Argentine leader sees debt crisis as main threat to democratic progress

The surest sign of Argentina's democratic stability, says President Ra'ul Alfons'in, is his successful handling of an Easter week military rebellion that brought Argentines to the streets in an emotional show of support for him. Civilian rule was bolstered by the potentially explosive situation and he is in firm control of his nation, President Alfons'in asserts. But, he says, what threatens democracy most are the external forces he cannot control - like the handling of the terms of his nation's $53 billion foreign debt.

In a interview here Saturday, the President said Latin American indebtedness to the industrialized nations, particularly the US, ``is a bloodletting that conspires against the consolidation of democracy.''

``No one can pay this debt - it's absolutely impossible,'' he said.

Mr. Alfons'in, like most Latin leaders, is trying to shepherd his nation from years of authoritarian military rule to civilian democratic control. That goal is complicated by the debt issue because much of the nations' earnings goes to pay their foreign creditors rather than to improve the national economies, which suffer from high inflation, capital flight, and high unemployment.

Alfons'in, on an unofficial visit to the US, was in San Diego to receive the Institute of the Americas ``Man of the Americas Award for Democracy and Peace.'' The institute is a private foundation at the University of California.

Alfons'in, at mid-point of a six-year term, has said his administration's main goal is to maintain the strength of civilian democratic rule so that he can be the first elected president in more than 30 years to finish his term.

A key to his popularity has been his unprecedented prosecution of former military officers for human rights abuses. Under his administration former military chiefs have gone to jail for human rights abuse and government mismanagement. But when the prosecutions started this year to reach lower-ranking officers, they rebelled, claiming they had merely followed orders in the ``dirty war'' against suspected leftist rebels in the '70s and early '80s.

Alfons'in eventually had to personally ask for the surrender of the rebels because he couldn't muster the military force to stop the rebellion. He has said he made no deals with the rebels even though his new ``due obedience'' law suspends prosecution of mid- and low-level officers for their part in the so-called dirty war.

Following are some thoughts that Alfons'in shared on:

The civilian-military relationship

Why was the ``due obedience'' law necessary?

I had always said there were three different responsibilities: those who define the policy of oppression, those who fulfill the orders, and those who committed excesses in fulfilling those orders.

I would have liked for justice to have worked quicker. It has taken three years and this was not a correct or a good thing for the health of the republic and I decided to send a law to Congress that would define precisely this concept.

Are you convinced that the military is unconditionally subordinate to civilian rule? And what would have happened if you had not passed the due obedience law?

I want to say that in Argentina there is no danger of institutional instability, nor will there be. But it is also true that the law I've sent to Congress permits the pacification of my country.

I'm sure it would avoid problems that could be serious, even confrontations that would delay in time the reconciliation that we Argentines need. We could have experienced a number of episodes similar to the ones that we lived through in the Holy Week.

Therefore in the name of human rights and to preserve them for the future, I took the decision of sending the law to Congress and Congress decided to approve them.

Given that Argentina has been subject to a cycle of military coups and failed civilian governments, can you point to signs that convince you civilian rule is permanent and not another part of that cycle?

You have proof in what happened during Easter Sunday in our country. People filled the plazas of the whole republic to defend the institutions without distinctions of political colors or social conditions. And besides this, it is the position expressed publicly by all the military chiefs [that they support civilian rule]. The US role in Latin America

What role do you think the US should play in the democratic consolidation of Latin American nations?

I think the US has abandoned the idea that authoritarian governments are a kind of a dam against left-wing subversives. [They know] the solution is in democracy. In this sense what we want is more imagination to encourage and protect the development of our countries.

For example?

For example on the theme of the debt. We are in a situation similar to that of Europe when after the war it was necessary to reconstruct Europe ... with imagination, with new measures, and new policies the situation in Europe was saved [by the Marshall Plan].

This is not seen in regards to Latin America, which makes me think that it is not noticed what Latin America means for the security of the hemisphere.

What does it mean for that security?

Consider the problems in Central America and the concern they raise in the US - multiply that by a thousand and you'll get an idea of what the convulsion of Latin America as a whole would mean.

The debt issue

Latin American leaders continue to say they would like to see a political solution to the debt offered by governments of the creditor nations. How do you define a political solution?

Specifically we must freeze interest rates, ... so they are not subject to the different political factors in countries which we obviously do not control. But you must also understand the investment that must be made [in debtor nations]. Were I an American capitalist I'd go running to Argentina. We have extraordinary human resources.

Ultimately, can the debt be paid?

No one can pay this debt - it's absolutely impossible. It's like a waterfall in a sense - it has already been paid with the fabulous interest rates that we have paid.

The Malvinas (Falkland) Islands

Is there any truth to reports of new efforts by third- party nations to arrange talks between Argentina and Britain about the Malvinas?

Yes I think there are parties interested ... even the US is interested in solving this problem.

Britain refuses to discuss sovereignty of the Malvinas. Is there any new inclination on your part to talk with Britian if sovereignty is not a point of discussion?

No, not at all.

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