The World

The fall of the House of Peron

JAMES NEILSON March 8 1976
The World

The fall of the House of Peron

JAMES NEILSON March 8 1976

The fall of the House of Peron

ARGENTINA

JAMES NEILSON

As Argentina teetered on the brink of total insolvency and possible civil war late last month, Senate leader Italo Luder sought to cool the passions of the unhappy population. “A military coup would only make things worse,” he warned. Unfortunately for Luder, most Argentinians have reached the point where they disagree. They no longer care whether a soldier elected by tanks or a civilian put into office by bullets replaces Isabel Perón in the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s down-at-the-heels pink stucco Government House, just as long as he is able to provide the country with some sort of effective government.

Even lifelong Peronists who transferred their fanatic loyalty from Juan Perón to his widow when Perón died in 1974 are beginning to turn away from the frail, mentally troubled president, fed up with the runaway inflation, labor strife and widespread guerrilla violence that have gripped the country almost since she took power. The trade unions, who for years proudly described themselves as the backbone of Peronism and vowed only a few weeks ago to back her to the end, withdrew their support last month because she refused to get rid of the tiny clique of extreme rightwingers who are her only advisers, and have now pledged to work for her ouster.

Isabel tried to head off the pressure on her to resign by assuring the country that national elections would be held in December and that she would not be a candidate. The announcement was treated with derision. Elections have been promised so many times that the announcement had scarcely any impact on the now cynical Argentine populace. Even so, Isabel evidently regarded her election call as a major concession. Ten days earlier she had said a complete reform of the constitution was necessary before any election could be held. When Argentine congressmen pointed out that such reform was their prerogative, not the government’s, she dropped the idea, then effectively closed Congress by withdrawing a number of bills that were to be debated in emergency session. But she was forced to back down once more when angry officials threatened they would convoke congress themselves to debate another issue of paramount importance: Isabel Peron’s impeachment.

The long-awaited impeachment debate fizzled out almost as soon as it began because few Peronists, even those committed to her downfall, want her to be interrogated by Congress. The impeachment

notice failed to get the necessary twothirds majority and once again Isabel, if not her country, was spared.

She may not be as lucky with the next motion. Many of those who voted against the original bill have said they might support a general declaration that Isabel is unfit to rule. This watered-down version of impeachment would allow her to avoid the agony of appearing before the house. If the motion is approved she could be physically evicted from the Presidential Palace, although Isabel has already warned that “if they come to drag me away, I’ll strip myself naked. Then we’ll see if they’d dare carry off a naked woman.”

The race to rid the nation of the strange first lady is in many ways a race against time. Three months ago army chief General Jorge Videla warned the politicians that unless they got the country back to an even keel quickly, the army would do it for them. That would spell the end of a democratic experiment that started in 1973 when the Peronists were swept back into power in free elections after seven years of military rule. Adding to the urgency is the rapidly worsening state of the Argentine economy. Two years ago the nation’s treasury held a respected two billion dollars in reserves. Then the Common Market refused to continue purchasing Argentine beef, which accounted for 60% of the country’s exports, and a drought cut into sales of grain. Now the government’s laissez faire economics and large-scale bureaucratic graft have driven the economy into bankruptcy. There are no reserves left and officials are already discussing a moratorium on foreign debt payments. With deep misgivings, International Monetary Fund officials are studying an Argentine request for an emergency $300-million loan. Unless more money is found the already sagging standard of living will plummet still further. Inflation, officially recognized at 335 % last year, is still rising and economists are talking of a four-digit or possibly even a five-digit rate this year. During the last month and a half the peso depreciated by almost 300% against the dollar.

Argentina’s workers are taking the full brunt of the economic chaos. Their cheques now buy less than half what they did last August. Small businessmen are watching helplessly as their assets shrink and hard-won savings are lost in the inflationary spiral. Last month, in an attempt to drive the government to action, an employers’ association called a management strike that was observed by nearly all private industry, with boutique owners closing ranks with millionaires.

Ironically, the very social unrest and economic ruin Isabel has generated have helped to keep her in office, at least temporarily. The Argentine armed forces, notoriously prone to coups in the past, are understandably reluctant to try to take over a nation in chaos. So far they have stayed on the sidelines, allowing events to take their course, and only abandoning

Isabel last August when it became apparent many of her civilian supporters were deserting her and writing her off as an hysterical incompetent. However, the military leaders have moved a general in as head of the Argéntine police and another as director of the state intelligence service, replacing Peronists and putting themselves in a position to move against the government if they should decide to do so.

Another reason for the army’s reluctance to move is that it is involved in a savage war with Marxist and left-wing guerrillas, whom it now believes to have on the run. The revolutionaries suffered a devastating setback just before Christmas when they tried to storm the Monte Chingólo arsenal in the suburbs of Buenos Aires and were massacred by the military, who had been tipped off to expect a raid. Although the guerrillas still carry out occasional assassinations of military officers, the army

thinks their basic organization is almost demolished. The army chiefs know they would be welcomed as saviors if they toppled Isabel today but they would likely be condemned as oppressors tomorrow, especially after they brought in the tough measures that would be necessary to save the economy. In their minds, there would be no better way to breed a whole new generation of guerrillas.

It is clear, though, that the generals will act if they feel the nation is crumbling into total anarchy and that they would have little trouble carrying off their coup. Says Ricardo Balbin, leader of the biggest opposition party in Congress, the centre-left radicals: “A coup now would be the easiest thing in the world. ”

There are still those who believe that Isabel can be convinced that she should willingly give up the president’s chair. But they are becoming fewer. “You just can’t

reason with this woman, she just doesn’t listen,” said a shaken Peronist dissident after he had attempted to criticize a minister. A passion for total, unquestioning and undoubting loyalty is what Isabel demands from anyone serving with her. And as more trusted friends move away from her orbit, her insistence on slavish loyalty becomes more pronounced. Her refusal to listen to anyone who is not totally devoted to her has probably ruined any chance she has of holding her party together. But it has also enabled her to withstand the mounting criticism and threats. Her neurotic perceptions (see box) and her mercurial temperament combine to block out political realities. Her answer to unwelcome advice is simply to ignore it. If a newspaper attacks her too fiercly she closes it down.

Her paranoiac determination to weed out all “traitors” has all but destroyed her hold on the nation. Yet everyone fears the

violence and bloodshed that would almost certainly accompany a coup. Recently Hector Villalon, Juan Peron’s personal delegate to Argentina during his period of exile in Spain, tried a new tack. He purchased a full-page ad in the evening paper La Razón to publicly beg Isabel to leave office because under her rule “murderers, incompetents, thieves and self-seekers” had flourished without her taking notice.

Despite it all, Isabel Perón seems dedicated to hanging on until the bitter end, blind to the forces that have grouped against her regime. Few believe that she can hold on until the promised December election, much less hold the remnants of her party together for another nine months. But the more immediate problem for Argentina is one of economic survival and with or without Isabel Perón, the nation’s Congress will have to face that dilemma without delay. JAMES NEILSON