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International Socialism, Winter 1966/7


Robert Looker

[Coup in Argentina]


From The Notebook, International Socialism, No.27, Winter 1966/67, pp.5-6.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Robert Looker writes: The June military coup in Argentina which ousted President Arturo Illia and his moderate Radicals is only the latest demonstration of the country’s inability to maintain even the facade of a civilian democratic regime in the face of any threat of political victory by the organised working class. Since Peron brought the descamisados into the political arena in the 1940s, this threat has dominated Argentinian public life, and the charge of ‘softness on Peronism’ has been used as the justification for regular intervention by the military – most recently against the Frondizi government in 1962, and now against Illia’s weak and vacillating regime. In March 1962 the army intervened to annul the elections when the Peronistas made extensive political gains; this time, they decided not to wait for the March 1967 elections which were widely expected to produce the same result.

The military junta under General Ongania has rapidly established an almost total dictatorship; all parties have been disbanded; Parliament and the regional assemblies have been abolished and the traditionally autonomous universities have been brought under firm state control; the new regime has proclaimed itself the ‘representative of all the pebple,’ and President Ongania now exercises all legislative and executive powers, with complete discretion over whether or not to select a Constituent Assembly to advise him on drafting laws. So far, the regime has avoided any open conflict with the unions, presumably in the hope that subtler methods than those employed against them by General Arambura in the brutal repression of 1955-58 will achieve its purposes. For their part, the Peronista union leaders have accepted, and even welcomed the new regime – there was the curious spectacle of Francisco Prado, secretary general of the CGT, making an appearance in the ranks of the invited guests at Ongania’s installation as President. The unions had no use for Illia’s ineffectual liberalism, and see in the abolition of political parties a wonderful opportunity to enhance their own power, possibly through the establishment of a Socio-Economic Council which will bring unions, employers and armed forces together in the direct government of the country.

Economic realities are likely to shatter these corporatist fantasies in the near future. Argentina has been suffering in recent years from a combination of industrial stagnation and massive inflation (33 per cent in 1965-66), and the Right-wing, non-party technocrats in Ongania’s cabinet are committed to an extreme economic orthodoxy, complete with deflationary budget, and severe cuts in State expenditure, along with measures to attract foreign capital. All this strikes at the standard of living and economic nationalism of the Argentinian working class, but the real confrontation must come when the Government carries out its declared policy of dismantling the nationalised industries, and in particular of dealing with the State railways. This ramshackle industry loses $1 million a day, a loss which accounts for most of the Government’s budget deficit. Yet any attempt to make the railways pay entails the dismissal of nearly a third of the 172,000 labour force, and will constitute a direct challenge to the unions to fight or abdicate all their claims to power.

The Argentinian coup is but one example of a pattern which is emerging all over Latin America, where, since 1961, 16 Right-wing revolts have left some two-thirds of the continent’s population south of Mexico under authoritarian regimes. The root cause of this resurgence of militarism is the failure of Latin America’s civilian governments to contain the social contradictions in their societies once the organised working class has developed to any significant extent. Fear of the growing power of the proletariat has increasingly driven the urban middle classes into an alliance of convenience with their old enemies, the landed oligarchy, an alliance underwritten by the armed forces. This was the pattern, for example, in the March 1964 coup in Brazil which was precipitated by President Goulart’s possibly demagogic appeal to the workers and peasants for their active support in carrying out a programme of far-reaching social and economic reforms, including the expropriation of land, nationalisation of the remaining privately owned basic industries, and the enfranchisement of Brazil’s 20 million adult illiterates. Taken together, the Brazilian and Argentinian coups suggest that the pattern of military intervention is changing in character. Brazil’s General Castelo Branco in his practice, and Argentina’s General Ongania in his declared intentions, have made it quite clear that their coups are not simply the assertion of the army’s traditional if self-appointed role as ‘guardian of the constitution,’ a temporary interruption in the normal pattern of civilian government. On the contrary, conservative military dictatorship now looks like becoming part of the normal order of things for two of the most populous and prosperous nations of Latin America, a militarism which has become all the more possible now that the Kennedy interlude is over and the Johnson administration has made it clear that it cares more about the political reliability of its southern neighbours than any nonsense about democracy.

The threat of militarism was one of the main topics which exercised the minds of the Presidents of Columbia, Venezuela and Chile, when, with the representatives of Peru and Equador, they held their little ‘summit’ in Bogota in August. Not that these ‘democratic’ rulers are likely to give the military any cause to intervene by making any real concessions to their workers. In Chile, for example, Eduardo Frei’s Christian-Democrats have proved markedly reluctant to push forward with a very mild programme of reform, the so-called ‘revolution in liberty.’ In three years in office its main achievement has been to pass legislation which provides for gradual ‘Chileanisation’ of the US-owned copper industry on terms which have proved highly acceptable to both domestic and foreign capitalists. The regime’s only real show of firmness has been directed against the country’s socialist and communist controlled unions; earlier this year, the government succeeded in smashing an 88-day strike by the copper miners at the US-owned El Teniente and El Salvador mines, killing eight miners in the process.

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