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Argentina and Uruguay: Miguel Angel Estrella

19 June 2007
This is the story of an Argentinean classical pianist who in the 1970s was blacklisted, threatened, arrested/kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured for his humanistic belief in making music accessible for everyone.

By Kristina Funkeson, Freemuse
 

On 15 December 1977, the Argentinean musician Miguel Angel Estrella was kidnapped by armed individuals in civilian clothes. The incident took place just a couple of days before he was to leave his home in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he was living at the time. The artist was subjected to severe physical and psychological torture that lasted for several days – electric chocks, beatings with rubber truncheons, punches and kicks.

On 23 December Estrella was transferred to a military barrack where he was kept blindfolded for almost a month and the ill-treatment continued. He was threatened that he would be killed and also denied medical attention. He was also denied to take a shower, to wash his clothes and to write to his family. The torture was to force him to admit subversive activities – armed operations in Uruguay and Argentina – and to make him denounce his friend Carlos Valladeres, a well known Montonero leader, who had visited him on December, 10th. (The Montonero Peronist Movement was a left-wing Peronist guerilla group.)

On 20 January 1978, Estrella was taken to Liberdad Prison. After 10 days in solitary confinement he received a visit by a military doctor who requested a special diet for him since he had lost 10 kilos. He was refused the special diet but was let out of the solitary confinement and his life as a prisoner became “normal”. This gave him the right to walk in the open air for an hour per day and during this time he could have contact with a fellow prisoner.

Music for everyone
The background to these and the following events is to be found in Estrella’s involvement in the Peronist movement and his unpaid work giving courses, lectures and public concerts to farmers and workers who normally didn’t have access to classical music. These actions and his belief in making music accessible to everyone – even among the most deprived sectors of the population – was considered to be “subversive” and irritated the new military government that came to power in Argentina after the revolution in 1976.

Estrella found out that he was blacklisted in 1977 and at about the same time he moved to Uruguay to work since he didn’t feel safe in Argentina. He requested an investigation on the blacklisting and was later freed from the accusations. But in the meantime his engagements in Uruguay were suddenly cancelled. He was informed that he was under observation. There had been some unfavorable reports on him and though he had no recorded political activities in Uruguay, his position as a Peronist was interpreted as if he was opposed to the Uruguayan government. He was told that he could not participate in any official concerts, nor could he continue his teaching activity – only private lessons to local pianists. Soon after this he was arrested/kidnapped, tortured and imprisoned.

Testimonies under torture
The conditions in Liberdad Prison were harsh. The whole system was aimed at destroying the detainees’ physical and psychological balance. They were kept in a constant state of anxiety, uncertainty and tension and they were not allowed to express solidarity or friendship among themselves. The detainees’ correspondence was subjected to rigorous censorship, preventing them from writing to their lawyers and international organisations. Estrella was ill-treated throughout his time in prison. He spent 30 days in solitary confinement in a punishment cell and seven months without recreation and mail, with constant harassment and searches.

On three occasions Estrella was brought before a military court, but his defense was not effective at all. His lawyer was acting more like a prosecutor than a defender and did nothing to arrange new witness confrontations even though the witness testimonies had been made under torture. Nor did he try to improve the conditions under which the artist was being held. In the meantime there was a large international campaign of solidarity fighting to set Estrella free.

Exile
Estrella was released from prison on 13 February 1980. The previous day a military judge had declared that the charge of attempt to upset the constitution could not be confirmed and therefore he had served his sentence. On 15 February Estrella left Uruguay for France. Two years later he founded “Musique Esperence” – a foundation aiming to make music accessible for all persons, even the most isolated ones.

Estrella was not the only one being blacklisted and threatened. Plenty of other musicians in Argentina and Uruguay were condemned to silence through prison, exile or even physical elimination – they simply disappeared.

 

 
Miguel Angel Estrella, classical pianist from Argentina
 
Sources

Miguel Angel Estrella:
‘La musique hors la loi’ from the book ‘Argentine: une culture interdite Pièces à conviction 1976-1981’, AIDA, 1981.

University of Minnesota Human Rights Library:
‘Miguel Angel Estrella v. Uruguay, Communication No. 74’

Unesco.org:
‘Biography of Miguel Angel Estrella’
   
 
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