With newspaper publisher Jacobo Timerman now safely in Israel, Argentina's military government has finally rid itself of its most known political prisoner, a man whose detention became an international symbol of human rights abuses here since the military came to power three years ago.
The government, headed by President Jorge Videla, clearly hopes that Timerman's expulsion and safe transport out of Argentina yesterday will improve its image broad and will be viewed by Western governments -- and the recently departed Inter-American Human Rights Commission -- as a sign that the military is acting in good faith to improve its rights record.
But it remains to be seen whether Timerman's release more than 2 1/2 years after he was abducted is one of many steps toward return to the rule of law or whether his release was simply a gesture without larger significance.
In many respects, Timerman's case should have been easy for the military to resolve: he has been thoroughly investigated by a military tribunal that could find no evidence linking him to left-wing guerrillas; he had never been charged with a crime; the country's Supreme Court last week ordered his release. Some of the military argues that Timerman was not even a "real" Argentine because he was a naturalized citizen; who came from Poland with his parents when he was a child. (His citizenship was decreed to be lifted as he was expelled yesterday.)
Furthermore, the continued costs to the military of keeping Timerman -- the international criticism and the strains in Argentina's relations with the United States, Israel and several Western European governments -- hardly seemed worth the hard-line "principles" of the generals who refused to let him go until this week.
These generals argued to the end, according to political and diplomatic sources, that Timerman was "guilty" of "intellectual subversion" because of the modern social and political views that his newspaper La Opinion often printed. The generals view their country as one of the last bastions of orthodox Catholicism in a world of heresies.
Such generals as Iberico Saint Jean and Benjamin Menendez argued that Timerman was responsible for creating a climate of social experimentation and free thought in which terrorism could flourish, even if Timerman was a terrorist. Many here and abroad suspect that the fact that Timerman is Jewish did not make his plight any easier.
Nonetheless, Gen. Videla is said to have promised the Inter-American Human Rights Commission last week that Timerman would be let go and that the government would take other measures to improve the rights situation.
A tradeoff, acknowledged by one member of the commission, was that "we wouldn't necessarily have to kill ourselves getting the report ready" to be presented at the next meeting of the Organization of American States a month from now in Bolivia.
If the report, which is likely to be highly critical, is not presented to the OAS next month it will not be debated formally for another year. This would suit the government because by then the human rights situation could be different and the report out of date.
At the least, a year's delay would postpone the international attention the report would focus once again on Argentina, which has seen the Western Hemisphere's most serious bout with urban terrorism and the most drastic measures to bring it under control.
The rights commission, according to reports leaked to the press here, offered to delay the final report, and not prepare a preliminary report, that could be discussed in La Paz, in return for action on a list of secret "preliminary recommendations" presented by the commission to Videla last week.
Timerman's release is believed to have been among these recommendations but rather far down the line. The most important -- and most difficult for the government -- are said to have been related to the thousands of persons who have "disappeared," some accounting for the children who are missing along with their parents, a need to imporve prison conditions and rapid charge or release of the almost 1,500 political prisoners that the government admits holding.
Although the number of disappearances has been reduced substantially during the past 1 1/2 years, they still occur. The military resistance to releasing Timerman, shown in by public statements by the country's military leaders, does not indicate that it will be easy for the government to implement the commission's recommendations.
On Monday, Gen. Omar Rubens Graffigna, commander of the Air Force and a member of the ruling junta, said in a speech that terrorism constituted "an undeclared third world war" that had been won in Argentina because the terrorists are no longer free to kidnap, plant bombs and assassinate their enemies.
But, Graffigna said, the military must continue to be vigilant because "the war continues. The enemy will change his tactics and terrain. He will appear to be in retreat . . .only to reappear in the most remote places, in classrooms, universities [and] in all areas of the nation's life that can be used as a base."
To most observers here, Graffigna's words sounded very much like another declaration of war against the kind of intellectual subversion of which Timerman was accused.