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Argentina's Search For Stability

Argentina's Search For Stability image Argentina's Search For Stability image
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l Late on Friday, October 6, Argentina's President Carlos Saúl Menem finally did what the country had been anticipating since shortly af ter his inauguration in early July: he handed down a decree pardon ing more than 200 army officers, releasing them from prison or canceling legal procedures still in process. Thirty-nine of the officers - including 16 generáis and two admiráis - had been charged with human rights violations committed during a Guerra Sucia, thedirty vai.LaGuerraSucia wastheperiodofgovemment-sponsored kidnapping, torture and murder which claimed more than 30,000 lives between 1976 and 1983. During this seven-year period, four military men in succession held power. One of these military dictators - Leopoldo Galtieri - was among the pardoned. The other 60 army officers pardoned were being prosecuted for themishandling of theMalvinas (Falklands) War with Britain in 1982 and for three rebellions which took place undcr the administration of Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989). A large part of the recent past has now been erased - at a time when the economie situation makes it almos t impossible for most Ai gentines to think of the future with any degree of certainty . Menem chose not to be in Buenos Aires when his decree was made public, retreating instead to his home in La Rioja, a province more than 500 miles away. Clearly, his honeymoon is over. The honeymoon was brief. Menem has had a spate of troubling economie and political problems to address, from hyper-inflation to the rebellious armed forces, which has toppled six governments since 1930. In both areas - in sharp contrast to the history of Peronism, as well as domestic and international expectations, and even to his own campaign rhetoric - Menem has chosen remedies and responsos char ac ter is tic of more orthodox conservativeregimes. In doing so he has alienated the workers and the poor, who formed his base of support, choosing instead to cater to the industrialists and entrepreneurs. It remains to be seen whether this soit of trickle-down attempt to jump start the economy and to reassure foreign and domestic investors will work. What is abundantly clear after the administration's first three months is the price that failure will bring. In the past half century, power in Argentina has generally been held by one of three groups: La Unión Civica Radical, the party of former president Raúl Alfonsín; the Peronists; or the military. La Unión Civica Radical - a moderate, middle-class party - is being blamed for the current economie crisis and has lost much of its credibility . Revelations of corruption in the Alfonsín adminLstration began coming out as soon as Menem assumed power, culminating rather spectacularly with the July arrest of a group of treasury employees who were charged with us ing government equipment to run a counterfeiting ring. It is unlikely that the Radicáis will be in a position to take advantage of Menem should his programs fail. It appears that the only altemati ve to the Menem government - in the short term - is the military. The pardons are seen as an attempt by the govemment to at least forestall the very real possibility of another coup. The debate over the pardons has been going on since Menem 's inauguration. Itrapidly became clear that the new president was intent on sweeping the military problems under the carpet as quickly and as quietly as possible. The govemment 's actions revealed two goals : to curtail public outcry and debate to the largest degree possible and to paint giving in to the military as something else - "National Reconciliation," "A time of healing." Various trial balloons were floated: a "Reconciliation Mass" was proposed and then rejected; a general amnesty - which would have included the few surviving victims of therepression as well - was also ruled out; and Menem, his cabinet ministers, and high ranking military officers all began hinting at the president's authority to "deal with the matter personally." The victims of la Guerra Sucia were largely Peronists - most often young people, members of the (see ARGENTINA, page 5) ARGENTINA (from page one) Peronist Left. Menem, a Peronist himself, was imprisoned for four years and under house arrest for 1 1 months during this period. It is ironie, then, that it is he who is pardoning these crimes. As recently as December 1986 Menem r ai led against the very idea of pardons: "The bottom Une for murderers," he said "is prison. Everyone - military or civilian - bears the responsibiliry for their crimes. No one has the right to forget when what is at issue are the most abhorrent crimes which viólate that which is most precious to human dignity. No one - much less a democratically-elected govemment - has the moral right to surreptitiously absolve thieves, torturers and murderers." A number of high ranking officers - including the four imprisoned generáis who held the presidency between 1976 and 1983 - were expressly excluded from the intended pardon when mention was first made of the possibility in early July . This seemed then to represent more of a táctica] delay and a public relations ploy than it did a definitive refusal. The pardon of one of the four - Galtieri - confirms this. It is widely believed that Menem's promise to completely resolve "The Military Problem"by year's end will mean pardons for the other three generáis who held the presidency as well - most likely around Christmas. The evolution of "The Military Problem," and the shaping of the discourse around it, is in itself instructive. The mainstream Argentine press, several months ago, stopped using the term la Guerra Sucia, and began referring instead to "The War Against Subversión." This in turn was conflated with the War in the Malvinas, which, in Argentina, is almost universally seen as a just and patriotic cause. To restore honor to the country, it was argued, it was necessary to restore honor to the armed forces. These arguments were by no means accepted uncritically. In anticipation of the pardons, larger and larger numbers of people began to mobilize to voice their disapproval. Graffiti and banners in the capital became more strident; a petition drive was starled; demonstrations and protests proliferated. On September 8, people in most of the major cities took to the streets to protest; a rally in Buenos Aires drew more than 100,000 people. Another on September 21 attracted large numbers of young people and the support of popular musicians. One of the chants at the rally on the 8th was: Indulto. No!! "Pardon. No ! ! " One ver reponed being struck by the sound of the word "No," how it sounded almost like a grunt, torn with greatpain fromdeepinside thedemonstrators' bodies. An ominous signal - for Menem's govemment - was the large number of Peronists at the rallies, particularly from the Juventud Peronista , the Peronist youth organization. Meanwhile, in the Plaza de Mayo, "Las Madres," the mothers of the disappeared, and "las abuelas," the grandmothers of children bom in secret detention centers and given to government or military families, walk, every Thursday, in a solemn circle in front of the presidential palace. Some have pictures of their children pinned to their clothing; many wear white kerchiefs on which the names of the missing are stitched. They were not satis fied with Alfonsúi's attempts to resolve the issue. They are outraged by the current govemment's most recent action. Hanging in the atrium of one of the buildings in la Ciudad Universitaria (University City) is another grim reminder of la Guerra Sucia: a banner two stories high with the names of over 130 people, compañeros desaparecidos, students and professors from that one faculty, each with the date they disappeared. Looking back on those events, Army chief of staff General Isidro Cáceres recently conceded that, "Perhaps there were errors made at that time, even some excesses." In Argentina, as in many countries, a change of govemment frequently her aids otherchanges as well. Jobs change hands, of course; streets are re-' named; monuments are replaced. Some things, however, are supposed to remain constant, justice paramount among them. Taking down a statue is one thing, dismantling a statu te quite another. There is a ■ great deal of apprehension about what the implications of this will be - long-term and short-term. Balancing the books in Argentina - both politically and economically - will be a tortuous process. The roots of the problems run deep. The route that Menem has chosen - a national reconciliation that has released murderers from prison and pardoned the dead and a handful of alleged subversives as an afterthought, and an economie policy that seeks to right the economy largely on the backs of the workers, while returning much of the country 's inftastructure to foreign hands - is fraught with danger, both for the country and for Menem himself. Don Unger, a student in the U-M Gradúate Writing Program, Is currently at work on a novel about Argentina. Hespent the summer in Buenos Aires doing research for this and other projects.


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