Argentine junta battered by protests in hot political summer

Argentina is having a hot political summer, with increasing signs that the armed forces and the opposition are on a collision course.

At time of writing, the Multipartidaria - the major opposition grouping of all the key parties - moved ahead Dec. 16 with plans to stage a massive antigovernment demonstration.

Crowds estimated at nearly half a million were expected to take to the streets of Buenos Aires, with an active participation from human-rights activists, students, and trade unionists - from anyone, in fact, who has the slightest grievance against the military regime. And after six years of government by the armed forces, the list seems endless.

There is widespread dissatisfaction with the government's economic management and what is widely perceived as a too-slow return to democracy. Since the Falklands war, political passions have become more acute, pointing the country in the direction of what the more pessimistic observers see as a real possibility of social upheaval.

''It needs only a match for the whole situation to explode,'' warned radical politician Antonio Trocolli recently.

This view comes in the wake of numerous protests against the regime. The satirical magazine Humor summed up its view of the situation on its front cover this week with a cartoon showing President Reynaldo Bignone and the three members of the military junta swathed in bandages from head to toe and barely able to support each other.

The battering of the regime in the past few weeks has been so intense that it is a small miracle it is still on its feet.

Opposition to the government has covered a wide range of the political spectrum - from middle-class housewives banging pots outside the Ministry of the Economy to a large group of Falklands war veterans speaking out against their generals and staging a sit-in during a recent parade to honor the fallen.

The country has seen riots in the working-class suburbs of Buenos Aires because of increases in municipal taxes and a general strike organized by members of the Peronist dominated trade union movement, the General Confederation of Labor.

The fortunes of the armed forces are very different from what they were in March 1976 when a military coup was initially received with relief by many Argentines. Government by Maria Estela (Isabelita) Martinez de Peron, the widow of General Juan Domingo Peron had brought the country to the brink of political and economic chaos.

The country was wracked by armed conflict between rival guerrilla organizations, inflation of 500 percent, and political and financial corruption. The junta promised to put the country back on its feet again in what was called a process of national reorganization.

Six years later the pledge has been turned on its head and the cynics refer to the process of national disintegration. The free market policies first applied in 1976 are widely regarded as having bankrupted domestic industry and as having pushed unemployment up to over 13 percent.

Inflation is hurtling over the 300 percent mark, the highest level in the world. Allegations of misappropiation of funds by military officers in key administrative posts during a period in which Argentina's foreign debt has shot up from $7 billion to $40 billion has added to social bitterness.

Real wages have fallen dramatically and the word ''hunger'' is being mentioned widely for perhaps the first time in a country that has traditionally taken pride in its levels of nourishment. The one success claimed by the armed forces - the virtual liquidation of guerrilla activity - has turned out to be more a curse than blessing. The methods used to kidnap and torture many innocent Argentines who had no direct linkage with terrorists has made human rights a burning political issue.

Public bitterness reached new heights in the aftermath of the Falklands war. ''The armed forces have even failed in the one thing that they are specifically trained to do: fight a war,'' commented a local journalist.

Within the armed forces, junior- and middle-ranking officers believe that it is the generals that have brought their institution into disrepute.

In spite of their calls for an early election, the bulk of the country's politicians have yet to provide a detailed alternative to military rule. There appear to be no concrete programs for dealing with the economic crisis nor clear-cut ideas of what to do about such crucial issues as the responsibility for the human-rights violations of the past six years. Does one put the military on trial or let them off the hook? It is a question that few politicians have dared answer in public.

''Antimilitarism is clearly a crowd puller. But there's going to come a point when Argentines are going to ask for some concrete solutions,'' said a local businessman. In spite of their undisputed capacity to pull in crowds, the parties have yet to prove they can deliver.

Most politicians, however, see a firm election date, set if possible for the middle of next year (not the end as of 1983 as President Bignone would like) as an essential step toward a clearer definition of the country's politics.

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