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Argentina: Where Are the Generals?

Are the times of military coups finally over for Argentina — or are the generals just waiting?

June 8, 2002

Are the times of military coups finally over for Argentina — or are the generals just waiting?

Argentina’s history is strewn with military coups. A junta ousted a democratically elected government in 1930, for example, replacing the Radicals with the Conservatives.

And Colonel Juan Peron, the country’s great populist, initially came to power as a result of a military coup in 1943, before he himself was overthrown in 1955.

Argentina’s latest spell of military rule began in 1976, when generals dismissed Peron’s widow Isabel amidst a wave of leftist terrorism.

The junta “fixed” the terrorism problem — mainly by making everyone suspected of leftist leanings “disappear.”

It still managed to get itself in hot water by starting — and ignominiously losing — a war with Great Britain over the Falklands.

Exit the generals — and enter democracy, following the October 1993 elections. For a while, it appeared that democracy had taken a solid root in Argentina. Moreover, a democratic government of President Carlos Menem appeared to have resolved the country’s economic problems, by putting an end to hyperinflation and stabilizing financial markets.

Yet, it turns out that much of this stability was based on borrowed money. More recent events shattered Argentina’s economy — and produced the worst social turmoil since the early 1970s. Can the fledgling Argentine democracy survive the strain of an economic collapse? Can another military coup be far behind?

The generals probably haven’t mellowed over the past 20 years. In fact, attempts to investigate the human rights abuses of the 1970s and bring members of the military junta to justice had to proceed carefully. Civilian politicians feared a backlash from those culprits who still held important positions in the military hierarchy.

Yet, in the current shaky situation a military takeover is unlikely, for several reasons. First, military coups have gone out of fashion in Latin America. Even in Paraguay — the country especially notorious for its military dictators — democracy has been restored.

In Venezuela, an attempt to remove President Hugo Chavez by top military brass in the spring of 2002 was promptly defeated-even though the coup enjoyed a tacit support from Washington.

Plus, even though many Argentines continue street protests in Buenos Aires, their aims are not political this time. Their main goal is not to overthrow the government, but such mundane ones as getting their bank deposits back.

This is the root cause of the generals’ reluctance. They simply have no solutions for the current economic crisis — no more, at least, than the country’s civilian government does.

Having utterly discredited itself in the early 1980s, Argentina’s military doesn’t want to repeat the experience. The generals are content to wait on the sidelines — and let civilian politicians take the blame for the country’s economic disintegration.