Proud Argentina proclaims 'victory in defeat'; Argentines seek solace from papal visit

In political terms, the Pope's visit to Argentina this coming weekend is at best a consolation prize for Argentines.

He will arrive in Buenos Aires fresh from his visit to Britain, which, whatever its religious implications, was a stunning political success for the British - and for John Paul II himself.

The Pope will arrive in an Argentina only now awakening to the numbing, difficult recognition of likely defeat at the hands of the British in the Falklands - even if the final battle is not yet over.

The 28 million predominantly Roman Catholic Argentines, writes Hugh O'Shaughnessy in the latest edition of the London Observer, still ''look forward eagerly to the Pope's visit. . . . He will, they hope, at least give them a broad Polish Catholic shoulder to cry on.''

If, in the process, the Pope helps this troubled people steady themselves emotionally amid fluctuations between despair and defiance, he will be able to chalk up another political victory. But it will be different from the earlier Wne in Britain.

Ten weeks ago when the Argentines invaded the Falklands, they seemed utterly confident of quick victory. True, they had not fought a war in more than a century. But they have long had a military elite that boasted of arms as a noble and glorious profession and postured in ceremonial uniforms reminiscent of pre-World War I Imperial Vienna.

So, off they went to war on April 2. They occupied the Falklands with little resistance from the token British garrison. The British, they had persuaded themselves, were in effete, post-imperial decline. They would probably not be able to mount, sustain, and successfully implement an operation of repossession over ocean communication lines 8,000 miles long.

In any case, they expected to have the rest of the world on their side, including the United States. And there was always the Pope. In the context of this conflict they felt they had a monopoly of demand on his affections and support.

Despite many individual acts of Argentine bravery, how different it has all turned out!

The Pope did not cancel his planned visit to Britain, as many Argentines had hoped. By cruel coincidence he was there just at the moment when British pride was at a zenith at the precision and efficiency of the task force's operations in the Falklands.

He was seen on televsion being welcomed by the Queen in Buckingham Palace. Unveiled and looking very English, she is the mother of a son (Prince Andrew) serving as a helicopter pilot with the task force in the Falklands.

And almost as if to drive the point home, President Reagan was seen on television visiting the Pope in the Vatican this week immediately before flying to be the Queen's personal guest at Windsor Castle. Reportedly the President made the point to the Pope that a principle was at stake in the Falklands war - a conviction he stated publicly, to British delight, in his address to the British Parliament June 8.

But actions by the Pope and President Reagan have not been the only bitternesses in Argentina's isolation. There have been disappointments from almost all the rest of Latin America, from Western Europe - and even the Russians, mooted by some as a possible alternative source of aid and support after the ''treachery'' of the US.

At the Organization of American States, Argentina has received little more than token lip-service support. When a British helicopter landed mistakenly in Chile and a British bomber made a forced emergency landing in Brazil, those two countries were surprisingly cooperative in helping the British get their men out and home. (The helicopter was destroyed by its crew, but the bomber was allowed to fly out of Brazil.)

In Western Europe, seven of Britain's nine partners in the European Community have joined in an economic boycott of Argentina. For largely domestic political reasons, Catholic Ireland and Italy have demurred but have undertaken not to undermine the boycott by the others.

This is hard to take for a people who have boastEd for a century of their being the most ''civilized'' and homogeneously white and European of all the nations of Latin America. If anybody was worthy of sitting at the top table with the world's elite, they believed they were.

The US grain embargo of the Soviet Union had given Argentina an opening to cultivate economic relations, at least, with the Russian superpower. Argentina became a major grain supplier to Moscow. But now that they need the cash from the Soviets more than ever, the Russians have cut their grain purchases, preferring to shop where the product and shipping rates are cheaper.

Now the proud Argentines are reduced to looking for sympathy and support in an arena they once scorned - the meeting of the world's nonaligned in the incongruous surroundings of Havana. The bearded Fidel Castro and the suave Argentine Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendes are an unusual duo to be appearing together in pictures in the Argentine press.

Yet such is the psychology of the Argentines that there persists the risk of continued self-deception by invocation of what might be called ''victory in defeat.'' Commenting on the unexpected celebration that followed a notable Argentine defeat in a soccer match last year, a resident foreign busanessman was quoted by the London Sunday Times as saying: ''In Argentina, even when you lose, you go out and celebrate the fact that you are the greatest.''

The same newspaper quoted former Peronist Economy Minister Antonio Cafiero as saying last week: ''Even in the event of withdrawal (from the Falklands), we have fought with honor against the third power in the world, aided militarily by the first and without our running for help to the second. This is a great victory.''

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