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
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
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.
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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-
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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-
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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