Patricia Isasa: Human Rights Activist and Survivor of Argentina’s “Dirty War”

by Cristina Hernandez
Staff Writer

Trigger Warning: Rape/Torture

On the 24th of March Argentina celebrates the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice, a public holiday to honor the lives of the victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship, also known as the “Dirty War,” which spanned from 1976 to 1983. It is a day met with collective solemnity, as Argentina—much like many other Latin American countries that experienced similar dictatorships—recalls this chapter in its history as having induced a heavy trauma to its national identity. Thirty thousand people were “kidnapped” (the term in Spanish for one of these individuals being “desaparecido”) for their alleged dissidence to the right-wing regime during a penetrating epoch of repression, fear, and unchecked human rights abuses. There’s no better way to understand this time period than to look at the story of one notable survivor: Patricia Isasa.

Kidnapped from her school in the Santa Fe province as a teenager, Isasa spent almost three years being held and tortured in different concentration camps. Unlike other less fortunate victims, she lived to tell the tale. On January 28 of this year, Isasa was invited to the Global School of Policy and Strategy in UC San Diego to discuss the life-altering events of her youth, as well as the many legal pathways she took after the end of the dictatorship to bring her perpetrators to justice.

Isasa began her talk with an explanation of what it meant to be a “desaparecido.” Being a “desaparecido” most often included being taken by the government, sent to a clandestine place, tortured, moved to another concentration camp, killed, and then secretly disposed of (either through a common grave or through the dumping of your body off of a plane into a lake or river, which Isasa described as the “Argentine” way). As a young girl of sixteen, Isasa’s student activism and early political inclinations had been sufficient grounds for her to be taken into military custody and forced to spend the next two and a half years imprisoned in three different concentration camps.

Isasa had no shortage of dehumanizing experiences from the time she spent illegally detained. She described different unidentified men hitting her against walls and leaving her in dark rooms with her hands and feet tied for weeks on end. She also chronicled the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of officers who reserved a “special treatment” for women that included raping them and ejaculating on their naked bodies as they tortured them with electric shocks. Detainees were forced to eat rotten food and bathe in freezing temperatures; the conditions of all of the camps being abysmal. Isasa and other victims of torture and abuse described their experiences as comparable to the infamous stories and pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib in 2003, as they recalled officers forcing detainees to rape one another while they themselves took torture-breaks to play soccer. This nightmarish chapter of Isasa’s life finally came to an end in 1978 when she was abruptly released after being held for two years without a trial or formal charges.

One member of the audience asked Isasa the question on everyone’s mind: “What was it that got you through this time?” Isasa’s reply left nothing to the imagination. 1975, the year before the formal start of the dictatorship in Argentina, was the year that Spain’s military dictator Francisco Franco passed away. With his passing came the death of his dictatorship and the unlikely emergence of democracy in the country. After 36 years of unceasing repression, Spain had at last broken from its fascist history, something which gave Isasa, all the way in Argentina, some degree of reassurance. It proved to her that someday her own troubles—the dictatorship, the kidnappings, the fear and repression—would come to an end. Like many before her, it was the act of looking forward, realizing that what she was going through wouldn’t last forever, and the belief that history would right all wrongs that effectively forged her psychological resistance.

While surviving the torture and abuse had been morally exacting, arriving at justice was similarly strenuous as Isasa had to battle a rigid wall of impunity. Even after Argentina’s return to democracy, all three of her main perpetrators were still protected by it. The chief exterminator of the camp she had been detained in was mayor. Her torturer, who had subjected her to horrific sexual abuse, was Santa Fe’s Ministry of Culture. Her interrogator, who had forged documents to prolong and authenticate her torture, remained a federal judge in the province. To Isasa, nothing was worse than knowing that all the people who had conspired in her dehumanization would not bear the consequences of their actions.

Having failed to attain justice domestically, Isasa turned to international law. It was at this juncture that she traveled to Spain, found a lawyer willing to represent her, and filed a lawsuit from abroad. While her lawyer tried to issue a warrant asking for the extradition of her perpetrators, it ultimately proved unsuccessful as the Argentine president at the time, De La Rua, rejected the extradition and the accused were never called to testify. To Isasa, this was a blatant admission of Argentina’s refusal to make amends for its past — most likely out of a fear that it would point to much more inculpating complicity. The events of the past in Argentina were not isolated to the actions of one military general but rather enabled by the many (kidnappers, torturers, judicial henchmen) who abetted and assisted the regime in its systemic acts of repression. Isasa considered this to be a truth so incriminating that she could see why many Argentines wanted to shun it altogether.

March for the Day of Remembrance of Truth and Justice

Ultimately, Isasa persevered and her efforts, along with the pressure of many grassroots organizations within Argentina (one being the highly influential “Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo” that tirelessly campaigned for the return of kidnapped children and stolen babies), proved fruitful. It was not until Nestor Kirchner’s administration in the early 2000s that this curtain of impunity was finally lifted with the repeal of various laws that had previously protected government officials. What followed was a historic wave of criminal trials where approximately 259 of the accused received sentences for “crimes against humanity” and “genocide.” In the end, Isasa was able to testify in trial, which resulted in her three primary abusers being convicted. They received three life sentences each, which they are currently serving at a maximum security prison.

In the midst of an ongoing debate within nation-states and Human Rights institutions about what measures of transitional justice should be pursued in post-conflict societies (whether it should be retributive justice or reconciliatory measures), Isasa’s stance could not be more clear: the law should act as the ultimate mediator. Isasa firmly believes that trials offer the necessary means to engage in a debate, deliver proof of crimes, commence a national discussion, and — most importantly— follow the truth. She stated how her own trial hadn’t been centered around the demand to be compensated for her individual suffering, but more so on the setting of a precedent and the encouragement of others to further this legacy of accountability. There should be no pardons, no amnesty, and no impunity. To Isasa, retributive justice is the ultimate vehicle for both the healing of individual victims and the repair of a damaged national body.

With an opera based on her life having premiered in Canada in 2016 and talks of a movie in the works, Isasa’s story has captured the attention of many. More so, her past experiences and prolonged work for the Argentine Human Rights and Justice Ministry have only given more weight and passion to her number-one belief: the guilty must always pay for their crimes.

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UCSD School of Global Policy and Strategy
Monk fotografia



by Rebeca Camacho
Staff Writer

On Nov. 19, 2018, UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) hosted the one-day conference titled From NAFTA to USMCA: The New Deal and What’s Missing on the newest iteration of the long-controversial trade deal between Mexico, Canada and the United States. The conference was one of the last events in a series celebrating the thirty-year anniversary of GPS during the Fall 2018 quarter. From October 2018 through August 2019, there will be events in honor of the accomplishments of GPS, orchestrated to incite educational debates over multifaceted issues present in the international arena. A critical theme of the series is the future direction of U.S. foreign policy and the nature of international trade agreements in the 21st century, which was explored extensively at the “New Deal” event.

The event included several talks centered around the divergent interests of state and non-state actors affected by the new United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA) deal, with the keynote address given by Jesús Seade—Mexican President López Obrador’s chief trade negotiator.

While the USMCA will account for more than $1.2 trillion in trade, the most important elements of the new deal can be summarized in five main points: country of origin rules and labor rule provisions in the automotive sector, regulatory changes in the Canadian dairy industry, intellectual property pertaining to digital trade, uplifting of section 232 “national security” tariff protections, and the establishment of a sunset clause. All three national leaders have signed the agreement, leaving only subsequent ratification by each nation’s respective legislature obstructing the passage of the first multilateral agreement since Trump and Obrador came into office.   

The most negotiated clauses in the deal were those pertaining to the country of origin rules, and the effect that such rules pose on the automobile industry.  The primary component of the rules of origin is that at least 75% of an automobile’s components (up from 62.5% under NAFTA) must be manufactured in Mexico, the United States, or Canada if they are to qualify for a zero tariff designation. In addition to this, 45% of all production must be conducted at a minimum hourly wage of $16 by 2023.

Representing the Mexican perspective on the agreement, Beatrice Leycegui Cardoqui— former Undersecretary of Foreign Trade for Mexico’s Ministry of Economy who now works for the International Consulting firm SAI Derecho & Economía in Mexico City—called attention to the deal’s “poison pills.” Though the agreement may be “far from ideal,” she pushed Mexico to be pragmatic in accepting the new deal. She explained how with 80% of Mexico’s exports in the auto sector going to the United States and about 90% of U.S. imports in the industry coming from just south of the border, Mexico was left with little leverage to negotiate any modification of the rules of origin.

The overwhelming concern shared by Cardoqui and Seade revolved around how the new requirements will influence the reallocation of certain stages of production in car manufacturing, the distribution of labor income between borders and the eventual higher prices to compensate for increased production costs.

Through the question and answer portion of the first panel of speakers: remarks divided between Beatriz Cardoqui, Paola Avila (official representative of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce) and Dr. Michael Hawes (political science professor and Executive Director of Fulbright Canada), the three representatives emphasized how the nature of U.S. negotiations is now more heavily shifting towards favoritism of bilateral accords.

With the primary trade negotiation meetings between the United States and its fellow deal members occurring separately, Avila warned that the “divide and conquer” approach taken by the United States is one the government may begin to employ more frequently and potentially as their primary negotiation model within the new paradigm of American foreign policy.

While President Trump has strongly advocated in favor of the USMCA, it remains to be seen whether or not the new deal will pass through the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. With the Democrats objecting to parts of the deal–which must be passed in its entirety–the Trump administration is at risk of facing much of the same lack of compromise from Congress that they exerted earlier on upon their North American trading partners.

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UCSD School of Global Policy and Strategy



by Deborah Jeong

Staff Writer

The idea of a globalized world is well exemplified in the production trail of a simple t-shirt. From the cotton fields of Texas to the processing machines in China to being printed and sent back overseas to the United States, a video depicting the production process of a t-shirt served as the introduction to the ‘Global Forum: Shaping of a Global Citizen’ event. The idea of a “global citizen” emerges from a series of frequent and significant interactions between countries and individuals of different cultural and national backgrounds across the world. As part of the International Education Week, the International Studies Student Association (ISSA) co-hosted a Global Forum with I-House and the International Studies Program. The event hosted two guest speakers, Professor Nancy Gilson of the ISP Department at UC San Diego and fourth-year IS-Political Science student Alex Gunn, to share their insight on the keyword of the night: “global citizen”.

Alex Gunn is a current senior in the department of International Studies-Political Science, with a minor in Human Developmental Sciences. She studied abroad last year in Jordan, where she participated in refugee work while learning the Arabic language. Studying abroad for an entire year gave Gunn a unique opportunity to build relationships with the people she met. In comparing the characteristics of a tourist and visitor with the mindset of a global citizen, she explained that while a tourist is content to explore and enjoy their new surroundings, a global citizen will do all of that–and then take the extra step to truly immerse themselves in the local culture. Through enthusiastic story-telling, she wove the image of her cultural experience, describing the local schools she got involved with, UNICEF’s organization No Lost Generation and the close relationship she developed with her host family. Alex encouraged everyone, particularly students, to actively seek out opportunities to get involved in the community. She also advised students to take advantage of the programs offered at UCSD, including opportunities to study abroad and work at becoming an active, conscientious global citizen.

Professor Gilson, a professor in UCSD’s International Studies Program, delivered her presentation with a comfortable composure that engaged the audience. In contrasting the experience of present-day university students with her own, she praised the greater diversity and opportunities that we often have at our disposal. While she was growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, Gilson rarely had the opportunity to interact with individuals that came from backgrounds different from her own. She went on to tell the story of her friend, Jean, who grew up in South Africa under apartheid and rather forcefully encouraged Gilson to get out of her own bubble and “go learn something.”

As she recounted a few travel stories, one story that stood out was her first experience abroad after earning her Ph.D. in Philosophy, to Taiwan. Notably, the year she went to visit was a very politically significant year for Taiwan: 1979 — the year that the United Nations (U.N.) decided to give China what had previously been Taiwan’s seat in the U.N. After a few weeks of being in Taiwan, an elderly gentleman came up to her and asked, “Why are you here?” He was clearly unhappy with the fact that she was a foreigner from a nation that, as part of the U.N., had just refused to recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. Gilson, rather than feeling insulted, decided that he was right — she had no real reason or purpose to be in Taiwan and decided to learn more about the foreign nation that she had decided to visit. She continued to account how she got to see, first-hand, the life of the people and for the first time experienced what it felt like to be an outsider — a minority.

Many years later, while visiting Istanbul, she was again reminded that despite her high level of education and apparent expertise, there was always more to be learned and new things to experience. She encouraged the audience to go somewhere that makes them uncomfortable, to learn the vernacular and idioms of foreign languages and to thoughtfully listen to the stories of those they meet.

Finally, Gilson defined citizenship as the legal expectation of the rights and privileges connected to status, where a global citizen has the right to privilege and protection under Human Rights Law — “the only law that circles the globe.” Gunn made a poignant point that in order to understand the value of our own privileges and protections, we need to expose ourselves to the circumstances of other people around the world. Both speakers urged the students in the audience to experience foreign cultures first-hand in order to, as Gilson aptly summarized, “learn to be uncomfortable, get over it and learn the tools to do something to have an effect in the world.”  

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ISSA/I-House and UCSD