Argentina: militarism vs democracy

The promotion of an army general accused of complicity in human-rights violations raises a wider question about the military's role in Argentina's political life, say Federico Finchelstein & Fabian Bosoer.

Federico Finchelstein Fabian Bosoer
3 August 2013

Where did they go, the military dictatorships and generals of the cold-war era? They certainly departed from Latin America. The region was once famous for its serial engagement with violent, even genocidal dictatorships. Today, it is a global beacon of formal democracy.

For if authoritarian leadership prevails in pockets of Europe (Belarus), Africa (Equatorial Guinea), Asia (North Korea) and the middle east (Syria), Latin America no longer has a single military dictatorship. There is not even a dictatorship where the security forces are central players in the antechambers of power, as in present-day Egypt or even China. To be sure, former military men hold top positions in countries like Guatemala or Venezuela, and in these countries the military remains a central actor in curtailing more institutional understandings of democracy. By contrast, in Paraguay, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, where military violations of human rights during the cold war have broadly not been held to account, there are no significant military actors among the political elite.

The growing irrelevance of the military in recent decades is in historical terms surprising, though it can be seen as a long-term outcome of Latin America’s re-emergence as a bastion of democratic and economic progress. In this context, Argentina led the way in the 1980s, with the prosecution of military criminals involved in the dictatorship of 1976-83, from the master-planners of "disappearances" to low-rank killers. Argentina's truth commission was the first of its kind, and became an example to the region and beyond of the transition to democracy. For instance, the South African case was deeply influenced by Argentine experiences.

This Argentine way of dealing with military violations was not smooth. At first, the trials of the accused generated a great deal of resistance from the military. President Raúl Alfonsin’s policies of the 1980s faced several coup attempts. The later Peronist administration of the 1990s under Carlos Menem gave amnesties to the top perpetrators while previous laws stopped all impending criminal proceedings. This situation changed in the 2000s with the administrations of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Kirchner, fully-fledged trials resumed with full bipartisan support. At the time, Argentine civil society firmly rejected the violent legacy of the military and deprived any elements of the latter of the will or ability to “resist” democracy and justice. In short, Argentina was coming to terms with its past in both judicial and societal terms.

The context of scandal

However, recent developments show that this “happy story” of justice, history and memory combined could be seriously jeopardised by the attempt to allow a new intrusion of the military into politics. This time, however, the military is not barging its way: it is being invited to join the political project of the current Peronist administration.

This is the context of the "Milani affair" in Argentina, which is threatening the administration’s most important legacy. The heart of the affair is that, against strong bipartisan resistance, President Cristina Fernández Kirchner is pressing ahead with the nomination of General César Milani to the top military rank of chief of the army. Milani was  a young intelligence officer during the "dirty war", and has been accused by various victims of the dictatorship of participating in many instances of repression.

The entire opposition, the Nobel prize laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the most important human-rights organisations, and even key allies of the government have asked that Milani’s promotion be abandoned. But the president does not want to change course, even though she claims to be an Argentine beacon of the defence of human rights. Why is she so determined, and what does this reveal about the president's relationship with the military?

The answers lie in four aspects of Argentina's recent history. First, the old Peronist notion of the "nation in arms" is being revived. In this view, the military is and should be an active political player, with a role that includes military assistance in social work, control of elections, and internal territorial deployments. Historically this has led to the conflation of civilian and military roles, with dire consequences for the country.

Second, the Peronist administration has increasingly voiced a jingoistic nationalism towards the Malvinas/Falklands islands (their respective Argentinean and British names). This extends the "nation in arms", links to the wider discourse of “South American integration”, and entails further verbal confrontation with “imperialist powers”. Clearly, this will not have actual military consequences, but it has a negative impact on relations with Britain and, to a degree, the European Union.

Third, the Milani case recalls the previous army chief, General Roberto Bendini, who (as many  witnesses attest) accused Argentine Jews of planning to occupy Patagonia - an absurd old trope of Argentine fascism and antisemitism. Bendini was not fired by Néstor Kirchner despite a national and international outcry, and only resigned years later, in 2008, amid judicial investigations of corruption. Incidentally, Milani has faced accusations of corruption that are currently being investigated by the judicial system.

Fourth, Argentina has developed an understanding with Iran, which is broadly rejected by the population. This is part of a trilateral military collaboration with Venezuela, a country where the military plays a vital role in the government's ideology and logic. In this last regard, Argentina jeopardises its collaboration with Brazil, the EU and the United States.

The logic of militarisation

In short, the current presidential embrace of a general as dubious as César Milani has several precedents and associations in modern Argentine history, none of which involves a pluralist notion of democracy where either majority or minority views are seriously considered. What remains is a narcissistic, populist form of decision-making which threatens to unravel Argentina's democratic legacy, including the defence of human rights and the exclusion of the military from the political sphere.

Since the end of the dictatorship in 1983, no military figure of relevance has stated, as General Milani did, that military men “must walk along the national project that is alive and installed in the minds and hearts of Argentines.” The key characteristic of recent Latin American democracies is that the military has no any significant role in politics. For its part Argentina, even more than other countries, and especially due to the violent crimes during 1976-83, has resisted the United States's attempts to militarise the “war on drugs.”

If such militarising policies, which have proved a disaster in countries like Mexico and Colombia, continue in Argentina they will eventually be found illegal; for example, the Argentine military is legally forbidden from performing an internal security or policing role. Cristina Kirchner, nonetheless, mistakenly believes that there is room for a politicisation of the military. The president denies that inflation is growing yet has raised military salaries by 24%. She says that she "feels the responsibility of incorporating the armed forces to this project of national development.” The logic of her approach is that the military must become a wing of her administration. This is not good news for the future of pluralist democracy in Argentina or the region.

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