The Constitution of 1853 gave the vote to all native-born males, irrelevant of literacy levels or ownership of property, and since this turning point in its history, the Argentine Republic, or Argentina, has had a precarious and temperamental relationship with democracy. Argentina has flirted with many differing systems of government from the end of the Second World War, involving personalities ranging from General Juan Perï¿½n, the ‘saviour of the working class,’ to the oppressive and power-hungry generals of the late 1970s junta, before seeing its democratic aspirations finally realised in the form of Raul Alfonsin, a human rights lawyer who was elected following the implosion of the stratocracy, after the Falklands War of 1982.
Between 1955 and 1983 political instability reached critical levels, and Argentina experienced eighteen presidents in only twenty-eight years. Not one civilian government stayed in power for its constitutionally-defined term of six years without having its power interrupted by the armed forces.The transition towards democracy started officially in 1983 when the military held elections, but really started after General Galtieri took power in a palace coup two years previously. In many senses, the fate of the rulers was already cast when the invasion of the Falkland Islands was launched on April 2nd. This essay will investigate what had brought the military to this point where they relinquished power in light of the increasing dissatisfaction and mobilisation of the middle and lower classes.The military has had a pivotal role in Argentine society since the first coup of 1930. Perï¿½n was democratically elected in 1946, and was exiled to Paraguay in September 1955 by the coup that finished his reign as president. The Perï¿½nists returned to power in the elections of March 1973.
After his ‘stand-in’ Dr Hector Campora had held elections, Perï¿½n returned, and turned on the revolutionary left by banning the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP1); the Marxists, who were later to wage a violent ‘dirty’ war against the military. Perï¿½n died in 1974, but Perï¿½nism lived on in the form of his wife and former vice-president Isabel, who assumed presidential duties. A state of political and economic chaos ensured that ‘in Argentina’s best predicted coup, the men in uniform placed La Presidente under house arrest and once again an elected government disappeared from the Casa Rosada.’2The military regime that took charge in March 1976 was controlled by a three-man junta, consisting of the commander-in-chiefs of each of the three sections of the armed forces.
It was led by General Jorge Videla, the chief of the largest and historically most important force, the Army. The all-pervasive ideological and structural regimentation of Argentine society started immediately with the military’s ‘Process of National Reorganisation,’ or el Proceso, which sought to ‘transform the mentality of Argentines through control of education, media and culture.’3 General Videla declared at the time ‘A terrorist is not just someone with a gun or a bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilisation.’ Meanwhile, the regime continued its bitter and bloody war against the opposition.
‘Terrorist’ elements’ were arrested and killed; mainly Marxist-Leninist guerrillas who wanted the regime overthrown by revolutionary socialism, but also thousands of civilians who were utterly innocent. This ‘dirty war,’ begun in the early seventies could now be conducted with the full backing and resources of the state. The fact that this policy had now become so completely institutionalised meant that the victims and their families were left with no legal procedures. This totalitarian regime aimed, through control of the media, and terror, to control the very thoughts of the populace.
In fact, Orwellian concepts such as ‘double-think,’4 were realised.Newspaper editors such as Jacobo Timerman, editor of the centre-left La Opiniï¿½n were arrested, and many ‘disappeared.’ Journalists soon got the idea that by publishing anything that went against the views of the junta, they were literally putting their lives on the line. This ‘self-censorship’ enabled the regime, in contrast to that of Pinochet in Chile, to pull the wool over Western eyes, and project its desired image as one of defending Western and Christian values.Max Weber in 1972 characterised a state as a mass of institutions and political organisations, distinguished from other establishments by having the capacity to monopolise the legitimate use of violence within a given territory. Violence typified Argentina’s military regime.
The official death toll is between seven and eight thousand people; human rights organisations put the total closer to thirty thousand. By the end of the seventies, the battle against the montoneros, the guerrillas, was won, but still there were the desaparecidos, the ‘disappeared,’ many of whom were certainly not assigned to any leftist organisation. The junta believed that Brazil’s error, in terms of its policy of oppression was that it arrested and took prisoner its captives, thus leaving a ‘paper trail’ that could be followed. The regime took on a policy of denial. Any enquiries by the families of the desaparecidos were met by a ‘brick wall;’ the authorities denied the existence of the victims.The transitional phase of the Political-Institutional model suggests that the initiation of a transition towards democracy lies in the cohesion and strength of the governing elites, as well as actors from within the opposition bring about a ‘societal revolution.’5 This reference point shall be used to investigate the external and domestic factors leading to the demise of Galtieri’s junta.
Repression was becoming increasingly prevalent. The armed forces were determined to ‘purify’ the thoughts and mentality of the Argentine public; to root out ideas about social justice, working-class solidarity, and the capacity of the poor to organise themselves in order to change their situation.Galtieri, as Commander-in Chief of the Army had needed support from other services in order to pull off a successful coup to oust General Roberto Viola. In his search for support, he found Anaya, the Navy chief who had a personal grudge against Viola, willing to offer the support of officers loyal to him. Viola and Anaya had come to blows over the plans for the original coup of 1976, and in 1978 Viola jibed Anaya for his dark skin and Bolivian background. Anaya had been aching to get back at Viola, and, along with Galtieri, planned and executed the takeover. The new President owed the Navy man a favour.
After seizing power in the coup of December 1981, General Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri decided that the means as to Argentina’s successful, military-ruled future lay in a ‘return to the sources,’ a return to El Proceso, as formulated at the time of the 1976 coup. As it became clear that this ‘return’ had no chance of successfully institutionalising military governance, and as the junta began to act in an increasingly unpredictable way towards opposition, the idea of a transition to democracy materialised as an ever more realistic alternative.Galtieri faced problems right from the moment he took power. The military had been split between ‘hard-liners’ and ‘soft-liners.’ Viola, who preceded Galtieri, had put in place a strategy of liberalisation, and wanted to ‘open a dialogue with sympathetic civilians and reinforce a veneer of legality and legitimacy upon the military-dominated state.’6. He did this by having his Interior Minister, General Albano Eduardo Harguindeguy meet with senior members of the UCR7, the Radical party, as well as relatively minor members of the PJ8, the Perï¿½nists.
The problem was that the military leaders were concerned with the issue of presidential succession, and this division caused the talks to become less and less relevant. The day after these talks began, Galtieri announced ‘The ballot boxes are stored, and will remain well stored.’ When Galtieri became President, he essentially silenced this moderate voice that had been echoed by Videla previously, and would be sounded loudly by Bignone after the Falklands War.His desire to return to El Proceso ignored the fact that the economic and political climate had changed since the Process was formulated at the start of military rule.Economically, the situation had become dire. ‘The new regime carried out the most systematic offensive against protected manufacturing since the establishment of autarkic capitalism.
Overvaluation of the currency and lowering of tariffs led to massive bankruptcies, the fall of real wages, the growth of the informal sector of the economy, and open unemployment. From 1976-1981, the size of the industrial working class decreased by 26%.’9 The problem was that the facility with which banks could be persuaded to lend to Latin America was a mixed blessing, encouraging Latin American governments to build up excessive debts, overvalue their currencies (as counter-inflationary policies) and, above all, to adjust their domestic economies to a rapidly changing and not always rational world.10 Needless to say, inflation had increased to an annual rate of 1000%, and per capital income had plummeted from being eighth in the world in 1930, to sixty-fifth in 1980.
Politically, the military’s hold on authority had become somewhat dissolved. Societal actors had started to push forward their opinions. For example, Raul Alfonsin, the future Radical leader and future President replied to Galtieri by saying that ‘if General Galtieri, commander-in-chief of the Army, and a member of the junta, has said that the ballot boxes are well stored and will remain that way for a long time, we respond to him that they should start dusting them because we will fill them with votes.
’11 Instead of the apathetic and discouraged society that Galtieri expected and planned for, society had started to politicise and mobilise itself.In short, people were getting weary of military rule in the Argentine Republic.After the montoneros guerrillas were defeated at the end of the seventies, the military’s power of random oppression was severely diminished.
It found it increasingly difficult to justify the kidnapping and killing of ‘subversive elements’ if they had all been defeated in battle. ‘…Regimes will face a threat to their existence once they lose the capacity to repress “arbitrarily.” Once it appears to lose this power, opposition is likely to test the governments’ will by resorting to marches, demonstrations, strike and perhaps acts of overt violence.’12 The opponents of the regime began to gain in confidence.
The union leaders, traditionally Perï¿½nist, by the beginning of 1982 had become very irate. Defeated in 1976, they had sought to develop a relationship with the junta whilst Viola ran it. Galtieri’s coup irreconcilably changed this. In February of 1982, the Labour Ministry informed the unions that both the wage freeze and the ban on collective bargaining would continue indefinitely.An organisation had been formed of the political parties that had been rejuvenated during Viola’s reign called the Multipartidaria.
This organisation, in December 1981 issued a document which chastised the military for their failings in governance, and called for an immediate restoration of civilian rule. The CGT13, the General Labour Confederation, along with the Multipartidaria decided that the time was finally ripe for action. This turning-point happened in the form of a protest on March 30th 2002 that drew approximately 45 000 protesters, and was the largest public show of no-confidence in the military junta so far.
The military while breaking their own rules on governing the state, were also ignoring the powers of the societal forces that were snowballing rapidly.On an international level, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the main human rights organisation that protested silently every Thursday in the main square of Buenos Aires, right next to the Casa Rosada, and other such organisations had propelled the issue of human rights as a central topic in world opinion. US Congress had cut off military aid in 1977, and the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize was won by Adolfo Pï¿½rez Esquivel, an Argentine human rights activist who was subject to torture by the military regime. 1980 also marked the year in which the United Nations began monitoring Argentina. None of these events seemed to bother the junta, who, in their usual deluded manner isolated themselves from the international community, and found it progressively more difficult to distinguish between its friends and its enemies. In addition to this, a nationalist versus liberal-rightist split began to open up within the military, and this, coupled with the established inter-service rivalry made for, by 1982, thoroughly divided and factionised governing elites.
This was seen as an inevitable consequence by many. George Phillip wrote for a journal that ‘an excessive reliance on force is likely in the medium and long term to create strains and tensions within the ruling elite. Those who see force as merely an instrument of rule are likely to come into conflict with others, the hard-liners for whom the use of force is the raison d’ ï¿½tre.’The nation, by the summer of 1982 was on the brink of war with Britain over the Falkland Islands, or Malvinas as they are known in Spanish. The nation was overcome by euphoria, and even staunch opponents of the regime put their differences aside for the sake of national unity. The Pope, on his visit of peace to Buenos Aires addressed two and a half million people in Palermo Park with the words ‘ Do not let hope wither your generous energy, and your capacity for understanding.’ The language had been chosen carefully; in Argentina, at this point in time, to understand necessarily meant the collapse of the regime.14Anaya set about realising the Navy’s territorial ambitions in the South Atlantic, the Navy ‘called in’ its favour.
On April 2nd 1982, the Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands. After ten weeks of war which saw increasingly disillusioned young conscripts being slaughtered by the highly trained, highly professional Royal Marine taskforce, the Argentine commander Menï¿½ndez surrendered to Major-General Moore, the Commander of the British Land Forces. Immediately the euphoria stopped.A major factor that led to the dissolution of the military regime was the cracks that appeared in its hierarchy following the war. The power, within the armed forces, traditionally lay primarily with the Army, to a much lesser extent the Navy, and an Air Force that was almost irrelevant, politically. What became evident after defeat was that power had shifted. David Rock says that ‘the worst casualty of the war was the reputation of the Army.
Argentina’s initial invasion force comprised of some well trained, highly professional units. Yet when the British fleet began its preparations, most Argentine Army regulars were ordered to remain at their posts on the mainland, a majority in the garrisons facing Chile. Instead, the junta filled the islands with a force of ill-trained teenage conscripts, some drafted into uniform only days before.’15 The surviving conscripts returned home holding the regime culpable.The Air Force, on the other hand had performed skilfully and returned home as heroes. There had been many accounts of kamikaze-like attacks on the British fleets, and even the British press praised them. Jimmy Burns, a Financial Times correspondent based in Buenos Aires throughout the war says that the most politically important announcement from the junta came in the final two weeks of war.
Brigadier Lami Dozo, the Air Force Chief, said that ‘once the war was over, the military would have to consider seriously a change of economic policy, as well as a greater participation in decision-making by civilians.’ The foundations of the military were crumbling, and with this statement, the transition to democracy had begun.The military were ‘increasingly aware that just as the crowds had cheered on success, so would they turn on failure.’16 And so they did on the 15th June 1982.
The newspapers, realising that self-censorship was now irrelevant and unnecessary, broke the news of the military’s defeat. People immediately asked why there were Generals ruling their country if they can’t even win a small war.Protests erupted, and crowds tried to storm the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace. Galtieri was removed from power two days later in a bloodless palace coup, amidst increasing awareness of his professional misconduct and misjudgement in the war that had meant defeat to be a foregone conclusion. The military understood that their time of repression and tyranny was over, but appointed General Reynaldo Bignone, and managed to hold onto power for another sixteen months.During this time, newspapers and magazines finally started to open up and criticise the regime that had brought they $39bn indebted country to a politically null situation. Five months after the war had ended, the Multipartidaria organised a protest calling for Bignone to speed up the changeover to democracy, and, as a result, he was forced to bring forward the elections to October of 1983.
In addition, during this time, political parties had time to reorganise and reform themselves. Alfonsin, who had formed his ‘Renovation and Change’ party in the seventies, had been an outspoken proponent of democracy throughout the military rule. He represented the leader of the ERP in court, and met with Amnesty International in 1977. The elections saw the victory of the Radicals, led by Alfonsin over the Perï¿½nist party, who had, for all intents and purposes, resurrected Perï¿½n from the grave. After six bloody years under the authoritian military regime, the people of Argentina had finally spoken, and the ‘Land of the Gauchos’ was once more a democratic state.We can utilise the Political-Institutional Model to account for and explain the breakdown of the junta and transition to democracy. The societal actors, the opposition to the regime, tried to push the ruling elites from supremacy, and this ended in the elites being forced to partake in increasingly desperate and precarious tactics.
When military defeat finally came, the junta stood no chance of a return to power, and so, grudgingly, initiated the transitional process. The transitional process, when it happened took place in the context of such a weak elite that the opposition essentially dictated the process.Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.
The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.17The aftermath of the war brought disorientation and confusion to the Argentine people. The military regime had relied so heavily on warping the thoughts of the populace, and shaping their perceptions of cultural identity and harmony. Tangled notions of a love for their country, coupled with a disbelief of the scale of the devastation to society on so many levels, emphasised the collective sense that a historical turning point had been reached in Argentine history.
The transition to democracy would be long and arduous, and would inevitably be forced to tackle with many potentially thorny and divisive issues, such as trials of officers and investigations into the desparecidos.Argentina’s next twenty years would be fraught with emotion, stigmas and home truths, and would eventually culminate in economic ruin.But no longer would people be afraid to speak their minds.