Argentina, Uruguay Devalue Justice Again

Juan E. Mendez is an Argentinian lawyer who is the director of the Washington office of Americas Watch.

This year has begun with two major disappointments in international human rights: Almost simultaneously, the democracies of Argentina and Uruguay have sharply limited investigations and sanctions for human-rights abuses by their armed forces in the 1970s. Uruguay passed an almost total amnesty with the active backing of the largest opposition party. Argentina passed a law widely known as punto final (full-stop, or period), setting a Feb. 22 deadline for courts to either prosecute or drop charges for atrocities committed under the military dictatorship.

For more than a decade the Uruguayan military held more political prisoners in proportion to population than any other country in Latin America, under the cruelest conditions. Military personnel practiced sophisticated, terrifying forms of torture. In complicity with security forces in neighboring countries they kidnaped refugees and their families, including children.

In Argentina the dictatorship held thousands of people for years without trial, used military courts with secret procedures to sentence hundreds of others, and tortured the overwhelming majority of detainees.

In conducting what it called a "dirty war" against subversion, the military abducted teachers, labor leaders, students, lawyers, priests--anyone thought to have ideas contrary to "Western and Christian civilization." To this day the fates of at least 9,000 of the "disappeared" have not clearly been established.

President Raul Alfonsin came to office with the courageous pledge to prosecute those responsible. Seven of the most senior men in the armed forces have since been convicted of murder, torture and related crimes. But Alfonsin relied on the military to clean up the rest of its house.

Now, Alfonsin argues, Argentina's democracy is beset by problems and needs the support and cooperation of the military sector. He sees punto final as necessary for a reconciliation of differences.

Some say that this is what Alfonsin had in mind all along: Punish the military chiefs as an exemplary gesture (perhaps with a pardon some years down the road) and let all others involved go free. It was only the moral outrage of the overwhelming majority of Argentina's citizens in 1983-84 that kept open the possibility of prosecuting the middle and lower echelons.

Opinion polls show that a substantial majority of Argentinians disapprove of punto final. The bill was rammed through Congress in special session, with the opposition ducking the issue and Alfonsin using his considerable personal prestige to twist the arms of respected leaders of his own party. They have blamed military pressures for the shift in policy. To be sure, the high command had been pressing, publicly and privately, for a resolution. In spite of the revelations about the scope of the crimes, there appears to be no dissent among the ranks; they still believe that the "dirty war" was proper and justified. Now they have immunity.

Either the democratic government has let itself be blackmailed into an unethical and undemocratic measure or its leaders are blackmailing the whole country with the ghost of a potential coup d'etat.

The military cliques and a small number of powerful civilians in the Southern Cone have become vocal proponents of the policies of the Reagan Administration. They object to Alfonsin's criticism of the Strategic Defense Initiative, his advocacy of disarmament, his opposition to the contra war in Nicaragua, his proposal to demilitarize the South Atlantic and expand trade with the Soviet Bloc. Alfonsin can't oppose the United States across the board, however, if only because of the vast debt that he inherited from the dictatorship.

There have been accusations that Washington pressed for punto final and encouraged Alfonsin to lend his weight to the amnesty in Uruguay. That comes as no surprise. The Reagan Administration was a great ally of the military in Argentina and Uruguay while they held power, and never endorsed the prosecutions in Argentina for some of the ghastliest crimes against humanity since World War II.

Yet even liberal admirers of Alfonsin in the United States and elsewhere have been quick to endorse the measure on the dubious premise that if he proposes it, it must be right. This is a paternalistic view of Latin America as unfit for full-fledged democracy; it is symmetrical with the attitudes of Western intellectuals--brilliantly exposed by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa--who prefer democracy for their own countries but advocate radical revolutionary regimes for the Third World.

What Alfonsin and the Uruguayan democrats have done is not strengthen democracy; they have consolidated the privileged position of the military in their societies and sanctioned the generals' "right" to play politics with a stacked deck. The limited "protected" democracy that results is the kind of parody that turns generations of young Latin Americans away.

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