October Elections-Creating a New Argentina

September 25, 2007

The month of October holds a special place in Argentina's politi- cal astrology. It was on October 17, 1945, that Army officer Juan Per6n, then minister of labor, launched the movement that twice elected him president, stood be- hind him through 17 years of exile and returned him to the presidency in 1973. This October 30, Argen- tines will be going to the polls for the first time in ten years. For seven of those years the country has lived under a military regime whose record for brutality and ineptitude would be hard to equal, even in the sordid annals of Latin Ameri- can dictatorships. The process that has brought Argentina to the brink of democ- racy and economic collapse has been propelled by two driving forces: a documented record of torture and murder carried out by the military, and the failures of the' military government itself. As the story of Argentina's "disappeared" became clear, widespread revul- sion resulted in an international campaign demanding that those responsible be held accountable. In recent months, evidence has surfaced that traces the crimes to the highest levels of the armed forces. Integral to this multi-class cam- paign was the call for a return to civilian rule. This call was based on the assumption that the military was too poisoned as an institution to cleanse itself, and that real ac- countability would only be possi- J. E. Murray is a Latin America spe- cialist who lived for several years in Argentina. 36 ble under a civilian government responsive to domestic and inter- national opinion. Further drawing the regime into the international spotlight was the nationalist adventure to retake the Malvinas/Falkland Islands. The war was only the most recent in a long line of fiascos revealing the bank- ruptcy of the military's governing strategies-even on their own terms. These debacles cannot, in fact, be separated from the eco- nomic deterioration and resulting backlash. Even as international opinion-especially in Latin Ameri- ca-supported Argentina's historic claims to the islands, it was clear that the regime hoped the crisis would mute the increasingly vocal and militant critics of their conser- vative economic policies. Thousands of Argentines, in- censed by mounting unemploy- ment, bankruptcies and prices, had taken to the streets in protest just three days before the assault on the Malvinas. This illegal demon- stration was backed by the then outlawed General Labor Confed- eration (CGT) and less overtly supported by a coalition of five banned political parties, the Multi- partidaria-a wide ranging group including both the Radicals and the Peronists. Democracy vs. Dictatorship Nonetheless, the failure of the Peronist banners at an April 1982 pro-war rally drew repression. z 0: 0 0o n NACLA Repodupdate * update . update . update military campaign created its own tornado of criticism, whose whirl- winds tore apart the armed forces as well as Argentina's pro-U.S. foreign policy. The resounding defeat was seen as the ultimate refutation of claims that authori- tarian military rule is the only assur- ance of national security. Argen- tines, ever-mindful of international opinion, were further humiliated by Britain's success in gaining European support by contrasting Argentina's "dictatorial regime" with Great Britain's "democratic system." On those grounds, the European Economic Community imposed comprehensive econom- ic sanctions on trade with Argen- tina. Given the strength of the Argen- tine claim, support for the British position would likely have been lessened had Argentines been called to war by an elected presi- dent. The regime was then led by General Leopoldo Galtieri, fourth in a line of generals to become president since the coup. As it was, not only was Argentina exposed even more harshly than before as a backward, brutal dic- tatorship, but its pariah status hin- dered alliances, further threaten- ing national security. In retrospect, it seems clear that the military's debacle has ensured that the Is- las Malvinas will remain the Falk- land Islands even longer-some- thing no Argentine, of any political persuasion, can forgive. In the aftermath of the ten-week- war, strong sentiments for a return to the barracks were expressed within the armed forces them- selves. Charges of war profiteer- Mothers pray at the supposed site of 400 graves of disappeared persons. ing had begun to surface, and military heads were rolling as at- tempts were made to mete out blame. While generals raced to their closets to check on their civi- lian wardrobes, the signs of eco- nomic deterioration continued to multiply. In the black and'white terms of statistical indicators, the situation was bad enough: a $40 billion foreign debt, with approximately $18 billion due in the short term; a 20% decline in investment; a 15% drop in industrial output; a $3 bil- lion balance of payments deficit; over 200% annual inflation; 25% unemployment. The numbers, however, only tell part of the story. "Free Market" Inflexibility While still heavily dependent on agricultural exports, Argentina developed a diversified economy with considerable industrial strength under the post-World War II im- port substitution model. This struc- ture was fed by a steady supply of trained workers, educated techni- cians and professionals. One of the unquantifiable results of seven years of ultramonetarist policies has been to roll back the fragile patina of development that Argentina had achieved. The na- tion's productive apparatus has been all but dismantled by an in- flexible application of "free mar- ket" policies. Continued domestic political and financial uncertainty, coupled with the effects of world- wide economic recession make it unlikely that Argentina will have access to loans that could be used for reconstructive investment. The manufacturing economy, dependent on Argentina's high per capita income-by Latin American standards--was geared to do- mestic consumption. But unem- ployment and underemployment, falling real wages and the grow- July/Aug 1983 37update * update . update . update ing inequality in income distribu- tion allow little hope for consum- er-based revitalization. These changes in the Argentine econo- my have major implications for the October elections. In addition, approximately 700,000 to one million Argentines have emigrated in search of eco- nomic opportunity or to escape repression. Universities, hospitals and teaching institutions of all kinds, identified after the 1976 coup as incubators of social un- rest, have languished without fi- nancial support. Democratic Transition? Argentina's "transition to de- mocracy" is still far from given. Several variables add up to an anything-can-happen environ- ment. During the political hiatus dating from 1973, an estimated one million young voters entered the electoral rolls. For the Peron- ists, major actors in Argentine po- litical life for 38 years, this contest will be their first without Juan Per6n at the head. Argentina's political scene may well progress from macabre to treacherous. Yet cer- tain predictions can be made since the Argentine political process makes the class identity of the party weigh heavily. Informed observers agree that the election will be close. Most have concluded that the Peronists will win by a maximum of 10% to 12%, followed very closely by a resurgent Radical Party. Neither party has yet named its candidate. For the Peronists, the odds favor Italo Luder, who led the Senate under the last Peronist regime (1973-76) to be chosen as party candidate over several other form- er ministers and lesser known fig- ures. Luder owes his lead not to an abundance of close allies, but to a lack of confirmed enemies. 38 The Peronist movement is split now, as it has been since its in- ception, into a political faction, a trade union faction and a frag- mented left wing. Such factional- ism demands a compromise can- didate, both to counter its own centrifugal forces and to pick up non-Peronist votes. Luder-with his three-piece-suit style-is a member of the political faction and not closely identified with union bureaucracy. His can- didacy promises the greatest pos- sibility for winning votes outside the Peronist fold, among the mid- dle class and unorganized workers. Internecine Battles The possibility exists that, though Per6n's widow and ex-officio head of the Peronist Party, Isabel Mar- tinez de Per6n, may endorse Luder, the glue of opportunism will not hold. The various left-wing groupings may form an electoral alliance with other center/Left parties such as the Intransigent Party of Oscar Alende. In any case, the Radical Party (UCR) is in a better position to control the Casa Rosada than at any time since their 1928 victory. Regarded as a classic example of the middle-class centrist parties so beloved by the U.S. State De- partment, conservative scholars and journalists, the UCR's new lease on life can be attributed to its uncompromising call for truth about the disappeared, as well as denunciations of corruption on all levels. Support for the party can also be traced to the middle class' de- teriorating economic position and fears that returning Peronists to power will result in a replay of the internecine battles of 1973-75. Railj Alfonsin, a former senator who heads a political grouping within the UCR which has been outspoken on the military issue, is the party's most likely candidate. The two parties have distinct arenas of support. The Radicals are counting on a heavy middle- class, white-collar and public em- ployee vote in the major cities and a strong showing in the provinces. The Peronists depend on their tra- ditional stronghold in the organ- ized working class, on sectors tied to the small- and medium- sized producers and on the back- ing of nationalist, anti-communist elements in the military. If the amorphous left wing of the move- ment remains in the coalition, the Peronists should also gain most of the votes of youth and the poorest urbanites. The possibility exists that a close election, which would be reflected in Congress, may create condi- tions for a unique development in Argentine history: a functioning parliamentary system in which a real opposition could influence gov- ernment decision-making through open debate. Striking Military Deals In spite of these differences, the Peronists and Radicals-neither of whom have enunciated any clear programmatic positions-- share a corrosive similarity. Deals with the military will have to be struck if elections leading to an assumption of power are to take place at all. At issue are investiga- tions into the disappeared, cor- ruption and the conduct of the Malvinas War. The Peronists, whose ability to wheel and deal has never been questioned--or limited by incon- venient principles-have taken a definite, if dubious, lead in this re- gard. Sharing the military's fear of the unpredictability of left-wing strength, the Peronist union bu- NACLA Reportupdate * update . update . update ; 8 C) 0t 5000 marched in Paris in Nov. 1981 in defense of disappeared Argentine artists. reaucracy is said to have made a pact with the armed forces. While details of this accord are not- and may never be-known, reli- able sources report that it prom- ises the military that the issue of the disappeared will be handled by the courts on a case-by-case basis, channeling popular retri- bution into "scapegoating" and not into an assault on the military as an institution. In return the Peronist "verticalists," those fierce- ly loyal to the movement, and union bureaucrats will receive carte blanche to deal with rank-and-file insurgency-certain to rise as em- ployment picks up and workers press for cost of living adjustments. July/Aug 1983 Fruits of this unwholesome, if not unholy, alliance have already been seen in the recent announce- ment that the right to strike has been reinstated and that collec- tive bargaining-under govern- ment-approved unions-will be permitted for the first time since the 1976 coup. Given generalized revulsion against the military, it may be that this Peronist maneuver will actually benefit the UCR. Loans Not Forthcoming In the economic field, the two parties also share the narrow margins imposed by Argentina's critical financial position. Both parties will tighten restrictions on imports, attempt to prime manu- facturing productivity and increase state earnings on agricultural ex- ports without leading landowners to cut back production. While the UCR has been rhetorically aggres- sive in denouncing foreign invest- ment, the Peronists appear to be urging flexibility. In fact, there is little choice. No new capital is available from com- mercial banks or international lending institutions and no one dreams that domestic capital flight will reverse. So Argentina, like countries throughout the region, will be more open to foreign in- vestment, regardless of pronounce- ments made for domestic consump- tion. Prices, wages and credit will remain controlled under either party. Economic policy similarities end there, however. Both parties will seek to redistribute income, but the locus of benefit will diverge dramatically. Radicals will focus increases in middle- and white- collar sectors, principally by ex- panding state employment. Peron- ists will opt for higher wage settle- ments in collective bargaining and offer protection for domestic in- dustries, directing the flow of redis- tribution toward unionized workers. Differences in foreign policy, closely tied to the parties' distinct relations with the armed forces, will also be evident. The Radicals, with little to lose in military sup- port, will look to build close ties with Europe, and take a more openly critical stance toward U.S. Central American intervention. This will be linked to a determined attempt to alter the structure of the Argentine military apparatus by reducing troop strength, reorgan- izing the high command, gaining power over military budgets and exerting control over contacts with the U.S. military. 39update * update . update . update The Peronists can be expected to do as little as possible to an- tagonize the military without cut- ting into the party's political sup- port. While there is virtually no likelihood of a return to overt Ar- gentine participation in Central America, a Peronist government will not be a vocal critic of Wash- ington's role. Wounds Are Deep Under any Argentine regime the possibility of military adventur- ism-in the Beagle Channel dis- pute with Chile, or in the Malvinas-- cannot be ruled out. But chances are, happily, slim, given that the military will be preoccupied with fending off critics and, less hap- pily, may be gearing up to sup- press another round of domestic disorder. The prospects that Argentines will, after troubles and tragedy of long standing, create a national consensus built on political democ- racy and economic reconstruction are not good. The wounds of the last 1 0-if not 50-years are deep, and untainted leadership of the Left or center has yet to emerge. But Argentine workers, steeped in an experience of struggle and solidarity, will create, it is hoped, new political expressions that, while drawing on the undeniable conquests of their Peronist past, will discard its multiple dark un- dersides. The October 30 elections are a first, if uncertain, step in creating a new Argentina. Only when that is accomplished will the fallen be honored-and avenged.

Tags: Argentina, Elections, Falklands, democracy, Peronists

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