Why you should care
Because free speech comes at a cost.
My name is Nestor Fantini, and I’m 65 years old. I grew up in a traditional middle-class family in Córdoba, where I was taught the importance of democracy. But when I traveled to northern Argentina, I saw how marginalized some parts of the country were. It was a shock; even more shocking, though, was that what we were taught in school didn’t match up with reality.
In 1966 there was a military coup and a period of military dictatorship began. There was no such thing as democracy, and social inequality was rampant. With the Cold War in the background and the new National Security Doctrine as a guideline, trade unionists, student leaders and many in progressive movements were considered Communists and persecuted.
I became a student activist during college. When democracy was restored in 1973, I felt lucky to have been involved in that process — but my name was tainted. The government was worried about student politics and the trade union movement; in September 1975, I was arrested for speaking out. An officer who was involved in my arrest told me they’d been looking for me for a year.
I was taken to D2, a local police station, where I was interrogated and thrown into a tiny cell with 12 others. I was blindfolded, handcuffed, beaten and accused of being a terrorist.
Why did I make it while others did not? I don’t have an answer to that question.
I was then stripped and shoved down on a metal bed frame without a mattress. Electrical cables were attached to my genitals and armpits. The pain was unbearable. The police put a gun in my mouth and told me they were going to kill me.
My interrogation lasted six days. I was then transferred to UP1 prison in Córdoba. The police took all my belongings, leaving me with just clothes, a mattress and a blanket. I spent all of my time in a cell, where I was again subjected to torture. I was one of the lucky ones, though — 31 of my fellow inmates were executed. [In 2010, 23 officials were found guilty of crimes against humanity in connection with the executions and torture committed at UP1.]
I was 22 at the time, and I remember feeling as though I was making an important contribution to society. I was an idealist who didn’t realize the full gravity of the situation.
When I was transferred to Sierra Chica prison in Buenos Aires, my mother and sister came to see me. My mother told me she’d contacted organizations about my case. At one of those organizations, Amnesty International, a Ph.D. student named Mary Evelyn Porter, or Mev, was spearheading the campaign to get me released.
As I was only allowed to receive letters from relatives, Mev would send letters of support to my sister, who would deliver them to the prison under her name. It was incredible to think people in places from Bangkok to London were supporting me. There and then, I knew it would be far more difficult for those in power to kill me. Consequently, my outlook on life changed. The letters indicated that millions of people knew about my case, and Mev was leading the charge. Her kindness and support provided me with the hope that I had a future.
Mev’s work finally brought her to Argentina, and on July 14, 1979, she came with my mother to see me. I was released that day.
No one could have been more surprised than me when they called my name. As I left, I was told, “don’t look back.” I didn’t.
Mev and I were both carrying copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses — mine in Spanish, Mev’s in English. Mev and I quickly became friends. Things started developing in a new direction, but I had actually begun falling in love with Mev before I even met her — her letters had created a very powerful emotional connection between us. In April 1980, I was allowed to leave Argentina and go to Canada as a political refugee. Mev and I got married, and welcomed our son, Jonathan, into the world in 1984.
Mev and I called Jonathan “the Amnesty kid” — something we still joke about. Even though Mev and I are divorced, we remain close and visit each other often, especially at Thanksgiving. We’re so proud of Jonathan. He has worked in international security and was featured in Forbes’ “30 Under 30,” where he was named one of “the brightest young entrepreneurs, breakout talents and change agents.” My story is one that Jonathan is proud to tell, and he often shares it at high-level events. He’s passionate about human rights — just recently he was in Argentina, participating in the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo march. It’s great to see him continue down this path.
Why did I make it while others did not?
I don’t have an answer to that question. That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it many times: Why I was spared while others similar to me in ideology, demographics and so on were executed.
Some of the executions, as in the case of my friend Hugo Miguel Vaca Narvaja, who was in the same cell in UP1 as I was, were planned with a political objective in mind: to show us that they could do whatever they wanted. Hugo’s case was particularly outrageous because only days before his execution, the Argentine Supreme Court had ruled that the military junta should release him and allow him to leave the country.
Instead, Gen. Luciano Benjamín Menéndez ordered that Hugo and other political prisoners be executed. Among the prisoners to be executed were two brothers by the last name of DeBreuil. The officer in charge flipped a coin to see which of the two would be executed and which would live to be returned to UP1 to deliver the message that we would all be killed.
Raul Bauducco, whom we called Paco, was in the same prison hall as me. One morning, soldiers came and took us to the prison yard, where we were stripped and beaten. Paco dropped to the ground. A noncommissioned officer, Miguel Ángel Pérez, ordered him to get up. He couldn’t.
Pérez walked to the center of the yard, where the commanding officer was, and they talked. Pérez then returned to where Paco lay and held a gun to his head, ordering him once again to get up. Paco was unable to move. Pérez shot him in the face. He died immediately. This happened in front of 40 or 50 of us. [Gen. Menéndez and 22 other officials involved in this and other executions were found guilty of crimes against humanity. Some were sentenced to life in prison. Nestor Fantini attended the 2010 trial.]
I was conscious that a simple mistake such as attracting the attention of a soldier could be lethal. We lived in constant fear, never knowing when we might hear boots approaching, never knowing if they were coming to beat us up or to remove a prisoner who would never come back. I am not a religious person. Not even a believer. It’s difficult for me to accept the concept of divine intervention. Many have made that interpretation, and I respect their views. That is not me, though.
After I was released, I went to college and became a teacher. I moved to Los Angeles and raised a son whom I love more than anything in the world. Because I could.