Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
FUTURE historians are likely to note with respect that the second half of the 1950s was a period in which some of the most powerful dictators in Latin America were pulled down. The list includes, among others, the strongmen who once ruled such important countries as Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela and Cuba; today only two or three of the old-style régimes of force still stand. In the many countries from which dictators have recently departed, responsible citizens are struggling to establish constitutional government in societies still marked by the wounds and scars left by years of authoritarian rule and then by revolution. Whether they will succeed in establishing stable régimes of proven democratic commitment remains a question.
Argentina's struggle for democratic recovery--now in its fourth year--has been longer than that of the other countries. In other respects Argentina is also unique among the former dictatorships. For example, it possessed a much more advanced economy before the Perón era than did other countries before their ordeal under one-man rule. Argentina's experience may therefore have only a limited applicability to other situations, but it does illustrate the extreme difficulty of replacing dictatorship with constitutional government.
The Argentine people have been through a lot since Perón fell in September 1955. His régime was succeeded by a Provisional Government of revolutionary origins, directed by the armed forces but not excluding civilian participation. Six weeks later the Provisional Government underwent an internal crisis which resulted in the Presidency passing from General Lonardi to General Aramburu. Aramburu's government sought to restore traditional civilian rule, with the announced intention of quitting office as soon as practicable. It reëstablished the pre-Perón Constitution and called a popularly elected convention for constitutional revision. The work of the convention did not amount to much, but the government went ahead with plans for general elections for the Presidency and the Congress. Meanwhile it faced subversive threats from the still loyal and numerous body of Perón's followers.
The elections took place in February 1958, with organized Peronism excluded from the lists. The voters were offered what was nominally a multi-party choice, but under the operative electoral law, the winning party was assured of two-thirds of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, while the party running second took the remaining seats. Hence, in reality the contest lay between the Intransigent Radicals (U.C.R.I.), whose Presidential candidate was Arturo Frondizi, and the People's Radicals (U.C.R.P.), whose candidate was Ricardo Balbín. The outcome was an overwhelming popular victory for Frondizi. When the newly elected authorities took office in May 1958, the process of restoring constitutional government was, in a strictly formal sense, completed.
A realistic restoration, however, involved more far-reaching and more complicated problems than the conduct of honest elections and the willingness of temporary military rulers to step down. For Frondizi faced much the same tasks that the Provisional Government had been struggling with, but he was not armed with the same revolutionary powers for undertaking them. An economy disastrously out of balance was one of the inheritances which had passed from Perón to the Provisional Government and in turn to Frondizi. Peronism continued to be a serious threat to national order, as the crippling strikes of November 1958 and January 1959 demonstrated.
These events led the new President to declare a state of siege and to resort to military force in an effort to cope with the situation. These drastic measures were taken in accordance with Article 23 of the Constitution and with the subsequent approval of the Congress, but they undoubtedly gave a new coloration to the Frondizi administration. In consequence, some observers have wondered whether the President had not turned himself, albeit constitutionally, into a strongman backed by military force in a manner that at least superficially suggested a reversion to the recent past. This query can perhaps best be answered in terms of three basic questions regarding Argentina's present situation:
1. What has been the nature of the Peronist threat in Argentina and how did Frondizi seek to meet it before he reverted to the state of siege and reliance upon military support?
2. How do the military authorities fit into the Frondizi régime? Are the armed forces in effect in command of the government and merely operating behind a civilian façade?
3. In resorting to a show of military force to meet the recent crises, has Frondizi put himself in a position that is in any way comparable to what Perón's once was? If not, what is the essential difference between the present régime and the earlier one?
During Perón's long tenure, his chief but by no means sole source of strength lay in organized labor. For a long time he also had the backing of the armed forces, although some of this support was grudgingly accorded. An over-expanded bureaucracy was another element of support, though probably less dynamic than the others. In the beginning his régime enjoyed at least acceptance by the Church hierarchy as a whole and the enthusiastic support of several conspicuous churchmen. By the time of his downfall Perón was engaged in a bitter struggle with the Church, the armed forces had turned against him, the bureaucracy had proven to be too passive to be a source of strength, and the only support remaining came from the vast segment of organized labor in those unions which owed their origin or growth to Perón.
Perón's departure naturally loosened his grip on certain parts of the labor movement, but it did not end the fanatic loyalty of a very considerable majority of the labor leaders. The Provisional Government found that 62 unions, or roughly two-thirds of the total, remained Peronist in spirit. These unions offered a continual problem to the Aramburu régime, but armed as it was with revolutionary powers the problem was not an insuperable one, even when, as in mid-1956, the threat of subversion was very real.
The reasons for labor's loyalty are not hard to find. Prior to the advent of Perón, Argentine political leaders gave scant attention to the problems of the urban worker. The Socialists as a minor party had sponsored a very limited labor movement. Small Catholic groups under Bishop Andrea had undertaken similar ventures. But the major parties gave the worker little notice. Perón changed all this by making organized labor a new and potent factor in Argentine politics. A definitive appraisal of the tangible gains that this brought to the individual worker will probably have to wait for a time when passions have cooled. There seems to be little doubt, however, that some gains were genuine. During Perón's first term as President, 1946-51, real wages rose while the national economy was strong enough to bear the burden of the increase. If the economic ills which set in after 1952 nullified this advance, there remained the fact that Perón had given the worker a great psychological boost. For the first time in Argentine history the factory hand, the bus driver, the packing-house worker could feel that he was participating in public affairs and that his participation was not only accepted but eagerly solicited. Continuing loyalty to Perón in labor circles probably resides, then, not only in the memory of gains made before 1952 but also in the new sense of importance which Peronism had inculcated. Appeals to this loyalty have undoubtedly been strengthened by the economic hardship encountered since Perón's departure and by the fact that the party of Perón--who once "solved" the worker's problems--has been proscribed.
When Frondizi took office his major political problem was to find the means of lifting the proscription without at the same time opening the door to civil disorder. On the one hand a régime pledged to constitutional rule could not consistently deny rights of political organization to a vast sector of the electorate. On the other, to allow the Peronists to revive their undeniably large party held threats of large-scale subversion. Both during his Presidential campaign and afterwards, Frondizi sought to overcome this dilemma by attracting the workers into his own party. This tactic had at best a meager success. It is true that many Peronists voted for Frondizi and thereby helped to swell his popular vote. But this did not mean that they had committed themselves to him. They may have given him their votes simply in the expectation that he would be the easiest of the leading candidates to deal with. They may have even voted "on orders" from the ex-dictator sent from Ciudad Trujillo, as has frequently been alleged. They may have voted as they did for many other reasons. What seems most improbable, however, is the charge that Frondizi won Peronist votes because of a "deal" between himself and Perón. Indeed, responsible critics of Frondizi have commented privately that there is no basis for the allegation. An arrangement of this sort would surely have required Frondizi to respect the integrity of Peronism in the labor movement. Instead the whole effort of the government was to take labor into its own camp.
The effort achieved no success. There were too many circumstances against it. In his first month in office the President decreed an imposing wage increase, but it did not keep pace with inflation. Frondizi could deal with labor leaders as spokesmen for an important segment of Argentine society, but he could not restore their sense of being the dominant figures. When he invited foreign investment and particularly foreign participation in the exploitation of national petroleum resources, he violated the time-honored shibboleths of economic nationalism and offended not only Peronists but many other Argentines. Peronist organizations meanwhile remained loyal to the creed.
In November 1958 and again last January the Peronists, Communists and other disaffected elements produced the strikes which led to the imposition and continuance of the state of siege. They did so in the name of the economic nationalism which the government had ceased to honor. In this venture the Peronists were not very clever--probably they never have been very clever. For in effect they defeated themselves by solving Frondizi's dilemma for him. In the beginning his constitutional duty had been to find the means to reincorporate the Peronists into the public life of the nation. Their avowed purpose in striking, however, was to subvert and frustrate the policy of the state. In the face of this threat, it then became the President's constitutional duty to safeguard public order. He did so by invoking the state of siege and by the use of military force. If the Peronists had been wiser, if they had refrained from such drastic action, they could have kept the dilemma alive for months, perhaps for years. It would have remained a source of embarrassment to the government and would have preserved the Peronists' own potential importance. As it was, they merely weakened their position by acting outside the law.
In meeting the Peronist threat Frondizi had little choice but to fall back on the power of the armed forces. The merits of some specific acts in this connection can be debated--for example, the decision to bring huge blocs of workers under military discipline --but of the need to count on military support in these crises there appears to be no question. This does not mean that the military is now giving the orders to a subservient government.
Last September I asked a leading military figure whether the armed forces would ever again assume responsibility for the conduct of public affairs. His first reply was a resounding never! When I probed for some qualification of this categorical answer, he replied that the military régime which held power between September 1955 and May 1958 had had as its whole purpose the restoration of constitutional democracy. Success in achieving this goal, as much as the practical experience of these 30 months, had left the military with an "acute civic conscience." They had come to understand better the problems of government and had learned that this was not the task for which by training or temperament they were best fitted. Only under a genuine threat of Peronist seizure of public authority would they ever willingly take over the reins of government.
These are the views of an officer who would in all probability be the number-one candidate for Peronist firing squads. If they are not wholly representative, they are shared at least by that important segment of the military which overturned the dictatorship in 1955 and which does not want to see anything like it again. Indeed, a military coup seems most unlikely. Time has softened the military attitude toward civilian authority. The ranking officers no longer believe that government is simple or that they can easily endow it with military efficiency. They are obviously far from ready to abandon the advantages of their situation, but the crises of last November and January suggest that the officers have traded a commanding position for a bargaining one. This will naturally subject the civilian authorities to pressure, as, for example, when Frondizi dropped Rogelio Frigerio, his chief economic adviser, from the government in November. But pressure and the will to drive a hard bargain certainly create a very different situation than when the military is calling all the turns.
Since Frondizi took office, his government has unquestionably lost a portion of its popular support, as the Peronists (and the smaller groups of Communists, certain nationalists and others) have turned against it. But the election probably was never a very accurate index of Frondizi's strength since the Peronist votes represented so uncertain an asset. Because the Peronists are now in overt opposition, one should not assume that the bulk of the populace has turned against the government. The threat to public order and the means taken to combat it have undoubtedly increased the importance of the armed forces as a source of support, but this does not mean that the military are in command or that they are in a position to seize command.
Yet, parallels between the present régime and Perón's will inevitably be drawn. In the Perón period the armed forces were also an indispensable element of support. His government, too, resorted to the state of siege on occasion. It can be pleaded that in the present situation the legislative branch has operated freely and that the judiciary has continued to function. But under Perón a Congress was also in existence and courts operated. Do these parallels make Frondizi a second Perón?
Perón manipulated a huge machine in which the controlling counterweights were labor and military power. Until his last days he could always press the lever that would move now one, now the other, to keep the machine in balance. This power made him irresponsible and ultimately unaccountable to anyone. Frondizi commands no such machine. And although he has made mistakes and revealed personal weaknesses, to his credit he has seriously endeavored to establish the principle of government accountability to the people.
In a strict sense this is a pioneering venture in Argentine political history. In the past, the measure of a government's success has tended to be its strength or its popularity. An accountable government is not concerned with these as ends in themselves. Rather it is concerned with the real needs of the nation as a whole and the means to satisfy them. It is responsive to social demands but can resist unwarranted pressure for special privileges. It protects the powers of the state against domination by any special groups which, having failed to attain power through constitutional methods, seek to do so by force or subterfuge. And finally, of course, such a government is accountable for its actions, by providing assurance that there will be elections in which the people can freely choose or renew a government that is their own.
It is this kind of responsibility that the Frondizi government has shown the most apparent concern to assume and discharge. The President has been accused of many faults in office; first, of temporizing with the Peronists, then of being unduly repressive toward them. His loyalty to his own party has been questioned, especially in connection with the forced resignation of the Vice President last November. There are indications that party conniving has not been absent from the manœuvres which continue to leave two provinces without representation in the Senate. All these and other charges may be debated on their merits, and some of the debates will eventually show that not all the means employed have been the wisest or even the most honorable. What appears to be beyond question, however, is that the continuing concern of the present régime has been to protect public power against moves which would threaten the basis of popular government.
The second major effort of the government is, of course, to advance the material well-being of the people. The problems are enormous because the Argentine economy no longer has the great strength that it had during the years when Argentine tastes and standards were set. Argentina once lived very comfortably on its export trade. Beef, wool, cereals and vegetable oils provided foreign exchange for the importation of manufactured goods and fuels. The world economic crisis of the 1930s broke down this balance and World War II made for further dislocations. Internal changes in the economy created still more difficulties. Beef, for long the most solid source of foreign revenue, declined in production relative to population. Mismanagement of other resources resulted in loss of markets abroad, while Argentine cereals met new and stronger competition.
During the early years of Perón's presidency these losses caused no immediate hardship, because the country had accumulated substantial foreign exchange reserves during World War II. But the adverse balance of trade has continued, approaching in recent years an annual rate of $300,000,000. To overcome this, the government has devised a program, two features of which merit special attention.
One is the expansion of the industrial capacity of the nation so that a greater portion of goods and services may be supplied domestically. According to government economists, Argentina's production must be stepped up by 35 percent to provide the goods and services which the growing population needs. They see the shortest route to the new figure in a program of rapid industrialization. Government spokesmen insist that industrialization does not mean a neglect of the traditional agricultural and pastoral resources, although many observers are not entirely convinced that full account is being taken of the agricultural potential.
The other feature is to invite foreign participation in the exploitation of petroleum resources of the nation so that the disastrous energy shortage--the chief cause of the trade imbalance--may be reduced. According to government estimates, the consumption needs of Argentina will run to about 16,000,000 tons by 1961. For about half a century exploitation of the oil resources has been in the hands of the state monopoly, Y.P.F. (Yacimientos Petrolíferas Fiscales). Y.P.F. has recently been producing at the rate of about 5,000,000 tons, with an annual increase which still falls far short of need. Imports have been required to satisfy the rest of the demand. It is expected that the contracts with foreign oil companies for further exploitation of Argentine resources will cut down the import requirements to zero within a few years.
In addition, there is a need for more capital to build up local industry and to rehabilitate seriously neglected services such as the transportation system. The major accomplishment of the government to date has been the securing of combined loans and credits amounting to $329,000,000, which were announced in December. These were obtained from the International Monetary Fund, United States government agencies and private banks. Additional private investment was invited by the President during his visit to the United States. In order to provide a more attractive climate for foreign investment, both official and private, the government has undertaken currency reform and has reduced official expenditures to levels of "austerity."
What is most remarkable about this series of ventures is not that Frondizi was able to undertake them so soon after entering office; rather, it is that the government was able to make what amounts to a grand-scale assault on the doctrine of economic nationalism which has been deeply rooted in Argentina for more than a generation. The belief that any large-scale foreign investment involved an "impairment of sovereignty" is nowhere better illustrated than in the case of petroleum. Y.P.F. has never been able to meet the country's petroleum needs, but in spite of its deficiency, it has long been regarded as a safeguard of national integrity. Its monopoly was believed to have prevented "imperialist" exploitation by foreign companies, which might serve as channels of foreign governmental influence on Argentina's internal politics or, worse yet, involve Argentina in the military strategy of the great powers. It is too much to expect that these fears--once cultivated by Frondizi himself--will die out quickly in the population as a whole, but it is encouraging that government officials from the President on down have shed them in the brief period that the régime has been in power. Of course, officials insist that the government remains in control and that Y.P.F. has not suffered organizationally. They still contend that foreign companies are dangerous when they have "concessions" or when they acquire title to either the soil or the product pumped out of it; on the other hand, foreign companies are harmless when they work on a "contract" basis and can gain only monetary compensation for the processes of extraction. However this may be, it seems clear that the developments in petroleum, currency reform and foreign investment will serve to bring Argentina closer to the United States than it has ever been or wished to be.
In international affairs the Argentine people have traditionally been neutralist in spirit and their governments have generally resisted foreign commitments, especially those which would tie them to the Colossus of the North. Events of the last few months have marked the beginning of a reverse trend. Will the Argentine people accept this departure from tradition? At best, they will not be enthusiastic. And their tolerance will be tested as they see more clearly that economic rehabilitation is a long-time operation with few spectacular successes in the immediate future. Acceptance of closer links with the United States may indeed depend on their showing some fairly tangible benefits without undue delay.
When Frondizi arrived in Washington in January 1959, it was frequently pointed out that he was the first Argentine President to visit the United States. The Argentine visitor who most closely approached Frondizi's status was Juan B. Alberdi, not a president, but the "Father of the Constitution of 1853," who visited Washington more than 100 years ago. Alberdi, too, came at a time when Argentina was in the process of reconstruction after a long period of internal strife and disaster. His government, too, was having its troubles with dissident forces not yet ready to accept a reunited republic. But Alberdi did not linger long in Washington. He moved on to London and Paris where he expected to find the foreign resources which would aid in the reconstruction of his country. Frondizi, a century later, is also trying to reconstruct a battered country and he, too, must look for foreign aid. But his journey had, of necessity, to terminate in Washington. There are no other capitals to which he can appeal.