Argentina: The Journey From Military Intervention to Subordination
- David Pion-BerlinDavid Pion-BerlinDepartment of Political Science, University of California, Riverside
Argentina has moved through two defining eras. The first was one of military coups and dictatorships that repeatedly interrupted democratic periods of governance. The second has been one of uninterrupted democratic rule marked by firm military subordination to civilian control. From 1930 to 1976, the Argentine armed forces cut short the tenure of every democratically elected head of state. Eleven of 16 presidents during this period were generals. Military coups in Argentina were brought on by a combination of factors, including societal pressures, tactical and strategic blunders on the part of political leaders, and the military’s own thirst for power and privileges. Militaries would eventually leave power, but their repeated interventions would weaken respect for democratic processes.
The last coup, which occurred in 1976, marked a turning point, giving rise to an authoritarian regime that spelled political, economic, and military disaster for the nation. So disgusted was the public with the dictatorship’s incompetence and brutality that it discovered a newfound respect for democratic rules of the game. The demise of the Proceso dictatorship helped usher in a long and unbroken period of democratic rule. Still, contemporary Argentine democratic governments have had to grapple with civil-military issues. Notable progress has been made, including the holding of human rights trials, the enactment of laws that restrict the military’s use in internal security, and the strengthening of the defense ministry. Notwithstanding a few rebellions in the late 1980s, the Argentine armed forces have remained firmly under civilian control since the return of democracy. Nonetheless, administrations have varied in their abilities and motivation to enact reforms.
There are two Argentinas. The first is a country whose democracy was repeatedly interrupted by military interventions and dictatorships for half a century. The second Argentina is a sturdy democracy that for nearly four decades has largely put the military threat to rest. How do we account for these two realities? This article explores the causes and consequences of military intervention, paying close attention to coups. It then examines the last military coup (1976) and how, in its aftermath, the country has set itself on a new democratic trajectory. The efforts of several democratic governments to deal with military issues are analyzed. Finally, the article discusses contemporary problems associated with the military’s internal security role.
From 1930 to 1976, the Argentine armed forces had cut short the tenure of every democratically elected head of state. 11 of 16 presidents during this period were generals. The coup followed by military rule had become so familiar a practice in Argentina as to take on the appearance of normality. One noted scholar put it succinctly when he said, “nothing is more foreign to Argentina than anti-militarism” (Rouquié, 1982, p. 342). If by militarism it is meant the phenomenon whereby the progressive insertion of the armed forces into the political arena becomes regularized, widespread and even socially accepted, then Argentina certainly qualified. Fitch (1977) in writing about Ecuador argued that the coup d’état had become an institutionalized means of dealing with crises and resolving however superficially, problems that could not be resolved democratically. The institutionalized coup model would have fit Argentina quite well.
Even when elections took place, they were tarnished by a lack of free competition. Held under the watchful eye of the armed forces, elections often excluded one or more major parties from the race. Repeatedly, the parties that had been ousted previously by military coups were then prohibited from running candidates in the follow-up post-coup elections. Thus, General Juan B. Justo won in 1932 thanks to a ban on the Radical Party (Rouquié,1987). Likewise, the Radical Party would claim victories in 1958 and 1963 with the noticeable absence of Peronist Party rivals.
The year 1930 marks a turning point in Argentine history—the first coup d’état launched by the professional, military institution. Ironically, this followed a period between the late 1800’s and early part of the 20th century when the armed forces aided the Radical Civic Union Party (UCR) in a series of rebellions intended to end the domination of oligarchs and pave the way for a more representative form of government (Rouquié, 1982). Those rebellions generated pressures for change compelling President Roque Sáenz Peña to revamp the electoral system in exchange for a UCR pledge to abandon its armed insurrections. Great democratic progress would ensue with the passage of the Saenz Peña law of 1912 that mandated universal male suffrage, compulsory voting, secret ballots, and army custodianship over polling places to prevent malfeasance. What followed were three free and fair elections held in 1916, 1922, and 1928 with power changing hands peacefully between one elected president and the next. Why then was President Hipólito Yrigoyen’s second run as president (1928–1930) cut short after just two years in office?
President Yrigoyen had failed to use democratic processes, instead falling back on the old authoritarian practice of the unicato. This was the use of federal executive authority backed by the armed forces to intervene in some provinces to remove and replace provincial governments. Article 6 of the Argentine constitution actually allowed (and still allows) for such interventions ostensibly to guarantee that a republican form of government would be maintained. But in practice, it became a political tool to rid provinces of leaders the president did not like, and to shape the process by which candidates for congressional seats would be chosen. In his first term, 1916–1922 Yrigoyen intervened 20 times, but continued to use the practice early into his second term (Potash, 1969; Rock, 1987). These interventions naturally stoked the ire of his political opponents, lowering the resistance among many in society to a coup.
Another key turning point was the labor strikes of 1919, led by the metallurgical unions. Under pressure from conservative landed and industrial elites to crack down on labor, President Yrigoyen brutally repressed those strikes using vigilante squads backed by the armed forces. The military’s role was key and from this point forward, its political power would grow.
Unfortunately, the onset of the great depression coincided with Yrigoyen’s second term as president, and its impact was felt in Argentina. Trade revenues declined, the economy slumped, and the government was forced to cut back on military spending. The president also reincorporated previously discharged officers, injected political criteria in selecting favorites to advance upward from lower ranks, and suspended promotions at higher ranks. These moves caused widespread dissention within the ranks, and at the end, very few soldiers mounted any kind of defense of the Yrigoyen government in the face of the rebellion which brought about its fall on September 6, 1930 (Norden, 1995; Potash, 1969). This was a pivotal moment, and would unquestionably set a trend line for future military interventions. The next would occur in 1943, as a secretive group of officers plotted to overthrow the military government that had unseated Yrigoyen. That group, called the GOU (Grupo de Oficiales Unidos) was led by an army colonel named Juan Perón. Perón would serve the authoritarian government he helped usher to power, before deciding to run for the Presidency in 1946 in a free and fair election, which he would win.
The Perón Government and Its Fall in 1955
In one fundamental respect, the downfall of the Juan Perón government of 1946–1955 can be attributed to the president’s style of governance. For him, the party was always subordinate to the movement. “Peronism,” as the word implies, was a political movement, and Perón, a self-styled populist who predicated his success less on winning fully competitive elections and more on monopolizing political and social power (McGuire, 1997).
Political movement leaders identify their cause with supreme national interests and are prepared to use whatever methods are needed to advance that cause. Hence, they tend to have an expedient view of democratic procedures; the rule of law; and elections embracing them when they gain, but easily abandoning them when they lose.
The movement orientation of the party meant less toleration for opposition of any kind. Perón’s movement strategy was to create new state-sanctioned entities that would swallow up the old. Organizations were formed that grouped together small and medium-sized businesses for purposes of collective bargaining. Similar organizations were founded for professionals, government employees, and university students. All of these displaced preexisting entities that served those respective interests. Populism thrives in an “either you are with us or against us” environment, and Perón would have little patience for those who chose to exist outside the confines of his movement. One such entity was the Catholic Church.
Small disputes with the Church that could have been resolved quickly and peacefully were magnified out of proportion (Potash, 1980). Perón’s responses seemed excessive, banning religious processions, abolishing religious instruction in schools, and introducing a bill that would legalize divorce (Romero, 1994) and another that would separate church from state. All of this is a bit ironic given the fact that Argentine society was becoming increasingly secular in conviction. Yet Perón could not tolerate any competition from any institution—Church included—given his authoritarian predilections.
Long before the government’s assaults on Church authority, rival political parties were growing uneasy with Peronist rule. Perón’s 1950 Ley de Desacato, which exacted unreasonable penalties for libel and slander against public officials, was designed with his Radical Party congressional opponents principally in mind. The law sent Ricardo Balbín, head of UCR, to prison for five years. Perón followed with a state of internal war under which he rounded up numerous political opponents (Rock, 1987). The law also sanctioned repression against the media, as the government conducted raids on the offices of the leading daily newspapers in Argentina (Rock, 1987). The repression took its toll on many groups, but once Perón began to launch a frontal assault on the Church, the die was cast. Massive protests in defense of the Church took place, triggering counter-protests organized by the government, and violence ensued. Thus, the attacks against the Church served to harvest all of the pent-up anger felt by parties, the press, and others toward the Peronist government.
These events unquestionably had an impact on the armed forces. Attacks on the Church alienated some officers with religious convictions, and more so among the more devout Catholic wives of officers, who conveyed their displeasure directly to their husbands (Potash, 1980, p. 178). Second, civilians of all political stripes launched a campaign to influence military minds, based on principles of nationalism, taking Perón to task for his agreement with U.S. Standard Oil to invest in petroleum production (Potash, 1980). The erstwhile nationalistic president seemed to be surrendering Argentine sovereignty to foreign interests. Perón also brought on military antagonism by tampering with professional standards and procedures. Triggered in part by a failed coup attempt in 1951, Perón purged hundreds of soldiers from the ranks and then imposed loyalty tests on officers while making absorption of Peronist doctrine a requirement at the Superior War College (Norden, 1995). Naturally, professional soldiers—even those who had initially supported Perón—did not take kindly to these ideological litmus tests.
If there was a final trigger, it was Perón’s inflammatory speech to trade unionists on August 31, where he boldly proclaimed (with military officers seated near him) that he would answer oppositional violence with even more violence, saying, “Whenever one of us falls, five of them will fall” (McGuire, 1997, p. 74). It did not require a great leap of imagination to conclude that Perón may have had in mind the arming of workers, as Eva Perón herself had long advocated. That was a threat the military could not countenance. On September 16, 1955, the army and navy began operations that would culminate in a successful coup on September 23, ending nine years of Peronist rule and inaugurating a short-lived dictatorship.
Structural, economic, and social-class explanations don’t work well. Economic performance had improved, and inflation was on the decline during Perón’s second term. Agricultural landed elites made no coordinated effort to destabilize Perón, nor did industrialists (McGuire, 1997). If anything, these sectors were pleased with Perón’s retreat from strident, state-led economics, beginning with his five-year plan in 1952 that favored export stimulus, agricultural production over domestic consumption, and greater openness to foreign investors. Opposition did rise within the middle class, but there was dissent among workers as well. Instead, the coup of 1955 could be attributed mainly to Perón’s own strategic and tactical blunders. He may very well have survived a second term had he not turned so vigorously against the Church, subjected the military to ideological tests of loyalty that eroded professional norms, and resorted to violent rhetoric.
And yet, once the military had intervened, as they had in 1930, it was becoming increasingly easier for generals to justify their coups based on self-serving criticisms of the politicians they had overthrown, without assuming responsibility for their own unconstitutional acts. The fact is, with each succeeding coup, the Argentine armed forces were becoming a more politically minded organization that saw occupying executive office as a professionally beneficial move.
The Coups of 1962 and 1966
The military moved in to put an end to Perón’s presidency in 1955 but then intervened twice more in 1962 and 1966 to prevent the resurgence of his movement into party politics. Elections were held in 1958 and 1963 under constraining rules devised by the military, which O’Donnell described as the “impossible game” (1979, p. 167). The Peronist Party and its candidates were proscribed from competing, though Peronist-leaning voters could cast votes for other parties or submit blank ballots in protest. But the only way that other parties (e.g., the Radical Party, or Radicales, which had split into two parties by 1957) could win enough votes to prevail over rivals was to undertake policies that Peronistas would like, as they constituted a clear majority of the voting public. Thus, one party would strike a deal with the Peronist leadership prior to elections, to promote more labor-friendly policies once in office, and Perón would in turn “release” his flock to vote for the opposition party. The difficulty was that if the pledge had actually been fulfilled, the Radical Party (Radicales Intrasigentes) led by President Arturo Frondizi would have incurred the wrath of the military. Under pressure from the IMF, Frondizi retreated from his Peronist pledges by enacting neoliberal policies, including a wage freeze and government spending cuts, and then backed those policies with repression against organized labor (Pion-Berlin, 1989).
In a desperate gamble, Frondizi took the bold step of permitting Peronists to run in 1962 congressional elections, hoping that this would, as O’Donnell put it, “increase the apprehension of many voters toward the prospect of a Peronista victory” (1979, p. 186) and that these voters, choosing to be risk averse, would cast ballots for the Radicales instead. The strategy backfired: the Peronists won the largest vote share, and the military removed Frondizi from office that year.
A similar “game” repeated itself from 1963–1966, this time with the other Radical Party (Radicales del Pueblo), whose candidate, Arturo Illia, came to power with less than 25% of the total votes cast. Wishing to win back the support of a very angry labor movement in upcoming elections, Illia devised a Keynesian spending program that would raise the purchasing power of the wage-earning sector. The economic plan actually produced results beneficial to labor, including a rise in real wages and a fall in unemployment. But nothing Illia did could deter a labor movement bent on creating havoc for the administration. Its Plan de Lucha (Battle Plan) led to strikes by 3 million workers and the takeover of 11,000 factories (Pion-Berlin, 1989). Labor’s intent was clear: create an unstable environment that would trigger a military coup (Potash, 1996).
At the same time, there was a partial lifting of the ban against Peronist candidates, who were allowed to run in 1965 congressional elections and who pulled off impressive victories. Voter enthusiasm for Peronist candidates was undiminished, and key congressional elections were scheduled for 1967. This no doubt caused consternation among the military high command, and by mid-1965, the army commander-in-chief, General Juan Carlos Onganía, was beginning to question his commitment to defending the constitutionally elected government (Potash, 1996, p. 148), and he had officers draw up a contingency plan in case the army had to govern in place of the elected authorities (McGuire, 1997, p. 145). Society was no defender of democracy either. Popular weeklies speculated on coups; congressmen were purposefully obstructionist; and the labor movement seemed bent on paralyzing the economy. Also, some labor leaders were surreptitiously meeting with army officers in anticipation of a coup, seeking assurances that a future military government would treat the labor movement more kindly. Others had more ambitious desires: to assist the military in a top-down revolutionary overhaul of the political and economic system along corporatist lines (Potash, 1996). Illia seemed remarkably passive in the face of assorted provocations and menacing military speeches. The inevitable finally occurred on June 28, 1966, when the police escorted Illia out of the Casa Rosada. The military regime that was installed would govern for seven years, until the next democratic interruption took place.
In sum, the narrative so far suggests that Argentine military coups were also societal coups—ones launched only after a sufficiently large proportion of the public had turned its back on the democratic regime while signaling its complacency with, if not outright support for, a praetorian intervention (Rouquié, 1987). The determination with which the military would trample on constitutionality was always in proportion to society’s eagerness to rid itself of its own governments. Indeed, the episodic return to dictatorship was not an unwelcome tradition in Argentina. That it occurred so regularly without significant levels of public protest attests to the firm beliefs of numerous political and socio-economic constituencies that they stood to gain from the abrupt transfer of power from democrats to despots. For them, the coup represented the hope of a return to the past, a new beginning, or a form of sweet revenge against their political foes. They looked forward to the prospect of military rule (O’Donnell, 1979).
Coups were also self-inflicted wounds, brought on by political leaders who made key tactical blunders or who failed to govern in a manner that would solidify support for themselves. Political leaders who brought on their own demise were unable or unwilling to build bridges and broad coalitions of support for their programs. Their policies became self-defeating, as would be adherents turned away, withheld their cooperation, and ultimately defected from the legal process (Wynia, 1972). Soon, there were calls for draconian political remedies. Arturo Frondizi had made it easier for the armed forces to overthrow him in 1962 by making key foreign policy blunders and by providing an opening to Peronist, political restoration—the one thing the military was not ready to accept. Rather than broaden his support coalition once in office, Arturo Illia narrowed it, with economic policies that discouraged agricultural investment and political strategies aimed at dividing and then co-opting organized labor.
Still in the end, it was the armed forces that bore the primary responsibility for the demise of democratic rule. They made the choice to violate the constitution and abandon normal professional standards, which dictated that they abide by the wishes of the elected government in office, regardless of how much they may have disapproved.
The Last Argentine Coup of 1976
The pattern seemed to repeat itself by the time of the March 1976 coup. The question was not whether there would be a coup, but when. Few Argentines were at all surprised when the military unseated President Isabel Perón on March 24, 1976, nor did many shed any tears about her departure or the demise of democratic rule for that matter. As Craig Arceneaux (2001, p. 109) describes it:
Political deadlock, a government judged legitimate by few, and rampant terrorist actions by right wing death squads and guerilla groups had thrown the country into upheaval. Given the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that a significant number of social organizations, political parties, and citizens welcomed military intervention.
The military hardly disguised its intentions. Brazenly, the then commander and future junta leader, Jorge Videla, issued an ultimatum to the president on December 24, 1975, stating that unless the government got its house in order, the military would be forced to assume power in 90 days (Munck, 1998). Videla would make good on his word.
Like previous interventions, the 1976 coup targeted the Peronists, but the political dynamics had changed in the intervening years, with the birth of guerrilla organizations. The Montonero guerrillas were officially affiliated with the Peronist movement and advocated a form of national anti-imperialism laden with romantic notions of socialism. The Montoneros were convinced that if Perón could be restored to power, he would follow a revolutionary course, with themselves in the vanguard. Quite naturally, the military viewed these armed guerrilla organizations with considerable distress, and even before coming to power, they were already pursuing a fierce counterinsurgency offensive against another Marxist guerrilla force in the mountainous northwest region of Tucumán province (Diaz Bessone, 1988).
Perón, who had been in forced exile since 1955, returned triumphantly to Argentina from Spain in 1973. The Peronist radicals wanted to push the class struggle, setting the stage for socialism. The Labor aristocracy wanted no part in this, and neither did Perón, who finally divorced himself from the Montoneros in a fiery May Day speech in 1974. The Montoneros felt betrayed and turned against their erstwhile leader. The conflict now pitted right-wing Peronists against left-wing Peronists. Perón’s minister of social welfare, José López Rega, organized a state paramilitary group called the AAA, which launched assassinations against leftists, and the guerrillas and others on the left struck back. Perón died in July 1974, as the violence in his country spiraled out of control.
His third wife, Isabel, took the reins but was completely incapable of governing. Unlike her husband, Isabel Perón lacked the political clout or skill to preserve the social pact that had tied Peronist governments so closely to organized labor. Wage price spirals ensued, resulting in triple-digit inflation and economic collapse. Moreover, Isabel Perón increasingly submitted to the will of López Rega and his ferocious campaign to liquidate leftists’ trade unionists. As the violence worsened, the armed forces were drawn in, demanding more policy say-so when it came to security matters. Interim president Italo Luder, who took over briefly following Perón’s emotional collapse in August of 1975, was only happy to cede authority to the generals. He signed a decree authorizing the military to “annihilate subversion,” which the military took as a license to kill without restraint (Pion-Berlin, 1983, p. 115). This set the stage for further military incursions into the security realm in what can be described as a kind of “slow coup,” with the armed forces acquiring greater unofficial authority while civilians were still barely clinging officially to the reins of government, until finally a few months later they no longer did.
And so, the pattern of democratic crisis followed by military intervention seemed to have repeated itself once again, as a triumvirate of officers seized control over the Argentine state in March 1976. To the extent that these coups have not been mere singular occurrences, but patterns in Argentine political life, they are cause for concern. The more ingrained a behavior, the more it is replicated and the more difficult it is to unlearn. Each military coup makes the succeeding one that much easier to execute and to accept. A self-fulfilling prophecy is then created: citizens expect governments to fail, and rather than rally to defend them, they withhold their support, thus ensuring that they do fail. It is the nation’s history of democratic failure, despite its liberal traditions, and its literate and cultured society that repeatedly captured the attention of scholars.
For too long, the country had served as a prototype for a host of theories about democratic demise. Huntington (1968) pointed to Argentina when he argued that social mobilization in the face of politically petrified institutions would cause system overload, instability, and praetorianism. Peter Smith (1974) took issue with this theory, arguing that democracy failed, not because an accumulation of social demands outstripped the capacity of political institutions to deal with them, but because political elites failed to resolve problems that were inherently manageable, thus throwing the nation into cycles of crisis. O’Donnell (1979) had Argentina in mind when he wrote that with the ascendancy of populist classes and the shrinking of an Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) exhausted economy, a crisis would result that could only be resolved through authoritarian means. And others have pronounced the imminent death of Argentine democracy because of the nation’s deeply embedded culture of respect for “caudillismo” (Calvert & Calvert, 1989).
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that declarations about democracy’s demise had been premature. The reason could be found in the country’s last bout with autocratic rule. The self-styled Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (Process of National Reorganization, 1976–1983) was not simply the latest in a long lineage of Argentine dictatorships. The Proceso was different. It may have been one of those defining moments in a nation’s history when virtually all sectors of society are so adversely affected that each is compelled to question its own age-old assumptions and practices. In fact, the last military rule period can be and should be considered a critical juncture in the history of civil–military relations in Argentina, one which proved influential by virtue of its cataclysmic demise (Collier & Collier, 1991). It enabled the nation to set off on a new path, with the potential to thoroughly undo what had been done by the ruling generals. The country had suffered the most extensive repression in the subregion (Pion-Berlin & Martínez, 2017), and its military regime suffered the steepest, most stunning fall from grace of all the dictatorships.
Representing the accumulation of decades of frustration about grievances unattended, the Proceso went to political and economic extremes hitherto unwitnessed, to “cleanse” the nation of its problems. Unprecedented levels of state terror directed at a cross section of the population, coupled with sweeping economic changes that left industries and trade unions paralyzed, were primary features of this de facto regime. In its wake, the Proceso left so many victims, it is difficult indeed to find its beneficiaries. It widened public opposition to authoritarian forms of rule to an unparalleled degree.
When all was said and done, some 20,000 Argentines were killed, or disappeared and presumed dead, during the Proceso years. This represents the highest death toll for any of the Southern Cone regimes and the worst episode of state-sanctioned terror in the modern Argentine era. The military may have won the battle against subversion, but they lost the political war. They never built alliances with members of society, whether workers or capitalists. And their systematic acts of cruelty resulted in unprecedented public moral repudiation and disgust. This moral revulsion redounded back into the barracks to bruise the military’s self-image and ultimately to throw the regime into disarray.
The Argentine military Proceso government collapsed under the weight of its own divisiveness and incompetence. In its final years, this divided regime could not agree on a strategy of either renewed repression or an exit strategy of political liberalization. Yet it was so invested in power that, as Craig Arceneaux (2001) explains, it stubbornly pressed on, leading to its ultimate collapse. The junta’s economic policy failures—judged unsatisfactory even within the biased set of indicators chosen by the regime itself—and its loss of faith in its programmatic objectives thus weakened the ruling coalition’s confidence in its own power, promoted divisions within its ranks, and dissuaded officers from engaging in future governance (O’Donnell, 1979). The final nail in the military’s coffin was its defeat at the hands of the British in the Malvinas War of 1982. After having dashed the hopes of Argentines for a swift re-conquest of those South Atlantic Islands and having demonstrated gross incompetence in the prosecution of the war, it was not surprising to see the navy and air force admirals and generals refusing to take part in the postwar government. That left the army hopelessly isolated, irreparably weakened, and prepared to cede control to the more confident civilian opposition (Pion-Berlin, 1984).
The Proceso’s Legacy: Lasting Civilian Control and Democratic Rule
Because the military had left power thoroughly disgraced and divided, it could not influence events then and has not (with the exception of a few years during the late 1980s) appreciably influenced the course of events ever since. Argentina had the widest opportunity structures of any of its neighbors, enabling politicians to pursue human rights, military, and defense reforms undeterred. Moreover, the presidents’ political parties by and large enjoyed ample pluralities if not outright majorities in the congress, giving them the margin needed to enact laws that would institutionalize civilian control and redefine defense and security policies for a modern democratic nation. In sum, if the cycle of military interventionism has not been permanently broken, it has been severely handicapped by the great failures of the last military regime, resulting in the longest period of unbroken democratic rule in Argentine history.
Argentina made very considerable though uneven progress; not all administrations took full advantage of the enormous opportunities afforded to them by the collapse of the authoritarian order. In assuming office on December 10, 1983, Radical Party president Raúl R. Alfonsín had embarked on an historic mission: to be the first Latin American head of state to bring members of his own armed services to trial for human rights abuses. Given the palpable sense of outrage expressed by the electorate in the immediate aftermath of the Proceso, it would have been impossible for him avoid the questions of truth and justice. Indeed, he did not, and as one of the first acts as president, he ordered the prosecution of nine former leaders of the dictatorship. The government would go on to win convictions against five of them.
Alfonsín was cognizant that this move carried risks, and he said his intent was not to indict the entire institution, but rather a few who had either ordered the atrocities or who had gone beyond orders by committing excesses. He excused those who, under difficult circumstances, had failed to make sound judgments in carrying out orders that clearly contravened international and national human rights standards. These legal distinctions, however, failed to stem the tide of indictments, as the courts set their own agendas, going after literally hundreds of officers for alleged human rights violations (Pion-Berlin, 1997). With the careers of so many soldiers in the balance, resentments grew within the ranks, culminating in military rebellions that shook the Alfonsín government (Norden, 1995). As a result, the administration submitted a bill to congress that was passed into law and that exonerated all officers at the rank of lieutenant colonel or lower charged with human rights offenses. Coming on the heels of the April 1987 Semana Santa rebellion, the law took on the appearance of a concession that fueled speculation about a negotiated end to the uprising. That appearance lowered public confidence in the government and invited junior officers to rebel again. That, coupled with an economic crisis featuring crippling inflation rates, forced Alfonsín to leave office several months before the end of his term.
The Alfonsín government was driven by a moral imperative to right the wrongs of the Proceso dictatorship by punishing military human rights offenders, reducing the political power of the armed forces, legislatively annulling the notorious National Security Doctrine, and drastically diminishing the defense budget. Although these policies made sense, it was inevitable that a strategy equipped with sticks but no carrots would produce rancor within the military. Alfonsín could not phase out the human rights policy in time to phase in a more pragmatic policy of military professionalization and modernization in reward for subordinate behavior. Rather than cultivate a new military submission to civilian control, the government tried to simply enforce it. This would be its downfall.
And yet, the first building blocks for a stronger system of civilian control were also laid during this turbulent time. The ministry of defense was inserted into the chain of command between the president and the armed forces, and the defense minister’s powers were clarified and enlarged. The heads of each service were downgraded from commanders to chiefs of staff and had to answer directly to the civilian defense minister. A new historic defense law passed in 1988 that drew a sharp line between external defense and internal security; the former was a military task, whereas the latter was reserved for police and other security forces.
With the coming to power of President Carlos Menem (1989–1999), emphasis shifted from political retribution to economic readjustment. Menem did not have the same human rights convictions as did his predecessor, nor did he owe his electoral victory to a voting block clamoring for justice. Rather, the public was desperate for economic relief. With inflation hovering at about 5,000%, voters hoped that the new president would lift the country out of its economic morass. To the surprise of many, Menem adapted a neoliberal economic policy contrary to the statist-populist traditions within his party. The new policies took aim at fiscal deficits, public employment and expenditures, and wages. No one was spared from the fiscal knife, including the armed forces (Pion-Berlin, 1997).
Unlike Alfonsín, Menem’s objective was not to punish the armed forces politically, but rather to insist they not interfere with macroeconomic objectives and to make do with less because the rest of society had been called on to do exactly the same. But also, in contrast to his predecessor, Menem eventually won the admiration and the compliance of the military, through a combined carrot-and-stick approach. He pardoned all of the junta leaders, along with those who had mutinied in the years prior. However, one of the former mutineers, Colonel Mohammed Seineldín, who was unhappy with the state of the armed forces, tempted fate and led a revolt against the government on December 3, 1990, just two days before a planned visit to Argentina by U.S. president George H. W. Bush (Norden, 1995). Menem crushed the rebellion, discharged the ringleaders from the services, and prosecuted hundreds of the participants. From that date forward, Argentina never again heard from the rebels known as los carapintadas. Thus Menem had drawn the line, and the military respected him for it.
Relations between the government and the armed forces were cordial, with just a few notable achievements (Huser, 2002). A restructuring law was passed in 1998 that established guidelines for a new deterrent strategy, four operational contexts, joint planning, education, and training, along with procurement and budgeting reforms. Unfortunately, there were no resources to implement the restructuring, as the executive branch would not budge from its IMF-induced austerity plan. The armed forces had no influence within the economics ministry (Pion-Berlin, 1997), and the defense ministry itself played second fiddle to economics, failing to advocate effectively on behalf of the services. Also under Menem, the foreign affairs ministry took the lead while defense ministry was relegated to the sidelines (Pion-Berlin, 2001). Although the defense ministry’s weakness within the government was fully exposed, it also revealed a silver lining: the president had placed military power firmly at the service of foreign policy objectives, further diminishing the military’s autonomy.
Menem left power having ended obligatory military service (1994) and having signed into law an internal security measure (1992) that clearly defined the exceptional circumstances under which the armed forces could be called on by the president—under state of siege provisions—to restore order in the face of domestic threats. In brief, the Menem legacy is one of having ended the confrontation between the military and civilian government, but at the same time having failed to decisively advance the cause of defense reform owing to the restraints imposed by economic policy.
Menem’s successor, President Fernando De la Rúa (1999–2001), never served long enough to take a leadership role on civil–military affairs and defense reform. He was forced to step down only halfway through his term on December 20, 2001, amid widespread demonstrations, uncontrolled rioting, and looting. Protests were triggered by public wrath over the government’s handling of an economic crisis, which had led to the massive exit of funds from the banking system. The uprising had the advantage of testing just how committed the armed forces were to staying out of internal security matters, in observance of the nation’s defense and security laws. When the president urgently requested on December 19 that it assist in suppressing the protests, the military refused, stating it was bound by law to stay out.
President Nestor Kirchner (2003–2007) and his wife and successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007–2015), were Peronists from the Southernmost province of Santa Cruz. A former governor and in years past a Peronist youth militant, Nestor Kirchner took aim at military personnel who in his view might have stood in the way of his policy agenda (Pion-Berlin & Martínez, 2017). In one stunning blow, he purged the military high command of nearly half its officers. As a result, he had in place a compliant officer corps that would not challenge him on the most contentious policy he would promote, namely, to reopen human rights cases. At his urging, the congress would overturn the amnesty laws passed under Alfonsín, and the supreme court would uphold the constitutionality of that legislation in 2005. All of this set the stage for a flurry of indictments, and by 2007 some 330 military and police personnel were charged with human rights crimes; 180 were imprisoned or placed under house arrest; and several notorious torturers and military commanders were convicted and sentenced. Prosecution continued through 2015.
With these moves, President Kirchner initiated a confrontational style with his military subordinates that marked the better part of his presidency. At armed forces dinners or anniversaries, Kirchner would often provoke his commanders with reminders of the tragedy that befell the country under military rule, how impunity could no longer be tolerated, and how only justice for the victims of state terror could permit the country to move forward. When, on May 24, 2006, a group of officers paid homage in public to those soldiers and civilians killed by left-wing guerrillas in the 1970s, and accused the government of distorting the historical record, Kirchner responded by placing five of them under arrest. A few days later, at a tension-filled ceremony at the Military College, Kirchner repudiated the homage as a re-vindication of state terrorism and then, addressing his military audience, added, “I am not afraid of you” (El Clarín, 2006).
But unlike Alfonsín, Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner would not allow the human rights issue to completely consume their presidencies. Beginning in late 2005, with the appointment of Nilda Garré as defense minister, attention turned to defense reform, overcoming a tendency by civilians to delegate responsibilities to the armed forces. Civilians had exercised formal command, but effective command fell to the military. Although Argentina had built a legislative foundation for reform—most notably through passage of the Defense Law of 1988—politicians had failed to act on that legislation. In June of 2006 that would all change with the signing of implementation legislation that, according to defense ministry officials themselves, marked the end of delegative policies and the beginning of a more assertive approach (Pion-Berlin & Ugarte, 2013).
Institutional reforms were undertaken that gave the defense ministry a new lease on life, making it the nerve center for the design of collaborative military practices. The chain of command changed as well. Now residing just below the Military of Defense (MOD), is the joint military staff (Estado Mayor Conjunto [EMC]), which previously served an advisory role only. With a chief of staff who outranked the heads of each service, the EMC could order the deployment of military units in times of peace, requiring them to conform to principles of joint action.
In sum, notwithstanding a few rebellions from 1987–1990, the Argentine armed forces have remained firmly under civilian control since the return of democracy. Laws have been passed, policies promoted, and institutions redesigned to enable democratic governments to subordinate the armed forces to their rule. Since 1990, there have been no military rebellions, coups, or threats aimed at civilians. Rather, there has been an unconditional acceptance of civilian control within a democratic society. With the coming to power of President Mauricio Macri (2015–2019), these fundamentals did not change. However, what has changed is a weakening commitment to the idea that the armed forces should be barred from participating in domestic security missions. It is that final subject to which we now turn.
Military Security Missions Under Democratic Rule
The country had made great progress in reducing military autonomy in the realm of internal security. For all intents and purposes, internal security has been de-militarized. Soldiers are never seen on the streets of Argentina’s cities, pursuing criminals or cracking down on citizen protests. By law (Ley de Seguridad Interior), the armed forces are not even considered a part of the nation’s internal security system. They cannot intervene domestically unless and until the president orders them to do so and only when other security forces are completely overwhelmed by a formidable force or insurrection that endangers the security of the nation-something that has not occurred in decades. The armed forces have fully complied with the spirit and letter of the law.
Under Mauricio Macri, the boundary between military defense and internal security has become more porous. The president has embraced the concept of “new threats” to include drug trafficking and terrorism among them. He insists that the Argentine armed forces can no longer operate based on worn-out 20th-century concepts; that in this century, as the nature of security threats have changed, so too must the policies governing military conduct, not to mention the mindset that has prevailed since the late 1980s. Within weeks of assuming office, President Macri, through Decree 228/16, declared a public security emergency, calling narco-trafficking a threat to national sovereignty. He has even invoked the dubious terminology of referring to the battle against drug traffickers as a “war.” Once these terms are used, they “up the ante,” legitimizing the potential use of military force to counter a threat of such magnitude that it could endanger the very sovereignty of a nation.
Macri has denied that utilizing the military to confront drug trafficking and terrorism would cross any legal line, insisting that the defense and security laws would be respected. But the president has made a subtle change, widening the scope of external threat to include non-state actors. His decree of July 2018 modifies a previous decree in allowing the military to respond to all aggressions of external origin, not just those arising from rival states. Thus, the new language would open up a Pandora’s box of potential military confrontations with transnational criminal organizations, including drug, human, and arms traffickers, along with terrorists who cross over the territorial borders.
It is unlikely these changes are really necessary, as Argentina does not face criminal or terroristic threats at its northern border on a scale that would warrant a military response. Why would the president move in this direction? The first reason is that the government is searching for a rationale to build up the defense budget in order to modernize the armed forces. By imposing new, expansive responsibilities on soldiers, budget enlargement becomes easier to justify. Macri’s latest plan, The Strategy to Reformulate the Armed Forces, 2020–2024, entails the purchase of more modern airplanes, submarines, and all-terrain vehicles—the latter to be put to use at the northern border.
A second, plausible reason is that the Macri government is currying favor with the U.S. administration through a quid pro quo: Argentina furthers Washington’s counter-narcotic, counter-terrorist agenda in trade for economic benefits, including new investments and financing. Whether Washington holds up its end of the bargain remains to be seen.
Although the expansion of the military’s internal security role is not wise or necessary, it is not likely to imperil either civilian control or democratic rule. Whether civilian leaders can exert authority over their armed forces or not depends less on the location of the mission or its content, and much more on the capacity to build stronger institutions, accumulate greater expertise, and exert more oversight (Pion-Berlin & Arceneaux, 2000). When those goals are accomplished, they can be applied toward any military mission or operation anywhere.
Finally, the fact that the armed forces gets deployed inside national borders does not naturally or inevitably lead them to politically exploit their mission for their own gain (Pion-Berlin, 2016). Inward, oriented missions do not necessarily cause militaries to become politicized, throwing their weight around in ways that could infringe on democratic processes and institutions. So far, there is no evidence in Argentina that the armed forces have acquired new political power that could undermine the democracy. Argentine democracy remains sturdy, not subject to the old stresses and strains caused by the threat of military intervention. The new Argentina faces the challenges of any state struggling to develop: encouraging investment and savings, and reducing poverty, income disparities, crime, and corruption, all the while strengthening the institutions and processes that undergird the democratic system.
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