Bishop Vicente Zaspe of Rosario calls it "the Secret Argentina." In the months of January, February and March of this year, the Interior Minister, Gen. Alfredo Saint Jean, gave orders for a series of surveys to find out the people's state of mind--their political tendencies, their opinion about the armed forces, their reaction to the continuation of military government, their preferences in case elections were called, what ties they have with the political parties.

The conclusions the experts came to were unexpected, and left the minister concerned. The Argentine people do not want to define themselves; they are silent. They focus on surviving, but do not want to explain why they want to survive.

Bishop Zaspe is right. The mass of Argentina remains a secret.

Some of these observations pertain more to anthropology than to political analysis or sociology.

Argentina is becoming a Latin American country. In the last 10 years, 2.5 million people left the country. About a million of them live in the United States. The visa applications of hundreds of thousands of professionals, members of the middle and upper middle class pile up in the consulates of Australia and Canada. The famous white Argentina is emigrating.

The surveys failed to reveal the existence of secret political organizations, but did uncover the cells organized for survival. In thousands of churches the unemployed and their families receive a daily meal. During these meals, people talk, establish ties. They set up ways of distributing clothing. Shifts of volunteers are formed to cook, wash clothes, and ask shopkeepers to donate food.

In working-class neighborhoods, groups of four or five families form economic communities: they take care of the children and cook meals together to save fuel--and because no one has enough food to make a meal alone.

The two most highly developed survival organizations, which might contain the embryo of future activities, are the clandestine butcher shops and groups set up for the pirating of electricity. A group of people who can't afford meat at market prices buys a cow, butchers it clandestinely and divides up the cuts.

Thousands of families, unable to pay their electric bills, hook up to buildings that still have power. The company has had to send engineers under police guard to dismantle the clandestine installations, which are improvised and precarious. The survival organizations form their own groups of technicians to reinstall the connections.

Another aspect of "secret Argentina" that has been discovered is the massive movement of young people to join the Catholic Church. There they can carry out certain kinds of activity--such as advocacy of peace with Chile and Great Britain--under the protection of the bishops. The unknown element is in which direction these young people would go under different conditions.

There is also a youthful flood to the fundamentalist and esoteric religions. Many of the children of the generals who directed the slaughter of the recent years are in need of an emotional escape from the reality they have discovered about their fathers, are looking for some kind of expiation.

Others, seeking to place distance between themselves and the "scene of the crime," end up in Miami among the followers of Guru Maharaji.

When in the course of the coming years this Secret Argentina finds open expression, one can perhaps imagine the future awaiting the country. It doesn't help to study the intrigues between the military leaders and the political leaders because most likely when the Secret Argentina is born, appearing in organized or chaotic form, its own new leaders will emerge.

No scientific study has been able to explain why Argentina has failed as a nation: why in the last 50 years several generations of educated, capable men, first-, second- and third-generation European immigrants, in a country of such wealth, vastness and favorable climate as perhaps never has been found in a single territory, without any kind of classical religious or racial conflict, training (religious, racial), have dedicated all their energy and imagination to self- destruction.

How can one explain this collective suicide of the last half-century, in a country isolated from the sweep of world events and impervious to the cumulative experiences of the rest of the world? Perhaps over Argentina there weighs the question of the flourishing civilizations of Mexico that suddenly abandoned all they possessed, their cities and their culture, to go off to die in destitution in other latitudes.

Argentina has suffered in the last six years from military dictatorship and from economic devastation from which it cannot recover by itself. Nor can it hope for a Marshall Plan.

It must seek some kind of stable and collective political solution without the magic formulas of the charismatic leaders who in the past gave the appearance of solving all the country's problems.

Argentines liked to say that God was an Argentine. And since Juan Domingo Peron and Eva Peron also were Argentine, problems seemed to be solved by miracles. But Peron and Evita are dead, and there are no replacements.

Moreover, God is not totally Argentine. As Pope John Paul II recently asserted in Buenos Aires, He is also British.

The Argentines have been left on their own, alone. They have to accept themselves as they are and for what they are worth--poor and bewildered. In the last 10 years they have seen a clear indication of their capacity for crime and collective silence: the murders committed by the terrorists, whom Juan Peron called "the marvelous youth" while he kept them alienated with esoteric political formulas, and the murders, multiplied by a thousand, committed by the military before, during and after Peronism. These murders reached a greater scale because they were carried out by the armed forces with all its organization, power, national resources and impunity.

In the last two years, the Argentines have had a taste of the deceit perpetrated by their main civilian institutions, the press and the political parties. Knowing beyond all possible doubt that the operation in the Malvinas did not aspire so much to rescue the islands as to rescue the military from its downfall, they lent themselves to a scheme of disinformation and falsehood not unlike that of the most despicable dictatorships.

In the l920s, the Spanish philosopher Jos,e Ortega y Gasset, in a visit to Argentina, was impressed by the ability of the ruling class and the intellectuals to evade real problems by employing fantasies without real content. He formulated a call that contains a whole definition: "Argentines, get down to earth." (Argentinos, a las cosas.)

Almost 60 years later, it is still the only thing one can recommend to the Argentines. But it is unlikely that they will be able to do it before resolving, however chaotically and painfully, what to do about the hegemony of the military and the complicity of the civilian leaders with the military.

Perhaps when the Argentines conclude that magic does not exist, they will discover politics. It is even possible they will find democracy, too.