Argentine Revolt Reveals Lingering Army Tensions

Uprising dampens Menem's plan to showcase country for Bush visit

THAT Argentina's fourth military rebellion since 1987 was put down ``quickly and effectively,'' in the words of Carlos Sa'ul Menem, appeared small solace for the president. Coming as it did just two days before the Dec. 5 visit by President Bush, the uprising was a bucket of cold realism for President Menem. It highlighted both the fragile relationship of the elected government with its not-altogether-pacific military and the country's difficult economic situation.

The uprising by the Army's so-called ``painted faces'' has shattered Menem's efforts to show Mr. Bush - and United States businessmen - that Argentina was a stable and attractive country for badly needed foreign investors. Since he took office in July 1989, Menem has been carrying out a series of bitter economic reforms to cut the state deficit and reduce Argentina's huge state sector.

``Argentina is making huge efforts to attract foreign capital and boost the economy'' says Gen. H'ector R'ios Eren'u, who was replaced as head of the Army after the first uprising of rebellious military officers in April 1987. ``These rebellions send everything down the drain.''

Argentine armed forces loyal to Mr. Menem squelched an uprising by an estimated 300 members of the Army in a day-long battle that killed at least eight people and wounding at least 20, according to early reports. The fighting on a sunny day sent passersby running from machine gun fire outside the pink-colored presidential palace.

The rebels demanded on Monday the right to choose the new Army leadership and declared themselves followers of nationalist Lt. Col. Mohamed Al'i Seineld'in, who is serving a 60-day sentence for alleging unrest in the Army in a letter to Menem. Colonel Seineldin was one of the leaders of the three uprisings against former President Ra'ul Alfons'in in early 1987 and again in January and December 1988.

``In the best of cases, the government will have to pay a high cost for the rebellion,'' says Rosendo Fraga, an analyst with the conservative Center of Studies for the New Mayority. ``The cost is that Argentina won't be viewed as a predictable country abroad.''

Menem declared a state of siege, moving forcefully to put down the rebellion. If the conflict had dragged on, analysts say, Menem would have been undercut, not just abroad, but also at home. As it stands, Menem might be able to exploit the quick ending to the uprising as a political strength, analysts say.

``If the rebels had held out for more than 24 hours, Menem's power at home would have begun to erode,'' Ms. Fraga says.

The uprising appears to have been the bloodiest and largest since Argentina returned to democratic rule six years ago. A spokesman for the rebels claimed they were not challenging Menem's authority. But political observers say it is hard to draw the line between an internal Army rift and an attempt to curtail political power, since the president is also commander in chief.

``Military rebellions are always about to turn into coups,'' says Andr'es Fontana, a sociologist with DEDES, a private research institute. The military played an important role in Argentine politics since 1930. But there is no doubt a coup would not be popular now. The Army rebels appear few and isolated from the rest of the 50,000 member Army.

``These rebellions do a lot of harm to the Army,'' says Mr. Fontana, ``at a time most Army people are trying to be accepted by society after a clandestine war and a disastrous experience in the Falklands,'' when Argentina surrendered to Britain, he explains.

``Now the rebels are tangled in a series of lies, fanaticism, and personal rancors,'' Gen. R'ios Eren'u says.

Unlike Menem, Mr. Alfons'in could not bring the rest of the Army to put down the mutinies with energy. Menem is generally on much better terms with the military than his predecessor was.

In spite of the austerity measures, Menem has granted higher salary increases to the military than to other public sector employees. He has also promised to carry out a long-postponed reform to make Argentina's armed forces more professional.

Menem said on Dec. 3 that the rebellion would not change his plans to pardon the military junta commanders still serving stiff sentences for their role in the ``dirty war'' against against leftist in the mid-1970s. Although the president claims the pardon is the best way to heal the wounds of the past, the rebellion revived criticism of this approach. Many say the pardon is the best way to ensure history repeats itself.

``To judge from the way the pardoned rebels behaved,'' Fontana says, ``the presidential pardon has been a big mistake.''

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