How Fr Pat survived Argentina’s purge

Forty years ago this month, a Cork priest was kidnapped and tortured after the coup of 1976 in the South American country. Thousands of leftwing sympathisers would be ‘disappeared’ in the years ahead, but I helped negotiate my friend’s release, says Justin Harman
How Fr Pat survived Argentina’s purge

PATRICK Rice was a priest and human rights worker from Fermoy, Co Cork, who lived in Latin America from 1970 until his death in 2010. This month, 40 years ago, he was kidnapped, together with a co-worker, Fátima Cabrera, by the Argentine authorities.

They were held in clandestine prisons, and tortured, but lucky to survive. I was working at the time in the Irish embassy in Buenos Aires, and was involved in securing his release. I developed a friendship with him that lasted for the rest of his life.

When I arrived in Buenos Aires, in late 1975, Argentina was convulsed by rampant inflation, daily currency devaluations, labour unrest, a determined guerrilla campaign by left-wing militants, and vicious counter-attacks from the right.

An enfeebled government, led by Isabel Peron, widow of General Juan Domingo Peron, could not cope. Given numerous interventions since 1930, few doubted the inevitability of a return to military rule.

When the coup d’état took place on March 24, 1976, there was no sense it would ultimately constitute, in the words of the commission set up after the return of democracy, in 1983, “the most savage tragedy of Argentine history”.

That savagery was accompanied by claims that the regime’s actions were necessary to defend western Christian civilisation. The days and weeks after the coup provided few clues as to what was happening.

For me, as the sole Irish diplomat, an eerie silence prevailed, broken by word-of-mouth reports of insidious incidents and victims “disappeared” without trace. Families and friends seeking information were stonewalled. Embassies were surrounded to prevent families from seeking assistance.

Buenos Aires as it is now. Pat Rice was abducted in the capital and was tortured while in custody.
Buenos Aires as it is now. Pat Rice was abducted in the capital and was tortured while in custody.

News of Pat Rice’s abduction, in the company of a young catechist, Fátima Cabrera, was deeply alarming. Our urgent appeals for information went unheard. Fortunately, following a press contact in Buenos Aires, a news item carried in the foreign media eventually led to an admission that Pat was in official custody.

When we finally met him, roughshod attempts to improve his appearance could not disguise that he had been ruthlessly ill-treated, psychologically and physically. He was severely disorientated but, at the same time, conveyed a calm dignity.

Over the weeks until we secured his release, my almost daily visits formed the basis of our friendship.

I frequently found myself speaking to Pat in Spanish and sometimes in Irish — his English had been affected by his treatment. He developed a friendship with a prisoner, Jorge Taiana, in an adjoining cell. Taiana would later serve as Argentina’s foreign minister.

When I met Taiana in 2010, weeks before Pat’s untimely death on July 9, he spoke tenderly of that friendship and Pat’s singular commitment to the cause of the “disappeared”.

For the remainder of his life, following his recovery and eventual return to Argentina, Pat engaged in the fight for human rights, notably the rights of the “disappeared”.

He had an acute understanding of the importance of effective international action. He saw the impact in Argentina of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, whose report, in 1979, despite energetic opposition by the administration, broke the sense of impunity of the military regime.

Patricia Derian, of the US state department under president Jimmy Carter, played a key role, confronting Congress with a new human rights policy. Sadly, Patt Derian died earlier this year.

Pat Rice was never someone to say “task completed”. He was nominated by Ireland to play a role in drawing up the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Pat Rice with his wife Fátima and daughter Bianca and Pat was awarded an honorary doctorate at University College Cork in 2008.
Pat Rice with his wife Fátima and daughter Bianca and Pat was awarded an honorary doctorate at University College Cork in 2008.

However, he saw human rights as a mosaic that involves much more than governments signing treaties or issuing declarations. He knew that strengthening respect for human dignity is an unending process and is the bedrock foundation on which everything else rests.

While always vigilant, Pat was proud of the priority given to human rights by the democratic governments of Argentina. He would have agreed with the words of a senior government official, who this month said “Argentina is an example at a global level: the only democratic government in history to try a military that left power, to reopen the crimes-against-humanity trials, the IAHCR report, the truth trials ... it permits us to have a future where this will never happen again”.

He would have been overjoyed by the revelation, in recent days, of the identification for grandparents of the 121st missing child of parents ‘disappeared’ under the dictatorship.

Since my return to Buenos Aires, conversations with his wife, Fátima Cabrera, herself the victim of illegal detention and torture, bring back Pat’s courage, quiet dignity, and gentleness, combined with an unrelenting commitment to human rights.

This year, I was delighted to dedicate an exhibition on Roger Casement, another human rights defender, to Pat Rice, in the Museum of Memory, the infamous site of torture during the dictatorship.

With his death in 2010, a strong and guiding light in the campaign for the rights of the ‘disappeared’ was extinguished. However, his legacy is alive, including in the active commitment of his children to pursuing their father’s work.

Justin Harman worked in the Irish embassy in Buenos Aires in the 1970s at the time of the disappearance of Pat Rice. He returned as ambassador in 2014, where he currently serves.

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