After six years of military dictatorship, Argentina is on its way back to a democratic government. The military junta's collapse after defeat by the British in the Falkland Islands and the military's loss of prestige has forced the armed forces to consider the democratic alternative. The new government of Gen. Reynaldo Bignone, which lacks the support of the navy and the air force, and whose mostly civilian cabinet is not truly representative of the political parties, is unlikely to succeed.
For the past 50 years, Argentina has witnessed a succession of military rulers briefly interrupted by civilian governments. Since overthrowing Juan Peron in 1955, the generals have been seesawing with civilians in the presidency. The scenario is familiar: the military takes power with the promise to rebuild the economy and restore social order. But each new cycle under the military usually ends with a lower standard of living for the majority of the population and even greater social disarray. When its failure is evident, the military opens the way for civilian participation. But civilians never gain complete control, since the military consistently undermines and overthrows the civilian leaders. That happened to Dr. Arturo Frondizi in 1962, to Dr. Arturo Illia in 1966 and to Maria Estela Peron in 1976.
Under the last military junta, which took power in March 1976, Argentina's economic growth steadily declined, inflation reached 120 percent a year and the external debt ballooned to almost $40 billion in 1981--up from $7.8 billion in 1975. In addition, hundreds of small industrial enterprises went bankrupt, unable to stand the competition from cheaper imports. International conglomerates, both banking and industrial, were the main beneficiaries of an unprecedented concentration of economic power, while the real salaries of the workers plummeted to levels below those of a decade age. In its effort to eliminate the opposition, the military engaged in the worst abuses of human rights Argentina has ever known.
Before the invasion of the Falklands, the military was in deep economic and political trouble. In March, two days after violent antigovernmental demonstrations in which two people were killed and hundreds were arrested, the military was overwhelmingly defeated in the battle with the British. At least for the immediate future, the Malvinas, which before the invasion were a subject of diplomatic negotiation, are now a nonnegotiable British possession. Both the psychological and material toll of this mismanaged adventure will affect Argentines for years to come.
After the defeat, former junta president Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri was deposed. Over the objection of the navy and the air force, which ended their participation in the junta, the army chose Bignone as new president. He held key posts in the government of former president Gen. Jorge Videla from 1976 to 1981, a period during which the junta's main political activity was brutal repression.
Although the new army president has selected a cabinet of nine civilians and only one military officer, this is still a government controlled by the military. Some of the new economic measures, such as the devaluation of the peso and the protection of national industries, may help the economy. But the antagonism between civilians and the military will only get worse unless decisive social measures are taken, such as cleaning up the fate of the desaparecidos, and the trial of those, like Capt. Alfredo Astiz, who were clearly involved in those tragic events. Being one of the organizers of the repression, Bignone is unlikely to allow such investigations.
By keeping control of the government and maintaining the state of siege, the military hopes to direct the political process so as to quell investigations into this haunting problem, which would further damage their already weakened prestige. However, the parents whose sons have been killed and whose daughters have been raped and tortured still demand punishment of those responsible. As a mother whose teen-age daughter has disappeared and is now presumed dead told me: "A mother never forgets . . ."
These parents are now joined in their demands for military accountability by the parents of young conscripts who, without extensive military training or adequate equipment, were sent to almost certain death in the Falklands.
Confronted with its failure at all levels of government, its dismal record on human rights and the defeat in the Falklands, the military should relinquish power and call for democratic elections. Unless free and unrestricted elections are allowed to happen soon, the spector of social upheaval will continue to loom over Argentina.
This transition to democracy could follow after an "emergency civilian coalition government" or after an interim president is named. A good candidate for this post is former president Illia, who is respected by moderate elements in both civilian and military circles. Alternatively, an emergency coalition government should be made up of authentic representatives of the political parties.
The opening to a democratic process would thus help overcome the profound sense of humiliation and hopelessness of the Argentine people.