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Fourth International, July 1943


Terence Phelan

Behind the Argentine Coup


From Fourth International, Vol.4 No.7, July 1943, pp.209-212.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Few recent events have been so badly misjudged by the US government and press as the June 4th cuartelazo, or barracks-revolt, in Argentina. On the first day Navy Secretary Knox gleefully announced, “It looks as if the pro-Axis Administration there has been unhorsed,” and other government spokesmen likewise publicly rubbed their hands at the prospect of pulling Argentina into belligerency. But within the fortnight, though the US had recognized the new government, Secretary Hull was greeting with snappish replies of “No comment,” reporters who pleaded to know whether he thought it a Nazi regime. The authoritative New York Times was forced to write a fresh editorial, with a new line, practically every day; and finally its editors were reduced to what they themselves called “reasonable guesses.” Even Argentine pro-US elements similarly leaped before they looked: the Radical Party announced its support of the new regime – and had its headquarters padlocked for its pains. One Horacio B. Oynaharte popped up in Chicago to hail the coup and announce that he had accepted the Radical Party’s nomination to run for President in the September elections – which the new regime a few days later postponed to the Greek kalends. Nor was Berlin any more perspicatious: the first day of the revolt its radio howled that it was nothing more than a US plot to drag Argentina into the war.

The most ridiculous spectacle of all was provided by the Stalinists. The Moscow press and radio hailed the coup; the bumbling functionaries of the Daily Worker within four days had run the entire gamut from its first-day headline “Anti-Axis Army Takes Control in Argentina” to denouncing the coup as “Nazi fascist.” Its June 7 editorial stated:

“The change in government is already a blow to the pro-Axis forces. Independent of the objectives of the forces now in control we may expect the speedier unfolding of democratic developments in Argentine.”

That same morning’s New York Times was reporting the seizure of the Stalinist daily La Hora and the arrest of its editors. This is, of course, precisely the sort of political analysis to be expected from people who abandon Marxist criteria for the treacherous deception of classifying all regimes as “democratic” or “fascist” according as they are in the Anglo-US or Axis bloc.

In the flipflop of both bourgeois and Stalinist press from warm welcome to indignant denunciation one fact stands out sharply. From the very first moment it was abundantly plain that the new regime was one of extreme military reaction, with nothing democratic about it. Yet the press was ready to welcome this reactionary gang and indeed to whitewash it as long as it assumed it was unconditionally pro-US, and exploded into righteous indignation only when it began to appear that it retained considerable independence vis-à-vis Yankee imperialism.

Why They Guessed Wrong

In one sense, the mistaken assumption that the Ramirez-Rawson coup was pro-US was understandable. When you telephone for a messengerboy and five minutes later the doorbell rings, it is not unreasonable to suppose that it is the messenger. The U.S. had long been “expecting” a pro-U.S. revolt in Argentina. As long ago as May 1941, Fortune, the organ of Big Business’ managerial technicians, in a remarkably frank reportage, Report from Argentina, revealed that Latin Americans were fearing a new kind of intervention on the part of the US. The article noted ironically:

“Marines are a dated method, tres vieux jeu. Much neater are internal ‘democratic’ revolutions, turning the rascals out and replacing them by upstanding statesmen who, quite accidentally, are pro-US.”

And it went on to point out that General Justo was Yanquilandia’s man. In May 1942, we ourselves warned in these pages:

“The pro-Anglo-US sector, despairing of the internally split and collapsing Radical Party, is preparing to get behind the ex-President-Dictator General Augustin P. Justo. If the Castillo regime continues to resist US pressure, there is far from excluded a coup, backed by Yankee imperialism, to put Justo in power and swing Argentina into the US war orbit.”

Indeed, the plans of US imperialism were a secret to nobody. In the Spring of 1942 it was a matter of public knowledge in Argentina that not only had the Radical Party failed to interest Washington in backing an overturn which would reestablish electoral sovereignty, but the negotiator had been given to understand in diplomatic but unmistakable language that, though the US was indeed interested in backing an anti-neutrality revolt, the horse it was backing was ex-dictator General Justo who, while swinging Argentina into the US war camp, would maintain “a firm hand” internally.

Although Justo himself died in the interim, delaying matters, it was nevertheless not surprising, when the cables brought word of a revolt, that everyone assumed that This was It – delayed a little by the necessity of rearranging matters with Justo’s political heirs, but in essence the same revolt that had been so long awaited.

An even more basic reason for the assumption that no Argentine revolt could be other than pro-yanqui was the US bourgeoisie’s incorrect evaluation of its Argentine counterpart. Arrogant US capital had long assumed that Argentina was just another banana-republic, differing in size but not in essence. Argentina’s dogged independence at the Rio de Janeiro Conference of Foreign Ministers in January 1942 was a considerable jolt; but was frivolously attributed to “Latin pride,” “jealousy of Mexico,” and similar nonsense. Irritated, US capitalism turned on the heat by means of a strangling embargo on Argentina, and continued to underestimate the powers of resistance of the strong though badly divided Argentine bourgeoisie. It was that persistent error of evaluation which made Washington find so incomprehensible a series of Argentine attitudes and actions which were, on the contrary, perfectly logical on the part of the national bourgeoisie of a strong semi-colonial country.

Just how strong has been exemplified by the success of the long and not yet ended struggle of Argentina to keep from being dragged into the war. It has not yielded as yet even to the extent of severing normal diplomatic relations with one imperialist bloc at the behest of the other. Indeed, if Argentina is compared with the only other remaining countries of similar importance which have kept out of the war – Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey – it will be found that it has maintained a more independent position than any of them. Despite a considerable rise in the cost of living, the war has probably caused less suffering in Argentina than in any other country. The latest Banco Central report shows that industrial production more than doubled between 1935 and 1942 – from $800,000,000 to $1,750,000,000. Never was employment so high. It was basically this situation which enabled the Castillo government to count at least on negative popular tolerance, despite strong resentment of its reactionary internal policy.

But the war has had indisputable effects on Argentina’s economy. It produced neither an over-all boom, as in 1914-18; nor has it shattered it, as was momentarily feared after the closing-off of the continent and the apparently imminent collapse of Britain in 1940. Instead, it has – literally – dislocated it. Stock-raising, after the mid-war scare, has again become flourishing and profitable; but grain-crops are in a catastrophic situation for lack of markets, involving dangerously both the bond-structure erected on capitalized land-values and the government’s own finances, heavily burdened by the policy of buying grain at a guaranteed price. Some industries are booming; but others are collapsing through inability to obtain the necessary machinery replacements, raw materials, etc. Here, as we pointed out in The Real Situation in Argentina in the August 1942 Fourth International, is the weak joint in Argentina’s armor.

The Causes of the Revolt

Yankee imperialism has ruthlessly attacked at that point, attempting to strangle Argentina into submission by refusal to send the steel, heavy machinery, and other special equipment which Argentina must have to maintain and expand its industries. As long as the scales of war appeared to the Argentine bourgeoisie to be nicely balanced, they stubbornly held out. Now the turn in the war has not been sharp or overwhelming as yet; but Tunisia and Pantelleria visibly tipped the scales in the Allies’ favor. The Argentine revolt was the distorted reflection of that shift in the correlation of imperialist forces.

Furthermore, parallel with the growth of Allied successes, Argentina has seen itself threatened by increasingly menacing military encirclement. Free Lend-Lease arms, especially planes, have been pouring into the bordering countries, particularly into Brazil. And with them, again particularly into Brazil, were pouring US planes, guns, and troops. Meanwhile the US, now the only possible source, refused to sell Argentina any arms whatsoever. Argentina manufactures its own light arms and planes, largely trainers. But it has not in the past manufactured heavy artillery, tanks, and big planes; and even if it now attempted to do so, could not obtain the necessary aluminium and special steels.

Until a year ago, the Army was Castillo’s stronghold, and its nationalist-minded leaders heartily supported his policy. But with every plane that arrived in Brazil, they began to get more nervous, and to put pressure on Castillo to relax his policy just sufficiently to enable the Army to buy some arms in the US. Castillo, presumably better informed than they of the political price demanded, refused.

The final incident was, curiously, one affecting Argentina’s imperialist interests. For Argentina, though standing in a semi-colonial relation toward the major imperialisms, in its turn imperialistically exploits a smaller nation, Paraguay. Of late, Brazil, acting purely as an agent for US imperialism, has been poaching on Argentina’s preserves: some eighteen months ago, for example, the Banco do Brasil opened in Asuncion an agency which offered easier credit terms to Paraguayans than the long-established branch of the Argentine Banco Central there.

Such was the situation when, on the morning of May 24th, Minister of War Pedro Paulo Ramirez received a report that President Morinigo of Paraguay, during his recent “good-will” visit to Brazil, had signed a treaty of military alliance. This was the last straw: Ramirez imperatively demanded of Foreign Minister Enrique Ruiz Guinazu that foreign policy be swung round sufficiently to enable the Army to buy equipment. On the refusal of this request, the Army generals, backed especially by the hot-headed nationalist cadres of colonels, decided at a secret meeting to put an ultimatum before Castillo at the July 6th annual Army-Navy “Comradeship” Dinner. Though they proposed to hold their troops in readiness in barracks on the night of the dinner, they conceived this merely as a powerful argument, and did not doubt that Castillo would concede just the necessary amount. But Castillo, if he lacks imagination, does not lack courage; getting wind of the plans, he countered by demanding Ramirez’s resignation as Minister of War. A public statement by Ramirez that he had no designs on the presidency, either by election or by coup, failed to appease Castillo. At another meeting of the top Army officers, General Arturo Rawson persuaded the majority that they had gone too far to back down. On the night of June 3rd, the Army marched on the Federal Capital.

Thus the revolt was not made by principled political opponents of the Castillo regime, but by its own men trying to force its hand. Furthermore, their own hand forced in turn, they went off at half-cock. They did not have time, as nearly as can be ascertained, to consult at the necessary length with key capitalists and political leaders. It was thus a movement without either responsible bourgeois, or broadly popular, support: a mere cuartelazo. Hence it did not so much end a struggle as open it; and it is safe to assume that the June 4th coup was only the first act in an Argentine drama that will prove long and complicated.

That it was a mere palace revolution without fundamental political changes was demonstrated by the events of the coup. The entire action was carried out by a mere 8,000 men, some of them, according to the radiophotos, not even helmeted. There was almost no resistance – only 82 dead, and some of those civilians shot accidently. The high-seas fleet maintained a benevolent neutrality. Most striking and significant of all, the politically conscious masses of the Federal Capital took no part in the action, regarding it with apathy. Between the Castillo government and the generals, they saw no good reason to die for either. On the one hand, Castillo’s policy of non-belligerency was extremely popular, but his barbarously repressive internal policy was justly hated. On the other, the generals might perhaps promise a restoration of full internal democracy, but, the masses shrewdly guessed, only at the cost of dragging Argentina into the war. So, though a handful (blown up by the US press into a big demonstration) hopefully shouted: “Viva la democracia!,” the only genuine popular demonstration was unconnected with the coup. Crowds in the Plaza de Mayo seized the occasion to tip over and burn a dozen colectivos – Buenos Aires’ small fast buses – to express their indignation toward a particularly resented dirty deal whereby the government had forced their driver-owners to sell them – on the pretext of “rationalization of the transport system” – to the predominantly British-owned Corporacion de Transporte. They also stoned the offices of a few Nazi newspapers and chased into his home the leader of one of Argentina’s national-fascist groups, Manuel Fresco. Cops dispersed all demonstrators with tear-gas, put Fresco in protective custody overnight, arrested eighty newsmen and photographers. And the popular “intervention” in the revolt was at an end.

Far from being democratic, as it was first hailed, the new regime is rightist-reactionary and nationalist-military in nature. It furthermore has strong overtones of the Vargas brand of totalitarianism. It is, incidentally, not without interest that Ramirez in April fulsomely praised Vargas’s Estado Novo in a public address. The second statement issued by the junta abounds in typically clerical-fascist demagogy:

“Usurious capital imposes its interests to the detriment of the financial interests of the country, protected by the powerful influence of high Argentine politicians who prevent our economic resurgence.

“Communism threatens to set up its rule in the country, which is made possible by the absence of social precautions ....

“The armed institutions are despised and national defense is neglected.

“Education is leading the children away from the Christian doctrine and the youth is being raised without respect for God or love for country.

“It is inconceivable to plan the future government of the nation and to remedy such grave evils when the very men who participate and take part in the government are, and will be, the very ones responsible for the present situation, and are tied down by political agreements with the financial and land-owning interests.

“The high-ranking leaders of the Army and Navy who today decided to assume the enormous responsibility of creating, in the name of the aimed institutions, a strong government devoid of the attitude of indifference which was masked by legality, but of the highest patriotism as in the Praetorian epoch ...”

This could have been written by Vargas or Salazar or Franco. The new regime immediately established martial law (later reduced back to the state of siege imposed by Castillo since December 1941); it dissolved Congress; it closed La Hora and arrested 14 of its editors and contributors – including even a Chilean Stalinist senator who was traveling through to Uruguay and was released only on strong diplomatic representations by the Chilean Embassy; it closed the headquarters of all political parties, including those of the Radicals who had offered it their support. It freed Castillo, naturally – this was only a family quarrel. It sent Interventors – Federal appointees replacing elected provincial governors – not only into the Castillo-controlled provinces where electoral frauds had put governors in power, but, even more promptly, into those provinces where legally elected Radical governors were in office. It was hailed, nevertheless, as anti-Nazi by the “democracies” when it abolished the privilege of embassies to send code messages; then obligingly lifted the ban long enough for the Axis embassies to make – in code – other arrangements. It forbade more than three persons to meet together in any trade union headquarters. It replaced the Radical mayor of the Federal Capital by General Basilio Pertine, member of the highest coordinating committee of the Argentine fascist groups, the Junta del Gobierno del Nacionalismo Argentine. It suspended the pro-Allied afternoon newspaper Critica, permanently suppressed the Stalinist weekly Orientation, and barred from the mails the Socialist morning daily Vanguardia, which nevertheless offered its support. Two days after announcing that it was only a temporary government and would return the power as quickly as possible to really “worthy” politicians, it called off the presidential elections scheduled for September 5th and formally ordered the word “provisional” dropped in referring to itself. It replaced the strongly nationalist heads of the “YPF,” Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales, the government oil corporation, and the Marina Mercante de la Nacion, the government steamship corporation, by unknown young Army officers. By the 20th, the German-financed pseudo-nationalist rag El Pampero was boasting in an editorial passed by the government censorship that Ramirez proposed to set up a corporate state based on guilds similar to that established by Mussolini. In repeated statements couched in a sort of diplomatic double-talk, the

Ramirez junta assured that it would fulfil all its “Pan-American obligations,” but would remain “truly neutral” toward the rest of the world, and issued a sharp warning that it proposed to maintain complete sovereignty against no matter what pressure.

The Real Struggle Is Now On

With these measures, then, the Argentine situation is momentarily frozen. The fog of censorship established by the new regime is impenetrable, but behind it the real struggle for power is now going on. It was significant that the military junta, once it had state power, didn’t quite know what to do with it. The only two civilians General Rawson could get to become ministers were two “illustrious zeros,” obscure fascists from those circles which army officers habitually frequent. Rawson’s “Cabinet” fell in 28 hours. For the moment Ramirez has cobbled together another which the Argentines promptly nicknamed “the cabinet of colonels.” One serious representative of the Argentine bourgeoisie, however, sits in it as Minister of Finance: Jorge Santamarina, president of the Banco Central, most powerful single financial force in the country. It is safe to assume that he is there to see that the Bonapartist stop-gaps do nothing financially silly while the Argentine bourgeoisie is making up its collective mind what to do, and the various sectors are struggling for power.

The determining factor underlying that struggle is that the growing Allied victories confront the Argentine bourgeoisie with the necessity of carefully reexamining its foreign policy. In the process, it is determined to make the least possible concessions, political or economic, touching Argentina’s sovereignty. Given its extreme complexity, the struggle may be long drawn out. First there is the struggle between the majority of the bourgeoisie which is truly national and – according to its limited bourgeois lights – anti-imperialist, and the minority bourgeois agents of imperialism. Among these agents themselves there is a secret and bitter rivalry between British and Yankee factions. Britain’s role in the coup is far from clear: on the first day, stocks of the almost bankrupt British railways in Argentina spurted upward in London; when Rawson gave way to Ramirez, they climbed down again. Also to be noted is the friendship toward the British evidenced by Patron Costas, Castillo’s chosen successor. There are also struggles among the representatives of the various economic sectors: the almost ruined grain interests clamoring for a change while the live-stock industry is by and large satisfied with the status quo; the industrial sub-sectors to whom the present situation means boom against those to whom it means crisis. There are struggles between those bourgeois nationalists who want a Vargas-type totalitarian state, and those who want the reestablishment of the Constitution. These struggles are numerous, complex, and cut across one another at all angles. It may take considerable time to iron them out. Meanwhile, it is the most probable variant though not at all the only one, that the Ramirez junta will be kept in power as a stop-gap. This was the pattern of the very similar 1930 coup, when a military government was maintained for six months until all the necessary deals had been made.

To the Argentine masses no intelligent lead has been given by either of the two mass working class parties. The Socialists, for long pro-Allied and pro-war, apparently see signs that the Ramirez regime will ultimately yield to US pressure and support it. The Stalinists embarked on violent unprincipled zigzags. On the third day the Argentine Communist Party called for a revolutionary general strike against the new regime, summoning the workers “to the streets!”. This adventuristic appeal meeting with the same apathy which the proletariat had shown toward the coup itself, the Stalinists, six days later began humbly whining to the new government to “keep its democratic promises.”

To the small but vigorous Fourth Internationalist movement there opens the opportunity of growth. As against the Popular Front demagogy of the Socialists and Stalinists – the Fourth Internationalists advance a program of democratic demands and a proletarian united front. They have an excellent opportunity of rapid increase of influence in a proletariat angered by the continuance of reaction in Argentina. The censorship now allows almost no news to filter through concerning the Argentine labor movement; but one five-line UP dispatch of June 22, reporting that police shot down five of the striking workers in the sugar center of Esperanza, is indicative of both the workers’ anger and the government’s reaction.

The new government is reported ready at last to sign the long argued oil accord with the US. Argentina badly needs drilling equipment for the further development of her oil reserves, now her only source of petroleum products. The US offered a three-cornered deal whereby, in return for Argentina’s supplying oil to the neighboring countries, especially Brazil, the US would deliver some oil-drilling equipment. But the offer contained a catch. The government petroleum corporation, “YPF,” has long successfully combated the Standard octopus. But now a disproportionately high part of this drilling equipment would go to Standard and another US company operating in Argentina. Against this provision Castillo and the YPF directors stubbornly held out. The new government’s willingness to accept this accord may well be the opening wedge to far greater concessions.

Nevertheless, the Argentine bourgeoisie may decide for a while longer to continue resistance to stepped-up Yankee pressure. If that should come to pass, there would soon arise again in sharpened form the danger of intervention, disguised under the nauseous hypocrisy of “Pan-American joint action.” North American workers, knowing that the class-conscious Argentine proletariat, a million strong, looks to its class brothers in the United States as its only sure allies, must in such a case be quick to raise the cry of protest: “Hands off Argentina!”

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Last updated on 26.6.2005