In Argentina, Remembering The Day The Dictatorship Burned 1.5 Million Books

From a mural In Buenos Aires, where books are now celebrated, not burned as they once were...
From a mural In Buenos Aires, where books are now celebrated, not burned as they once were...
Julieta Roffo

More than a million-and-a-half books from the Latin American Publishing Center (Centro Editor de América Latina, CEAL), which had been intended to spread reading and literature to a wider audience in and around the capital, were first censored and then ultimately destroyed by fire here 33 years ago. It was a national abomination, but now a memorial to the event means there is little chance that it will ever be forgotten.

SARANDI — "I need a picture taken to show "la patrona" (chief) since she didn’t believe me when I told her what I was going to do," a police officer told CEAL photographer Ricardo Figueiras on June 26, 1980, in Sarandí, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Under a judge’s orders, the officer set fire to the area, including to the 24 tons of books that had been banned under a military dictatorship and transferred from CEAL’s warehouse just six blocks away.

It's something that Amanda Toubes, an editor who witnessed the burning, will never forget. That's why she repeated the officer's utterance at the recent inauguration of the commemorative plaque to mark the place where the "questionable" books were destroyed.

The event was organized by the cultural collective La Grieta from La Plata. Toubes arrived to the unveiling — at a place that had been a paddock in 1980 — with colleagues from CEAL. The location has since been transformed into a factory producing industrial drums.

“That June day was brutal," Toubes recalls. "I accompanied Ricardo Figueiras because the judge ordered witnesses to be there. I was his assistant while he documented the destruction."

On that day more than three decades ago, she recalls hearing people scream, "The books are burning!" Today, she teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Buenos Aires.

The publisher CEAL was the ideological vision of its director Boris Spivaco. "Working at CEAL was full of madness and passion," Toubes recalls. "There were are a lot of laughs and lots of sadness too in Argentina during the days of repression." In those years, she directed the New Encyclopedia Young World that CEAL published. She notes that the organization "was not demagogic" and lived its motto, "Más libros para más" (more books for more people). The new plaque reads the same.

Toubes hasn't forgotten how the staff was affected by the book burning. "Graciela Cabal — who edited an emblematic children's book called Jacinto — cried like I have never seen anyone cry after I told her I had seen a little prince on a book cover that refused to burn," she recalls. "I kept telling her that while they were burning books, they were also burning people, that books can be remade."

Gabriela Pesclevi, coordinator in the literature section of the La Grieta collective, says it's important to put the formerly forbidden books "in the public's hands." As a result, the event showcased several youth and children's books that had been censored during Argentina's National Reorganization Process from 1976-1983. To underline the absurdity of banning books, they were placed on two tables covered in police tape that read "Danger." The titles included An Elephant Takes Up Too Much Space by Elsa Bornemann and The Tower of Cubes by Laura Devetach. These were accompanied by CEAL classics like Nicolodo Viaja al País de la Cocina by Graciela Montes, a beloved title of the popular collection Los Cuentos del Chiribitil.

Montag, the firefighter character in Ray Bradbury's novel Farenheit 451, burned books under the government's orders. As it turns out, sometimes the truth is worse than fiction. But here, and elsewhere, where there was once fire, there are now official reminders of what should never have happened. And where the day was once grey, the sun now shines.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.



• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.


"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.



For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.


Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

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We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.


Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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