Argentina

The Argentine capital is coming back to life after a long, hot and humid summer. Schools have reopened, traffic is horrendous again and the city's restaurants are full.

The legitimate theaters, as many as in New York, have begun their winter seasons. Mercedes Sosa, a popular Argentine folk singer, is at the Teatro Lasalle, Burt Bachrach is at the Opera, while real opera (Boris Godunov) opens later this month at the world-famous Colon.

Buenos Aires is not yet entirely free of political violence, but the frequent terrorist bombings of the past several years have abated.

Like Paris, this is a city to explore on foot. Street crime has never been a problem, so it is possible to walk almost anywhere day or night. Now the air is cool, the leaves are turning - a delightful time in the sprawling, sophisticated river port.

PORTENOS, as the 8 million citizens of Buenos Aires are called, work during the day and live at night. There are more people on the streets at 11 in the evening than at 11 in the morning. Restaurants are crowded until well past midnight and most people do not even consider dining before 9 p.m.

There are neighborhood bars but they seem less popular than in the United State. This city has its own institutions - called confiterias - where people go to talk, to read and even to play chess while they sip coffee, snack on pastries and light sandwiches or drink aperitifs or whiskey.

Strolling and windowshopping seem to be a passion for Argentines, almost as popular as going to the movies. Avenida Florida, the great shopping street that is now a pedestrian mall, is filled at all hours. Nearby movie houses are usually full.

ARGENTINA IS a Catholic country but there do not seem to be as many churches in Buenos Aires as in Rome or Paris, or Washington for that matter. The church here is socially conservative -not unlike Italy its official mores and unofficial hypocracies.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" has never been seen here because each time a stage production or the movie was to open the theaters were bombed by groups claiming that the rock musical was blasphemous. The record album nonetheless is available and quite popular among the young.

Divorce is prohibited but legal separation is not. Wealthy Argentines separate, divide their property and then fly off to Mexico or Paraguay to be remarried. These second marriages are not recognized by the state but no one who remarries once or twice - and who goes to the trouble of getting legally separated - is prosecuted for bigamy.

Discotheques, despite exotic sounding names like Mau Mau, are calm compared to their counterparts in New York, Paris, London or Rio de Janeiro. Only couples go to dance and listen to the latest pop music from the United State and Europe. Singles bars do not exist. Pornography is not sold on newsstands - although there is something called playlady, a very tame version of Playboy.

STILL, ARGENTINES are extremely conscious of the latest styles, music and fads from abroad. In upperclass areas - along the Avenida Alvear, where the gracious and snobby Jockey Club is located, or near the Plaza San Martin, where the Foreign Ministry occupies a huge Italianate palazzo - the strollers are as chic and sophisticated as any in the world.

In fact, one begins to think soon after arriving here that many Argentines spend more time in Europe or the United States than in Buenos Aires. It is often easier to find out what is going on abroad than it is to find out what is going on here.

Of course, the fact that Argentina's 179 daily newspapers are not free to report on the military-political situation in the country - or to write about the government's anti-terrorist campaign - impedes the free and accurate flow of information.

Buenos Aires has for years thrived on rumors, now more than ever. The workings of the armed forces are secret and the politics of the three-man junta are guessed at but no one knows for sure. When the government issues a statement denying that the members of the junta are in disagreement over a certain policy, the denial tends to confirm that a problem exists.

Everyone seems to know at least one of the 8,000 to 20,000 persons said by human rights groups to have disappeared. Few know whether the unofficial military antiterrorist squads have abducted a friend or relative or whether, as the governmnet often says, a missing Argentine might have secretly left the country. Sometimes people return to their families after long absences and explain that they have been away on "vacation." Sometimes corpses - without heads or hand - wash ashore on beaches not far from the city.

People are not terrified to say what they think, among friends.But with the political parties suspended and most of the unions under government appointees, there is virtually no organized peaceful opposition to the military's policies. No one knows exactly where the line is that separates legal activity from that which can lead to arrest.

THE RELATIVE PEACE evident in Buenos Aires today is real but fragile - real because the military is firmly in control despite' occasional problems, fragile because it is based on a suspension of constitutional guarantees and the repression of natural political activity, quite apart from left-wing subversion.

The military has vowed to rid the country of the left-wing terrorists who started "the dirty war" in the first place. The generals have also said that they have no intention of restoring traditional democratic government, which they believed fostered the atmosphere in which terrorism flourished. The current situation in Italy is often cited by government supporters as a replica of what was going on in Argentina before the military coup in March, 1976.

Conversations with many Argentines lead one to think that a majority of people are happy that order has been returned. But it also seems to be true that many Argentines would welcome a return to some form of constitutional government that does not spirit its enemies way in the night.

Although the city is safe for 99 percent of the people who live here, a government official was shot to death recently and there were reports of several more disappearances.

At an April Fool's Day cocktail party, guests were asked to bring telegrams welcoming a journalist who had recently arrived in Buenos Aires. One of the telegrams read:

WELCOME TO ARGENTINA, STOP YOU ARE UNDER ARREST STOP

This is what passes for humor these days along the plate River