That traumatic Easter
If around this time last year the centenary of Ireland’s Easter Rising was being marked, the time has now come to mark the 30th anniversary of Argentina’s military upheavals during Easter Week. This comparison in no way flatters local events — if the Dublin rebellion must be hailed as ultimately a historic advance because its pure idealism simultaneously led to military failure and the birth of Irish nationhood, Argentina’s Army mutiny was more sordidly negative for everybody concerned. “Happy Easter, the house is in order,” the Radical (UCR) President Raúl Alfonsín told a frightened nation after coming to terms with the mutineers but in fact he had just squandered his most precious capital in agreeing to roll back the prosecution of crimes against humanity. Unlike most Argentine presidents who staked their electoral futures on achieving socio-economic progress in one form or another, Alfonsín’s prestige was basically moral from heading the return to democracy in 1983 and from trying and convicting the military juntas for their state terrorism in 1985 — if Alfonsín’s presidency is generally viewed as having been destroyed by the 1989 hyperinflation, the writing was on the wall as from the devastating 1987 midterm defeat a few months after the mutiny when the Radicals only won in the provinces of Córdoba and Río Negro (outside this city), thus inspiring the joke: “What do the initials UCR stand for? Unicamente Córdoba y Río Negro.” The erosion of Alfonsín’s moral credibility and leadership under the duress of the Easter mutiny should not be underestimated as the beginning of his end.
If Alfonsín eventually lost out so heavily, nobody else really gained. The immediate winner was not the Army as such but middle-ranking officers who dictated the agenda throughout and clinched their legal immunity (denied the juntas until Carlos Menem’s pardon in 1990) — this so dislocated the natural order in the force that Argentina’s masters over several decades soon faded into insignificance. The Renewal Peronists (who gained democratic prestige from rallying behind Alfonsín in that tumultuous Easter) were the big winners of those 1987 midterms but lost the presidential primaries to Menem only a year later. Democracy as a whole underwent two periods of Peronist presidency (with only the briefest interval in 1999-2001) where a frustrated obsession with a third term led to the second terms being largely a waste of time.
There is a strong case for saying that anybody inflicting such damage on democracy should still be in prison three decades later but at the very least they should be permanently banned from public office. Yet what do we see? The mutiny leader Aldo Rico was elected mayor of San Miguel only 10 years afterwards while today President Mauricio Macri has seen fit to make another carapintada officer Juan José Gómez Centurión his chief of Customs (the heart of power at various stages in Argentine history). Time we started remembering that traumatic Easter 30 years ago.