Carlos Menem Blinks

In his pardons of former junta leaders and a notorious `dirty war' general, Argentina's president is compromising the nation's turn to democracy

WITH its jailed junta commanders now free, Argentina's armed forces are pressing President Carlos Menem to restore the oversight power the military traditionally wielded during civilian rule. The surprise pardon for Gen. Carlos Suarez Mason, whose testimony would have been damaging to Menem's government, is consistent with this trend and seriously compromises Argentina's legal system. Suarez Mason commanded the 1st Army Corps in Buenos Aires, where many of the ``dirty war'' atrocities took place. When linked to human rights abuses in 1980, he was shunted off to run YPF, the giant state oil company. Under Suarez Mason, YPF became a haven for agents of disbanded military intelligence battalions and others opposed to democracy. Later he became the only ``dirty war'' general to flee the country; press reports claimed that he absconded with millions in YPF funds, possibly to bankroll right-wing paramilitary groups.

An international manhunt found Suarez Mason living under a false identity in Foster City, Calif. Millions of United States taxpayer dollars were spent to extradite him to Argentina to stand trial on 39 counts of murder, torture, and kidnapping: Menem's pardon makes it all for naught.

Although Argentina's armed forces voice support for democracy, they uphold the military doctrine of national security, which places them above the law and the voters as the guardians of national values, which they also define. Still taught in officer training schools, the doctrine authorizes the military to intervene with civilian governments whose policies threaten the Argentine way of life.

This scenario developed during the 1983 presidential election, when the Argentine press reported that the junta attempted to strike a deal with Peronist candidate Italo Luder to pardon them for their actions in the ``dirty war.'' With the defeat of Luder, factions within the armed forces took active measures to limit the amount of power they would transfer back to the government of President Ra'ul Alfons'in, who campaigned on a human rights platform.

In December 1985 courts handed down guilty verdicts against junta members and other officers linked to ``dirty war'' crimes. But in April 1987, the first of three coup attempts by Lt. Col. Muhammad Ali Seineldin and Maj. Aldo Rico - ``dirty war'' veterans - forced Alfons'in to wind down the trials.

The political instability that followed diluted the still-wet cement of Argentina's unsettled democratic foundation, brought the military back to center stage, and contributed to the economic chaos that caused Menem to demand that an exhausted Alfons'in agree to resign before his constitutional term ended.

Now it's Menem's turn to make concessions. Only 48 hours after President Bush praised his reforms in Buenos Aires, Menem caved in to an army demand that it keep all proceeds from the privatization of military land holdings and industries. The army had agreed before last month's failed coup to share the funds with Menem's cash-strapped administration.

Menem also packed the supreme court through a controversial decree, increasing its size from five to nine members. Although Argentina's ``defense of democracy law'' states that seditious soldiers should be prosecuted under civil law, the supreme court, in a 7-2 verdict, ruled that the 800 servicemen captured in December's failed coup will go before military tribunals. The government has also initiated legal proceedings against Buenos Aires district attorney Luis Morino Ocampo for questioning Menem's pardon of Suarez Mason.

Menem's proclivity to survive politically by making justice more pliant and less enforceable has gone beyond the military to business and criminal law. After awarding a contract last fall to Bell Atlantic to privatize 50 percent of the state telephone monopoly, the Menem administration voided the deal on legal technicalities and awarded the contract to STET, an Italian state-owned firm. The Argentine leader also waffled on his pledge to cooperate with US officials in tracking down drug-cartel funds being laundered through Argentine banks.

Menem argues that his pardons for former junta leaders Jorge Videla, Roberto Viola, and Emilio Massera were necessary to consolidate democracy. But when Argentina's overvalued currency makes life expensive and looters threaten public order, these generals' rehabilitation could rally support for the corporatist goals the junta's 1976-83 Process of National Reorganization sought to impose on the nation. Argentina's central bank has declared eight of the nation's 23 provinces bankrupt and Menem will need the support of the army to reorganize them into his planned ``economic superstates.''

President Menem has enjoyed popularity in Washington by advocating reforms and attempting to move his nation toward a pro-US foreign policy. But Menem's tilt toward the military and his pardon of Suarez Mason could draw down the balance of goodwill he maintains in Washington. Without constitutional reform that brings the legal relationship between elected government, the armed forces, and the Roman Catholic church into more equal balance, Argentina's future will be pinned down in a continuing crossfire of internecine war.

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