Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
A New Americanism
Why a Nation Needs a National Story
AFTER ten years, the dictatorship of Juan D. Perón was overthrown by the last of three military uprisings. It had seemed a great monolithic pyramid with deep and solid foundations; but it was toppled in a matter of days--almost hours--like some gigantic clay idol. Once it fell, the imposing structure was discovered to have been rotten from top to bottom. That was why no great military effort was required to overthrow it. In fact, only four centers of military rebellion were involved in actual fighting: two in the Army (in the central and western provinces of Córdoba and Mendoza and the eastern provinces of Entre Rios and Corrientes) and two in the Navy. Four simultaneous explosions were enough to put an end to a régime which had seemed unshakable.
Before the revolution it was predicted that any attempt to end the dictatorship would unquestionably involve a civil war and that it might be a long one; indeed, many of Perón's bitterest enemies shared this opinion. Nevertheless, the struggle was so brief that the leaders of the armed uprising were themselves surprised; they calculated that they would have to fight for several weeks at least, perhaps months. The fact that the entire Navy was in rebellion and that the city of Córdoba was in rebel hands was enough to make the dictator acknowledge defeat and ask asylum in the Paraguayan Embassy.
The omnipotent leader's decision not to fight served in turn as an unmistakable signal to his astonished and confused followers. The man who had been everything fled, and his rule collapsed as though there had been no one around him except his enemies who were now resolved to fight. It was therefore not so much a question of a triumphant revolution as of a régime which acknowledged itself beaten. The strength of the rebels was more moral than military; and it was that very moral strength which was lacking in the dictatorship, with all its outer impressiveness and inner weakness. This is the only explanation of why exactly three months after the failure of a rebellion by officers and chiefs of the Navy (June 16, 1955) a rebellion headed by officers and chiefs of the Army (September 16 of the same year) succeeded so easily. In the interval, the Catholic forces had aligned themselves wholly against Perón; indeed his violation of their shrines was a preponderant factor in the weakening of the government and the strengthening of its enemies. Régimes which are really strong do not promiscuously resort to violence; if they do, they reveal that they are afraid or that their power is waning. The flames from ruined churches were a sign that the Perón régime had a foreboding of the mortal danger in which it stood. The Catholics had been against him before the burning of the churches, but this incident strengthened their will to fight.
What was called and is still known as the "Liberating Revolution" did not have a written platform or a previously chosen leader. There was no methodically worked out conspiracy with a detailed blueprint and a vast organization. The revolutionary proclamation broadcast from Córdoba by General Eduardo Lonardi at the start of the uprising stated only that the Army had come out of its barracks to put an end to despotism. The essential lines of action which the revolution was to follow were made known one week later when General Lonardi proceeded to Buenos Aires and became President. To the throng gathered in the Plaza de Mayo he said, "The program of my provisional presidency--which will last only as long as circumstances require--can be summed up in two words: the reign of law."
The real difficulties arose after General Lonardi had taken office. The anxieties of the few days of fighting were quickly forgotten. Now it was the staggering disorganization of the country that constituted the main problem, and the situation grew hourly more perilous. The new President had taken the oath of office without having formed his cabinet. He had made his triumphant flight from Córdoba with a briefcase, the text of a speech to be delivered and a secretary to countersign the first documents. His emergency cabinet was made up of men who did not belong to the traditional parties, and several of them were very far to the right of center. Thus from the start the government contained within itself the germs of political divergencies. But there was no time to be lost and the two most pressing needs had to be taken care of: to insure and consolidate the military front, and to sound out the attitude of the labor unions, all of which were directed by Peronists and affiliated under the General Confederation of Labor, the strong right arm of the dictatorship. Many of the military garrisons had maintained an equivocal attitude toward the revolution, but the Confederation (C.G.T.) had not gone forth to defend its "lord and master." If the Peronist elements in the Army and the disciplined hosts of the C.G.T. did not come into the streets to fight for their leader and his régime in those first perilous and still uncertain hours, it is hard to believe that a year later they would have much chance of success. The failure of the recent Peronist attempt (June 9), and the notable lack of popular enthusiasm which it aroused, proves that any vestiges of life remaining to the unseated dictatorship exist only among a scattered if resolute few who once enjoyed power and wealth. They do not dare now to reveal their fidelity to the ousted leader, yet cannot find a way to join the predominant elements supporting the revolutionary régime.
The danger, however, is not that these clandestine units may engage in subversive activities. Paradoxically, the greatest difficulties are created by the very elements which helped overthrow the dictatorship. The desire to unseat Perón was an obvious and simple bond. Political elements with widely differing ideologies had one common enemy. Each for its own reasons, the most divergent elements joined to combat the dictatorship: Catholics and Marxists; men of unquestionably democratic faith and groups which earlier had justified Fascism and Nazism and had come together in Argentina under the banner of "nationalism," collaborating with Perón in the early stages of his régime; men from parties which had been rivals for decades in the past. Perón achieved the political miracle of bringing the most contradictory forces together against him. In spite of himself he created a real "national union" without precedent in Argentina's history. Once the dictatorship had been overthrown, the cohesive element began to lose some of its initial strength. As time goes by Perón's enemies tend to fall back into their natural places in the political spectrum. With the removal of the common enemy, traditional rivalries inevitably appear.
Before the revolutionary government had been in power two months the first internal crisis occurred. The excessive rightist leaning of the emergency cabinet provoked mistrust among the more truly democratic parties. The latter could not accept the dominance in Lonardi's cabinet of political figures who, even though they had collaborated actively in the revolution, had once belonged to groups that had helped Perón seize power and had broken with the dictatorship very late in the game. The orthodox anti-Peronists, opposed to all forms of dictatorship, saw a twofold danger: first, the possibility of a régime without Perón but totalitarian in its sympathies; second, that the interim government would not be brief and might renege on its promise to hold free elections.
The rapid consolidation of the revolutionary movement was demonstrated by the way in which Lonardi and his ministers were displaced just 50 days after he had formed his first and only cabinet. Such a delicate manœuvre might well have turned back the revolution or provoked a new and dangerous upheaval. But this reef, too, was safely negotiated, because the purpose of the revolution was not yet fulfilled; nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of the absolute elimination of whatever might favor Perón. Along with Lonardi, certain groups were alienated, but the dominant revolutionary elements gained in strength. The blow was aimed not at Lonardi personally but at those who surrounded him. Very soon thereafter it became apparent that Lonardi was mortally ill, so that his removal from office anticipated fate by only a few weeks.
The substitution of General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu for General Lonardi on November 13 of last year not only was the first test of strength of the revolution, but also served to set it on a definite course. The objectives were to establish a provisional government independent of any political partisanship, and to hold office as briefly as possible; and to reaffirm that the democratic spirit of the revolution was in harmony with the spirit of the National Constitution of 1853, which had been distorted--rather than reformed--in the Constitution sanctioned by Peronism in 1949.
The promoters of the November 13 purge were mainly naval officers headed by Rear Admiral Isaac Rojas, who was Vice President under Lonardi from the moment the revolution triumphed and who retained this position under Aramburu; an important nucleus of Army officers who had participated in earlier revolutionary attempts and had returned from exile; and political figures belonging to the parties recognized as democratic, that is, all parties except Peronists, Communists and the right-wing nationalists.
The democratic parties which shared responsibility for the replacement of Lonardi by Aramburu are now represented in a Consultative Junta. This political creation, though it has no precedent in Argentine history, has been very useful to the revolutionary government. The Junta's advice is sought on fundamental matters and its members, almost all of whom have had long political experience, serve as a medium for conveying the opinions of the public to the government. Issues are not brought to a vote and the judgment of members may or may not be taken into consideration by the government. More than anything else, the existence of the Junta signifies that the democratic parties support the provisional government and have confidence that it is adhering to democratic principles. The Consultative Junta was planned and set up during the final hours of the Lonardi government. On the day it was formed--November 10--the cabinet crisis occurred and the Junta unanimously sided with the forces which three days later were to eliminate Lonardi and the original revolutionary cabinet. Thus, as soon as it was born, the Junta joined the rebellion against the man who might be said to have been its parent. At the first meeting of the Junta on November 10, Vice President Rojas, who is its chairman, delivered a speech which revealed the divergencies arising within the government. He paid homage to the spirit of the battle of Caseros (which overthrew the tyranny of Juan Manuel Rosas on February 3, 1852) and declared that the Consultative Junta was a vindication of the Argentine democratic parties persecuted by Perón. Rojas on that day, in the presence of Lonardi, interpreted the revolution and gave it the new meaning which was already apparent in the street but was not reflected in the government. Thus the Junta began its labors by taking a firm stand in favor of democracy and supplying the first decisive support for the second stage of the revolutionary government, the presidency of Aramburu.
In the Junta are the representatives of five parties, some of them by no means united. Thus there are four factions within the Radical Civic Union, a party more than 60 years old which was ousted from the government in the uprising of 1930 led by General José F. Uriburu against President Hipólito Irigoyen. Also present in the Junta are the National Democrats, heirs to the conservative elements which governed the country longest; the Socialists, who are politically powerful in Buenos Aires and the industrial centers; the Progressive Democrats, a party founded by Lisandro de la Torre 40 years ago and whose strength is in the littoral provinces; and the Christian Democrats who founded their party last year and in a short time have attained an important position, although they have not yet had the opportunity to participate in an election.
Barring unexpected contingencies, the future president of the nation will be chosen from among the political parties represented in the Consultative Junta. There are no others well organized and in a position to compete successfully in the forthcoming general elections. According to General Aramburu, these should take place toward the end of next year. For the present, the parties represented are united by the need to strengthen the military government; but for the future each has its own aspirations.
It should be noted that the Nationalist groups ousted from the revolutionary government are still active and are seeking to put up a presidential candidate. As things stand today, it appears that their most likely candidate is General León Justo Bengoa, who was imprisoned under Perón and served as Minister of the Army in the Lonardi cabinet. The Nationalists still declare their anti-Peronism; but they cannot forgive the present government for ousting Lonardi and they accuse it of being secretly leftist. Both civilians and military men belonging to this Nationalist group--including General Bengoa--have been subjected to close surveillance and even arrest under the Aramburu government. Unquestionably the most conspicuous opponents of the present régime are concentrated among the Nationalists--except, of course, for the Peronists, whose party has been dissolved and deprived of its property, and the Communists.
After the 1930 revolution, in the elections held early in 1932, there was also a military candidate, General Agustín P. Justo, in opposition to a civilian, Dr. Lisandro de la Torre. General Justo, who at first appeared to be very far removed from the provisional government, won the election. Is it possible that something similar might happen this time? Will there be a military candidate counting on the support of the armed forces? The evidence suggests a negative answer. But history is an endless catalogue of surprises.
Among the democratic parties no candidate for the presidency has as yet been proclaimed. In the so-called "intransigent" faction of the Radical group--its left wing, which is popular and extremely active--circumstances appear to favor Dr. Arturo Frondizi, who was candidate for Vice President in the 1952 elections. At that time the Radicals' candidate for President was Dr. Ricardo Balbín. He recently resigned from the Party's board of directors in protest against the drive to name Dr. Frondizi as the Radical candidate for President. If the four Radical factions could agree on a candidate, their prospects would seem very favorable. Ousted from the government by the armed forces more than a quarter of a century ago, the Radical party could well make a comeback next year, thanks to the new opportunity provided by those same forces.
There is no talk as yet of a coalition of parties with a single presidential candidate. Indeed, other concerns are more immediate than the identity of the future candidates, and among these is the possible reform of the National Constitution. By proclamation of April 27, 1956, the provisional government declared the Constitution of 1853 to be in force, including the subsequent amendments. Specifically excluded were the revisions sanctioned by the Perón régime in 1949, among which was a provision allowing the President to succeed himself. Under the Constitution of 1853, Perón could not have been reëlected; the reason for the amendment was his desire to extend his own term of office.
The parties and the government agree on the desirability of making certain reforms in the 1853 Constitution but opinions differ as to the best time to convoke a new constitutional convention. The "intransigent" faction among the Radicals holds that it should be convoked after the elections, by a popularly chosen government; the other parties incline toward earlier reform. The present government appears somewhat undecided, although it is considered probable that it will favor a compromise solution: the holding of general elections for national, provincial and municipal offices, together with the election of members of the convention to reform the Constitution.
Another question of special concern to the parties is that of the electoral law and the form of representation. At present, Argentine legislation allows for a majority and a minority, but a decree of the national government would permit the system of proportional representation to be applied in the first post-revolutionary elections. All the parties are now in favor of the proportional vote with the exception of the Radical faction led by Dr. Frondizi, which wants to postpone any change until after an elected government takes office. These divergent opinions are, of course, directly related to the electoral prospects. Thus the political future is already beginning to weigh upon the present.
The ten years of the Peronist dictatorship constituted the most extensive experiment in totalitarian government ever witnessed in America, alike in duration, scope and intensity. It was, moreover, an example of the almost limitless hypertrophy which in a short time overtakes a police state when it tries to hide its real nature under the trappings of democratic government. The fall of the régime confirms, in turn, the opinion that the more excessive a dictatorship becomes, the closer it comes to its own downfall, and that the apparent majorities which shout (or are forced to shout) in favor of the leader are fooling themselves at the same time that, unconsciously too, they are fooling the dictator. The gagged minorities, on the other hand, work quietly and ceaselessly. A year or two ago it would have been impossible to judge from a distance the strength which the Argentine rebellion was silently gathering.
The Perón government was in reality a de facto government which had no legal foundations and observed no legal restrictions, but which operated behind numerous pretenses of legality. In contrast, the present government which sprang from the revolution represented itself as a de facto government; it does not and cannot try to conceal its origin. In practice it limits its own powers. Dictatorship is permanent disregard for the bounds of authority; law is recognition of them. The Argentine government abides by the latter concept and avowedly shuns the former.
The present Argentine government is striving to demonstrate its loyalty to the fundamental rules which it has imposed upon itself: to remain in office a limited time; to be equally independent of all political parties; to hold the fairest elections possible; and to guarantee democratic principles, adhering to the Constitution of 1853 in so far as it is compatible with an emergency government. So far, there has been no reason to doubt that these rules are being and will continue to be observed. Much of the strength enjoyed by the present government lies in the obvious conformity between its promises and its deeds.
About a month after it came to power, the Aramburu government made known its "basic directives," proclaiming the essential principles which it was striving to uphold. These "directives," which form part of the statute of the revolutionary government, consist of affirmations such as these:
To eliminate all vestiges of totalitarianism in order to restore the reign of morality, justice, law, freedom and democracy. Once this objective has been attained and conditions have been established which will permit the citizenry to express its real will, it shall decide its own destiny. And it will be left to the constitutional governments succeeding this provisional government to solve the major problems which do not come within the scope of the revolutionary objectives themselves.
This government is a provisional government and its members have no intention of remaining in power. Consequently, we repeat our formal undertaking that none of its members will accept any elective office for which they might be proposed as candidates in the forthcoming elections.
In the final hours of the Lonardi government the office of Minister of the Army was assumed by General Arturo Ossorio Arana, who still occupies this post. On December 6, 1955, General Ossorio Arana summoned the military chiefs and delivered a speech which attracted wide attention and is regarded as forming part of the "basic directives" of the present government. In this military document the following concepts are to be found:
It is not a new thing in our country, and it seems to be a Latin American evil, that military personalities seek to make themselves dictators through recourse to the arms which the people themselves pay for as a guarantee of their security. . . .
We shall so conduct ourselves that the Army, in a democratic spirit, as in other countries (the United States, England, France, etc.) may remain aloof from partisan political strife, confident that the citizenry will learn to live democracy and will in no case need to resort to force to impose its programs or correct supposed or real mistakes of its governors.
The elections are to be held in about 14 months; it remains only to set the exact date and to resolve the questions discussed above. If the government continues its present line of conduct, the Liberating Revolution will have fulfilled its professed aims and the "Argentine Interregnum" which opened on September 16, 1955, will have come to a fitting close. The rest will be up to the parties and the people.
In the meantime, the Aramburu government is proceeding with caution. All resolutions of major importance, in addition to being subjected to Cabinet approval and the advice of the Consultative Junta, must be screened by the Military Junta, made up of the President and Vice President of the nation and the Ministers of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Other juntas and advisory bodies collaborate in the work of a government which is noted for its deliberations and consultations. Although it is a de facto government of revolutionary origin, it acts as though it were exactly the opposite. Its partisans themselves criticize it for excessive slowness and mildness in its decisions; but this criticism could hardly be applied to the way in which it suppressed the seditious attempt of last June 9 and 10, when it ordered dozens of executions of military men and civilians.
The present situation in Argentina affords an opportunity to observe how hard it is for a people to pass from a prolonged period of oppression to the free exercise of its essential liberties. Released from inhibitions imposed by force, the public is like someone paralyzed by excessive inactivity. It is slow to recover the use of its faculties. There persists the deep-rooted obsession that little or nothing is permitted. The fear to criticize, for example, exists even among those who fought for freedom. Nevertheless, Argentina's progress in the right direction is not being halted; the press, the radio and the political forum are recovering their rights.
The government realizes that the economic situation has direct bearing on the nation's capacity to maintain order. During the past ten years the population of the country has increased by three million, or about 15 percent of the total, while agricultural and livestock production has suffered a serious decline. Total grain production, for example (wheat, corn, barley, rye, oats, rice, flax and sunflower seeds), was 90 million tons in the four-year period 1939-1944, 65 million in the next four years, and only 57 million in the period 1950-1955. In 1948 there were 52 million acres under cultivation, and in 1955 only 42 million. Over the last ten years per capita production increased only 3.5 percent, which is equal to the increase registered in only one year by Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and other countries. Dr. Raul Prebisch points this out in his technical study, "The Argentine Economic Situation," and adds that per capita exports during the past five years have been scarcely half what they were in the five years prior to the Second World War.
During its brief incumbency the provisional government cannot make up for all those lost years. It can only try to guide the nation's economy as it is trying to guide the reëstablishment of democratic institutions--by providing the initial impulse. To raise its production levels the country needs a national program of work and must increase and modernize the machinery used in industry, agriculture and transportation. It is estimated that the machinery, equipment and other capital goods which Argentina must import within the next three or four years will cost 1.2 billion dollars. Even were this figure cut in half, the effort called for would still be extraordinary. For this reason foreign aid is being sought, and it will be granted in the measure that Argentina and its present government succeed in inspiring confidence. If it stays on the right track politically and reëstablishes democratic institutions, other countries will have confidence in its economic reliability.
The "Argentine Interregnum" between the dictatorship and democratic normalcy will last--judging by the plans being made --about 26 or 27 months. It would be difficult to shorten this period by more than a few weeks. Perón fell just a year ago. The work accomplished is enormous, but the task remaining to be completed is just as great. If the "interregnum" closes with the transfer of the reins of government from the military to civilians freely and constitutionally elected, the Argentine example of "democratic resurrection" will be of incalculable benefit to all of Latin America, which continues to be a spawning ground for dictators. If its promise is thus fulfilled, there is no exaggeration in saying that it will constitute the most important achievement of a South American army since the time when the continent won its independence. In the meantime, a definitive evaluation of the Argentine revolution awaits the day when a duly elected government takes office.