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ARGENTINA : A Prayer for Democracy

May 31, 1987|Carlos Fuentes | Carlos Fuentes is Simon Bolivar Professor at Cambridge University in England. His latest novel, "Cristobal Nonato," has just been published in Mexico

BUENOS AIRES — THE RECOLETA CEMETERY, IN THE heart of Buenos Aires, is the Disneyland of Death. A maze of narrow streets connects a jumble of monstrously pompous romantic monuments erected to glorify the military and the oligarchy of Argentina. Angels, trumpets, spires: It is the hallelujah of kitsch. There are a few isolated, populist incursions into this necropolis: The graves of Eva Peron and the boxer Firpo.

But the loneliest mausoleum of all celebrates the failures of democracy in Argentina. There are inscribed the names of Leandro Alem, the Radical Civic Union victim of rigged elections in 1892; Hipolito Irigoyen, the popular but ineffective Radical swept from the presidency by the armed forces in 1930, and Arturo Illia, yet another Radical overthrown by the military in 1966.

Only Arturo Frondizi, the Radical expelled by the army in 1962, is absent from this roll call of Argentina's collective frustrations. When La Recoleta was built, the blessings poured on this country seemed unique. An immensely rich land, an urban civilization and a highly literate, well-fed, homogenous population. What went wrong? Why couldn't Argentina put its act together? Looking towards Europe, Argentina, the melting pot of South America, forgot that it was as Latin American as Colombia or Paraguay. The brilliant cosmopolitan facade of Buenos Aires hid the colonial structures prevalent in the interior.

Latin America's oldest institutions are the army, the church and the Spanish imperial state. When we broke from Spain in 1821, the state went but the church and the army remained, constantly tempted to fill the vacuum of power left by weak national states and even weaker civil societies.

Latin America first tried to respond to this situation by creating viable national states. Whatever their differences, Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico (1934-1940), Getulio Vargas in Brazil (1930-1945) and Juan Peron in Argentina (1946-1955) had this purpose in common. But what Mexico and Brazil consolidated, Argentina dissipated: Material infrastructure and cultural identity. Nevertheless in all three nations (the largest in Latin America), education as well as demagogy, and economic development, no matter how unjustly managed, helped to create modern civil societies. These pluralistic middle forces are now demanding that laws and practice coincide for the first time in Latin America.

This is the urge that one feels so strongly in Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires these days. No wonder that the persistent dead weights of the past irritate us so much, and none more than the anachronistic actions of the military in Argentina. Discredited by their defeats in the Malvinas War and by their conduct of the "dirty war" against terrorism first, but then against the civilian population, the military in 1983 gave way to a civilian government headed by Raul Alfonsin on the Radical ticket. President Alfonsin did something that no one had done before in Latin America: He sent the big guns of the military repression to the dock and, when judged, off to serve time.

But the military not only served time; they marked time, and in April a series of army mutinies were triggered by one Maj. Ernesto Barreiro, fleeing from trial for crimes committed during the dirty war. Alfonsin responded courageously. Millions of men, women and children thronged the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, as well as the principal squares in the country, supporting democracy. Alfonsin flew from the Plaza de Mayo to the mutineers' camp and was back before the awaiting crowds a few hours later, assuring them that the worst had been averted, arms had been laid down and rebel leaders jailed.

No one who lived through these events fails to express the sweeping emotion that they felt. Yet, as I met Alfonsin in his monastic office at Olivos earlier this month, it was difficult to associate this calm, rumpled, gracious man with emotionalism of any sort. Rather, the twinkle in his eyes seemed the outward greeting of a strong faith in freedom wedded to a foxy knowledge of men and politics.

Alfonsin is proud of his countrymen's response to the military crisis. He is convinced that it is the expression of something new in Argentina, a strong civil society. So if he has now sent a controversial bill to Congress exempting from prosecution all officers under the rank of lieutenant colonel on grounds of "due obedience," he can argue that he has done so from a position of strength granted to him by the society as a whole.

He has admitted "disliking" the idea that the material authors of great crimes should go free; but insists, as he has done since his presidential campaign, that it is those who conceived the plan for repression and then ordered its execution who should be held primarily responsible. Alfonsin has personally sent the law to Congress because he hopes that it will help to pacify the country for good, and wants to be held responsible for its success or failure.

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