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Historians in Argentina are crossing swords over a controversial Presidential decree creating a 33-member committee to reassess the lives and work of certain popular leaders who -- the decree claims -- have been kept out of the radar of academic research. The  National Institute for the Revision of Argentine and Latin American History Manuel Dorrego (Instituto Nacional de Revisionismo Histórico Argentino e Iberoamericano Manuel Dorrego) will be presided over by historian and writer Mario O’Donnel and will have among its members university professors, intellectuals and officials close to the government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Since its creation at the end of November, the local media has become the battlefield in which historians have passionately argued for or against the institute and have questioned one another’s credentials to do so, sometimes mercilessly. The skirmishes continued for weeks and, as an apparent result, the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research or CONICET, Argentina´s largest public organization to promote the development of sciences, warned all its researchers that they should all make clear they do not speak for the entire council when they voice their opinions.

Critics of the revisionist committee argue, among other things, that its creation implies a large amount of academic research conducted from many angles over the last thirty years simply did not happen. Also, that it draws an anachronistic line between “the good” and “the bad” in Argentine history. Many university professors who oppose the spirit of the decree have written in the local newspapers that the presidential creation springs from the misconception that all the historic research that has come out of Argentina’s publicly funded universities is slanted and conservative in approach.

The decree states that the aim of the institute will be to carry out “historic research … on the public and private acts of Manuel Dorrego and all those men and women who, like him, fought for a country with national, popular, democratic and federal roots.” The list includes Martín Miguel de Güemes; José Gervasio Artigas; Estanislao López; Francisco Ramírez; Ángel "Chacho" Peñaloza; Felipe Varela; Facundo Quiroga; Juan Manuel de Rosas. Most of them were provincial governors or regional leaders who fought and lost Argentina’s long and devastating civil wars in the 19th century. But the list also includes 20th century popular leaders such as  Hipólito Yrigoyen; Juan Domingo Perón and Eva Perón.

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner gave a glimpse of her beliefs when, speaking to businessmen shortly after the creation of the institute was announced, she concluded that the difference between the degree of industrialization of the United States and Argentina sprung from the fact that Americans won the civil war, while in Argentina, “we lost”.

“The world should be viewed not as a photograph of what is going on today, but as a movie that started a long time ago in order to interpret it and decode it. This is what History is useful for, not to remember what others did but to interpret what is happening to us and what may happen in the future”, she told a meeting of the Argentine Industrial Union (UIA). Referring to both Argentina and the US, she added … We lost at Caseros, they won the Civil War and that is why they became the strongest industrial power in the world. There is no mystery here, History explains it clearly.”

The battle of Caseros in 1852 brought to an end the virtual civil wars that had rocked Argentina for decades and in which those striving for a federalist form of government were defeated by those favoring a centralized government and a pro-foreign-powers approach.

On the other side of the trenches, historians in favor of the revisionist institute argue that up to now, most of Argentina´s history had been told from the point of view of the winners at Caseros, with disdain for the national, popular and federal elements. They add that any attempt to revise it had always been marginal. In general, Argentine intellectuals who are followers of former President Juan Perón and his wife Eva tend also to sympathize with the popular leaders or “caudillos” who will now be reviewed in a different light. President Cristina Kirchner, who ran for the Peronist Party, has just been reelected for a second term.

The fiery duel that followed the creation of the institute between historians on both sides has revealed that in Argentina the scars of the past are far from healed and that, somehow, its unresolved issues are still poisoning its present.  


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