month after hard-line conservative officers took control of the military government here promising to end economic and political turmoil, the sense of a slow unraveling by a divided and besieged military establishment still pervades Argentina's hushed but frantic politics.
Government officials are now saying that their rule has reached "the final stage" and that the country will soon see the beginnings of a military withdrawal. A new political party statute is promised for midyear, followed by full activation of the parties a year later and possibly elections in 1984, though probably not for president, informed officials say.
The new economy minister has spent the past week explaining strict remedial measures for the country's collapsing industry and 130 percent inflation, amid predictions of doom by nearly every politician in town.
President Leopoldo Galtieri, the fifth general to govern Argentina within a year, is increasingly confronted by human rights groups demanding an accounting of thousands of "disappeared" political prisoners and by a newly united political front.
And the press, which several months ago abandoned the respectful silence that characterized it through five years of often harsh military rule, waited only days after Galtieri's ascension before attacking.
"There is little, very little time left," wrote leading columnist J. Iglesias Rouco this week, "and there are no certain signs that the new leaders are halting the accelerated march of Argentina toward disaster."
During these muggy South American summer days, despair and rebelliousness are evident.
Monday, 3,000 workers occupied two Volkswagen plants outside Buenos Aires until the company agreed to rehire 630 workers it had laid off. The same day, the minister of labor admitted that the country's record unemployment, officially 5 percent but calculated by other analysts who count underemployment at between 13 and 16 percent, was "a menace to peace."
Earlier this month, passengers set afire and severely damaged a state-run commuter train. The newspapers are calling this and 19 other attempts to burn railroad cars the "protest of devastation."
The political ferment is unprecedented since the armed forces overturned Isabel Peron's civilian government in 1976, banned political activity and launched a violent campaign against terrorism and perceived social and economic decadence.
Interviews with political and labor leaders and officials close to the military indicate that, while the armed forces of this Latin American giant are unlikely to be driven from power soon, neither are they likely to regain their unchallenged power of the late 1970s or to dictate the shape of the civilian government they say will succeed them.
Outright force--at least in the form of "disappearances" of political activists or persons suspected of opposing the military's "process"--has largely ceased, in part because loud denunciations and widespread publicity have replaced the terrorized silence of a few years ago.
Leaders of rights organizations now say they see little prospect of a violent crackdown recurring.
"There is no doubt that the military government is exhausted," said Emilio Mignone, the leader of a prominent human rights group here. "They've failed, and they have no spirit left. They only want to get out of this situation with the least repercussions for what they've done."
Galtieri himself indicated the decay of military power in his first address to the nation, saying, "The road has been tough, and the wear and tear suffered have been great."
Among the principal reasons for the military's apparent desire to begin a slow return "There is little, very little time left, and there are no certain signs that the new leaders are halting the accelerated march of Argentina to disaster," according to a leading columnist. to some form of civilian rule is the government's manifest failure to achieve promised institutional changes. Perhaps most importantly, the economy, which the "process" was to rescue from inefficiency, minimal growth, and high inflation, is in one of its worst crises.
A newly announced, tough stabilization program has aroused so much controversy--owing to such features as a freeze on state wages and the return of major state industries to the private sector--that even economists and businessmen who support the plan are doubtful that it can be implemented.
Meanwhile, dissension within the military is on the increase as dozens of retired officers are due to be replaced by appointed civilians or private interests in state companies and plans to decrease state control over such activities as oil development are believed to be opposed by nationalistic elements.
Already, political defections from the armed forces are a matter of frequent publicity. Two high military leaders--Emilio Massera, a retired admiral and former junta member, and Juan Ogania, the president of a previous military government--are in detention for publicly separating themselves from the government.
Roberto Viola, the general Galtieri ousted from the presidency, has refused to disappear quietly from public view. After military leaders' painstaking efforts to portray his departure in December as due to a heart ailment, Viola has appeared at vacation spots announcing that he is in perfect health and promising "in a prudently short time to tell the truth about my removal."
The military's internal troubles have been matched by a hardening of civilian political opposition. Argentina's five major political parties, which in the past 30 years have been quicker to support military coups against one another than to agree on democratic policy, have in the past six turbulent months formed a united "multiparty" movement pressing for elections despite the official ban on political activity.
Despite Argentina's long-unstable politics, the parties retain the same leaders, now wrinkled and white-haired men in their 70s and late 60s, who have led civilian governments to one disaster and coup after another during the past half century.
And, as in the past, one party stands out: the Peronists, the broad populist movement of late three-time president Juan Peron, which the military blames for most of Argentina's problems. As Peronists once again lead labor confederations and Peronist chants erupt at public gatherings, it is becoming clear that the military has had no luck purging the country of its majority political movement.
Yet even the Peronist party reflects a staleness that bodes ill. Divided since Peron's death in 1974, the movement is still officially headed by his last wife, Isabel Peron, an exile in Spain whose disastrous administration after 1974 created broad public support for the military takeover.
The Peronists' principal leader within the country is Deolindo Bittel, who still lives in the northern Chaco region. A loyal follower whom the Perons elevated from obscurity to "Here we were, trying to support the people against the government, but talking about who was at fault in 1930 and 1946," a political leader said. party leadership, he has never developed a real policy program or following of his own.
The lack of any new or widely popular civilian leaders--and the non-Peronist parties' familiar role as minor agitators and conspirators against or with the Peronists--have made the multiparty movement somewhat ungainly. Last week, party leaders spent most of one day and evening locked in a conference room bickering over the wording of a policy statement while their potential supporters--unemployed workers, mothers of the disappeared, journalists--circled impatiently in smoky corridors outside.
"Here we were, trying to support the people against the government, but talking about who was at fault in 1930 and who in 1946," Bittel said later. But, he added, "The military rule and the passage of time has taught us that the divisions within the parties have made possible the military seizures of power. And that is why we will work with the other parties now."
The party leaders have agreed on proposals for minimum wages and jobs programs as well as stimulants for industry.
"It's true that these people have failed in the past," said one gaunt middle-aged railroad worker who waited at his union's office last week to complain of his newly frozen salary. "But they are the avenue of escape from what we have. When they speak out, they are saying what is wanted by everyone."
What the political party leaders are seeking is gradually to consolidate their front with the labor confederations, which have also begun patching old differences. The result, say party leaders, would be broad negotiations between the front and the military over the next national government.
For now, the military's leadership has shown little sign of willingness to cooperate with the opposition. Instead, it is methodically pursuing its own scheme of gradually replacing military leaders in political posts with civilians while preparing its new law for political parties. Under the law, one high officer said in an interview, "some parties will have to organize and some will have to reorganize," guided by leadership appointed by the government.
The military rulers apparently would like to control their withdrawal to prevent the emergence of unwanted trouble--such as investigations of those responsible for the disappeared--and to keep out of government the political forces they oppose most--particularly Peronism.
But even this sort of managed retreat may not be possible.
"If you have power you can do a lot of things," said Rogelio Frigerio, another political party leader. "But not for very long."