Torn between identities in Argentina

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Claudia Poblete Hlaczik wishes she could find a Spanish equivalent for the word “hindsight.”

"It's a good word for me," she said. "Hindsight helps me understand some things about my life."

With hindsight Poblete thinks she knows why she named her first doll Pepe and why she used to check if her parents were still breathing at night.

Poblete gained hindsight 10 years ago, when a judge ordered the then-22-year-old to undergo genetic testing. It was suspected that she had been kidnapped as a baby. Up to that point, she had refused to cooperate with the investigation, but she asked her parents if she should go. They told her it was her choice.

"I went because I really didn't believe it would come to anything," she said. When the judge told her the results, everything changed — even her name and age.

Poblete is one of an estimated 400 babies whose parents were killed during Argentina’s Dirty War and who were raised by those who supported the dictatorship. 

The grandmothers of those stolen grandchildren never stopped looking for them. With the help of prominent American geneticist, Mary-Claire King, the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo developed genetic tests to help find their stolen grandchildren. Since 1984, they've recovered 102. They were among the first to use genetics to investigate human rights abuses and have been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet, like Poblete, many of those children — now young adults — don't want to be found. So while the grandmothers are celebrated genetic pioneers, their grandchildren have become unwitting moral test cases, caught in a national debate over competing rights, state responsibility, politics and biological identity.

Do the grandmothers' rights to know the truth trump their grandchildren's rights to privacy and self-determination? A controversial Argentine law passed last year sides with the grandmothers: Anyone suspected of being a child of the disappeared can be forced to take a genetic test to determine their identity, even if it's against their will.

Kidnapping children was part of the military dictatorship’s campaign against “undesirables.” Enemies of the regime were systematically detained, tortured and then "disappeared" in clandestine torture centers, like the School of Naval Mechanics in Buenos Aires.

But the school also served as a clandestine maternity ward for the entire country. Inside the institutional dorm rooms, women considered enemies of the state gave birth to children who were then taken from them.

It was the peculiar logic of the dictatorship: They killed a whole generation of young adults, but they didn't kill their children.

"They thought that bad parents led to bad politics," said anthropologist Lindsay Smith, who is writing a book about the disappeared grandchildren called "Subversive Genes.” "They thought by putting them with new families — good Argentine citizens — they could make new citizens."

Meanwhile the relatives left behind had no idea what had happened.

Claudia Poblete, as a baby, with her father and mother.
(Julia Kumari Drapkin/GlobalPost)

"We looked everywhere for them," said Poblete's grandmother, Buscarita Roa. The petite 70-year-old swells with sadness every time she talks about the disappearance of her son Pepe. After losing his legs in an accident, Pepe actively campaigned for the rights of the disabled. But his activism and his politics made him a target. He disappeared along with his wife and their 8-month-old baby girl.

Roa says she saw other mothers in white kerchiefs going round and round the Plaza de Mayo and demanding the return of their families. Among them were women missing grandchildren and together they formed the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.

"We found out Claudia was still alive, " Roa said her voice cracking as the memory flooded back. The Abuelas received an anonymous tip 22 years after Poblete disappeared. She had been raised by a military colonel and his wife. They called her Mercedes.

Poblete's case proved to be a landmark in Argentina's reconciliation process. While investigating Claudia's disappearance, Judge Gabriel Cavallo declared the amnesty laws protecting those who helped the military dictatorship unconstitutional. That paved the way for many of the prosecutions that are happening today.

But prosecution is the key reason for children of the disappeared to resist identification.

"If you have doubt and you love the people who are going to go to jail because of you — it's impossible to make the choice," Poblete said.

When Poblete ultimately chose to get tested, the results became evidence against the couple who raised her. Both were found guilty of kidnapping and received seven-year sentences — her adopted father was sent to an army prison and her adopted mother put under house arrest.

Poblete says the new law that mandates genetic testing takes the pressure off.

But there are some who feel the law is unconstitutional.

"They're not respecting the judicial process," Cavallo said, tapping his fingers on the court documents lying on his desk. The case on his desk is that of Ernestina Herrera, owner of Argentina's largest daily newspaper Clarin and its parent company Grupo Clarin.

Herrera’s two adopted children have long been suspected of being children of the disappeared, and now they’re caught in the middle of a feud between their mother and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Cavallo is the attorney defending the Herreras against the Abuelas and the DNA law. This time, he says, the Abuelas are wrong:

"The Abuelas say, 'Do the test if you have nothing to hide.' And that's not how the penal process works. One doesn't submit to the penal process over suspicions. One submits to the penal process when there's proof that a crime was committed."

Cavallo said in Poblete’s case there was lots of evidence that she had been kidnapped — there were witnesses, a falsified birth certificate, her adopted father was in the military and her adopted mother was too old to give birth. And when they checked Poblete's DNA, they checked it only against the Pobletes’, not the whole data bank.

In the Herrera case, he maintains, there's not enough evidence and more than that, there is a political objective.

For more than a year, Fernandez has been trying to seize Clarin's assets, saying it maintains an unfair monopoly of the Argentine media. The newspaper isn't known to be objective in its coverage of the Kirchners, but the lengths Fernandez has gone to attack Clarin are noteworthy: tax investigations, several attempts to break up or seize their assets, and criminal charges against its executives for human rights violations during the Dirty War.

Fernandez's critics say the new DNA law was passed specifically to target Herrera's children, Marcela and Felipe Noble Herrera, and open their mother up to prosecution. Despite the law, efforts to test the Herrera children against the National Data Bank have been thwarted. The latest attempt resulted in a dramatic car chase with the police. Afterward the children told the Associated Press that they felt their genetic history was being unfairly forced upon them.

Smith, the anthropologist, also thinks the burden is unfair. "By placing the onus of identification on these young adults we're taking incredibly complex moral decisions about state responsibility, about the meaning of family, about the basis of identity," Smith said. "These are huge philosophical questions that people in academia have wrestled with for thousands of years. "

It's taken a few years, but Poblete has come to terms with her identity. She's decided that experience matters more than the letters of her genetic code.

"Who I am is everything that has happened to me, " she said. "It's the 21 years that I've lived as Mercedes and the 10 years I've been living as Claudia. And the eight months that I had with my parents when I was first born.

It's not always easy, but Poblete maintains relationships with both her biological family and the one that raised her.

"Nobody can tell you who to love," Poblete said." If you want to, you can keep the family you … ." Guadalupe, the 8-month-old mess of curly blond hair feeding on her mother's breast, interrupts Poblete mid-sentence.

Poblete says her daughter will always know the truth of what happened. “There won’t be a specific moment to tell her, she'll always know. Photos of my parents are everywhere."

Poblete opens an album filled with Polaroids and faded color chrome: Poblete as a grouchy-faced baby, Roa, Pepe giving her a bath, her mother breast feeding her.

But when Poblete pulls out a picture of her mother as a baby, it's hard not to gasp. She looks nearly identical to Claudia's daughter. Down to the mass of blond ringlets and lips.

Guadalupe will never know her grandparents, but Claudia says uncovering her past has been all for the best.

"An uncle used to say to me 'The truth is sad, but it has no remedy.'"