Argentines, in despair, brace for Falklands defeat

With defeat in the Falklands looming ominously, Argentines are caught between despair and resentment:

* Despair because no one here now sees the Falkland war with Britain as ''the soccer match we once thought it was,'' as one Argentine put it. ''This is real war and we Argentines don't know anything about war.''

* Resentment because the generals in Buenos Aires took the nation into the war without a popular consensus and at a time when Argentina ''could ill afford the fight,'' to quote a businessman. ''It will take us years to recover from all this.''

There is also concern over just what is happening in the Falklands. There is a dearth of information on the fighting. Newspapers here carry virtually no hard news on developments in the islands. And official communiques in recent days have become even less newsworthy than usual.

Yet almost everyone appears conditioned to an Argentine defeat. ''The British have the manpower and the firepower to sweep the islands,'' an Argentine official admitted privately Monday.

Many an Argentine is asking why go on fighting when the lives of so many Argentine troops are at stake?

The fog, rain, and snow that kept the British from mounting their final assault on Port Stanley at the weekend have left the island. Monday saw minor ground clashes and artillery duels near the capital. British troops waiting in the hills for the attack signal have been reinforced by fresh troops from the liner Queen Elizabeth 2.

It is not overlooked here that the most newsworthy official communique over the weekend dealt with the transfer of 47 Argentine wounded from the British hospital vessel Uganda to the Argentine hospital ship Bahia Paraiso for transshipment to the Argentine mainland.

News stories out of London also indicated that Britain was preparing for early repatriation of some 1,200 Argentines captured in the fighting during the past two weeks at San Carlos Bay, Goose Green, and Darwin.

But the details of the Falklands fighting, the size of Argentine losses, and other ramifications of the conflict have been kept from a suspicious Argentine public. It can only guess at these details. It suspects, however, that things are going poorly for Argentina.

''They always do,'' complained a shopkeeper early this week as he mused about both the war and price rises for just about everything here. ''Inflation is again on the loose.''

Over the past two weeks, hotel prices have soared 33 percent. But the Argentine peso's value has fallen sharply and a lively, if illegal, black market in dollars is growing.

Along with this, a lively market of rumors was also evident throughout the city. Most centered on Argentine propects in the war -- and most were gloomy.

The condition of Argentine soldiers on the islands -- said to be poor and getting worse -- was one of the main rumors. On street corners, clusters of Argentines gathered in front of newspaper kiosks to study headlines vaguely suggesting Argentine successes in the war. But the public was not being fooled.

''This is bad,'' commented bank teller Julio Garcia. ''I don't believe the generals.''

His words were echoed by Salvador Manfredo, a businessman who has a nephew on the Falklands. ''Whether he is among the prisoners from Goose Green, or in the encircled Argentine camp at Puerto Argentino (as Argentines call Port Stanley), or worse yet, among the dead, I don't know. But he shouldn't be there any more than should any of those boys.''

These Argentine opinions seem typical.

They do not mask a basic Argentine feeling that the Falklands should be Argentine. But they suggest that many, if not most, Argentines question whether the islands are truly worth fighting for.

The generals think they are. They continue to say national honor is at stake. While noting that Argentina continues to seek peace, Air Force Brig. (Gen.) Jose Miret, the planning minister, declared Sunday that ''what we will never do is humiliate ourselves before the pride of the United Kingdom.''

Moreover, there are fresh reports here that Argentina is engaged in a hasty shopping spree for arms around the globe. Reports that new and used weaponry is coming into Argentina from Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela surfaced here Monday. And there were indications that Libya has also become a supplier of weaponry to Argentina. But Argentine efforts to buy weapons from West European countries have apparently been frustrated.

Nevertheless some European weaponry is arriving via the black market, it is reported.

Among new equipment said to be arriving in recent days by air are Israeli-made Daggers, a version of the sophisticated French Mirage III. Reports of the number of newly acquired Daggers range from 10 to 25.

As these new planes reportedly arrived, the fortunes of Air Force Brig. (Gen.) Basilio Ignacio Lami Dozo seemed to be rising. He is now the most conspicuous member of the the ruling junta. His statements are given prominence in the press and on radio and television.

He is also talking of an imminent return to some sort of civilian government -- or greater civilian participation in the government. To Argentines, however, all this seems vague, perhaps purposefully so.

For no matter how much Brigadier Lami Dozo talks, the skeptical Argentine public does not seem ready to buy his arguments or to be persuaded that the military has any intention of stepping down.

The Argentine military clearly has a credibility problem. The war has only enhanced it. Longstanding bitterness over military rule is becoming a resentfulness over the military's role in leading the nation into a war that the Argentine public did not want, is not prepared for, and definitely wants to get out of.

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