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Military rule, War with Britain, and the Disappeared, 1972-88

Argentina had been ruled by the military since 1966. There was still political unrest, and Argentina was suffering from inflation again. The Peronists has split into left and right factions. There was a Trotskyist group called the People's Revolutionary Army, and there were the Montenéros, underground activists who favored class struggle and believed that democracy was a phony cover for fascist government.

In early 1973 the military tried again to appease public opinion. It allowed a broadly based political coalition to come to power. The coalition's candidate, Héctor J. Cámpora, took office as president in May. Juan Perón was allowed to return, his arrival in June met by two million enthusiastic people, who remembered his pro-labor, populist and anti-US nationalism. Some of them looked with hope to Perón to end the unrest. Unknown to most of them, Perón favored an end to unrest in the form of repression. Under Cámpora, the government began an anti-Leftist campaign that had Perón's discreet support.

New elections brought Perón to the presidency in October, with his wife Isabel as vice president. Underground political activism increased, as did attacks against student and labor union leaders – the attacks suspected of having origins with the police and intelligence branches of Perón's administration. Perón was interested also in curbing inflation, and he launched a policy of money supply stabilization and price and wage controls. He put limits on the profits of those exporting agricultural products. Then came the world oil crisis, which diminished demand for Argentina's exports.

Peron died on July 1, 1974, not quite 79 years-old. His widow succeeded him, becoming South America's first woman head of state. Isabel put José López Rega in change of various ministries while holding the title of Minister of Social Welfare. She and he were interested in the occult. He was an avowed fascist and head of an anti-communist paramilitary force that between last 1973 and late 1974 (according to Wikipedia) had carried only nearly 300 murders. The military tolerated Isabel Peron her until March 24, 1976, when leaders of the Airforce overthrew her. A three-man junta ruled thereafter, led by General Jorge Rafaél Videla.

During the latter half of the 1970s the economy improved. Inflation dropped from a rate of 600 percent per year in 1976 (to fall temporarily to 138 percent by 1982). Exports increased. Violent government repressions were also up. Student activists and others were disappearing, and in 1977 the Carter administration responded by halting aid to Argentina. The military regime claimed it was fighting a civil war. Argentina's Catholic Church was recording as best it could the disappearances. A few women began demonstrating in the Plaza de Mayo, in front of the presidential palace, concerned about their missing sons, daughters or grandchildren. Many in Argentina dismissed them as eccentrics. Many Argentineans were ignoring the disappearances – not unlike the many who had ignored the disappearances of Jews in Germany.

In 1982, the Argentine economy was suffering from recession. Manufacturing was down, as were real wages, and economically pressed Argentineans were expressing their discomfort with the government. Then the military government gave many cause to look to them with favor. Britain had asked the regime to remove from the Falklands some military personnel who had been escorting some Argentinean scrap metal dealers about the islands, and the military regime decided to act on Argentina's claim to the Falkland Islands (called by Argentineans the Malvina Islands). Facing labor unrest and a scheduled labor demonstration for late March, Argentina's military stepped up its plans to invade the Falklands. And to further appease public opinion the government released 80 political prisoners as a gesture of its generosity. Then, on April 2, the invasion of the Falklands began. The public was elated. A patriotic unity had arisen, and in the Falklands the Argentine military captured a small detachment of British Royal Marines and the British governor.

Soldiers dragging a dissent in Argentina

Argentina, 1982

Britain's Margaret Thatcher was determined to throw the Argentina military out of the Falklands. Canada banned shipments of military supplies to Argentina and announced that it was prepared to back Britain in the Falklands if that were necessary. The United States joined in economic sanctions against Argentina, as did Japan and the European Economic Community. Only the Soviet Union supported Argentina, but not militarily. Britain's military arrived in the Falklands in force. Argentina's military regime formally surrendered the Falklands Islands on June 14, on board the British ship Plymouth, and 9,800 Argentines in the Falklands lay down their weapons. Argentina had lost 600 dead, 1300 wounded and had gained nothing.

Many Argentines were outraged and angry with everyone: the military rulers, the British and the United States. Their pride had been wounded. They looked for insults to hurl against the United States, and US news services carried Argentinian descriptions of US mothers as whores. Responding to the defeat in the Falklands, General Leopoldo Galtieri resigned in disgrace as both commander-in-chief of the army and as the nation's president, and, on July 1, Major General Reynaldo Bignone was installed as president in his place.

Before the year was over, dissatisfaction arose in Argentina over the neglect of the veterans of the Falkland episode, and there were disturbing discoveries of bodies buried in unmarked graves. Under the pressure of mass disapproval, in March 1983 the Bignone regime allowed political parties to resume activities, under the condition that they act responsibly. Political demonstrations remained illegal, but defying the ban, a one-day work stoppage is said to have kept 85 percent of the work force away from their jobs. Seeing itself as losing control, or perhaps the support of the nation, the military wanted out of politics. General elections were announced for October, 1983. The rulers promised that the military would not run a candidate for the presidency, and the government approved a law granting military and police personnel immunity from prosecution for crimes connected to the repression of dissent.

A middle-class party called the Radical Civic Union won the elections. Its leader, Raúl Alfonsín, a lawyer, won 52 percent of the vote and became president in January, 1984, and some other Latin American heads of state hailed the end of seven years of military rule. Under Alfonsín a decision was made to prosecute nine of the former leaders of the military regime for having spread "terror, pain and death." Alfonsín called Congress into a special session, and Congress set up a commission to investigate the disappearances of thousands. Mothers and grandmothers continued their silent vigil in the Plaza de Mayo, demanding justice. They were joined by the children of the disappeared. And now they were getting recognition within Argentina as well as the world at large. A few of the top-ranking commanders were convicted in 1985, and trials of lower ranking

Alfonsín launched an austerity program to fight inflation, but inflation rose to more than 200 percent per year. Wages and pensions were being reduced by inflation while the demand for higher wages and substantial pensions were contributing to the inflation. Argentina's politicians were unwilling to cut programs. They lavishly spent government money and continued to intervene in the economy, motivated, it is said, by grandiose illusions. State owned industries were maintained, and everyone wanted the needed sacrifices to be made by others. The economy was close to Mussolini's corporatism: the powerful at the top of the economy making deals with each other and the government. Investments made by Argentineans in their own economy were down, as those with high incomes were sending their money abroad. Investment from abroad were also down, and trade barriers were up. The global economy was being ignored to the detriment of exports. Inflation was increasing poverty. Riots were frequent.  Foreign lenders allowed Argentina to restructure its debts, believing that the country could work its way out of its problem.

A candidate for the presidency in 1988, Carlos Menem – a Peronist with conservative leanings – had plans for painlessly fixing the economy. He wanted to end inflation by tying the value of the Argentinean peso to the US dollar. He wanted to privatize industry, establish better relations with the United States and other nations, advance foreign trade and to balance the budget. He took office in 1989. With the military more modest since it's failed push in the Falklands, a new political stability had developed. Menem took office in July 19819 and would hold the presidency until December 1999.

Sources

Latin America: the Development of its Civilization, Third Edition, by Helen Miller Bailey and Abraham P Nasatir, 1973

Juan and Eva Perón, by Clive Foss, Sutton Publishing, 2000

Americas: the Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean, by Peter Winn, 1999

Argentina Since Independence, edited by Leslie Bethell, Cambridge University Press, 1993

Argentina: Political Culture and Instability, by Susan and Peter Calvert,
University of Pittsburg Press, 1989

Argentina 1516-1982, by David Rock, 1985

Modern History Sourcebook http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1950peronism2.html

Buenos Aires, city and suburbs, growth, 1950-1990, http://www.publicpurpose.com/dm-bapop.htm

The Vanished Gallery: the Desparacidos of Argentina, http://www.yendor.com/vanished/

Latin America: the Development of its Civilization, Third Edition, Chapter 22-23, by Helen Miller Bailey and Abraham P Nasatir, 1973

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