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Latin America

The grim legacy of dictatorship

by Sebastián Vargas

In depth

The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo protested against an amnesty for crimes committed during the military dictatorship in Argentina.

The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo protested against an amnesty for crimes committed during the military dictatorship in Argentina.

Throughout the 20th century, the military played a major role in the politics of most Latin American countries. Argentina is a striking example because its military dictatorship was especially brutal. Even three decades after it ended, relations between the armed forces and society remain tense.

A 2017 report by Latinobarómetro, a polling institute, showed that public opinion in Argentina is polarised over the armed forces. According to the study, only 50 % of the people trust the military. Apparently, it is perceived not just as a protective institution, but also as a threat.

Military rule was murderous in Argentina. The generals grabbed power in 1976 and their regime only fell after losing the Malvinas (Falklands war) in 1983. Influenced by the USA, they promoted conservative nationalism and claimed to protect the status quo. They opposed any kind of redistribution of income or wealth, and even liberal forces were hounded as supposedly leftist insurgents. Experts reckon that their state terrorism claimed about 30,000 lives. In Chile, in comparison, where military rule lasted much longer, repression killed about 4,500 people. Today, the populations of Argentina and Chile are almost 45 million and 18 million respectively.

After Argentina’s last military junta collapsed in 1983, various governments faced a fundamental problem: they needed to decide how to deal with the armed forces. According to Paula Canelo, a sociology professor at the University of Buenos Aires, this meant solving the “military question”. The impacts of military rule had to be dealt with some way. Canelo says that “the armed forces had historically shown a clear tendency to create their own definitions of their purpose, doctrine and mission”. That mission was typically directed against an internal threat, not an external one.

The sociologist also sees “crucial significance in the fact that the armed forces absolutely compromised themselves by committing serious crimes”. As a result they are still being “totally rejected by one part of civil society”. Criminal action and defeat in the Malvinas war plunged the armed forces into deep crisis.


New social movements

It was clear from the very first democratically elected administration that any attempt to address the “military question” would have to focus on human rights. The reason was the pressure applied by numerous activist groups, the most prominent of which was the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo”. This organisation demanded information concerning the fates of missing relatives.

Canelo argues that President Raúl Alfonsín (1983 – 1989) wanted to see a small group of perpetrators to be sentenced to exemplary punishments, so the rest of the military institutions could be absolved from blame. The relevant trial, which took place in 1985, is known as the “Juicio a las Juntas” (the reckoning of the juntas).

In 1986, the Alfonsín administration passed the “Ley de Punto Final” (full stop law). It was supposed to ensure that the list of accused culprits would not grow any further. Nonetheless, there was a steady stream of new indictments, and that prompted a series of military rebellions. Canelo says that they were directed “against the ‘progressives’ in the military and government, who were considered incapable of upholding a general amnesty”. Under such pressure, the Ley de Obediencia Debida (law of due obedience) was passed in 1987. It exempted all lower ranks from prosecution for any crimes committed during the “dirty war”, provided they were not considered “excesses”.

The military had thus achieved its objective, but the majority of Argentinians regarded the legislation as a betrayal of the promise that law and justice would prevail. People rallied against the military, demonstrating around barracks and displaying their determination to defend the new democracy.

The administration of Carlos Menem (1989 – 1999) decided to let bygones be bygones as far as the armed forces were concerned. In 1991, it granted amnesty to junta dictators, ushering in a phase of considerable harmony between the government and the army. According to sociologist Canelo, “the new heads of the armed forces were strengthened”. Criminal proceedings were put on ice, and state agencies no longer showed interest in human-rights abuses.

The government’s decrees did not reconcile the armed forces with society, however. On the contrary, they triggered opposition and gave rise to new social movements. The best-known organisation is HIJOS (Hijos e Hijas por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio – Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence). Its activities include the public naming and shaming of military people who were involved in the crimes of the dictatorship. The HIJOS thus created a form of public justice that the judicial system had been unable to deliver.


Important ally of the USA

The ensuing years were marked by military defeat in the war over the Malvinas Islands (1982) and a soaring national debt. Argentina had to adopt tough structural-adjustment policies devised by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Public spending was cut, the economy was deregulated and opened up to the world market. At the same time, the country’s military alliances changed. President Menem withdrew Argentina from the non-aligned movement, forged close relations with the USA and, in 1990/91, joined the international alliance for the Gulf War.

Argentina has since contributed soldiers to UN peacekeeping missions in far-away places like Cyprus, Kuwait, Kosovo and Libya. This new role for the armed forces on the world stage is known as “active engagement”. This policy has made Argentina one of the United States’ most important allies outside NATO.

While these new international alliances were being forged, however, the defence budget was cut. It still is comparatively small. A new defence law was enacted, moreover, which strictly separates defence against external threats from internal-security issues. The armed forces are to confine their activities exclusively to national defence and may only be deployed to address military and external threats. As a matter of principle, they are banned from getting involved in matters of internal security.

Unfortunately, this principle is not enforced resolutely. Christian Castillo, a sociology professor at the University of La Plata, argues that two institutions – the Gendarmería and the Prefectura – were given everything they need to suppress social unrest by force. Semi-military action is thus still possible with regard to domestic-security issues such as drug trafficking, terrorism, organised crime, gun running and ethnic conflicts. In view of the country’s traumatic past, it is unsurprising that many citizens are uncomfortable with this scenario.


More indictments

After Argentina’s devastating financial crisis in 2001/02, the defence budget was cut further. Moreover, human-rights groups insisted on dictatorship crimes being prosecuted once more. Trials resumed. Between 2007 and 2016, around 1000 members of the military and security forces were taken to court, and some 300 guilty verdicts were handed down. In the eyes of sociologist Canelo, this new judicial activism partly served to “restore the state’s lost legitimacy”.

The administrations of Néstor Kirchner (2003 – 2007) and Cristina Kirchner (2007 – 2015) were ambivalent about the military. On the one hand, at a highly symbolic official ceremony in 2004, President Néstor Kirchner ordered that all photographs of former dictators and Junta generals be removed from the walls of the military academy. At the same time, he created an illegal espionage and intelligence apparatus.

Since the inauguration of the new administration led by President Mauricio Macri in 2015, attempts are once again being made to secure impunity for convicted soldiers and to suppress police investigations against their civilian accomplices. This could be related to the fact that the incumbent president’s family profited massively from the dictatorship. The Macri Group grew from seven to 47 companies during those years, and the junta even nationalised private debts it had incurred.

In November 2017, the submarine ARA San Juan disappeared with 44 servicemen on board off the coast of Argentina. Ever since, voices on various sides have demanded to increase the military budget. The government seems unconcerned, however.

In the past three-and-a-half decades, Argentina’s political leaders have tried in various ways to find an answer to the pressing – yet still unresolved – question of the role that the military should play. Nonetheless, the nation has still not come to terms with the human-rights violations committed during the dictatorship.


Sebastián Vargas is a journalist from Buenos Aires. He lives in Munich.
[email protected]

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