BUENOS AIRES, JAN. 19 -- The outbreak and eventual suppression of new military revolts during the past four days has refueled a political debate here over whether the government's handling of the armed forces is actually strengthening or weakening Argentine democracy.
"We have demonstrated that democracy is consolidated in this country and, again, we have put our house in order," said a relieved President Raul Alfonsin yesterday after the Army's senior command had swiftly defeated the rebels in a northern garrison town.
In further remarks today, the Argentine leader asserted that the Army's concerted effort to quell the rebellions was proof that his policy -- particularly last year's decision to dismiss most human rights trials against military officers -- had secured the loyalty of most troops.
But others questioned that claim. Apparently determined to make military policy an issue in next year's presidential campaign, opposition Peronist leaders issued a statement calling the government's approach to the armed forces full of "double messages," a "multiplicity of interlocutors" and "uncertainty about eventual accords."
Amid public frustration over the Alfonsin's repeated inability to keep tensions in the military from erupting, the Peronists said they favor a "military reform" that would overcome the "recurrence of crises in the armed forces."
In interviews, a number of independent military specialistsagreed with assertions by Alfonsin that the defeat of the rebels has provided a new opening for peace within the military, as well as between soldiers and civilians.
But these sources warned that more uprisings or other demonstrations could break out unless the government eased widespread resentment in the ranks over military budget cuts, human rights trials of officers and other actions perceived as still relegating the armed forces to second-class status in Argentina's four-year-old democracy.
The latest military crisis ended with a minimum of casualties and the Army's most famous dissident in custody. Fighting yesterday around the town of Monte Caseros, which rebel leader Aldo Rico had seized, amounted to a few skirmishes. Rico's forces quickly retreated as government troops fired rifles and light artillery, more to frighten than to wound, witnesses said today.
The official casualty count stands at three wounded, all on the government's side and all resulting from the explosion of an antitank mine along the road to Monte Caseros. There were seven reported mutinies around the country in all, and the Army announced today that 60 officers and 222 enlisted men had been detained, including 116 from the Fourth Infantry Regiment (company) in Monte Caseros.
Rico is being held in a military prison in Magdalena, 50 miles south of Buenos Aires, as Army prosecutors prepare charges against the cashiered lieutenant colonel. A handful of other known rebel leaders remain at large.
Most Army officers have refused to rally behind Rico, but not necessarily because they disagree with his aims, rather his tactics. Even the general who headed the government's assault force, 2nd Corps commander Gen. Juan Mabragana, spoke in favor of an amnesty for all those who participated in Argentina's "dirty war" -- the drive in the 1970s against leftist guerrillas and other opponents of the military dictatorship -- one of Rico's main objectives.
"It is still hard to say how much support Rico actually has in the Army," said a military specialist. "But just because many did not join him this time does not mean they are solidly behind the senior command. They will be watching to see what happens next."
After last year's Easter weekend rebellion, which Rico also directed, most of the Army's senior generals were removed and President Raul Alfonsin pushed through Congress a law ending the prosecution of several hundred officers accused of crimes in the antiguerrilla campaign. But about 50 cases remain against retired officers.
The government appears to have made no commitment to the rebels this time to reduce still further the number of trials. But the chief of staff, Gen. Jose Dante Caridi, whose authority has been bolstered, is now in a stronger position to press for an end to the trials. He also has added clout to insist on a larger budget, which Alfonsin slashed.
The number of uprisings doubled this time over those last April as commandos allied with Rico fanned out to incite revolts at various garrisons and seize, briefly, an airport.
Local commentators say that without more governmental attention to military interests, Army leaders are bound to face new challenges from disgruntled officers. At the same time, Alfonsin's ability to provide the money necessary to modernize and reorganize the armed forces into smaller, more mobile units, as planned, is badly crimped by the country's economic weakness.
"The president has talked since he campaigned in 1983 of restructuring the armed forces," said a retired Army lieutenant colonel. "But without the money, it's all just talk."