., provided an opening for the pressure applied by all the organizations to be effective, and Henry Kissinger, then U.S. Secretary of State, gave the order to let me go.

In the days after the military coup, everyday life in prison became more militarized. All books, magazines, and radios were taken away. One day, the soldiers came in and were visibly angry. They searched everything and lined us up against the wall and asked, "?Quien es La Talamante? (Who is the Talamante woman?) I stepped forward and identified myself. The officer looked at me and spat out, "So you're the one that Kissinger wants released."

Anyway, without telling me a thing, they took me out of the common cell and put me in solitary confinement. When one of the local prison guards brought me some food, I asked her what was going on. She claimed not to know anything, except that I was being taken away, probably to another prison. I begged her to let me say goodbye to my friends, but she said she could not do that. She did concede on two things, however: to bring the baby, Natalia, to whom I had become very attached, so I could see her one last time. I had rocked Natalia to sleep every night, as she suffered from colic and it always took a while for her to settle down. By bedtime, her mother was exhausted, so we all took turns. I had the "rock her to sleep" shift. The guard also brought me a piece of paper and pencil so I could scribble a goodbye to my friends. As the soldiers were taking me out of the prison, I could catch a glance of the companeras peering through the kitchen windows, and I could hear them singing "De Colores," a song from the farm workers movement that I had taught them. I knew that was their defiant way of saying farewell.

They took me out to a field, and I remember thinking, OK, this is it. The scariest moment was when they put me in a small plane, but I calmed down somewhat after I was handcuffed to the floor, as I realized that I was probably not going to be thrown out of the plane. I was then flown to Buenos Aires and spent another night in a large, empty common cell in Villa Devoto, the region's federal prison, where the riot led by some of my Azul cellmates had taken place.

The next day I was given a cursory medical exam, mostly so they could declare that I was in good physical health upon my release, and I was driven to the airport. A man from the U.S. Embassy was there and gave me $10 when, in response to his question, I said I had no money.

SDT: How did you feel about the fact you were getting out and the others weren't?

OT: As I sat in the Pan American Airways plane that carried me from Buenos Aires to New York, I felt numb. I had left behind all my comrades, particularly one I had begun a relationship with before being arrested, as well as my life in Argentina, my political affiliation, my reality of the last three years. Although we always talked about how a political prisoner's first and foremost goal was to be free to continue doing political work and I knew that my comrades were cheering me on, I felt torn. Instead of relief, I felt like my heart had been split in two. Yes, I was glad, and looking forward to being with my family and friends, and glad to know that I was out of danger, but I had left a big part of my heart behind. The flight made a stop at the New York airport, where I was greeted by companeros from the New York NACLA office and, most important, by my dear friend Ed McCaughan, who was an integral part of the OTDC and had made the trip from San Francisco to New York to greet me and accompany me on the flight to San Francisco. When we arrived in San Francisco, I was welcomed and cheered by my family and friends and a huge gaggle of press. It was all quite overwhelming!

SDT: What was unique about the campaign to get you out?

OT: It was a grass-roots campaign, headed by my family and specifically by my mother, Refugio Talamante (AKA Dona Cuca). Many of my friends from college and from Gilroy joined because they knew me and wanted to do everything they could to get me out. But hundreds who did not know me participated in vigils, letter-writing campaigns, picket lines, etc., and they had joined because they were moved by my mother's moral authority, her class consciousness, and her understanding and ability to articulate the injustice and repression that not only her daughter, but also so many others were suffering.

SDT: What did you do upon your return? How did you adjust to being free and back home?

OT: After my return, I spent several years working on behalf of my imprisoned comrades and other political prisoners in Argentina and more generally on denouncing the repressive regime in Argentina and the U.S. policies that supported it. We transformed the Olga Talamante Defense Committee into the North Americans for Human Rights in Argentina. Based on the argument that they were using our tax dollars to commit human rights abuses, we successfully lobbied Congress to cut off military aid to Argentina. At a certain point, I decided that I needed to dedicate my energies to work in the U.S. This poem may illustrate the contradictions I felt. It was inspired by the swallows that fly back and forth, 6,000 miles each way, every year from California to Argentina.
 I, swallow,
 my tears
 not of resignation
 not of contemplation
 not of anguish
 or defeat

 I, swallow,
 my tears
 of sadness
 of historic rage
 of senseless reality
 of crushed humanity
 of boundless hope

 I, swallow,
 my tears"
 of determination
 of commitment
 of memories and images
 now put to rest

 I, swallow,
 my tears on the shores of a new ocean
 I am no longer a swallow
 I will not make the 6,000-mile trip
 every other beat of my heart
 I will no longer swallow my tears and smile unhappily
 I will now cry happily in my sadness

SDT: Have you been in touch with your Argentine friends? What are their lives like now?

OT: It took a long time to establish contact with them because some were exiled and some remained in prison for many years, under very harsh conditions. I did have the good fortune to reconnect with some of them, especially Ruben, with whom I had a very special relationship. In fact, we saw each other recently after 30 years and it was a real joy. After I got out, he remained imprisoned for eight more years. This was during the period of the worst repression, so it was a real reaffirmation of the ideals and dreams we shared to see that in spite of all he suffered, he remains the most charming, politically conscious and optimistic person one can find. Not everyone fared as well. Some of our closest comrades were disappeared, some prisoners committed suicide, and others want nothing to do with any political activity. But for the most part, our old comrades are just trying to lead decent lives, some more politically active than others, raising their families, etc.

SDT: In the current debate over the use of torture as a weapon in Bush's war on terrorism, when people read about prisoners being tortured, how does your experience of being tortured in Argentina help us to understand the discourse supporting the "war on terror," in which imprisonments without trial, ghost prisoners, kidnapping, and renditions are everyday fare?

OT: Actually, I am very angry at the fact that it is a subject for debate. On what premises can its use be defended? At the time of my release from prison in 1976, public discourse on torture in the U.S. depicted it as being the provenance of brutal, unsophisticated despots, what fascistic leaders and military dictators did to their people to quell dissent. It was some kind of abstraction that happens "elsewhere" in the world, to "other" people, and was not conducted by governments that are on "our side," not acceptable under any circumstances. It was a time when the average American could not imagine "our boys" abroad participating in anything remotely similar.

When I returned home and testified about my torture, my stories horrified listeners, but at that time, we could feel safe within the operative discourse. Today, Americans once shocked by my experience now hear officials defend torture as a necessary evil in the Bush administration's war against terrorism. Three years into the Iraq War, we have seen the images of Abu Ghraib and read accounts of the atrocities at Camp Nama, and that sense of safety is not so certain.

My main concern is that the methodology of torture is far removed from the principles of a democratic society and respect for human rights, concepts that most people in the U.S. hold dear. It is appalling to think that U.S. government officials would consider torture to be a legitimate weapon to use in their war against terrorism. There are international standards related to how prisoners should be treated. Torture, under any circumstances, violates those standards. Some argue that if a prisoner is suspected of having critical information, which if known could prevent a major terrorist incident, then torturing them is justified. However, most human rights activists and people who have studied torture will tell you that even from a practical standpoint, torture yields very little in the way of accurate information. Witness the situation recently with Zacarias Moussaoui, the man recently convicted as a September II collaborator who had been held in Guantanamo, where they couldn't figure out whether his information was reliable or not.

SDT: Since most people have never been tortured, it tends to be an abstract concept. When people read about prisoners being tortured, what should they really be thinking about?

OT: Apart from torture being so very personal--such a total attack on one's person--it also is part of a political process with specific political goals. It is state terror. Understanding this is essential. The torture inflicted upon me and others by the police and military apparatus in Argentina had the stated purpose of gathering information to break up the political movement that "threatened their way of life." Getting "subversives" to admit to their "criminal" acts was really the subtext of their overall purpose. Their strategic goal was to terrorize the entire population so deeply and completely that one would consider it very carefully before even thinking of opposing the government. Recently, I heard an exiled Argentine theater director, who lived in Argentina as a young man through the worst years of the repression, about how he was terrified of growing a beard because that personal act could be cause for his arrest and possible death.

Although torture occurs within a specific historical context and the methods may have changed over time, it still has the effect of terrorizing the victims and sending a message to others. Did you know that torture methods mostly prove to be ineffective and are often counterproductive? How many of those people who were tortured, especially victims of indiscriminate or wrongful arrests, leave prison as friends of their captors?

I know that many people here and abroad have been rounded up illegally since September 11, 2001, falsely accused under the Patriot Act, and "interrogated" either here or abroad. At the time of my ordeal, I was one person, I was a "story"; now there are hundreds--and we don't even know their names--who are undergoing this same treatment. This time, however, it is not the Argentine government under the tutelage of Operation Condor or some other surrogate government trained by the U.S. at the School of the Americas (see Box 4) or the CIA that is carrying it out, but U.S. troops and privately contracted military interrogators, sanctioned by U.S. officials at the very highest levels of government.
Box 4: The School of the Americas

Founded in 1946 in Panama, the School of the Americas (SOA) in Ft.
Benning, Georgia, is a combat training school for Latin American
soldiers and a location for military officers of different countries
to socialize, network, and share plans, and techniques. It has trained
over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques,
sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military
intelligence, and interrogation tactics. Operation Condor participants
used the SOA for their activities. Dubbed the "School of Assassins," it
has served to protect the interests of multinational corporations and
Latin American elites, with educators, labor leaders, union organizers,
religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights
of the poor among the primary targets of violence. Hundreds of
thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated,
"disappeared," and forced into refuge by those trained at SOA. To
deflect public criticism and disassociate the school from its dubious
reputation, the SOA was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for
Security Cooperation in 2001, a move critics charged was merely
cosmetic. SOA Watch, founded in 1990, has fought to expose the
activities of SOA and to close it down. For more information, see the
SOA Watch web site,

SDT: What are the different areas of struggle against torture today?

OT: Work is being done on the legislative front. In mid-December 2005, the McCain amendment, which prohibits cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by all U.S. personnel of all detainees held anywhere in the world, was signed into law. Given the overwhelming support for the bill in the Senate and the House, any potential veto would be overridden. Yet, the White House vigorously opposed the bill, with Bush saying that he reserved the right to do what he needed to do to "defend" America. This led McCain to insert a compromise provision that let CIA operatives who were presumably following orders off the hook, and excluded Guantanamo from the act as being outside U.S. territory. The net effect was that the law could now quash legal oversight of administration actions in Guantanamo.

Although the amendment clearly prohibits some of the interrogation tactics that had previously been allowed, such as waterboarding, painful stress positions, forced nudity and sexual humiliation, and other stress and duress techniques, President Bush watered it down more by issuing a presidential signing statement that opened the door for a presidential waiver of the ban, similar to the reservations to the U.N. Convention on Torture set forth by President Clinton when he ratified it in 1994 (see Box 1).

In addition to organizations such as the Center for Victims of Torture, which deals mostly with political refugees from repressive regimes around the world, there are organizations that carry forward court cases against the military such as the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), which held former Vice Minister of Defense for El Salvador, Colonel Nicolas Carranza, liable for crimes against humanity, torture, and extrajudicial killing for his role as operational commander of the military. Carranza was ordered to pay six million dollars in damages to the plaintiffs, who testified at the trial about the assassination of their father. The Center also works to deter torture and other severe human right abuses around the world by helping survivors hold their persecutors accountable. CJA has brought cases against perpetrators from Bosnia, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Indonesia, and Somalia and has won several landmark victories (see Appendix 1 for information on this organization and others discussed below).

Akey nemesis in the anti-torture struggle is the infamous School of the Americas (SOA)/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which has been the center of torture training for Latin America for 60 years (see Box 4). In their ongoing campaign to close down the SOA, the very active organization/movement SOA Watch sponsored HR 1217 in Congress to cut funding to the school, garnering the support of 188 representatives, with 55 more that they hope will sign on. This fight is not over. Other victories include the March 2006 decision by Argentina to stop sending soldiers to train at the SOA. Uruguay also affirmed that it will continue its current policy of not sending their soldiers to the SOA, joining Venezuela, which announced in January 2004 that it would no longer engage in that practice (SOA Watch, 2006a). The tide appears to be turning in Latin America, where governments and citizens are rejecting SOA-style military solutions to social problems.

The Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC) brings together torture survivors representing 50 countries. Established in 1998 on the principle that torture is a crime against humanity, it works toward the abolition of torture practiced by more than 150 governments, toward the implementation of Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights pertaining to the eradication of torture, and engages in education, advocacy, and legislative work. It also calls for the end to military assistance and arms sales to governments that use, order, or carry out other parties' torture.

The suicides at Guantanamo provoked much outcry in the U.S. and abroad. Just this week, 27 U.S. religious leaders from the newly formed National Religious Coalition Against Torture, some of whom are very high profile, signed a statement calling for the U.S. to "abolish torture now--without exceptions."

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a number of lawsuits to obtain information and they are campaigning for an independent investigation into the government's torture activities. They say the government will only be accountable if we make then accountable; that information is key to insuring such accountability, and I agree. Without it, impunity can become the order of the day and threaten the democratic foundations of our society.

SDT: Impunity is a very important concept. What are you referring to here?

OT: Impunity is freedom from accountability or punishment, in this case for state crimes or abuses of power. Acts of state terror, for example, took place with impunity in Latin America tinder the aegis of the United States in Operation Condor (see Box 3). The fact that these crimes go unpunished creates a legacy of fear, preventing full political participation and a sense of citizenship, not to mention persistent posttraumatic stress syndrome, which blocks people from leading a normal life. Last month was the 30-year anniversary of the Argentine military coup, and ex-General Jorge Rafael Videla is under house arrest, with thousands of people camped outside his home demanding that he serve out his sentence. The former general was convicted of multiple cases of homicide, aggravated false arrests, torture, torture resulting in death, and robbery. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

SDT: Could you describe other efforts in the struggle against impunity in Argentina?

OT: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo have been an ongoing example of bravery in denouncing the repression and have instituted a moral compass that keeps pointing relentlessly toward full accountability for the crimes of the dictatorship. Some of the leaders of the Madres were themselves detained, murdered, and disappeared.

Various Argentine governments have succumbed to military pressure and prevented a full reckoning with the horrors of the so-called Dirty War. Despite the occurrences of terrible atrocities, no one has ever been punished for them. After its defeat in the Malvinas/Falkland Island War against Britain, the military dictatorship collapsed and several junta leaders, including Videla, were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1984 for crimes against humanity. In 1983, The National Commission on the Disappared was established, which issued a report entitled Nunca Mas (Never Again), finding that "the armed forces had responded to the terrorists' (sic) crimes with a terrorism far worse than the one they were combatting, and that after March 24, 1976, they could count on the power and impunity of an absolute state, which they misused to abduct, torture, and kill thousands of human beings, committing crimes against humanity." The report revealed that secret detention centers were under the command of high-ranking officers in the military and security services. Some of the methods used had no precedent elsewhere in the world: accounts reveal torture of children and old people in front of their families to obtain information and of people being forced to sign over their property to the state before being killed or disappeared. Babies of the disappeared were abducted and put up for adoption, which is dramatically exposed in the Argentine film The Official Story. People with no links to any so-called subversive activity were nevertheless subjected to horrific torture because they opposed the military dictatorship, took part in union or student activities, were well-known intellectuals who questioned state terrorism, or simply were relatives or friends or a name in an address book of someone considered subversive.

After a military mutiny in 1987, President Raul Alfonsin passed an amnesty law, and three years later, his successor Carlos Menem pardoned all the officers in the name of national pacification under the "Obediencia Debida" law, which granted immunity from prosecution to all members of the military ranked lower than colonel on the principle they were just following orders. By the end of the 1990s, only 10 had been people convicted--all of whom were subsequently pardoned.

In 2005, the Argentine Supreme Court finally revoked the amnesty laws, and hundreds of former and serving military officers became subject to prosecution for their involvement in the Dirty War. In March 2006, President Kirchner declared March 24, the anniversary of the coup, the National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice and called for the pardons previously granted to be revoked. "Perhaps the time has come to disarticulate the network of impunity that comes with those pardons," he said.

People don't forget. We need to go back and bring these cases to justice in order to move forward. We now know for certain that during the Dirty War, the armed forces or the police hunted down over 30,000 people identified as opponents of the regime under the aegis of Operation Condor. The official number given by the Argentina Army Intelligence was 22,000 killed and disappeared. Five hundred thousand had to flee into exile. That is not forgotten.

Ironically, though the Dirty War was effectively won by 1979 and the so-called terrorist threat removed, the junta had little success in alleviating Argentina's ongoing economic problems. And so it all goes on. The Argentine people continue to suffer the worst economic crisis of their lifetime, and mothers and grandmothers are still demanding an accounting of what happened to their disappeared children.

The international character of Operation Condor, however, gives rise to the possibility that some of the criminals can still be brought to justice in countries other than Argentina under the International Criminal Court (ICC). Look at what happened when Spain had Chile's Augusto Pinochet arrested in England in 1998 for the crimes of murder, genocide, and terrorism. Although attempts to try Pinochet for human rights abuses have failed thus far, as courts ruled he is mentally and physically unfit to face trial, he is under house arrest and could again be indicted for murder, in addition to tax evasion and corruption related to his multimillion-dollar overseas accounts. The election of Michelle Bachelet--a torture victim of the Pinochet regime--as Chile's new president shows that Chile is on a real path to democracy and determines Pinochet's true legacy, even if he never stands trial. Spain's 1998 legal action promoted the idea of an international legal order to which dictators, including former heads of state, are answerable--a message that current torturers in all countries should take to heart.

In fact, the U.N. anti-torture panel's findings in May 2006, beyond recommending the closure of Guantanamo detention center and condemning the use of torture by the U.S., urged the Bush administration to support the ICC, which the U.S. has refused to join for fear that its behavior could similarly be considered criminal under international law. As such, it becomes a real possibility that presidents and other high-level officials could be arrested when traveling overseas. Some human rights organizations consider universal jurisdiction under the ICC to be a vital tool in their human rights cases, but the U.S. has pressured 48 countries to agree that they will not send U.S. citizens to the ICC. The White House declared in 2003 that "protecting U.S. persons from the ICC will be a significant and pressing matter in our relationship with every state" (Mitchell, 2003).

SDT: Looking back 30 years later, what impact did your experiences in Argentina have on your life?

OT: When I returned to the U.S., I realized very soon that the best thing I could do was to denounce what had happened to me as an example of what was occurring to hundreds--and eventually thousands--of people. The best way to do this was to share my experiences widely and work to end U.S. military assistance to Argentina. While they were torturing me, the interrogators would repeatedly say, "You are so stupid to let yourself be fooled by this political nonsense! This is what you get for thinking that you can stand up against us! You are all pieces of shit, sons of whores who think you can change things ... well take this ..." and more electric shocks would be applied.

I knew that they were trying to convince me that our ideals were useless, that we could not stand up against their power, that it was best to live "an ordinary" life and let things follow their course. But their logic did not persuade me. If anything, their actions have remained as proof to me that we must oppose injustice and the repression of dissidence.

I also understood that their transformation from seemingly regular human beings to monsters was not a casual occurrence, but was rooted in a belief that they were defending their "way of life" and were omnipotent in their right to inflict such pain and suffering. It is a belief clouded by fear and hatred for what they think threatens their life.

There are so many examples of this kind of behavior: seemingly independent, individual acts, such as the brutal hangings of African Americans and Latinos before the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, which were in fact based on a state-sanctioned system that demonized and dehumanized people of color, especially activists. In that struggle, as in many others, many of us became stronger in our beliefs, even as we acknowledge we are afraid--these perpetrators do scare us. But we must continue to do our work as best we can: fighting for human rights and social justice, and for the establishment of political institutions in which torture is forever banned. I firmly believe that solidarity with one another in these struggles, both individually and collectively, is the foundation of what is best in humanity.

SDT: What have you been doing since? Many would think that this experience would have cured you for good of wanting to be a political activist, but it seems the opposite occurred.

OT: After returning from Argentina, I continued to be politically active in various ways at different stages of my life. I maintained the belief that, ultimately, we will create social change when people can act on their own behalf to achieve social justice in their lives. For several years I was part of the U.S. Left's party-building movement, which included domestic grass-roots organizing in San Francisco's Latino community. This involved voter education and registration, running for local office, working for community health care access, and advocating for services and jobs, as well as international solidarity work with Central America. I later worked for many years with organizations that provided direct services to communities of color and to ensure affirmative action was being implemented in the business sector, working with students of color in a leadership and career development program.

Today I remain committed to those principles in my current position with the Chicana Latina Foundation, whose mission is the empowerment of Latina women through personal, professional, and educational advancement, and in my volunteer work with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and other LGBT organizations that work to defend the social and civil rights of all people.

SDT: How might this interview affect the current discourse on torture?

OT: Possibly the most disturbing aspect of the torture scandal has been the absence of public outrage. According to a PEW Research poll, nine in 10 respondents have heard of prisoner abuse at the various locations, but less than 35% of them believe this abuse is part of a larger pattern. How many of them don't believe it is just plain wrong, I simply don't know. But torture is the most degrading, humiliating, and painful treatment that any human can undergo. That is because you have no control, you have no rights, and you have no way of defending yourself. The searing pain from high-voltage electric shocks being applied to your body is impossible to describe. There is absolutely nothing you can do; it does not matter what you know or don't know, or what you say or don't say. They hold complete control over your life and they make you feel as if there is nothing that can protect you in that moment. And there isn't. After the torture is over, some people recover, but others experience an abrupt end to their sense of control over their own lives and their aspirations for the future, which continues to influence everything they do. That is why torture must be banned forever. How can there be "a little bit of torture," or "torture light," as Alfred McCoy calls it (2006a)?

It was also very angering to find out that to conceal its torture activity, the U.S. is exporting it to other countries. I saw an Amnesty International brochure that said: "Torture has no place on American soil. That's why we have it done in Egypt." Too true!

When I saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib and read about how the prisoners were treated, about how the interrogators taunted and humiliated them sexually and psychologically, I was infuriated. I felt myself transported back to the torture rooms at the police station in Azul and I knew I had to speak out again. What I want to say is, "Hey, people, wake up! This is what it means to be tortured! How can there be a debate about this?" Before, I think most people did not believe that the U.S. government would ever resort to such tactics. But now, the debate as to the acceptability or appropriateness of torture under certain circumstances, which has emerged from the Bush administration's constant fear mongering, has been bolstered with legal manipulations to create a sense of legitimacy. In that respect, we have taken a giant step backwards as a people. To those who defend torture anywhere, I say: Beware! There will be survivors and they will tell their stories.

Appendix 1: Resources for Victims and Activists

American Civil Liberties Union

125 Broad St., 18th Floor

New York, NY 10004

(212) 549-2500

Amnesty International

5 Penn Plaza

New York, NY 10001

Tel. (212) 633-4200

Center for Justice and Accountability

870 Market Street, Suite 684

San Francisco, CA 94102

Tel. (415) 544-0444; Fax (415) 544-0456;

Center for Victims of Torture

717 East River Road

Minneapolis. MN 55455

Tel. (612) 436-4800

National Religious Coalition Against Torture

c/o PAEF

40 Witherspoon Street

Princeton, NJ 0854;

SOA Watch

PO Box 4566

Washington, DC 20017

Tel. (202) 234-3440; Fax: (202) 636-4505;

Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC)

4121 Harewood Road. Suite B

Washington, DC 20017

Tel. (202) 529-2991; Fax: (202) 529-8334;


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Suzie Dod Thomas (SDT): It takes a lot of courage to speak up again after so many years about what happened to you in Argentina. It was a close call for you. So, let me ask you first, how did you end up in an Argentine prison in 1974?

Olga Talamante (OT): After attending U.C. Santa Cruz (UCSC) as a Latin American Studies major in 1973, and prompted by Argentine friends I had met a few years earlier while doing an anthropology field project in Mexico, I traveled to the small city of Azul, Argentina, and stayed there to work with the Juventud

OLGA TALAMANTE is Executive Director of the Chicana Latina Foundation in the San Francisco Bay Area (e-mail: SUZIE DOD THOMAS is Assistant Managing Editor of Social Justice and a long-time member of the Editorial Board (e-mail: The authors would like to thank Bill Berkowitz, Lydia Chavez, Betita Martinez, Tony Platt, Greg Shank, and Nancy Stein for their assistance in preparing this manuscript.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:prisoners abuse
Author:Thomas, Suzie Dod
Publication:Social Justice
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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