Long Night of the Generals

September 25, 2007

For the vast majority in the Southern Cone countries, the coups of the past ten years have meant sudden and overwhelming changes. These changes affect every aspect of life-- people's work, standards of living, family relations, education and personal security. In each of the countries the pervasiveness of "military discipline" and "barracks culture" has taken its toll.

In Chile, Julio Rocha, a part-time wicker worker from the Violeta Parra shantytown in Santiago, commented that among the 22 heads of households on his block, six were on relief, three were unemployed and five worked as peddlers; only eight had regular jobs. "There are families here that only eat cornmeal once a day," he added. "Even the peddlers who come around... ask for food."(1)

In Bolivia over $1.5 billion in foreign loans has entered the country since the 1971 coup, but little of this has reached Bolivia's miners, workers and peasants. When tens of thousands of miners struck in mid-1976, the military occupied major mines, arrested and expelled union leaders, and refused demands for an 80% pay raise-from about $1.50 to $2.30 per day. The newly formed Permanent Assembly on Human Rights in Bolivia has repeatedly denounced such official repression, arbitrary detentions and torture. President Hugo Banzer excused his government's "preventive measures" on the grounds of his country's "long tradition of political turbulence.(2)

Another facet of reality is reflected in Argentina by the testimony of Francisco and Manuela Santucho, respectively a retired judge and teacher whose family has been decimated by repression. Of ten sons and daughters, three are known to have been killed by the military or right-wing terrorists; three others, along with several in-laws and grandchildren, have been arrested and tortured both in Argentina and Paraguay, and one granddaughter was tortured to death. Two of the grandchildren arrested were nine and ten years old. "We raised (our children) to have profound feelings of love, and a strong commitment to solidarity and justice," say the Santuchos, "so that their conduct in life was only the consistent practice of those principles."(3)

In June 1978, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the O.A.S. condemned Uruguay, regarded for decades as one of Latin America's most stable democracies, for "wholesale violations of human rights, including arbitrary arrest, torture and murder of political prisoners." One case was cited in which a student, allegedly a member of the Tupamaros, was reported to have died from "pulmonary edema" two days after his arrest. When a Uruguayan court official finally ordered an official autopsy the student's lungs and brain were missing. The investigating commission concluded that the student in fact died from brain damage suffered while in detention.(4)

In all the Southern Cone countries, the armed forces justify their wholesale crimes in the name of necessity and efficiency. Army General Benjamin Menendez, active in the anti-guerrilla campaign in Argentina boasted to the press that, "if in Viet Nam they had used the methods we are employing here, without doubt the outcome of the war would have been different."(5) This war against the people is the constant backdrop against which everyone in the Southern Cone lives today. "FEW CAN DOUBT THAT TODAY THE THIRD WORLD WAR IS BEING WAGED." President Bordaberry, Uruguay.(6)

These dramatic conditions of everyday life attract the attention and sympathy of people throughout the world. But what underlies this violence? The dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and the recently deposed Banzer regime in Bolivia represent a sharp break with previous military governments in Latin America. They are bent on carrying out a definitive transformation of the economic, social and political structures of their countries.

To one degree or another, the regimes embody elements of what is commonly called the "National Security Doctrine."(7) This doctrine was given coherent form in studies done at the Escola Superior do Guerra (War College) in Brazil both before and after the coup of 1964. Similar studies were also made in Argentina by military figures who advised General Ongania for his coup in 1966. The doctrine holds that "total war" is taking place, that international subversion is attacking the nation, the family, and Christian values. Not only are the armed forces the logical defenders of these values, but also of the institutions destined to lead their countries into a new era of national grandeur. Liberty and Democracy number among the objectives proclaimed by the National Security Doctrine, yet in the course of the total war these objectives must be sacrificed to prevent subversion by internal and external enemies. "There is military, political and labor subversion. There is cultural, moral, and even church subversion," cry the military.(8)

The Doctrine proclaims that national interests must always be paramount regarding political and strategic questions. In light of this doctrine, the bellicose behavior between Chile and Argentina over the Beagle Channel islands and the Bolivian-Chilean conflict over Bolivia's access to the sea, which appear puzzling given the obvious affinities between the regimes, become much more understandable.(9)

The concrete model for the dictatorships in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay is found in Brazil. In 1964 the Brazilian armed forces ousted the populist government of Jogo Goulart. The regime's early years were similar to those of traditional "caretaker" military governments in that they left most of the country's social and political structures intact. But in 1968 a "coup within a coup" brought in a new group of officers who implemented much more drastic measures. They issued a series of institutional decrees that empowered the military to restructure Brazil's political and economic foundations. In order to accomplish this they adopted the methods of repression and torture that are the hallmarks of the new dictatorships.

In all countries the armed forces have put themselves forward as the "military party," the only institutional force capable of representing the country's true political interests. One study of Latin American military regimes stated: "The state is reduced practically to the Armed Forces, which assume executive, legislative and judicial functions and try to become the true single party of the ruling class."(10) MAIN TARGETS: LABOR AND THE LEFT

The military regimes' number one priority has been to smash the working class and its political organizations, which have nonetheless continued to resist the dictatorships. In Chile, virtually all the members of the Popular Unity government and many leaders of the Radical, Communist and Socialist parties as well as members of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) have been assassinated, imprisoned or forced into exile. The military's preferred target in Argentina has been the two main revolutionary organizations (the Revolutionary Workers Party and the Montoneros), and the strong class-conscious trade union movement. Literally thousands of rank-and-file activists in Argentina's major unions and industries have been kidnapped or murdered. In Uruguay, all parties in the Frente Amplio and the Tupamaros have been attacked and thousands of politically active Uruguayans forced into exile.

The military have taken great care to dismantle the trade union organizations. The main labor organizations, the CGT in Argentina, the CUT in Chile, the COB and FSTMB in Bolivia, and the CNT in Uruguay, were dissolved, declared in recess or driven underground. Local union bodies, especially at the plant level, have been severely repressed, either by being banned or liquidated through the arrest and kidnapping of their membership. Strikes and job actions such as slowdowns are crimes calling for stiff prison sentences (10 years in Argentina). In practice such offenses are punishable by firing, disappearance, or death. New labor legislation has been introduced by the dictatorships--in the form of unilateral decrees--to restructure the trade unions. Banzer's proposed labor code allowed strikes only after permission from the Labor Ministry. The Argentine labor code would set up several confederations, ban industry-wide organizing, and severely limit the bargaining ability of the unions.

Repression of the regimes' political opponents spills over national boundaries, clearly coordinated among the dictators of the region. Giving truth to the saying that the Southern Cone is "one gigantic prison": MIR leader Edgardo Enriquez was kidnapped in Argentina in 1976 by the country's security forces and secretly sent to Chile where he disappeared and is presumed dead. Amilcar Santucho, an Argentine lawyer who had defended political prisoners, was arrested at the border while attempting to leave Argentina after his life had been threatened; he is imprisoned in Paraguay by the Stroessner regime. Enrique Rodriguez Larreta, a Uruguayan political figure, in Argentina investigating the disappearance of his son, was kidnapped and interrogated by Argentine and Uruguayan military officers and then sent by military plane to Uruguay. The repression has even reached beyond the dictators' own stomping ground: Orlando Letelier, a Chilean cabinet minister and ambassador to the United States under the Popular Unity government, was assassinated with colleague Ronni Karpen Moffitt, in Washington, D.C. by the Chilean secret police.

Under the new dictatorships it is not only the leftist political parties and labor unions that feel the heavy hand of the regimes, but also the traditional political parties that have served the interests of the ruling classes for so long. The military decision to transform the political order has meant that even these organizations have been declared illegal or in permanent recess. These parties, according to the military, damaged the nation by dividing it, and were thus incapable of containing the threat of subversion. The Chilean Christian Democratic Party, which initially welcomed the coup, was suspended and later outlawed. The more progressive sectors of the traditional bourgeois parties have been persecuted in the other countries as well.

The political transformation of the countries requires the partial or total suspension of the national Constitutions. Military decrees have superseded constitutional guarantees such as due process, habeas corpus, the right to assembly and freedom of the press. In all the countries the right to strike has been revoked outright. The parliaments have been closed down and many former legislators have been persecuted.

The judicial structures have been brought almost totally under military control; high court posts are filled with military cronies and retired officers. Many legal areas have been removed from the jurisdiction of civilian courts and transferred to military tribunals. However, the military frequently do not even operate within their own legal structures: very few people have been tried by military tribunals for political crimes. Kidnapping and indefinite detention are considered better deterrents than long sentences.


The dictatorships' plans for education and culture are based on an analysis which holds that the "social hierarchy" had disintegrated to the point that the masses had escaped the control of the state, violating all principles of authority, undermining order and imposing chaos. All institutions were affected, including schools, universities and the family, according to this view.

Measures designed to reverse this perceived situation are being taken. Argentine Navy leaders consider Marx, Freud and Einstein to have destroyed the great moral values of the 19th century and attempts are underway to extirpate their influence from education and the general culture. In all four countries, most of the humanities and social sciences courses have been eliminated. After closing Uruguay's major experimental agricultural stations, the military-appointed dean of the Agronomy School proclaimed that "research had to be suppressed because it got in the way of teaching."(11)

Bookburnings and other forms of censorship are common. According to Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano:

The military don't burn books, they sell them to paper companies, where they are turned into paper pulp, and returned to the consumer market. It is not true that Marx, Freud, or Piaget are beyond the public's reach. They are not in book form, but in the form of paper napkins.(12)

Many newspapers have been banned, others closed. One Argentine newspaper, Cronista Comercial, a liberal business-oriented paper, closed down after its editor and principal owner was assassinated. Those newspapers which remain open have been taken over by military managers or practice a form of self-censorship that has turned the major newspapers of the region into exercises in reading between the lines. Hundreds of journalists have been arrested and kidnapped or even killed. One Argentine journalist, whose paper had stayed open although under military control, was "pressured" to write "friendly" stories by being telephoned at his office by military personnel and given a complete run-down of his every action during the previous week.(13)


Under the dictatorships, the standard of living has fallen dramatically for millions of people in the Southern Cone. Real wages fell by 50% almost immediately in Chile and by over 50% in only two years in Argentina. In Uruguay, wages declined by 40% between 1971 and 1977, while in Bolivia they dropped by 25% between 1971 and 1976. And except for Argentina, unemployment in these countries is reported in double figures, the highest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Why have the economic conditions of life for the vast majority deteriorated in the Southern Cone? The cause is not to be found in the ineptitude of the armed forces. Rather, today's conditions are the direct result of conscious policies being pursued by the dictatorships.

Transnational and local monopoly interests were already well entrenched in the Southern Cone economies before the coups. Yet the economic advances that had been won by the working class, the growth of the public sector of the economy, the nationalization of key private enterprises and the growing crisis in the international economic system - all these factors had squeezed the profits of the leading business sectors and made economic restructuring imperative for them.

This restructuring is commonly referred to as the "economic shock treatment." Closely identified with Milton Friedman and the University of Chicago, its advocates argue that the economies of the region must be made more efficient and productive by opening them up to the forces of the world market and by drastically curtailing all government programs that interfere with the functioning of the free market.

But who benefits from the "shock treatment" and thus supports the rule of the armed forces? As Orlando Letelier said, economics are not neutral. Milton Friedman's theories mean the Nobel Prize for him; as implemented by the economic ministers they mean terror and hunger for the peoples of the Southern Cone. These ministers are by no means military cranks; they are prominent members of the imperialist bourgeoisie, the intended beneficiary of their policies. Argentina's Economy Minister Jose' Martinez de Hoz, for example, is "good old Joe" to David Rockefeller.

The conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund on its credit recipients also shape the economic policies of the military regimes. IMF guidelines call for an end to foreign exchange liberalization and import controls, devaluation of the exchange rate, and anti-inflation measures including curbs on public spending, abolition of consumer subsidies, imposition of wage controls and dismantling of price controls. Last but not least, the IMF advocates measures to encourage foreign investors.(14)

The 1976 coup in Argentina was called the "coup for foreign credit" due to the role the IMF played in bringing the military to power. Three weeks before the coup, the economy minister, in order to obtain a credit to prevent Argentina from defaulting on its foreign debt payments, ordered drastic austerity measures. While freezing wages he raised prices by over 100% for basic items. A general strike put an end to that plan and the IMF denied the credit. The same credit was granted a few days after the coup.


The concrete economic measures of the dictators affect virtually every aspect of the economic structure. A tough deflationary program has been implemented through wage control and credit policies that take their heaviest toll on real wages. Budget deficits are being slashed to the IMF- recommended 1% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), mainly by laying off workers in the public sector. Argentina's economic team calls for laying off at least 300,000 workers in the state sector. An Uruguayan economy minister declared that "an uneven distribution of wealth will generate savings."(15)

Opening the economies to the world market means that tariff barriers have been lowered across the board: in Chile by mid-1979 import duties will be no higher than 10% of value, giving Chile the lowest import duties in Latin America. According to a 1977 New York Times article, "Chile has become a bazaar filled with foreign goods that are snapped up by the well-to-do while millions of workers and their families are living hand to mouth."

The encouragement of sectors producing for export and the removal of almost all controls on foreign investment are other key elements of the new economic policies. Both the Chilean and Argentine new foreign investment laws allow remittance of all profits and remove limits on the amount of foreign capital in national enterprises.

These economic measures spell disaster for the working class and popular sectors. A 1977 Swiss bank study showed that "the average worker in Buenos Aires would have to work 482 hours a month-16 hours a day, seven days a week-to earn enough to pay for the bare essentials of urban life."(16) An Argentine cleric, critical of the economic policies of Martinez de Hoz, cited the parable of the peasant who tried to teach his burro not to eat or drink by gradually weaning him off food and water, and then complained, "Just as I had him trained, the damn thing died."(17)


But it is not just the working class and the poor who are being hit by drastic economic policies. The strangulation of the internal market has meant that broad sectors of small and medium-sized local enterprises, producing for the internal market, have been forced into bankruptcy or to sell out to monopoly concerns. Those companies able to shift to export production have benefited. In Chile, the plastic industry changed from making plates and cups for local consumption to producing packaging material for fruits and other exports. Production of foodstuffs in Bolivia fell in 1976-77 while cotton production tripled, due to the availability of domestic financing for this export commodity.


Have the economic policies been successful from the point of view of their instigators? Yes and no, but mainly no. While inflation has been controlled somewhat, notably in Chile, it rose in Argentina in 1978 to 169.8%, the highest rate in the world for the second year running. The green light given to the Southern Cone countries to borrow from international financial institutions and private banks has produced growing debt problems. Bolivia's foreign debt is larger than its entire GDP and Chile and Uruguay pay 25-35% of their export earnings on installments and interest on their debts.(18)

The new foreign investment laws have not brought the anticipated flood of outside investment. Argentina received only $125 million in 1977, a very low figure for such a large economy. And the new tariff regulations in the auto industry contributed to General Motors' decision to pull out of Argentina, affecting approximately 30,000 workers and hundreds of small parts companies. Argentina is in its deepest recession since the 1930s.

Yet the economic spokesmen are both sanguine and optimistic. The president of Chile's Central Bank stated: "Frankly the success of the economic program has been spectacular."(19) And when milk producers complained that powdered milk imports were driving local dairies out of business, Finance Minister Sergio de Castro told them to eat their cows if they couldn't compete.(20)


Do these economic and political transformations foreshadow the establishment of an enduring counterrevolutionary and imperialist bulwark in the Southern Cone? Certainly the rapid advance of the workers and popular movements marked by the development of strong revolutionary organizations in the late 60s has been checked by military rule. But they have by no means been destroyed, leaving the military's major objective unfulfilled. The growing resistance is the chief factor limiting the ability of the imperialists and the local ruling class to stabilize their rule.

Additionally, the very nature of the dictators' policies has prevented the development of a broader political and social base to bolster the regimes. The traditional political parties based on petit bourgeois and local business interests have moved into opposition. Reflecting the disastrous effects of the regional actions on their constituencies, they call for a return to the old democratic system and to an economic policy favoring national interests. In Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, where the petit bourgeoisie has an important numerical weight, observers speak of the proletarianization of some sectors. Many of those who can-- professionals, white collar employees, and specialized workers-have responded to the repression and economic policies by leaving. Some 350,000 people have exited Argentina since the coup, and 27% of Uruguay's active population, some half million people, have left the country since 1973.

The working class has fought to defend its economic position and organizational expressions, and has forced the military to make some concessions. Strikes--of auto and electrical workers in Argentina, of miners and factory workers in Bolivia, of miners in Chile and meat packers in Uruguay- have been the major form of working class resistance but not the only one. Sabotage, slow-downs, self-defense actions and resistance committees are increasingly gaining momentum.

The November 1977 strike wave in Argentina not only forced wage increases far above the economic plan's limits, but led the military to abandon their "plan for the year 2000," a fascistic program which contemplated the construction of a "new democracy." May Day in Uruguay saw 15,000 workers in the streets of Montevideo, demanding higher wages and the release of trade union and political prisoners, and chanting "Down with Fascism, Long Live the CNT" (National Confederation of Workers).

Armed actions in support of workers' struggles have been common in Argentina, most notably the bombing of the main generating plant in Buenos Aires during the 1977 light and power workers' strike and the blowing up of the railroad computer center during the railworkers' strike in November 1978. In Chile, armed forms of struggle, including propaganda actions supported by armed squads, "warning bombs" against military and ruling class targets and the killing of informers are being carried out by revolutionary parties and resistance committees.

Broad sectors of the population, supported by the Catholic Church, have mobilized to defend political prisoners and demand a government accounting for the thousands of disappeared. A 1978 hunger strike for the disappeared in Chile created a crisis for Pinochet and a massive hunger strike in Bolivia contributed to a far-reaching political amnesty and destabilized the military regime.

This widespread resistance has also accentuated the differences among military tendencies over how to consolidate the regimes. In Argentina, retired Admiral Massera openly warns of uncontrollable social explosions unless the policies are changed to allow some kind of opening. In Chile, Air Force General Gustavo Leigh and 20 of his high-ranking officers were purged in mid-1978. And serious differences have been reported recently within the Uruguayan armed forces.

The actions by the working class and the popular resistance place the military in a difficult situation. While measures to garner support for the regimes from other bourgeois and professional sectors are clearly necessary, they would require a "political opening"--a breathing space for the working classes which the military might not be able to control. As Roberto Guevara of the PRT said recently:

Videla maintains that there cannot be even a small opening because popular pressure would force the door wide open. Massera responds that you can't compress the steam in a boiler beyond a certain point because it will explode. They are both right. That is the unresolvable dilemma for them.(21) ______________________________________________


Long Night of the Generals

1. New York Times, Sept. 10, 1977.

2. Washington Post, March 9, 1977.

3. Mother Jones, July-August, 1978.

4. New York Times, June 29, 1978.

5. "The Dirty War of the Dictatorships in the Southern Cone," supplement to Chilean Resistance Courier, 1978. 6. Casa de las Americas, #97, July-Aug. 1976, p. 28.

7. Instituto de Estudios Politicos para America Latina y Africa, La Ideologia de la Seguridad Nacional en America Latina, (Madrid, IDOC, Octubre, 1977).

8. "The Dirty War" op. cit.

9. For a fuller analysis, see "Beagle Channel: War Averted," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. XIII, No. 1 (January-February 1979), pp. 41-44.

10. Michael Lowy and Eder Sader, "La Militarizacion del Estado en America Latina," Cuadernos Politicos, (Madrid, 1976).

11. Casa de las Americas, op. cit.

12. Eduardo Galeano, "Sobre Verdugos, Sordomudos, Enterrados y Desterrados," Nueva Sociedad, Caracas, 1978.

13. Personal interview with Argentine journalist.

14. Cheryl Payer, The Debt Trap, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), p. 33.

15. Eduardo Galeano, op. cit.

16. Miami Herald, Feb. 27, 1977.

17. Clarin, Buenos Aires, November 24, 1978.

18. Annual Report, Interamerican Development Bank, 1977.

19. Washington Post, September 25, 1977.

20. Washington Post, September 25, 1977.

21. Cuadernos del Tercer Mundo, Mexico City, October 1978.

Tags: dictatorships, human rights, repression, neoliberalism

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.