LATIN AMERICA: Still The Man on Horseback

<i> Charlene Smith is a South African writer based in Buenos Aires</i>

Burned ballots, beatings, murders and a nullified election are not only symptoms of power abuses under Panama Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, but a reflection of the sad truth that despite a flowering of democracy in Latin America, generals still have the final say.

In the roughly dozen elections or referendums in Latin America this year, the military is a critical factor. In Panama, the military Establishment was fully revealed last week as a powerful, corrupt force. Today the people of Argentina go to the polls conscious of the military breathing down their necks. Candidates are hoping that, for the first time in 61 years, there will be a peaceful transition from one civilian government to another. Meanwhile, in Paraguay, civilians recently voted in favor of Gen. Andres Rodriguez, who earlier this year ousted Gen. Alfredo Stroessner from his 34-year dictatorship. And in December, Chileans will vote in the first general election since Gen. Augusto Pinochet assumed power in a coup 16 years ago.

In all but two South American countries, democracies are in power--yet the military rules. No decision is made by the new democracies without considering how the military will react. A veneer of popular participation covers the continuing power of the defense Establishment.


Events have triggered alarms in the rest of the continent, where Noriega’s excesses are a reminder of past dictatorships and persecutions. The Group of Eight, an influential organization of major Latin American governments, suspended Panama last year, warning that Panama was distancing itself “from the democratic community of Latin America,” just when “free popular expression advances in an unprecedented manner in our region.” The group--including four newly democratic countries, Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Uruguay--nonetheless reiterated its commitment to nonintervention and self-determination in Panama.

If Noriega is allowed to get away with electoral manipulation and the brutalizing of his opposition, all Latin America stands to lose. A threatening example--that democracy must always cower before tyranny--will have been conceded.

The fear of not knowing when or if the military will act has a major impact on the psychology of South Americans and their economy. A wealthy Argentine businessman recently asked, “Do you believe the United States will support democracy in Argentina?” Although he is not a supporter of Carlos Menem, the Peronist candidate, he voiced common fears that within two years of a Menem victory there would be another coup. This businessman has frozen new projects amid the pervasive fear of more economic instability.

The psyche of fear in countries that have experienced coups and military rule cannot be overstated. The last set of generals that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983 not only took the country into futile war against Britain but they battered the economy and thousands of Argentines were tortured or “disappeared” in their “Dirty War.” The generals’ targets included alleged activists and those the state disapproved of: Jews, intellectuals, trade unionists--even pregnant women, for there was highly profitable trafficking in newborns, who were sold to members of the security forces.

Argentina has experienced a lackluster election campaign. The main issue among citizens is not the qualities of the candidates--which most have decided are minimal--but if and when a coup will take place. The most widely favored view is that if Menem wins--which seems likely--the military will stage a coup either before he assumes office or wait for him to “destroy the country”--also widely expected--so a coup will be more acceptable to the Argentine public.

Coups are not new to the region. As John Johnson wrote in his 1964 “The Military and Society in Latin America”:


“Venezuela suffered 50 revolutions during the century following its independence; up to 1903, Colombia experienced 27 civil wars, one of which claimed 80,000 and another 100,000 lives; between 1830 and 1895, Ecuador lived under 11 constitutions. By 1898, Bolivia had survived more than 60 revolutions and assassinated six presidents.”

After five years of democracy in Argentina, the notion of government by the people is derided. Across the border, in authoritarian Chile, a taxi driver said wistfully, “Democracy is the least evil.” But here in Argentina, with the economy crumbling and a dismal election campaign, Argentines are looking back with longing and saying, “What Argentina needs is a strong father (the military).”

Coups become addictive; they appear to offer instant solutions. The upper classes are particularly enamored of coups, and in South America the division between upper and lower classes is a chasm--with the middle class, in many cases, non-existent. The upper classes, as Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato explains, see themselves as heirs of the European tradition, and strive to prove themselves more European than Europeans--in everything but democracy. They are only too happy to accept the instant solution of yet another general and, when he fails, to change him, as one might an aging car.

A continent thus slips into a quagmire. The lower classes become more radicalized and sullen, but usually immobile. Upper classes become fearful and resentful, and the military survives by stoking the fears of the haves.

In Argentina, Gen. Juan Peron used terrorists to ease his return from exile. Then, when he was mortally ill, death squads began under his third wife, Isabel Peron, who had assumed the presidency. The death squads grew and spread, as did their malevolence.

Collective but repressed guilt fell on the nation, which Argentines try to minimize by denying the thousands of documented deaths of the Dirty War, or by justifying the military’s excesses. Only seven officers have been jailed for human-rights abuses, and dozens more human-rights trials were postponed until after the elections. The government is aware that no one wants to be reminded of the Dirty War--and the military becomes restive when human-rights dockets land in court.


War crimes trials may seem just in countries that have known death squads and mass killings. But the armed forces accused of such crimes are also expected to defend democracy under the new governments. Across South America, the military has made clear that if there is to be a choice between extensive human-rights trials and democracy, democracy will die.

Equally discouraging for those who seek justice is that mass killings could not occur without ordinary citizens becoming accomplices by their silence. Punishment of wrongdoers is resisted for, in the end, all feel blood on their hands.

Arguably, this conspiracy of silence is what allows abuses to occur again. But is it more important for murderers to admit culpability than for oppressed nations to nurture democracy?

In Uruguay, citizens voted on April 16 against repealing a 1986 amnesty law for the armed forces. About 150 people were murdered by state death squads during the 1973-85 military regime, and tens of thousands more languished in detention, many severely tortured. About 180 officers were absolved of crimes in 1986, when Congress adopted the amnesty law after Gen. Hugo Medina, now the defense minister, refused to order officers to testify before civilian courts in human-rights trials.

President Julio Maria Sanguinetti warned Uruguay’s 2.3 million voters that repealing the amnesty could lead to political “uncertainty.”

On the face of it, the Uruguayan vote could indicate the condoning of military excesses against alleged subversives. But Sanguinetti’s sentiments come closer to the truth. Uruguayans feared that a vote against the military could provoke another coup. And another nightmare.


The current Argentine government of President Raul Alfonsin has already weathered three coup attempts.

Menem is keenly aware of the coup-betting going on, and has deliberately courted the military. However, the working class--which holds the key to electoral success--was the main target of repression and has not forgotten. Menem walks a tightrope--wooing the military while assuring voters he will extend no favors to the armed forces.

At the same time, economists warn that Argentina appears to be preparing for its cyclical turn to anti-populist civil-military coalitions. Democracy in Argentina has a long-documented tendency to fail economically under the pressure of long-suppressed demands from its populace. Authoritarian regimes then take power. The government of Alfonsin, with two failed economic “plans,” daily slides further into debt and economic chaos.

Argentines refuse to assume the responsibilities of democracy. If the World Bank or a general offers an instant solution, they will take it and forget about manana --perhaps it will never come.

The generals are watching.