BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Prince Willem-Alexander’s ascension to the Dutch throne in April promises to be a shining moment on the world stage for his wife, Maxima, and her home country of Argentina. But there will be a glaring absence at the ceremony.
Queen Beatrix’s announcement last week that she’ll step aside and let her son become king raised new questions about the future queen’s father, Jorge Zorreguieta, one of the longest-serving civilian ministers in Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
Maxima’s parents already missed out on their daughter’s 2002 wedding to avoid offending Dutch sensibilities about human rights violations by the South American junta. Anticipating more unpleasant questions, Maxima told the prime minister that her parents won’t attend her swearing-in as queen, either.
VIOLENT ERA STILL AN OPEN WOUND
Zorreguieta is 85 now, and Argentina has been a democracy for nearly 40 years, but the country’s violent history remains an open wound.
Lawyers in both countries are trying to determine whether Zorreguieta had any personal responsibility for forced disappearances at a time when Argentina’s top business executives supported the junta’s “dirty war” against leftists, union members and other so-called “subversives,” killing as many as 30,000 people.
In The Hague on Thursday, lawyers for a group of victims formally asked prosecutors to reopen a case against Zorreguieta. In Buenos Aires, an investigative judge is working to determine whether allegations raised by Zorreguieta’s former employees merit the filing of criminal human rights charges.
Maxima grew up in Buenos Aires and had a successful career in banking before meeting the prince. She’s now the most popular member of the royal family, a charming mother of three whose personal touch has won over the Dutch. Argentines have followed her story closely, fascinated to see one of their own reach such heights.
Yet her father’s past has overshadowed the news.
Zorreguieta led the Rural Society, a bastion of Argentina’s landowning elite, before the 1976 military coup, and later ran the junta’s Agriculture Ministry, where several employees were killed and hundreds were forced to resign for supposed leftist tendencies. Known as more of a technocrat, Zorreguieta limited most of his public statements to cattle production and other statistics.
In his only comments about the dictatorship since then, he has denied knowing anything about crimes against humanity.
Still, Zorreguieta had a close working relationship for many years with Jose Alfredo Martinez de Hoz, who ran Argentina’s economy for dictator Jorge Videla. That background caused such unease in the Netherlands before his daughter’s 2002 marriage that the Dutch Parliament ordered historian Michiel Baud to prepare a secret report on what skeletons might emerge from his closet.
Baud’s conclusions, which Argentines later published as a book titled “The Father of the Bride,” provided just enough reassurances to allow the wedding to go forward, while making clear that Zorreguieta still has much to answer for.
In an Associated Press interview, Baud said the concerns he raised back then remain just as worrisome.
“I didn’t find any proof that he was directly connected to human rights violations, but it was clear that in his position as director of the ‘Societal Rural,’ he was part of the group of people that at least stimulated the coup, and it’s significant that he stayed with the dictatorship for the whole five years, until Videla himself left the government,” Baud said.
“It was inconceivable that he did not know about what was happening in Argentina. That was my strongest conclusion,” said Baud, who met with Zorreguieta in 2001, and included his written denials in the report he presented to parliament.
Before her wedding, Princess Maxima had said she accepted her father’s decision not to attend. “I regret that he did his best in a bad regime,” she said in a media interview. “He had the best intentions.”
Zorreguieta wrote an open “letter to the people of the Netherlands” that was published in Argentina’s La Nacion newspaper, saying he wouldn’t go to his daughter’s wedding because he wanted to avoid “controversies” that could hurt her future.
In the letter, he also listed 10 “truths” about his role in the dictatorship, claiming that “in the Agriculture Ministry there was no knowledge of the repression” and that “only after 1984, did the excesses committed during the repression become known.”
These claims were immediately challenged in Argentina.
In the left-leaning newspaper Pagina12, journalist Miguel Bonasso wrote a blistering, point-by-point response, noting that Argentina’s human rights violations were known around the world while Zorreguieta served the junta.
Bonasso also wrote that the Agriculture Ministry’s workers had been seized by soldiers in tanks, and that when Argentina hosted the 1978 World Cup in a stadium just down the street from a clandestine terror center, members of the Dutch team met publicly with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to support their effort to find detainees.
Still, as his daughter prepares to be sworn in as queen, Zorreguieta has made no apologies for his past, said Baud, who directs the Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation in Amsterdam..
“What’s remarkable is that since that moment, 12 years have passed, he’s never made any excuse or any statement to the victims. He’s sticking to his story. He has not in any way shown any remorse or second thoughts or whatever,” Baud said.
FAMILIES WANT ANSWERS
Relatives of those killed by the junta still hope to see Zorreguieta forced to answer questions under oath.
“He should tell what he knows, apologize. I don’t know if he’ll do that, but it’s time,” said Alejandra Slutzky in a recent interview on Dutch television. Slutzky’s family blames Zorreguieta for the 1977 torture death of her father, Dr. Samuel Slutzky.
Lawyers for the family had failed to indict Zorreguieta in Holland when an appellate court ruled in 2002 that the Netherlands had no jurisdiction over crimes against humanity committed in Argentina decades earlier. But the lawyers say that changed in December 2010 when an international treaty on forced disappearances went into effect and when Holland amended its international crimes law next year, giving prosecutors jurisdiction when suspects are on Dutch soil.
Dutch lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld, who represents Slutzky’s family and other Argentine survivors, argues that Zorreguieta would be continuing to commit the crime of covering up a forced disappearance if he visits Holland and doesn’t reveal what he knows.
“New evidence keeps coming to light that increases the plausibility that Zorreguieta was jointly responsible in forced disappearances,” Zegveld said, while urging prosecutors to open a new investigation.
Zegveld cited the case of Alberto Daniel Golberg, one of about 800 employees forced out of the ministry’s National Institute for Agricultural Technology as the military took over. Golberg has said he was arrested and tortured, then visited in jail by the institute’s human resources chief, who had him sign a severance letter.
That couldn’t have happened without Zorreguieta’s knowledge, Zegveld said.