Keep the Generals at Ease

Experience in Chile, Nicaragua, and Argentina shows it may be more important to accommodate the military than to punish it for past abuses

THE recent assassination of Jaime Guzman, a rightist Chilean politician and close political ally of former military strongman Augusto Pinochet, highlights a vexing problem facing new civilian governments around the world: How to cope with the legacy of brutal human rights violations committed under military rule. Senator Guzman's murder, presumably at the hands of leftist extremists, came as a direct result of last month's report by the Chilean "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" and President Patricio Aylwin's decision to accept the commission's findings of massive violations during the Pinochet regime but to refrain from prosecuting former officers for their role in this sordid era. Chilean victims of the repression, political opponents of Aylwin's center-right coalition, international human rights activists ,

and many commentators in the world press have vigorously criticized the Aylwin decision.

But the experience of other countries that have grappled with this issue suggests that Aylwin may be right. Other new democracies in Latin America have made similarly controversial concessions to their militaries.

For example, Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro's widely criticized decision to retain Gen. Humberto Ortego Saavedra - brother of the former Sandinista president and a key strategist for the Sandinista Front - as chief of staff of the Nicaraguan Army provoked heated debate even before she was inaugurated in April 1990. Supporters of the Chamorro regime warned that this arrangement would give the ousted Sandinistas a powerful weapon with which they could threaten the new government and hinder the proc e

ss of national reconciliation. Although the Army continues to support the leftist rebels in El Salvador, and former contra leader Col. Enrique Burmudez was recently assassinated, President Chamorro's accommodationist strategy has not yet been discredited.

Despite widespread fears, the decision to allow the Sandinista Front to retain control of the military has not slowed the demobilization of the contras nor hindered the consolidation of civilian rule in Nicaragua. An important part of the agreement which allows Ortega to remain as chief of staff of the Army mandates a significant reduction in the size of the armed forces. After only four months in office, Chamorro had managed to cut the Army by one-third. Most important, the quid pro quo for continued S a

ndinista control of the Army required Tomas Borge, the ultra hard-line Sandinista minister of the interior, to relinquish his satrapy. Chamorro's strategy will serve to weaken the Sandinista Front by reawakening its latent factionalism and thereby defusing the threat to the new regime.

In Argentina, popular dissatisfaction with former President Raul Alfonss decision to stop prosecuting low-ranking military officers involved in the so-called "dirty war" of the 1970s has turned into vociferous outrage in the wake of President Carlos Menem's pardon of the leaders of the military junta which oversaw that bloody campaign. Clearly, a case can be made that the claims of justice and the rule of law have been slighted in the short run. One should, however, weigh the merits of punishment for pa s

t crimes against the prospects for future political stability.

ENSURING future civilian rule in Argentina is a worthy end in itself. Presdident Menem's strategy of accommodation with the military, much like Chamorro's, will do more to ensure continued civilian rule than would confrontation with the military. Menem's pardon did not come out of the blue. His predecessor backed away from earlier promises to prosecute lower ranking military officers implicated in human rights abuses after he faced three serious military coup attempts. The military's overwhelming suppor t

for the current Peronist government during a fourth coup attempt in December of last year suggests that his accommodation has defused most of what anti-civilian sentiment remained within the Argentine Army and has so far served to strengthen rather than weaken civilian rule in Argentina.

As Chile's "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" uncovers evidence of military complicity in the deaths of from 1,500 to 2,000 Chileans after the overthrow of Socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973, critics of the Aylwin government argue that the only way to consolidate civilian rule is to vigorously prosecute those involved.

In fact, precisely the opposite strategy will keep the Chilean military out of politics. Nothing could better underscore the prudence of this course than the recent response of the military to General Pinochet's attempt last December to use a military alert to convince the civilian government to cease its pressure on him to resign his military command. Had the Aylwin administration adopted the confrontational approach advocated by many in Chile and abroad, the military would likely have been far more re c

eptive to Pinochet's thinly veiled call to arms.

The Nicaraguan and Argentine cases illustrate that the key to ensuring continued civilian rule in new democracies is to avoid confrontation with the military of the former authoritarian regime. The confrontational tactics advocated by both liberals and conservatives at home and abroad may be emotionally satisfying, but this must be weighed against the prospects for continued civilian government - the prerequisite for the rule of law in the future. Accommodation with the military is required. This may me a

n preserving some of the perquisites of the military or even agreeing to an amnesty for officers involved in past human rights abuses. That may not seem completely just, but no other way to rebuild democratic politics has a real chance to succeed.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Keep the Generals at Ease
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today