Argentines, 'duped' by junta, distrust financial fix-it plan

That old thermometer gauge of Argentine public feelings, the foreign exchange market, went for a flip last week. In just one day's trading, the peso fell by more than 20 percent against the dollar.

The to-ing and fro-ing in the capital's banking center, in open defiance of an officially decreed devaluation, looked like a scene from ''The Beggar's Opera.''

Just 24 hours before, new Economy Minister Jose Maria Dagnino Pastore announced a package aimed at pulling the war-bruised economy out from its deepest recession in 16 years. The measures included a lowering of interest rates, salary increases of over 30 percent, and generous refinancing terms for a virtually bankrupt domestic industry.

That public reaction degenerated within a short time into general speculation showed that Mr. Pastore's ''good intentions'' were just not enough to convince the average Argentine.

In the wake of the Falklands crisis, most Argentines have lost their trust in government. Duped by official propaganda for most of the war with Britain, they are only now realizing the painful truth behind their defeat.

Conscripts returned home with tales of horror, not picture book stories.

''It used to really anger us to read in Argentine newspapers that we were happy, well fed, warm, and ready to beat the British, when the reality was very different,'' said one young soldier.

Another talked of lack of food and water, and about having to face the bombardment of the British artillery in an open trench with a rifle that jammed.

Much of the harsher criticism has been subdued by the still heavily controlled news media. But occasionally suggestions of corruption and cowardice among higher ranking military officers during the campaign have filtered through to the public.

''The main problem of this country is that the guilty have never been properly judged,'' said writer Ernesto Sabato recently in an attempt to explain the cyclical nature of Argentine crises.

Yet the crisis is particularly deep this time around precisely because there is an attempt to judge the guilty. And it is the military that is in the witness box - the very institution around which Argentine politics and society have revolved the early 19th century, when a local militia fended off an attacking British force and General San Martin declared Argentine independence.

The new Army chief, Gen. Cristino Nicolaides, has ordered an inquiry into the planning and conduct of the Falklands war. Those found guilty will have to face the Argentine equivalent of a court martial.

The move is aimed at reassuring the public, for Argentines are being asked to support a period of Army rule until 1984, the date fixed for a return to civilian government.

More important, it is aimed at cooling rumblings within the armed forces. The comments of the conscripts have been reflected in those of junior officers who blame their superiors for bad planning and poor leadership.

The Falklands post mortem is expected to gather steam this week with the return of some 600 junior and senior officers who have been held as prisoners of war by the British. The officers include the former Argentine military governor of the Falklands. Gen. Mario Benjamin Menendez, whose leadership is already being criticized by the public. Among questions he will need to answer is why he surrendered at Port with such haste at Port Stanley, having gone down on record as saying that his men would ''fight to the last drop.''

''With a civilian, you can forget such turn-arounds. But with a general, its a matter of honor,'' said a local journalist.

In what might be an indication of things to come, Argentina's largest-selling weekly, Gente, this week published serious allegations about General Menendez war actions made by British television reporter Michael Nicholson. They include claims that Argentine officers kept themselves out of the front line and that General Menendez sacrificed perhaps hundreds of his men in dangerously exposed trenches.

The return of General Menendez is likely to split still further the unity and morale of Argentine armed forces, which last month were rocked by the temporary withdrawal of the Navy and Air Force chiefs from the ruling junta.

Divisions within the military are currently the single most important threat to the stability of the presidency of Gen. Reynaldo Bignone as he struggles to make Economy Minister Pastore's plans work.

As one opposition politician put it: ''Bignone needs to have the armed forces united behind him, or else he won't have the power to give us what he has promised.''

It says much about the central role of the military in Argentine politics that the politician is reluctant to take power on his own initiative.

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