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Argentina: some generals unwilling to relinquish power

By James Nelson GoodsellLatin America correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 16, 1982



Buenos Aires

Argentine President Reynaldo Bignone talks frequently these days of taking the Argentine military back to the barracks.

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''We will have elections in 1983 for a civilian president,'' he said in a recent press conference, ''and the military will be out of politics by early 1984.''

But there is widespread uncertainty that the military will in fact step down.

Sharply divided, discredited among many Argentines, and most uncertain about its own future, the military is far from united on the issue of giving up power. Some generals and admirals, distrusting civilians, want to continue military control of government.

Moreover, General Bignone is in no position to assure elections. His own rule is shaky. He has already survived in office longer than many forecast when his fellow generals tapped him for the presidency in the dark days immediately following Argentina's defeat in the Falklands war. There are rumors that these same generals are on the verge of snuffing out his rule.

General Bignone serves, in effect, ''with the sufferance of the military,'' observes Antonio Carlos Soler, a Radical Party spokesman. He remains president because, at least for the moment, he has the qualified support of Gen. Cristino Nicolaides, the Army member of the joint military junta that plays a large role in military rule.

No one including General Bignone knows how firm General Nicolaides's support is.

General Nicolaides' own political ambitions are a factor in the election equation. Some political observers here say Nicolaides relishes the prospect of being president and that associates are preparing the way for him to win the post in any 1983 elections.

But planning for the promised election appears to be moving slowly. Spokesmen for the political parties say they are as much in the dark as anyone. Italo Luder, a respected former senator and leading member of the Peronista movement, questions whether anyone within the military is giving much real attention to a return to civilian rule. Some politicians doubt they will take place.

That may be too cynical a view. Interior Minister Gen. Llamil Reston, who has been meeting with civilian politicians in the past several months, echoes General Bignone's promise that elections will be held.

''Why would I go through this exercise if we were not sincere?'' he asks. ''We have made a commitment and we will honor it.''

Actually there are some military men who think the sooner the Army steps down , the better. They include former President Alejandro Agustin Lanusse, a retired general, who says ''never again'' to military rule. With other present and former officers, he recognizes the military's reputation has been badly tarnished in recent years.

These men have seen that successive military governments have failed to handle effectively Argentina's political and the economic predicaments. The military, in their view, has not been able to run an efficient government. Yet it stays in power, with some officers convinced that they alone are able to govern.

Meanwhile, internal bickering within the military - between the Army and the Navy and among Army factions - has grown in recent years, weakening the military establishment and leaving it in considerable disarray.

The military's poor showing in the April-June war with Britain over the Falkland Islands has stirred recriminations within the military. It also has brought discredit to the institution.

Fresh confirmation of massive human-rights violations by the military over the past six years have turned many former military supporters sour and led to new demands that those responsible be brought to justice.

Finally, the example of Brazil, which recently held elections for legislative and local offices and is scheduled to hold presidential elections in 1984, presses in on the Argentine public. Many Argentines are asking: Why not us, too?

The civilian politicians for their part are exerting their own pressure. Fernando de la Rua, one of the most attractive members of the Radical Party and a former vice-presidential nominee, said recently that ''the future of Argentina is too serious to be left to the military alone.''

His comment suggests that he might accept some continuing military presence in government. Most civilian politicians, pressed on the point, would probably agree. But they want its role sharply reduced.

Moreover, the question of military culpability for human-rights violations during the past six years is very much in everyone's thinking here. This has become more insistent with the discovery of unmarked graves in suburban cemeteries around Buenos Aires and as the bodies of some of 6,000 Argentines who ''disappeared'' have been identified.

Some apportioning of blame on this issue undoubtedly is ahead. The government's efforts to work out an agreement with civilian politicians to bury the issue have failed. ''No way!'' says Angel Robeldo of the Peronista movement.

This development could throw a wrench into the movement toward elections. The military clearly does not want to stand trial for actions during the so-called ''dirty war'' of the late 1970s that inflicted imprisonment, torture, and death on thousands of Argentines. Yet increasing numbers of Argentines - and not just human-rights activists - are calling for an accounting of military stewardship of that era.

Most analysts say that ultimately the military will have to yield power. Just how it goes - peacefully or otherwise - may well depend on its willingness to accept at least some responsibility for the rights violations.