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Argentina - The Military in Politics

The first military government in the twentieth century ruled the country from 1930, when Hipólito Yrigoyen was overthrown by a military conspiracy led by General José F. Uriburu, until 1932, when Uriburu oversaw fraudulent elections that were won by General Agustin P. Justo. Since then the military played a major role in politics, acting, for most of the period from 1930 through 1983, like a political party with guns. In those 53 years six civilian governments were overthrown by the military.

The military was not normally a political actor that intervened in politics only in times of national emergency. Rather, it was an integral part of the political system. Just as all governments since 1945 have had to deal with the power of organized labor, all governments since 1930 have had to deal with the power of the military. All parties sought military allies either to support their governments or to overturn others, and the military, often with its own ideas on policy and the design of political institutions, sought allies among civilian politicians.

The military, however, was not a unified actor. Like all the other political forces in the country, it was riven by internal factions that competed for power and influence and divided on the fundamental questions facing the country since 1945: the place of Peronism in the political system and the appropriate economic model to be followed.

The military was especially divided in its response to Peronism. The military had been a crucial support for Perón, but after his overthrow in 1955, most Peronists among the senior officer corps were retired. The remaining officers became divided during the Aramburu government (1955-58). Those officers who had participated in the 1955 coup were opposed to the persection of the Peronists. Another group, more influential in the Aramburu government, felt that Peronism should be eradicated from the country. Finally, a third faction emerged that was relatively neutral on Peronism but felt that the military should not attempt to govern the country for an extended period. In 1958 these groups were divided on the questions surrounding elections.

The so-called quedantistas (from the verb quedar, to remain) wanted the military government to continue until the last vestiges of Peronism were eliminated. The so-called continuistas favored holding elections but wanted to ensure that the winner would be sympathetic to military goals. The socalled fair play group wished to hold elections without the participation of the Peronists and to respect whatever the re- suits were. "Fair play" opinion prevailed, and Frondizi won the 1958 elections.

Opinions within the officer corps hardened further under Frondizi. By 1962 there were two main factions, known as the colorados (reds) and the azules (blues). The colorados were hardline anti—Peronists, often confusing Peronism with communism. Given the electorate's obvious preference for Peronism, they concluded that the country was not ready for democracy. They demanded that the military rule until Peronism was destroyed. In economic matters, they believed that the conservative economic model of an economy based on the export of primary products was the most appropriate for the country. In 1962 the entire upper echelon of the navy, as well as the infantry and the engineers within the army, were colorados.

The azules, also known as legalists or blandos, thought the military should stay out of the political process unless the alternative was chaos or a return to Peronism. Their main objection to Peronism, however, was Perón himself. They were Nationalist in orientation, supporting an economic policy of Economic Nationalism in order to industrialize the country. The azules were prominent in the cavalry units of the army, including most of the mechanized forces.

In 1962 the colorados deposed Frondizi and opposed his constitutional successor, Guido (1962-63), wishing to establish a military government. The azules supported Guido. The intra-military conflict became increasingly violent throughout 1962, leading to virtual civil war in the streets of Buenos Aires in September 1962. The azules won the battle, and the military supported the election of Illia in 1963.

The Onganla government (1966-70) marked a major change in the military's political role. Before 1966 the officers had generally served as arbiters of conflicts among competing groups of civilian politicians. In 1966, however, the military attempted to act as the agent of fundamental social and political change. Virtually all the organized groups of the country — labor unions, political parties, and interest groups — were disbanded as Onganla tried to establish a new corporatist system under military direction.

Many officers, however, did not support this effort. Some were concerned about Onganla's corporatism and others by the prominent place of Catholic Nationalists in his government. When violent demonstrations broke out after the 1969 riots in Córdoba and terrorism became the dominant mode of political conflict, the military turned to Peron.

In 1976 the military government of Jorge Rafael Videla aimed to eliminate the political influence of the Peronists, the unions, and all left-wing groups. Virtually the entire upper ranks of the officer corps supported this effort, which was pursued by fighting a guerrilla war against all groups and individuals identified as "subversive." Estimates of the number of people killed during the so-called dirty war range as high as 30,000.

Although united in its desire to eradicate the left, the officer corps remained divided on other questions, particularly on economic policy and, ultimately, on the design of the political system it wished to create once the guerrillas had been eliminated. These questions dominated military politics after 1978. Videla's minister of economy, José Martinez de Hoz, pursued a policy of opening the economy to imports and foreign investment.

Nationalists, particularly those in the navy and the cavalry units, opposed these policies, arguing that they would lead to the destruction of Argentine industry. The army commander, General Roberto Viola, was particularly vocal in his criticism. Junior officers expressed concern for the falling living standards among the working class, which they felt could lead to a new explosion of violence. In December 1980 many Nationalists were promoted, increasing their voice among the upper ranks of the officer corps.

The military was also divided, largely along service lines, over their plans for the political future of the country, particularly over the role civilians were to play in making those plans. The air force and the navy felt that the military should design the new political system and impose it, while the army preferred at least some consultation with civilians. The conflicts within the officer corps led to Videla's removal in March 1981 and to the beginning of the transition to civilian rule.

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