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The threats to Argentine democracy.

During Argentina's eight-year military dictatorship the industrial city of Quilmes, near Buenos Aires, was known as the "capital of repression," so harsh was the brutality against workers there. But after the ruling junta was replaced by a centrist government, in late 1983, the people of Quilmes shared the conviction of newly elected President Raul Alfonsin that the nightmare was over.

Few believe that today. The repression continues, although it is more selective than in the days of the "dirty war," with its mass arrests and disappearances. Most of the victims are people engaged in organizing unions, student councils or church groups, which aim to educate their members about civil rights. Last year, for example, two women catechists who were working with slum dwellers in Quilmes were kidnapped and badly beaten by thugs who belonged to a parapolice squad. Concerned about their safety, Bishop Jorge Novak sent one of the women to a seemingly safe place in a Buenos Aires suburb, but the same group of private cops found the house where she was staying and beat her a second time. They also threatened to kill Novak and two priests.

Novak shrugs off the death threats; he has received so many he las lost count of them. But he is troubled by the government's failure to do anything about the parapolice squad, whose members operate openly from a fleet of fifteen cars. Their assaults are by no means unusual. According to press estimates, at least 800 politically motivated attacks on civilians occurred last year, including bombings, kidnappings and torture. Government officials say the violence is the work of the "unemployed," Interior Minister Antonio Troccoli's euphemism for the paramilitary and parapolice squads that operated under the previous regime. Few doubt that the military sponsors them, which may explain why the government has not arrested a single suspect.

The continuing violence bodes ill for Argentina's year-old democracy, and political analysts are pessimistic about Alfonsin's chances of survival. Not that the President is unpopular.

Last November when he held a plebiscite on a territorial settlement he had reached with Chile, four-fifths of the voters approved of his action. But after more than a half-century of governing Argentina, the military is indifferent to the desires of the majority. Considering themselves the "natural custodians of Argentina," the armed forces have thrown out three elected governments since the 1930s. Judging from their ominous talk about Alfonsin's "pornographic democracy"--the right's pejorative phrase for a system that allows free speech--they may well be planning to make his the fourth.

Jacobo Timerman, the Argentine editor who was imprisoned and tortured by the military regime in the late 1970s because of his defense of human rights, says Alfonsin may yet stand history on its head by mobilizing mass demonstrations whenever a coup seems imminent, a tactic used by President Juan Domingo Peron in the 1940s. But Argentines lack the will to confront army tanks. Paralyzed by fear and fatalism, most of the citizenry remained silent when earlier coups occurred. Many actually welcomed the 1976 coup which installed the architects of the dirty war, and few protested the military regime's repression of the civilian opposition, although an estimated 30,000 Argentines disappeared during "the process." Unlike Chile, where the people have organized a series of demonstrations against Gen. Augusto Pinochet, only a small band of human rights activists opposed the Argentine dictatorship, which fell of its own right. Divided and humiliated by their defeat by Britain in the 1982 war for the Falkland Islands and facing an enormous economic mess, the generals decided to return to the barracks. As the military has since made clear, it was only a temporary retreat.

James Neilson, editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, one of the few publications to speak out against the repression, attributes the Argentines' lack of political backbone to widespread belief that "the country owes them a lot, and if they don't get it, it's the government's fault." He adds, "There is no sense of civic responsibility and no responsible ruling class."

Many Argentines blame Alfonsin's government for run-away inflation and the high cost of living, even though the country's economic problems originated under military rule. Upper-class Argentines openly express their preference for the previous government, with which they had more influence. As noted by journalist Carlos Rodriguez, who hosts a radio show popular among poor people, the armed forces have traditionally served the wealthy as a praetorian guard, keeping the peasants and the workers poor and submissive. In that task they have succeeded. According to statistics that were suppressed under the junta and recently released by the Alfonsin government, one-third of Argentina's 27 million people are undernourished and live in acute poverty despite the fact that the country is so rich it could easily feed most of South America.

The military leaders inhabit a dark, conspiratorial world in which social realities rarely intrude. They propound a pseudo-fascist theory called the Doctrine of National Security, which holds that World War III has already begun and that the Christian forces of the West are locked in a struggle with communism. The enemy is anyone who thinks differently from them; so to save Argentina, the military must wipe out all signs of dissent.

If that theory sounds paranoid, it makes sense to military men nurtured on Peron's fascism and a conservative, inquisitorial form of Catholicism. The military also reflects Argentina's pervasive sense of isolation, which results in a grandiose view of their country as occupying the world's center stage.

Alfonsin's critics contend that he should have set about destroying the repressive apparatus as soon as he took office. But even if the President and his well-meaning middle-class supporters in the Radical Party had had the guts to attempt such a crackdown, a wholesale conversion to democracy in the military would not have resulted. Conversion implies repentance, and military leaders say they have nothing to be sorry for, that they were saving the nation from communist subversion. Thus when Alfonsin ordered a military tribunal to try nine members of the previous junta, the judges ruled that they had done "nothing objectionable" and had not violated any law when issuing orders to break the civilian opposition. Although the Federal Court of Appeals in Buenos Aires subsequently ruled that the cases should be tried under civilian law, convictions remain doubtful, since most of the judges are appointees of the junta. Moreover, any judge finding them guilty would risk assassination. Other government officials who have tried to investigate military crimes committed during the junta's rule have been the victims of death threats, bombings and attempted kidnapping.

However their case is resolved, the nine former junta members were merely the overseers of the machinery of brutality. Hundreds of middle-level officers carried out their bidding--men like Capt. Alfredo Astiz of the navy, who has been charged with the murder of Dagmar Hagelin, a Swedish teen-ager, and is implicated in the disappearance of two French nuns who worked with the families of the disappeared. Astiz was found innocent by a military tribunal in 1981 on the ground that he was following orders. Human rights groups strongly contested that whitewash, citing the precedent set at the Nuremberg trials. But if Astiz's treatment is a barometer of the government's determination to prosecute those responsible, the relatives of the disappeared have little hope that their demands for justice will receive a fair hearing. The civil judge appointed to review Astiz's case bucked it back to the military court, which had already ruled in the captain's favor. New evidence introduced by Hagelin's father will not affect the case because military tribunals refuse to accept testimony from the families of the disappeared, claiming they are "potential security risks."

Following the advice of his mentor, the late Radical Party chief Ricardo Balbin, Alfonsin appears willing to draw a curtain over the bloody past so long as the nine ex-junta members receive some kind of symbolic punishment. Eduardo Rabossi, Under Secretary for Human Rights, has all but admitted that the government is considering an amnesty for all who committed atrocities in the dirty war. Alfonsin has also refused to make public a list of 1,351 "repressers," mostly military officers, compiled by a government-appointed commission on the disappeared and based on 50,000 pages of testimony from survivors of the junta's concentration camps. Government sources say that at most, one hundred names will be published. Most damning of all, Alfonsin failed even to mention justice or human rights in his year-end speech.

Alfonsin may believe that silence will buy time, but political analysts say it will be taken as a sign of weakness. "In closing the door on the disappeared, Alfonsin is opening it to the military," said Renee Epelbaum, whose three children are among those who vanished. "The government says it does not want any conflicts, but trying to be too benevolent with the armed forces just encourages their insolence, and now they're starting to present themselves as the saviors of the country again."

Last October, Alfonsin's opponents flexed their muscles at a mass in Buenos Aires at which 1,500 active and retired officials heard the Rev. Julio Trivino openly urge a coup. Aroused by the priest's incendiary words, the officials shouted, "Death to Alfonsin!" and threatened journalists present with "M.M.," meaning muchos mas muertes, or "many more deaths"--an allusion to the fate of the disappeared. The Rev. Antonio Puigjane, a Capuchin monk who works with the families of the missing, told me: "This is no joke but a tremendous threat. If there were 30,000 disappeared last time, the next time there will be 300,000." Even the normally complacent Interior Minister Troccoli admitted he was alarmed by the "incitement to a coup." Nevertheless, the government took no disciplinary action against those present. As for the reactionary Catholic hierarchy, its last pastoral letter repeated Trivino's ravings against "pornography" and attacked Alfonsin's government for "ideologizing" education with "materialistic methods," meaning student councils and free debate.

The hierarchy's increasing hostility is just one more trouble on a growing pile. Alfonsin is still a long way from resolving the economic crisis caused by the country's $45 billion foreign debt, despite prodding from the International Monetary Fund. He is further burdened by an immature political opposition, which is led by the divided and quarrelsome Peronist movement and the largely corrupt Peronist union leadership. Whole sectors of the bureaucracy are holdovers from the military regime, representing "a Trojan horse," in Epelbaum's words, capable of sabotaging the government's policies--a view confirmed off the record by many officials loyal to Alfonsin. Most of the police and intelligence agencies are staffed by people who participated in the repression; some of them have been been promoted. Many retired police and military officers run private security agencies. One example is Magister. According to human rights lawyer Emilio Mignone, president of the Center of Legal and Social Studies, it was established by the former head of SIDE, the state intelligence agency, with 300 of his former employees. The Abuelas of the Plaza de Mayo, representing the grandmothers of the disappeared, allege that one of Magister's directors, now in hiding, holds the daughter of a woman who gave birth while interned at a SIDE concentration camp named Automotores Orletti, and the Automotores' three directors ran Magister.

The contradictory forces at work in Argentine society send confused signals to those who wish Alfonsin's democracy well. In foreign affairs, for example, he has come out strongly in favor of the Contadora peace process in Central America, yet army officers sent to Honduras by the junta are still training Nicaraguan contras. According to the well-informed Argentine weekly El Periodista, the officers there remain in touch with military commanders in Buenos Aires. El Periodista also reported that Col. Osvaldo Riveiro, who was photographed during contra training exercises, has been promoted to assistant director of the army's second command.

The failure to arrest any of those responsible for the current violence has cowed many Argentines, including high-ranking officials. The government's civilian chief of intelligence, Roberto Pena, told the press that paramilitary groups have entered his home on two occasions since he took office, but he refused to discuss the matter. "If this had been during the dictatorship, we would have closed all the windows and locked the door before talking to you," one of a group of nuns told me as street noise filtered through the open windows. "But we're still afraid to state publicly what we think because there might be another coup."

Jacobo Timerman says that many Argentine reporters are afraid to write the truth, preferring to use euphemisms like "the process" to refer to the dirty war. While Bishop Novak agrees with Timerman's complaint, he wonders if a deeper malaise accounts for people's timidity, one reflected in the Argentines' pervasive apathy about their society. Alfonsin is probably correct in concluding that the majority of citizens are more interested in their weekly take-home pay than in the fate of the disappeared, particularly since the belief lingers that those people "must have done something." For Novak, such disinterest is an indication of the extent to which Argentines have retreated from fundamental values: "Justice is one of the great institutions of humanity. Unless we commit ourselves as a people to its achievement, we will go on being doomed to the justice of the firing squad."
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Title Annotation:Can Raul Alfonsin survive
Author:Lernoux, Penny
Publication:The Nation
Date:Feb 2, 1985
Previous Article:A red by another name.
Next Article:Contempt of court.

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