Argentina's Democracy in Peril

IN recent months, the Bush administration has directed major attention to the democratization of Latin America, which the White House proudly claims has taken place during the Reagan and Bush presidencies. But few in Washington display any awareness, let alone concern, for the many countries in the region, like Argentina, that are very close to falling back into the shadow of rule by the generals. It has been scarcely seven years since the country emerged from a dark period of brutal military rule, and the promise of democracy that shone so brightly then has been replaced by alarming economic decay, deepening social unrest, and the resurgence of right-wing elements within the military.

Several years ago, Colonels Aldo Rico and Ali Seineldin rose to prominence as the leaders of three aborted coups against then-president Ra'ul Alfons'in. The colonels, known as ``Carapintada,'' or painted faces after the camouflage paint worn during their insurrections, were pardoned last October by President Carlos Menem, along with 280 other officers also accused of insubordination and human rights violations.

Now free, they head an increasingly nasty political campaign against Mr. Menem's government, accusing it of a ``liberalism'' incompatible with the ``institutions and pillars of Christian society,'' represented by ``the fatherland, the church and the armed forces.'' The two ultra-nationalist Carapintada leaders have been making public appearances, giving speeches with anti-Semitic overtones, holding meetings with labor and business groups and frequenting the poorer neighborhoods in the country, from which they draw growing support for their simplistic solutions.

The Menem government, whose approval rate rose above 80 percent last summer, now faces a crisis of confidence as that figure fell to 34 percent in March. In contrast, Rico's and Seineldin's image is viewed favorably by about 17 percent of Argentines. Considering their mutinous pasts, and that both were officers during the ``dirty war,'' in which more than 13,000 innocent civilians were murdered by the military, these approval ratings are ominous signs.

The grave state of the economy is reason enough for widespread discontent: The cost of living has risen 8,164 percent in the past year; inflation is estimated to have hit 80 percent in March, and more than 15 percent of the Argentine work force is unemployed. Food riots, lootings, and strikes occur practically on a daily basis, and 80,000 public employees have just been laid off.

Menem's pro-market economic policies and plans to privatize Argentina's state-owned industries have disillusioned his own Peronist party, as well as the powerful union leadership that helped elect him. This disaffection has led many Argentines to turn to the Carapintada leaders and their populist solutions.

The armed forces chiefs of staff have repeatedly vowed loyalty to the constitutional government. However, the military has taken note of the public's diminishing trust in the government, and has pressed for increased autonomy.

Menem has been pacifying the armed forces with concessions. He recently decreed that the military, barred from interfering in the country's internal affairs since the return of civilian rule in 1983, now has the right to intervene in the event of massive civil disorder. The condition of the economy makes the prospect of such chaos, and the military's intervention, not unlikely.

The president's meetings with senior military leaders have become more frequent and more secretive, prompting the January resignation of Minister of Defense Italo Luder. His replacement, Humberto Romero, is said to have ties to the Carapintada leadership. A December meeting between the chiefs of staff and the administration's third economy minister in less than a year resulted in wage hikes of almost 100 percent for military officers and an equally high increase in the armed forces' budget.

Even if the armed forces remain as loyal to the constitutional government as they claim to be, Seineldin and Rico, acclaimed as the ``saviors of the country'' in graffiti scrawled across Buenos Aires, still pose a looming threat. Their growing support is reason for concern by committed democrats, like Mr. Alfons'in.

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