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ARGENTINA: Hanging from the Cliff

6 minute read

Twice last week Argentine President Isabel Perón went on television to tell her people how she had saved them from near disaster. In the first address, she claimed to have ended, without a single casualty, an abortive four-day coup by a faction of air force officers. Then on Christmas Eve she was on the TV screen again, praising the valor of troops who had crushed a massive guerrilla attack on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, and giving the impression that she had the country well in hand.

Both speeches were little more than exercises in fantasy. In fact, it was the Argentine military that had acted in both situations, adroitly defusing the coup and smashing the terrorist assault in the bloodiest government-guerrilla engagement to date. While Juan Perón’s petulant widow went through the motions of governing as if in a trance and the nation hung ever more precariously on the precipice of political and economic chaos, many Argentines wondered why the military did not simply end the charade and officially take command.

The bloodless “pocket rebellion” by the air force began during the week be fore Christmas, when Brigadier General Héctor Luis Fautario, the air force commander, arrived at one of Buenos Aires’ airports to fly to Córdoba. Fautario, an unpopular general unswervingly loyal to President Perón, was detained by high-ranking fellow officers, who thereupon declared a rebellion. Military leaders, apparently sharing the general dislike of Fautario, quickly acceded to one of the rebels’ demands and dismissed him. But Fautario’s successor, Brigadier General Orlando Ramon Agosti, was unsympathetic to the rebels’ second, more ambitious goal: that Argentina’s military should remove Isabel Perón as President and replace her with General Jorge Rafael Videla, the wiry and astute commander of the army. President Perón, meanwhile, cheerfully entertained members of the Argentina legislature on the wide lawns of her residence in suburban Olivos.

Amnesty Promise. The impasse between the government and the air force rebels continued for four days. In a halfhearted show of determination, rebel planes—mostly prop trainers from Morón air force base outside Buenos Aires—attracted the curiosity of Christmas shoppers by making a few low passes over the city. Loyal air force fighter-bombers strafed some parked planes at Moron, destroying a few but taking no lives. After other commanders convinced him that the army was not ready to join the uprising, the leader of the air force coup, Brigadier General Jesus Orlando Capellini, quietly “submitted to higher air force authority “—after having won a promise of amnesty for his rebels.

By contrast, last week’s guerrilla assault on an arsenal nine miles from the capital in the industrial suburb of Monte Chingolo was a hard-fought military engagement that cost at least 115 lives—85 guerrillas, seven government troops, three policemen and 20 civilians. The attack was apparently a joint operation of the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), a left-wing guerrilla group that has been fighting government troops for years in Tucuman province, and the Montone-ros, the terrorist arm of left-wing Peronists, who specialize in urban assassinations and high-ransom kidnapings. According to the army, 150 guerrillas—many of them boys and girls in their late teens—attacked the arsenal as most of its 40 troops were sitting down to dinner. Stiff resistance by the defenders and swift reinforcements by helicopter from nearby bases caught the guerrillas by surprise. Many of the civilian deaths occurred when the guerrillas burned city buses near the arsenal to impede possible ground reinforcements. For their part, government soldiers gave no quarter: none of the guerrillas caught inside the arsenal got out alive.

Popular Contempt. The thwarted attack was a heartening triumph for the army. But it also pointed up the fact that the army has its hands full maintaining internal security without getting involved once again in Argentina’s politics. Top army leaders like Commanding General Videla—who could have the presidency virtually for the asking—remember the long, bitter period of military control over Argentina’s government from 1966 to 1973. The failure by the military to arrest Argentina’s slide into chaos earned it such popular contempt that children even denied that their fathers were soldiers.

Yet someone must move fairly soon into the vacuum at the top of Argentina’s political life. Isabel Perón has set a new presidential election for next October (somewhat self-servingly, on Peronist Loyalty Day). Whether the country can stand that long a wait is arguable. Inflation is now running at a rate of about 300% a year, and even the affluent middle class is living from day to day on rapidly dwindling buying power. Terrorism from both the right and left has claimed more than 1,500 lives since Juan Perón’s death in July 1974.

Concerned politicians in Argentina would like Isabel to step down, passing the presidential baton to the man next in line constitutionally, Senate Leader Italo Luder. Mrs. Perón’s tenacity—at this point her only obvious political virtue—seems hardly to allow for such a solution. More realistically, some favor a brief coup by the military that would forcibly put Isabel on a plane to Spain and then turn the administration over to Luder. A number of younger plotters within the army would like to see the military suspend both the constitution and elections and rule the country directly. These potential rebels are themselves divided: one faction favors a left-wing junta as in Peru, another a right-wing version like Brazil’s.

General Videla’s refusal to seize last week’s opportunities to evict Isabel suggests that the military does not plan early action against her. Yet as election time draws nearer, there will be less and less popular support for any attempted coup. As a people, Argentines seem to want to wait out the crisis instead of facing it, as they have before. The departure of Isabel Perón would probably not change that mood, but more and more Argentines are convinced that it must come—in weeks if not days—if the nation is to preserve its handhold on the edge of order.

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