On Monday, President Obama will visit Cuba - the first time a U.S. president has traveled there since Calvin Coolidge. It's an important step toward normalizing relations between the two countries, opening up important economic possibilities for Cuba and the potential for U.S. investment and influence there.
Sadly, the U.S. potential to positively influence human rights in Cuba is marred by the fact that more than seven years into his presidency, President Obama still hasn't been able to overcome Congressional intransigence and follow through on his promise to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. So long as the United States imprisons dozens of detainees indefinitely on Cuban soil, Obama's human rights entreaties to the Castro government are likely to fall flat.
Still, President Obama is expected to take advantage of another important opportunity he does have to advance human rights in Latin America. The president's next stop after Cuba is Argentina, another country where U.S. leaders have not received a warm welcome in quite a while. Following protest by human rights groups that he's arriving on the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought a brutal military dictatorship to power, which the United States government supported, Obama has decided to take a historic step: he will release long-secret U.S. documents pertaining to Argentina's "Dirty War."
Between 1976 and 1983, the junta in Argentina engaged in the torture, execution and "disappearance" of up to 30,000 students, trade unionists, and other opponents of the military government. State Department documents declassified during the Bush administration reveal that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, among other senior leaders, was well aware of those abuses.
As Kissinger in 1976 told César Augusto Guzzetti, the Argentine foreign minister, according to a declassified State Department document: "If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly."
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright agreed to release the State Department's documents on the "Dirty War" when she visited Argentina in 2000. But when the Bush administration finally released those documents in 2002, it refused to release CIA, Justice or Defense Department documents. On Thursday, National Security Advisor Susan Rice announced that President Obama would begin the process for declassifying those military, law enforcement and intelligence records as well, plus those found in the presidential libraries and the National Archives.
In Argentina, prominent human rights activists such as the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, dedicated to finding the children of political dissidents killed by the junta, have been seeking these documents for decades. They recently asked Argentina's new president, Mauricio Macri, to request them from President Obama. They also made their own request to the U.S. Embassy in Argentina. The grandmothers believe the documents may contain valuable information to help locate the children still missing, as well as to prosecute the parents' murderers. President Obama's hands may be tied when it comes to closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay before he arrives in Cuba. But he has chosen to be on the right side of history when it comes to Argentina. By releasing U.S. documents, he will not only be supporting Argentina's efforts to come to terms with its past; he will also be demonstrating the United States' own commitment to come clean about its history, and to end its own use of torture - despite the reckless blustering of some of the candidates vying to succeed him.