DATELINE: ARGENTINA

A civilian solution ?

Douglas Tweedale May 23 1983
DATELINE: ARGENTINA

A civilian solution ?

Douglas Tweedale May 23 1983

A civilian solution ?

DATELINE: ARGENTINA

Douglas Tweedale

One year after the Falklands War political posters and antigovernment signs have replaced the blue-and-white flags and patriotic banners that lined the streets of Buenos Aires during the 10-week conflict between Britain and Argentina. Calle Florida, the capital’s main pedestrian mall, is clogged with voter registration tables at which young volunteers try to convince passers-by that their party is more antimilitary than the next. If there is one sentiment that unites Argentines, it is that, after seven years of rule by a harsh military regime, the prospect of a return to democracy is the only positive result of the tragic South Atlantic war. The military—disgraced and deeply divided after its Falklands defeat—last March announced that elections will be held at the end of October and that it will turn over power to a civilian government early next year.

The hope engendered by the political reawakening competes with the Argentines’ deep-rooted skepticism about the political future of their country. Explained Manuel Alvarez, 37, a waiter who must hold down two jobs in order to support his wife and small daughter: “How can I get excited about democracy when we have over 300-per-cent inflation and all the politicians can do is quibble among themselves? Already my customers are asking how long the civil-

ian government will last before the next coup.”

The skepticism extends to the political insiders. Dante Loss is a 39-year-old politician with the multifaceted Peronist party which is favored to win the elections. Said Loss of the Argentine attitude toward politics: “The experience of the past 10 years has been so full of surprises, all of them bad, that logically most people have become very cynical. Argentines have lost faith in business, politics, the church and the military— the basic institutions of society.” For now, most of that cynicism is directed at the country’s armed forces. They are widely accused of ruining the economy, of violating human rights, of corruption and of dragging Argentina into the Falklands debacle, which cost 800 Argentine lives and nearly $1 billion in equipment costs alone. The depth of anger toward the military was clearly illustrated last month when the powerful unions staged a protest rally. More than 10,000 workers defied police to march three kilometres through downtown Buenos Aires chanting, “Military traitors to the firing squad!”

The ill-fated Falklands War, which placed the disputed islands more firmly than ever under British control, remains the focal point of antimilitary sentiment. One year later most civilians have only a fuzzy idea of how and why the war was fought. Observed Patricia Vasquez, a 23-year-old office worker:

“We were totally deceived. The government told us we were winning the war when actually it was lost before it began.” Like most Argentines, Vasquez has heard stories about the war from returned soldiers—about food shortages, inadequate weapons, poor leadership, cowardly officers, even officers who stole the food of the troops or who punished them by forcing them to stand barefoot in icy water. Concluded Vasquez, echoing the popular sentiment: “It is about time for those who were responsible to be punished.”

The soldiers who returned from the Falklands remain a painful reminder of a war that most Argentines prefer to forget. After unresponsive military authorities turned them away, a group of former conscripts set up the Malvinas Veterans’ Centre to help their colleagues. Explained the centre’s organizer, 20-year-old Jorge Vazquez: “We were not against the war but we feel we were let down by the officers. Now we want the army to assume responsibility for what it started, to at least recognize the problems that the war caused for thousands of soldiers who have come back injured or without a job.”

It is difficult, even within the armed forces, to find a supporter of Argentina’s war action. Even the mightiest have fallen. Lt. - Gen. Cristino Nicolaides last month sentenced former president Leopoldo Galtieri, who made the decision to invade the islands, to 45 days in military jail for saying in a newspaper interview that subordinate officers should have fought harder. If those subordinates have their way, Galtieri could face a court martial and stiffer sanctions. But the former strongman refuses to be made a scapegoat.He has threatened to release “damaging” information if he is prosecuted. (Argentines speculate that that could involve military corruption, repression and the role played by various other officers in the Falklands War.)

With internal dissension weakening the military government politically, many Argentines are now taking advantage of liberalization to press other complaints. Sociologist Maria del Carmen Aira, 26, says the Falklands War legitimized dissent. “It provided catharsis to let out the anger people had built up toward the military’s policies,” she explained. To illustrate her point Aira cited the growing number of people demanding information about Argentina’s most explosive issue—the estimated 15,000 missing people who are believed to have been abducted and killed by government security forces in their campaign against leftists after the 1976 military coup, the seventh coup since 1930.

Until last month the military regime had refused to account for the disappearances, despite the grisly discoveries

in recent months of more than 1,500 unidentified bodies in cemeteries around the country. But the moment of truth came on April 28 when the junta, in a 45-minute televised statement, issued a decree saying that the military was responsible for the operations against the leftists and that the interior ministry would provide a list of all the requests about missing people received since 1974. Most disturbing to Argentines is that the number of requests differs substantially from the number of people who actually disappeared. Court suits for information on some 6,000 missing people are pending, but human rights groups estimate that the number could be as high as 30,000. The longawaited accounting, which stated that the actions of all soldiers and of the police in the campaign were “acts of service,” appeared to pave the way for a new law that the junta is preparing—a law that would require military courts to handle any prosecution related to the antiterrorist campaign. Military officers, fearful of retribution under a future civilian government, are anxious to have that law in place. Said 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel: “The military are going to try to grant themselves an amnesty for the crimes they committed, but that is immoral and totally absurd.”

While human rights and the fallout over the war are a source of major grievance, Argentina’s sagging economy is also a cause of widespread resentment toward the military and a source of deep-rooted pessimism about the immediate future. Since the Falklands War, inflation—the highest in the

world—has not dropped below 11 per cent a month, and some experts predict an annual rate of 400 per cent in 1983. The peso continues to lose value. Three years ago it was less than 1,000 to the dollar; now it is more than 100,000 to the dollar and more than 150,000 on the black market. The average per capita income is the equivalent of $2,300 a year. Retail prices alone last year rose by 910 per cent. Forty per cent of the

country’s industry is idled by recession; unemployment is at a record 13 per cent; and the central bank is several months behind schedule in repaying Argentina’s monstrous $38billion foreign debt, the world’s third largest. Argentines, once proud of their country’s reputation as the breadbasket of South America, shamefully point to the appearance of soup kitchens in Buenos Aires, where more than 40 per cent of the country’s 28 million people g live.

= Given the magnitude of I Argentina’s problems, politicians are not enthüls siastic about the country § they will inherit when the i military steps down. Ob5 served Peronist Loss: “Let

us no^ f00i ourselves.

Everyone knows that the expectations being created for the next government—that democracy will miraculously solve everything—cannot be met, no matter who wins the elections.” Loss’s own party, once run with an iron hand by three-time president Juan Perón, is now split into four widely divergent factions, which are at odds over who will replace the legendary leader. Perón’s third wife, Isabel, 52, who took over the presidency when her husband died of severe influenza in office in 1974, retains surprising influence in the party despite her disastrous handling of the country prior to the 1976 coup. To date, she has made no official move to re-enter the political fray from her exile in Madrid, but many citizens believe that she will be tempted to return by the near certainty that the Peronists, with their traditionally strong union backing, will win at the polls.

With its first elections in 10 years only five months away, Argentina faces the future with a paradoxical mixture of hope and despair. According to Loss, the incoming government, in order to stay in power and steer Argentina toward its potential, will have to be strong, self-assured and, above all, have the willpower and backing necessary to challenge and control the military, who have been in government for 35 of the past 53 years. Yet sociologist Aira believes that such support is by no means assured. “People have become very cynical about Argentine politicians, most of whom became critics of the military only at the eleventh hour,” she explained. “Still,” she added, “democracy probably will not work either—but it is the only hope we have.”