Argentine Whitewash

IN order to resolve what he has called ``the military question,'' recently installed Argentine President Carlos Menem, a Peronist, seriously compromised his country's fledgling constitutional structure. He issued a pardon in early October for 280 people, including officers liable for major human rights violations during the military's ``dirty war,'' and others involved in armed forces uprisings against the previous government of President Ra'ul Alfons'in.

Also named were 57 leftist guerrillas, as well as three high officers jailed for their part in the disastrous Falklands war.

In bowing to implicit threats coming from military hard-liners, Mr. Menem may have lessened the likelihood of an immediate challenge to his government from the normally rabidly anti-Peronist military.

Nevertheless, the presidential pardons and Menem's efforts to purge the judicial system of judges and prosecutors who have vigorously pursued human rights violators not only have seriously wounded his own integrity, but they also doom the nation to a protracted period of internal turmoil.

The latest concession to the military follows the September pardon of 18 officers tied to the brutal ``dirty war'' period between 1976 and 1983, when over 11,000 Argentines were tortured, killed, or ``disappeared.''

This harsh era began when Isabel Peron's government in the 1970s gave the military free rein to destroy the Monteneros and other leftist guerrillas that were undermining her government after the death of her husband, Juan Peron. After killing or driving into exile most of these insurgents, the armed forces continued to eliminate thousands of intellectuals, artists, labor activists, journalists, political figures, and innocent civilians.

Humiliated by their defeat in the Falklands war, faced with an unmanageable economy, and confronted with growing revelations of their brutal human rights abuses, a discredited military handed power back to an elected civilian government in 1983.

Initially passive in the face of President Alfons'in's pursuit of the most notorious human rights violators, emboldened junior officers later began demanding pardons, an increased military budget, and greater influence in controlling the armed forces.

Though Menem's presidential honeymoon with the Argentine public had given him a 70 percent approval rating in pre-pardon polls, rumors of the amnesty sparked large demonstrations and heated criticism from human rights groups as well as numerous legislators.

In trying to win over everyone, Menem has risked pleasing no one.

His support among hard-core Peronists has been damaged by his conservative Cabinet appointments and restrictive fiscal measures. If an economic downturn occurs, Menem risks a dramatic backlash from the volatile Argentine populace, especially if he goes through with a third set of pardons at Christmas.

Menem has defended his action by saying, ``I cannot estimate what the political costs will be. I do not know whether they will be high or not, but I will assume my responsibility for the costs. What interests me is my country, my people.''

But it is ``his country'' and ``his people,'' not just Menem, who will bear the cost of his craven actions, and the specter of crime without punishment will continue to haunt the Argentine conscience.

The ousting of Solicitor General Andres d'Alessio, who judged members of the military junta, and efforts to weaken the Argentine Supreme Court do not bode well for the Argentine judiciary.

The pardons effectively undercut the country's criminal-justice system. It mocks common equity when petty criminals are jailed while murderers in uniform walk the streets.

Dealing with a rogue military establishment is far from easy, given its chronic willingness to intervene politically over the last 50 years. Menem's supporters argue that offering a broad pardon will help prevent a possible uprising and secure political stability.

Even if such a ``quick-fix'' produces a period of elected government, it will have little long-term meaning if the military has effective veto power over matters regarding its own conduct and the political space in which Menem and his civilian successors can safely operate.

In Washington, the good feelings surrounding Menem's September White House visit prompted Congress to rescind the Kennedy-Humphrey amendment that had banned arms sales to Argentina since 1977.

This could lead to renewed cooperation between the Pentagon and Argentine military, which broke down during the Falklands conflict. Spare parts for helicopters and armored personnel carriers have been sent to Argentina this year. The lifting of the amendment signals that Washington considers the abuses by Argentina's military an issue of the past, even though that institution remains unrepentant and unreformed.

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