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Argentine Rights Group Opens Cafe

August 14, 1999

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ The blue sign outside the city’s newest literary cafe is adorned with a famous symbol of Argentine protest: the white kerchief of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Two decades after the Mothers marched onto the political scene in their headscarfs to challenge a military junta, they are seeking to ensure their spirit lives after them _ by dishing up redolent cups of coffee and tea along with spirited activism.

The first floor of their headquarters has been converted by volunteers into a meeting place for the avowedly ``anti-establishment″ crowd that has railed against one Argentine government after another, through dictatorship and democracy.

Young people scour aisles filled with thousands of books ranging from Karl Marx and Che Guevara to today’s center-left political thinkers. Rock music wafts from loudspeakers, spiced with speeches of old when the Mothers sought information about missing loved ones during Argentina’s ``dirty war.″

``This is a place for their cause,″ said Mariela Rossi, 22, one of a handful of students who work with the Mothers and helped come up with the idea for the cafe. ``Many of the Madres have already died and others will also go that way. But through this cafe, the cause will always remain alive.″

The Mothers first marched outside the presidential mansion, the Casa Rosada, in 1977 demanding the return of sons and daughters who ``disappeared″ during the military’s crackdown on leftists. Now they campaign for the prosecution of officials accused of responsibility for the presumed deaths of the missing.

A government report estimates 9,000 Argentines, many of them leftists or dissidents, vanished between 1976 and 1983. Rights groups say the number is closer to 30,000.

The military junta leaders were tried and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1985. But President Carlos Menem pardoned them five years later.

Now many of the leaders, including Jorge Videla and Emilio Massera, are under house arrest and battling court accusations that children born to jailed political prisoners were kidnapped during the dictatorship. Those charges are not covered by the 1990 amnesty.

The Mothers still march silently each week as they have every Thursday since April 30, 1977 _ wearing white kerchiefs while holding up large photos of the missing.

Much has changed since dictatorship gave way to democracy in the 1980s. Of the 2,000 Mothers who marched in the ’70s, only about 600 show up now for the weekly protest. Several have died and many others have dropped away to resume their lives.

The cafe is an extension of an effort begun by the group in the late 1980s to pass along its cause to younger Argentines.

Hebe de Bonafini, the 71-year-old leader of the Mothers, said the group has cultivated connections with students, set up its own Internet site and promoted ties to young intellectuals and actors.

``We are going to die and we want to put our dream and our hope in the youth,″ said Bonafini, who lost her two children during the ``dirty war.″

Mercedes Melono, a 73-year-old Mother who visits the cafe most days, converses with visitors while trying to inspire activism in young people who talk the hours away amid biscuits and cups of coffee.

``The young have to be politically active and think about others,″ said Melono, whose only son disappeared in January 1978.

The Mothers hold courses on politics and human rights courses at the cafe, and also provide a forum for singers and for lectures on the years of military rule.

The group says it is crucial for Argentines to continue the fight to find out the fates of the ``disappeareds″ and to punish the former junta leaders activists blame for the ``dirty war.″

Volunteers helped create the cafe’s atmosphere, painting the walls and hauling in tables and chairs for the April opening, and they staff the cafe on behalf of the Mothers. It bears the name of Osvaldo Bayer, a journalist who was exiled during the dictatorship for his outspoken views.

Drinking coffee with two friends while listening to a rock band involved in the Mothers’ campaign, Sebastian Gianetti, 26, said, ``This cafe helps the Mothers in their cause ... and lets everybody know what happened″ under military rule.

But Simon Lazara, a fellow militant of past human rights campaigns, said the Mothers’ cause doesn’t need the cafe. ``Their spirit will live on,″ he said.

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