Facing down the army

ANDREW McLEOD May 4 1987

Facing down the army

ANDREW McLEOD May 4 1987

Facing down the army


Argentina seemed finally to emerge from the shadow of its army last week. The country that has lived through six military regimes since 1930 stood united in support of its civilian president to banish the spectre of a seventh period of rule by the generals. The showdown occurred over the Easter weekend when, following the collapse of a mutiny by 130 soldiers in the northern city of Córdoba, 300 more staged a revolt in a large army base on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. But instead of staying indoors, as they had so often done under similar circumstances in the past, the people of the capital took to the streets in large numbers. More than 250,000 went to the central Plaza de Mayo, drawn by urgent television messages. “Democracy or dictatorship,” the message said. “Everyone come to the congress at 5 p.m.” After telling the congress that “democracy is not negotiable,” President Raúl Alfonsin appeared on a balcony and asked the vast crowd to wait while he flew to confront the mutineers in person. Three hours later he returned to proclaim that the rebellious soldiers had surrendered “unconditionally.”

It had been a critical moment in the country’s turbulent history. Although details are lacking, the meeting between Alfonsin and rebel officers at the main army base in Campo de Mayo, 60

km north of the capital, was tense. “We were literally on the brink of civil war,” said a senior military source later. Reports of Alfonsin’s triumph touched off a night of celebration by millions of flag-waving Argentines. And although the euphoria was to be tempered later in the week by further signs of military discontent—and evidence that Alfonsin had, indeed, made some concessions— for the first time in almost 60 years, the Argentine people had stood up to their military and prevailed. Certainly that was how it appeared to the rest of the world and, in an unusual show of unanimity, leaders as diverse as U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Cuba’s Fidel Castro sent messages of support for Argentina’s fragile democracy.

Alfonsin quickly moved to consolidate the peace with his military malcontents. First, the president appointed Brig.-Gen. José Dante Caridi as army chief of staff to replace Gen. Héctor Ríos Ereñú, whose resignation had been demanded by the mutineers. That appointment touched off two more incidents involving soldiers who claimed that Caridi was too much like Ereñú. Those rebellions ended without bloodshed when Alfonsin appointed Brig.Gen. Fausto González, a man the army trusts, as Caridi’s deputy.

More difficult to resolve was the main reason for the military restlessness: a demand for a blanket amnesty

for soldiers charged with human rights offences. After the army relinquished power in 1983 and a December election that year gave Alfonsín a landslide victory, the new administration pledged to charge high-ranking military leaders with abuses committed in the previous eight years of military dictatorship. During the country’s so-called “dirty war” between 1976 and 1983 more than 9,000 suspected opponents of the military regime were tortured and killed. The mutineers claimed that Ereñú had promised that no more than 100 officers would face charges this year—but the courts have indicted more than 250 since January.

Although denying that he had made any compromises, Alfonsín did make some conciliatory gestures. Within days of the army uprisings, the five-judge Supreme Court ordered lower courts to hand over details of all cases involving military officers accused of human rights offences. That order temporarily paralysed legal proceedings against as many as 450 officers accused

of various atrocities. Legal experts say that the Supreme Court will soon respond to demands from the military for a definition of the principle of due obedience that would draw a distinction between officers who obeyed orders and those who exceeded them by committing atrocities.

Such distinctions are rejected by the

most visible reminders of the military rule. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—named after the square in Buenos Aires where they demonstrate daily—are women whose family members

disappeared after being arrested by the military or police or kidnapped by vigilantes. The women are vehemently opposed to the punta final, or full-stop law, enacted by the congress last year, which placed a Feb. 22 deadline on human rights charges against the military. “There is total impunity,” said Juanita Pargament, treasurer of the group. “With the reform of the military code, the military were first allowed to try themselves. When they delayed, the civilian courts took over the cases. But then came punta final. Time was on their side.”

Still, Alfonsín has a record of fighting for justice. Civilian courts have convicted and jailed five military leaders—including former president Jorge Rafael Videla, who led the junta that overthrew the government of Maria Estela Perón in 1976 and who is now serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity. Government officials say that a blanket amnesty will never be given and that Alfonsín reiterated that fact to rebel officers on the Easter weekend.

But fears of fresh army unrest persist. “We are all on edge,” presidential spokesman José Ignacio López told reporters after the Easter uprisings had ended. Later López added, “Everyone knows the army is a complete shambles.” Certainly the army seems resentful, continuing to claim that the dirty war had been necessary to defeat leftist terrorists during the 1970s. A statement issued last month by the Armed Forces Supreme Council declared, “In war anything goes and there are no limits in the employment of force because each one of the warring parties establishes a reciprocal action that must be carried to the farthest limit.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ernesto Crespo recently spoke in favor of an amnesty for junior officers. “The one who gives the orders is guilty,” said Crespo, “and if lower-ranking officers argue about the orders, there are no armed forces, but rather armed bands.” One such junior officer was the man who set off the recent mutinies—Maj. Ernesto Barreiro, who ignored a court summons on human rights charges and confined himself in the army base at Córdoba with armed supporters on April 15. He fled to Paraguay when the mutiny collapsed.

At week’s end, questions about secret deals between Alfonsín and the military persisted, and the army’s grievances remained a worrying factor. But a senior military source said that Argentina’s fragile democracy was “not at risk for the time being.” Added the officer: “Everybody in the armed forces is determined that the military must never be in government again.”

—ANDREW McLEOD in Buenos Aires