ARGENTINA'S latest military insurrection has now ended, like the previous several, in failure and the rebels' surrender. But this series of attempted coups is, unfortunately, a metaphor for the general state of the country. Deeply divided in ways that even the elected governments of the past seven years have been unable to reconcile, its factions and fragments keep going after each other vengefully and destructively -- in this case with heavy weapons.
The rebels in the recent incident were apparently the same crowd who have done the same thing before. Their grievances stem from the trial and imprisonment of the military officers who ran the mindlessly bloody juntas before 1983. Some of the present military regard that trial as an intolerable affront to the honor of the armed services. The civilian governments have evidently been unwilling or unable to stamp out these recurrent mutinies or even to deal convincingly with the mutineers.
This incident came two days before President Bush is to visit Argentina, and that timing is presumably not accidental. But the conjunction of the two events, the assault and the visit, makes a larger and more portentous point than the mutineers could have intended.
Mr. Bush's purpose in this swing through Latin America is to pursue his plans for trade agreements and debt relief. The United States can contribute a lot to stronger economic growth in the Latin countries -- but only under political conditions that the Latins themselves have to create. It is only because all of the major Latin countries are now democracies that a trip like this one is possible at all for an American president. But even a democracy such as Argentina can hardly expect to improve its standard of living if it cannot establish minimal stability. These repeated military rebellions -- increasingly surrounded by the mystique of the carapintadas, the painted faces and the shadowy figuresof the officers who incite them -- are poison to any kind of investment and rational economic growth.
Argentina was once as wealthy per capita as the United States, but its average income is now hardly one-tenth the level here. That is the result of half a century of self-destructive politics -- ferocious, obsessive and fratricidal.
This attempted coup was, in purely military terms, a minor affair, since most of the army remained loyal to the government. But as a cultural phenomenon, it's a warning that Argentina is going to have great difficulty taking advantage of the offer that President Bush is making.