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Menem: Pardon Our Dirty War

January 06, 1991

Argentina's political life has been disrupted with regularity by its restive military since the 1930s. Only in the last few years have civilian leaders tried to assert authority over the generals, so it's disappointing that President Carlos Saul Menem began the 1990s with a step backwards.

Last weekend, Menem pardoned several top officers who led the military juntas that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. They included the generals who oversaw the so-called "dirty war" against leftist subversion in which 8,960 persons are acknowledged to have died, many after being methodically tortured. Thousands of other victims of that era, whose only crime was being suspected of political dissent, remain unaccounted for.

Menem said the pardons were necessary to bring about a reconciliation in Argentina, and balanced his pardon for the officers by ordering the release of the jailed leader of the Montoneros, the terrorist group the government suppressed in the late 1970s. But it will take more than that to persuade the vast majority of Argentines that Menem has made the right decision--or for the right reason. Public opinion polls indicate that up to 80% of Argentines disapprove of the pardons.

That is because many Argentines fear that the real reason Menem pardoned the junta leaders is to placate a new generation of military officers who have been causing trouble for him, most recently by staging a brief but violent uprising late last year, just a few days before a visit by President Bush. The officers who led that uprising said they were not trying to overthrow the government, only to protest the fact that civilian governments have reduced financial support and the "prestige" of the nation's armed forces. Whatever their motives, it was a scary reminder that at least some officers still think the best way to deal with civilians is to pull guns on them.

That is why the precedent Menem's predecessor, Raul Alfonsin, tried to establish by jailing the former junta leaders was so important. Menem insists that that precedent still holds. But given the history of the Argentine military in this century, it's hard to shake the feeling that Menem has made a rather grave error.

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