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Argentina Democracy Is Not Negotiable

3 minute read
Jill Smolowe

President Raul Alfonsin had already settled in for a long, lazy Easter weekend when the news reached him in his provincial hometown of Chascomas. About 130 officers and soldiers, led by Army Major Ernesto Barreiro, were holed up in an army barracks near the city of Cordoba, some 400 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. Barreiro had just been cashiered for refusing to obey a civilian court subpoena to answer charges of human-rights atrocities committed in the 1970s during the army’s war against alleged leftist subversives. Now, angered by the ongoing human-rights prosecutions, he and his fellow rebels were demanding amnesty for all accused officers.

Alfonsin, recognizing a severe challenge to his 40-month-old democratic rule, quickly choppered back to Buenos Aires. Soon government-controlled television channels were flashing an urgent message: “Democracy or dictatorship. Everyone come to the Congress at 5 p.m.” Labor leaders, human- rights activists and virtually the entire civilian political establishment quickly packed the halls of Congress, while a throng of some 100,000 massed outside. When the President defiantly proclaimed before the Congress, “Democracy is not negotiable,” the chamber erupted in applause. After his 15-minute speech, Alfonsin appeared on a balcony and cried, “Thank you for defending our democracy! Thank you!”

Faced with overwhelming support for Alfonsin and his government, the mutineers surrendered and Barreiro fled. The aborted mutiny was a triumph for Alfonsin, who showed that he was firmly in charge. Says Author Jacobo Timerman, who was tortured during the military rule: “If the crisis was a ten, Alfonsin, being the shrewd politician he is, made it into a thousand. It was the first time in 60 years that there was a political and civilian answer to a military provocation.”

Barreiro and his mutineers were only part of the challenge to Alfonsin. The rebellion spread to Campo de Mayo, the big army base outside Buenos Aires. At week’s end some 100 officers were still holding out while 1,000 government soldiers ringed the base. The display of support reflected the anger that has smoldered in military circles since 1985, when civilian judges convicted and sentenced five military leaders, including two former Presidents, for atrocities committed from 1976 to 1980.

In an effort to lay the “dirty war” to rest, Argentina’s Congress set last February as the deadline for civilians to lodge new complaints. Army Chief of Staff General Hector Rios Erenu reportedly promised army leaders that at most 100 more officers would face charges. Says Timerman: “The problem was that in all there were about 400. The officers had nothing specifically against Alfonsin, but they felt that Rios Erenu had gone against his word.” The rebels’ demands last week included Rios Erenu’s resignation.

After the Cordoba revolt fizzled, Barreiro simply vanished. Argentines were relieved that their young democracy had withstood that test. But other officers who face charges dating back to the 1970s could follow Barreiro’s example. Warned one rebellious officer: “What has happened with Major Barreiro’s refusal to appear is the tip of the iceberg.”

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