Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Argentina's Democracy in Peril

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Argentina's Democracy in Peril

Article excerpt

IN recent months, the Bush administration has directed major attention to the democratization of Latin America, which the White House proudly claims has taken place during the Reagan and Bush presidencies. But few in Washington display any awareness, let alone concern, for the many countries in the region, like Argentina, that are very close to falling back into the shadow of rule by the generals.

It has been scarcely seven years since the country emerged from a dark period of brutal military rule, and the promise of democracy that shone so brightly then has been replaced by alarming economic decay, deepening social unrest, and the resurgence of right-wing elements within the military.

Several years ago, Colonels Aldo Rico and Ali Seineldin rose to prominence as the leaders of three aborted coups against then-president Raul Alfonsin. The colonels, known as "Carapintada," or painted faces after the camouflage paint worn during their insurrections, were pardoned last October by President Carlos Menem, along with 280 other officers also accused of insubordination and human rights violations.

Now free, they head an increasingly nasty political campaign against Mr. Menem's government, accusing it of a "liberalism" incompatible with the "institutions and pillars of Christian society," represented by "the fatherland, the church and the armed forces." The two ultra-nationalist Carapintada leaders have been making public appearances, giving speeches with anti-Semitic overtones, holding meetings with labor and business groups and frequenting the poorer neighborhoods in the country, from which they draw growing support for their simplistic solutions.

The Menem government, whose approval rate rose above 80 percent last summer, now faces a crisis of confidence as that figure fell to 34 percent in March. In contrast, Rico's and Seineldin's image is viewed favorably by about 17 percent of Argentines. Considering their mutinous pasts, and that both were officers during the "dirty war," in which more than 13,000 innocent civilians were murdered by the military, these approval ratings are ominous signs.

The grave state of the economy is reason enough for widespread discontent: The cost of living has risen 8,164 percent in the past year; inflation is estimated to have hit 80 percent in March, and more than 15 percent of the Argentine work force is unemployed. …

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