Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo
The first act of the junta was to appoint Videla to the presidency. He was inaugurated in May 1976 to restructure completely the political, economic, and social organization of the country under the terms of the military's National Reorganization Process.
Once fully vested with power, Videla undertook a war against subversion, which became known as the "dirty war." In August 1978 Videla resigned from the army and from the junta to assume the presidency of Argentina as a civilian. His successor in the junta was General Roberto Viola. During the 1976-79 period, both the government and the guerrillas bypassed all legal limitations and engaged in open warfare.
Countless numbers of kidnappings, killings, bombings, and disappearances were charged against both sides. Government counterinsurgency actions were carried out by special paramilitary units under armed forces leadership. The whole repressive network was highly decentralized, which made it very difficult to assemble proof of direct military involvement. In the absence of due process, the victims of the dirty war were denied all rights and were subjected to torture at hundreds of special detention centers throughout the country.
With the support of the civilian elites, the military resorted to open violence and complete disregard for human rights. The country was kept under the fear of reprisals because almost any activity could be considered subversive and charged as a crime against national security. The war against subversion was broadened to encompass potentially disruptive elements.
Censorship was applied to the media, the universities, and other learning institutions. A more hideous form of censorship that derived from the terror was self-censorship, which proved to be a castrating weapon against scholarship and artistic creation. Many who escaped the terror, along with the few released from prison, emigrated, resulting in a tremendous loss for Argentina.
Aside from a handful of people, most of the victims never surfaced again and became part of the estimated 10,000 to 30,000 who "disappeared." Most likely they were executed; their bodies were buried in countless mass graves or, in some cases, dropped into the ocean.
Human rights violations provoked little reaction in Argentina but elicited widespread condemnation abroad. In 1979 a special commission from the Organization of American States (OAS) was sent to Argentina to verify charges of human rights violations. The government acknowledged the existence of 3,500 political prisoners, and it disavowed any responsibility for human rights violations. In June, while prisoners were being tortured and murdered, the government allowed the people to celebrate the World Cup soccer match held in Argentina; the crowd at the stadium was not ideologically homogeneous but could congregate around a common bond of sport.
Like the old Roman circus, soccer in Argentina — entertainment for the masses — was used to mask the most abject reality of human rights violations. Despite all the funds expended to present a positive picture of Argentina abroad, the coercion and fears of its citizens were exposed by the international media. It became even more clear that the regime operated through a dual structure — the formal institutional government apparatus and the fearsome informal paramilitary structure.
International criticism attracted attention to the problems inside Argentina and undercut the Videla regime's efforts to cover up its human rights violations. During the 1970s the only domestic protests against the government had been the regular Thursday vigils of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who held the administration responsible for the "disappearance" of their sons and daughters.
The situation in Argentina ignited criticism abroad, especially in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), France, Mexico, Sweden, and the United States. The United States imposed a series of economic sanctions against Argentina. The moral condemnation of Videla's regime was enhanced in 1980 by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Adolfo Perez Esquivel, a poet, human rights activist, and critic of the Argentine government.
Another diversion from the main issues that plagued Argentine political life was a crisis over the territorial dispute with Chile in the Beagle Channel. Arbitration had taken place from time to time since 1902, and by the end of 1978 both countries were preparing to wage war against each other. The crisis developed from a 1973 agreement to accept British arbitration on the basis of a 1902 treaty. The 1976 arbitration award was in favor of Chile's claim and was not accepted by Argentina. Increased tensions were only partially halted in 1979, when both parties agreed to accept the arbitration of the Vatican.
Despite worldwide disgust, the military regime declared victory in the dirty war against subversion in late 1978. Dissension surfaced within the military junta over the question of the future democratization of the political structure, however.
There were three main factions. Generals Videla and Viola led the moderate faction, which sought a certain degree of accommodation with opposition political forces but nevertheless banned labor unions from political activity. The hardliners advocated the continuation of repression through an ideological crusade and were represented by generals Carlos Suárez Mason, Ibérico Saint Jean, and Luciano Benjamin Menéndez. The third group, led by Massera (a member of the junta until August 1978), advocated a conservative alliance with the rightwing Peronists.
To stabilize the economy, Minister of Economy José Martinez de Hoz introduced a series of measures that aimed to reduce the size of the public sector and displace inefficient enterprises in an effort to reverse the long-standing development strategy of import-substitution industrialization.
The key elements of the economic program that were pursued between 1976 and 1981 opened the economy to foreign competition (using lower tariffs, lower export subsidies, free mobility of capital, and daily exchange rate adjustments) on the basis of international comparative costs and the development of Argentina's most efficient economic sector—export agriculture. It resulted in a series of bankruptcies, and numerous industrial enterprises folded in the presence of foreign competition.
The economic situation in mid-1976 — an annual inflation rate of 450 percent, a government deficit equivalent to 13 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), depleted foreign reserves, and imminent danger of a default on Argentina's international commitments — was short of catastrophic. As a result of three good wheat harvests, the value of exports grew by 116 percent between 1975 and 1978, and in 1978 the nation recorded a favorable trade balance of US$4 billion. Economic growth was sporadic, however. Real GDP declined by 1.7 percent in 1976, rose by 5.2 percent in 1977, fell again by 3.2 percent in 1978, and then rose once more by 7.3 percent in 1979.
Foreign banks awash with petrodollars deposited by oil exporting countries promoted a flow of loan capital into Argentina. By 1979 private short-term foreign loans outstanding reached US$10 billion, three times their level of 1976. These infusions of capital allowed the government to maintain an artificial overvaluation of the peso. At the same time, unemployment was kept at less than 3 percent, although real peso wages were drastically reduced.
By early 1979 the economic policy became a patchwork of measures attempting to reverse a process of decay. Between December 1978 and July 1980, the peso was devalued a total of 87 percent relative to the United States dollar, well below the rise in wholesale prices of 212 percent and retail prices of 256 percent. By 1980 the monetarist policies of Martinez de Hoz had led several more banks and major firms into bankruptcy.
Just before leaving the Ministry of Economy in 1981, Martinez de Hoz announced a series of economic measures that included a further 23-percent devaluation of the currency, which dealt a tremendous blow to the military government's public credibility.
By the end of Videla's administration in 1981, the political stability long sought by Argentina had finally been achieved, but at the price of much suffering and injustice. Despite the beginnings of dissension within the military over its future course, the transfer of power to Viola was carried out within the institutional procedures dictated by the National Reorganization Process during the presidential succession of 1981. After his designation as president in March, Viola continued to meet with the political parties as part of the dialogue initiated by Videla in March 1980.
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