There is widespread relief here that Argentina has managed to get through its negotiations with Chile over land and sea rights near Cape Horn without going to war, but the comic opera aspects of the affair have damaged the military government's credibility with the Argentine people.
Argentinians seem to have a sixth sense for judging when their governments are in disarray or have done something particularly foolish. As soon as a government here appears weak, confused or lacking in ability to carry out its threats or promises, the bodies politic begin to circle like vultures.
No one here thinks that the government of President Jorge Videla is about to expire. Yet there is a growing feeling that Gen. Videla may not last the three more years he has set for himself.He sized power in March 1976.
A foreign banker who gets paid to worry about things like the stability of Argentina's government said he does not believe Videla will last much more than a year.
"As a result, large U.S. and European banks are increasingly reluctant to lend money for the two-year minimum time period that the Argentine government now requires," he said.
Newspapers and magazines here talk about "general confusion," as La Prensa put it, within the government. This confusion is as much because of an economic policy that will result in an inflation of as much as 200 percent this year becasue of a just-ended cabinet crisis and the negotiations with Chile.
People apparently do not quite know what to think. When this happens, governments here are in trouble.
Instead of issuing an early statement about the Cabinet crisis or about the negotiations with Chile after their conclusion last Thursday, the government huddled, talked and huddled some more - without telling what had happened or why. Rumors were the result.
Arentines were quick to sense, even if it was not true, that Videla and his government had lost their way, leading to a feeling that eventually the military might have to find another president if it did not want to lose power altogether. Videla's strongest card, according to the general wisdom here, is that there is as yet no one on the horizon to replace him. Also, he has not lost his public image as an honest, even if increasingly weak, chief executive.
Videla's appearance of having been clumsy and weak in his handling of the negotiations with Chile resulted partly because they were oversold as so important to the national honor that Argentina might have to go to war if the talks failed.
Only last week, Argentina was holing air-raid drills in its principal cities and ostentatiously moving troops to border areas. The idea was to prepare Argentinians for a possible war - and, more importantly, convince Chile that it should compromise its territorial claims.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Oscar Montes had resigned after newspapers here reported that he would soon be replaced as part of the cabinet shake-up - which had been planned for later this month, well after the negotiations with Chile ahd ended.
Montes' resignation of all but two of by the resignation of all but two of the other seven ministers, leaving the public here wondering, how Videla could allow his Cabinet to dissolve only three days before the deadline for the negotiations with Chile.
Videla then faced more bad news. The head of his delegation to the territorial talks returned from Santiago that night, Oct. 30, saying there had been "a substantial change" in the Chilean bargaining position.
It appeared that the Chileans, convinced that the Argentina government was in such disarray that its threats of war were empty, had decided to get tough just as the deadline was approaching.
While the idea of a war over a few islands and a part of the Atlantic Ocean at the tip of South America was never really popular here, most Argentines had expected more from the negotiations than the got: an invitation by Chile to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice at The Hague or to a friendly country that could serve as a mediator.
Argentina rejected that proposition, calling for a continuation of the bilateral talks. Nontheless is began to seem that Chile, which has international law on its side in the dispute, had successful called Argentina's bluff - contributing to the growing feeling here that Videla's government is weak - able neither to negotiate a favorable settlement nor confront the Chileans once the negotiations failed.
The confusion was further heightened when a spokesman for the Argentine Navy confirmed that the fleet was sailing south. Was this a decisive act by the government to seize some of the islands disputed by Chile or was it just another empty gesture?
No ordinar Argentines really knew.