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The Reality of Argentina’s Tattered Armed Forces

Honor, Shame and Duty: The Reality of Argentina’s Tattered Armed Forces Today

• A weakened and morally damaged military institution slowly claws its way back to respectability

It is no illusion that the tone and substance of the Argentine military seems to have deteriorated in the last several decades, from imprudently aspiring to control the nation in the 1970s and early 1980s (during which time it committed massive human rights abuses, rendering it the worst human rights violator in the hemisphere), to an ill-advised escapade in 1982 to re-claim the Falklands/Malvinas Islands from British jurisdiction. As a result of this veritable collapse, the Argentine military appears to have become a broken institution. The capstone on the various calamities debilitating the nation during recent times was the crippling influence of the 2001 meltdown of the Argentine economy, which crushed the entire nation, including its increasingly brittle security forces.

Two recent events can be seen as illustrating the skidding tendencies of the Argentine military and help to underscore its currently calcified condition. In early November, the Argentine federal police detained Jorge Antonio Olivera, a retired army major. He is accused of the “forced disappearance, kidnapping and torture” of Franco-Argentine citizen Marianne Erize in 1976 during the commencement of the country’s military dictatorship and the “Dirty War.” This conflict unleashed the Argentine military against the nation with barbarous results, ending up in thousands of casualties. Almost at the same time in early November, London decreed a new constitution for the disputed Falklands.

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It seems that whatever future the Argentine armed forces are able to create for themselves, if they aim to be a regional military power (a position now that now belongs to Brazil and perhaps to Venezuela), it will not be a simple matter of restructuring and coming up with a revitalized rehabilitating and acquisition program for the Argentine armed forces. But any program would have to deal with the military’s horrific past and its need to seek absolution from a population to which it showed little mercy when it held all the cards in its hand.

The Argentine military at one time had a proud history, going back to the early 19th century, when the independence armies were led by General José de San Martín, which brought an end to colonial rule in the southern part of South America. But since then, apart from the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War, Argentina has not been involved in an armed conflict with another nation-state since the late 19th century. Between 1864 and 1870, Argentina joined Brazil and Uruguay in a war of annihilation against the madman then ruling Paraguay in what became known as the War of the Triple Alliance.

The Rise of Military Rule
Starting in 1930, a whirlwind of military governments ruled Buenos Aires. General Jose Felix Uryburu took control of the government from 1930-1932 under the argument that then- civilian President Yrigoyen was not promoting peace and progress in the country. In June 1943, during World War II, General Rawson took over interim control of the presidency. Rawson himself would be overthrown three days later by General Ramirez. In 1955, then-civilian President Juan Peron resigned the presidency and a group of generals took power; General (ret.) Eduardo Leonardi became de facto president. In November of that same year, Leonardi was replaced by General Pedro Aramburu, who ruled until 1958. From 1966-73 there was the so called “Argentine Revolution.” The de facto military presidents were General Juan Carlos Ongania (1966-70), General Roberto Levingstone (1970-1971) and Alejandro Lanusse (1971-1973). In 1971, Alejandro Lanusse became the last of the de facto military presidents of the era when he decided to call for elections in 1973 in an effort to return the country to democratic rule.

The nature of the political game as played on Argentina dramatically changed in March 1976 when a military junta took control of the country until 1983. General Jorge Rafael Videla headed up the country’s military junta from 1976 to 1981, when it was followed by General (ret.) Roberto Eduardo Viola and General Leopoldo Galtieri from 1981-1982 and finally General Reynaldo Bignone until 1983. The reverberation of the unspeakably brutal events that took place during the period of military dictatorship are still being sharply felt today.

The Dirty War
Traditionally the Latin American military saw itself as a guarantor of each country’s constitutionalism and sought power only to assert its authority by preventing continuismo in office through redistributing the presidency to political parties, in particular, the opposition.
But in Argentina, the military grabbed power not to redistribute it to an existing political party but to rule in its own name.

The subsequent repression carried out by the military junta in the 1970s has been labeled the Dirty War (Guerra Sucia), in which upwards of 30,000 individuals, Argentine citizens as well as foreigners, where kidnapped, tortured, and murdered or simply disappeared. Some 9,000 individuals are still reported missing. The original objective was to defeat the leftist guerrillas known as the Montoneros (left-wing Peronists) and the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (People’s Revolutionary Army), who were also responsible for a variety of human rights abuses. It is unclear though, how many of these “desaparecidos” (disappeared individuals) were a result of military actions or of the insurgents.

After the military was forced to leave power in 1983, the prosecution of then-military officers was slow to commence and still continues today as the nation cannot safely rest until justice has been brought to the thousands of victims of the military during this epoch. In February 2008, two retired policemen were arrested in connection with the massacre of 16 leftist guerrillas in 1972. Pursuit of security officials who were active during the period of military rule reached a pinnacle in late November when a retired police commander accused of the disappearance, torture and death of dissidents during the junta era-Mario Ferreyra (AKA “Malevo,” meaning “evil”) – shot himself dead in front of live television cameras when he was about to be arrested.

It is somewhat ironic that a country like Argentina is known, on one hand, as being the cradle of patriotism and of great historic figures like General San Martín, as well as repressive military officials of the 1976-83 junta accused of some of the worst human rights abuses at the time (such as dropping several drugged French nuns from planes into the ocean) as well as gunning down journalists, academics and religious figures. The country also serves as the birthplace of one of the most iconic leftist revolutionaries of the Cold War, Ernesto “Ché” Guevara.

The other legacy of the 1976 military junta was the ill-fated 1982 attempt by the Argentine armed forces to retake the disputed Falkland/Malvinas Islands from the United Kingdom. The British claim to the archipelago dates back far back as 1833, when British forces established themselves on the island. The April-June 1982 Argentine-initiated war against Britain proved a catastrophe to the Argentine military. Among other costly setbacks, the Argentine navy lost its flagship, the ARA cruiser General Belgrano, when it was torpedoed by the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror, in which over 300 Argentine sailors drowned. Reasons for the Argentine decision to make the imprudent decision to attempt to seize the British colonies include the radical nationalism that was infecting the ruling junta at the time the conflict began as well as a desire to divert public attention from the country’s deteriorating economy and embezzlement perpetrated by senior members of the military. Important byproducts of the Falklands War were the protests staged throughout the country, which were prompted by various scandals and revelations of wrongdoings by senior junta officials, who eventually persuaded the junta to relinquish power in 1983.

The Economic Meltdown and the Military Today

In 2001, the Argentine economy effectively imploded due to the collapse of the Argentine peso. The Argentine military proved incapable of surviving the negative aftershocks of a then broken policy of defending the peso at all costs. Since then, the military’s annual budget sank becoming a fraction of what it was in the past. Salaries were cut throughout the ranks. The size of the armed forces not only had to be reduced, but in many cases equipment had to be sold on the black market in order for military units to meet their daily expenses. According to Military Technology, the current strength of the Argentine military is about 68,000 troops.

In a May 2007 op-ed to the conservative Argentine daily La Nacion, former Defense Minister Horacio Jaunarena declared that the average age of the country’s military hardware is thirty years. He reported that the army was operating at 30% of its supposed strength, due to its limited ability to house and feed its troops, as well as to maintain its equipment and weaponry. The former official gave other examples, such as that out of 31 military transport aircraft in inventory, only four were currently operational. Although the Argentine navy is considered new in comparison to those found in other countries across the continent, it remains one of the less potent in terms of its inherent military capacity.

Assessing the Country’s Military
With a reduced budget, the Argentine military continues without a sense of direction or mission. In May 2006, then-President Nestor Kirchner declared his intention to reform the Argentine armed forces during a ceremony marking the army’s 196th anniversary. He stated that “we are preparing a process of review, restructuring and holistic modernization of the national defense system.” Similarly, in June 2008, current Defense Minister Nilda Garre discussed the re-organization of the country’s naval policy. She is on record as saying that “naval policy should adequately interconnect the need to have an efficient war squadron, sustainable economic development, protection of the marine environment, promotion of the ship-building industry, and the consolidation of an international system based on multilateralism and the respect for the norms of international law.”

There is certainly a necessity to modernize the Argentine military, particularly as Argentina’s military equipment has not been comprehensively renovated in years, possibly jeopardizing the integrity of the weaponry and whoever utilizes it. For example, in August 2005, a Hugges 39 helicopter operated by the Argentine military crashed in Cordova province, killing all four passengers. On April 2007, the icebreaker ARA Almirante Irizar caught fire in the South Atlantic.

But times could be slowly changing for the Argentine military as a rehabilitation process is slowly underway. In October 2007, Defense Minster Garre announced plans for additional funding for the armed forces, including funding to upgrade the Santa Cruz (TR-1700)-class submarine. A November 10, 2008 report in Mercopress news agency announced that Buenos Aires had refurbished its UH-3H Sea King helicopters. The article goes on to say that “Argentine defence sources admit that some new model will have to be acquired to replace the ageing Sea King in a near future, since they are technologically behind and spares are increasingly difficult to obtain.”

This past October 2008, the Argentine Defense Ministry announced the successful test of two medium-range Aspide missiles (Italian in origin) that had been modified in Argentina’s Centro de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas de las Fuerzas Armadas (Scientific and Technical Research Center of the Armed Forces). The goal of the project is to produce missiles that will intercept possible air attacks.

As previously noted, Argentina has carried out relatively few military purchases from foreign suppliers. In 2006 there were rumors circulating that Argentina would buy military hardware from Russia (at the time news about Venezuela’s multi billion-dollar purchases from Russia were still fresh); however, the story failed to materialize. Such rumors resurfaced again in early November 2008, when a report in the ITAR-TASS Russian state news agency quoted the director of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, Mikhail Dmitriyev, as saying that there is a growing trend of military technical cooperation between Russia and Argentina. The article mentions concrete plans for cooperation, including radar stations and a “helicopter programme, including supplies and setting up of centers for servicing helicopter hardware, possibly, not only in Argentina but also at a regional scale.”

The Argentine military is also salvaging homegrown equipment and do-it-yourself “garage” projects in order to prolong the life of its current aging hardware. So far, this process has had mixed success. In November 2007, the Argentine military presented its first self-fabricated helicopter. The CH-14 is a tandem two-seater (one crew member forward and the other aft) for surveillance and light attack. It is unclear if any foreign military establishments were interested enough to place tenders to buy them. During the presentation of the aircraft, General Roberto Bendini exalted the “courage” of the military aviators in various missions assigned to them, especially those carried out during the Malvinas War. In early November 2008, according to reports, the Argentine Defense Ministry decided to cancel “Project Patagon,” due to high costs. The goal of this initiative was to manufacture forty hybrid tanks, using out-of-service tank turrets and combining them with recently-acquired Austrian parts. The total price tag for the project was to be $23.4 million.

Almost at the same time, Argentine Defense Vice Minister, Germán Montenegro, declared that “the Argentine armed forces are prepared, qualified and trained to work in any scenario to militarily protect the country.” It is unclear if the Argentine official knew of the doomed Project Patagon, which exemplifies how cash-strapped the country’s military currently happens to be.

A new training facility for junior naval officers opened at the Puerto Belgrano naval base in 2006. Nestor Kirchner attended the ceremony and gave a speech in which he told junior officers that “you must now look ahead to the future and not to the past.” The base is located not too far from the Navy’s notorious Mechanic School in Buenos Aires, which repeatedly was tied to the darkest periods of torture and abuse during the 1976 military era.

In spite of the economy’s still present tempest, military exercises continue. In early November 2008, the Argentine military carried out exercises in the province of Corrientes, very close to the border with Paraguay. Paraguayan officials complained that their Argentine counterparts had failed to properly inform them of the commencement of these operations.

The Legacy of the Military Period and the Falklands/Malvinas War
In 2004 then-Defense Minister Jose Pampuro declared that the military would not be used for domestic security. The declaration came about due to persistent, if unsubstantiated rumors that the Colombian leftist rebel movement, FARC had “infiltrated” Argentine labor and political organizations. This was a prudent decision as such a deployment inevitably would have brought to mind odious memories from the military period when the civilian population was the target of choice of the Argentine military. A news report in October 2004 that was carried by the partially state-owned Argentine Telam news agency quotes Pampuro as saying “the Argentine government has clearly and emphatically refused to involve the armed forces in matters related to internal security.” The truth of the matter is that it remains somewhat unclear what exactly is the contemporary function of the Argentine military. Especially after the 2001 economic meltdown, Argentine military units have been tasked with a variety of relatively low-scale projects, like taking a minor role as white helmets in the UN mission to Haiti and environmental protection projects in Antarctica.

What continues to make headlines in Buenos Aires is the periodic arrests of now-retired military junta-era officials who are accused of human rights abuses. Interestingly, in 2007, Defense Minister Garre, a veteran leftist politician and critic of the 1970s’ military government, mandated that designated Argentine troops would take specially-arranged educational classes on human rights. At the time, an AP report mentioned that some 600 army, navy and air force troops would take a three-month, civilian-taught course, “the role of the state in a democratic society, conflict resolution and justice.”

A July 2008 report carried by Agence France Presse quotes Cristina de Kirchner’s interest in a greater Argentine military role in Antarctica. The article notes that “although Antarctica is protected under a 1959 treaty allowing only scientific research, moves are being made by Argentina, Australia, Britain, China, France, New Zealand and Norway to boost their presence there and lay claim to territorial waters that could yield oil.” Indeed, without any other obvious raison d’etre for them to be stationed on mainland Argentina, Fernandez de Kirchner is considering sending her troops to Antarctica to keep them usefully occupied.

External Friends and Foes
Argentina hardly has any external security threats from which it needs to protect itself. Relations with neighbors Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay are stable, making the possibility of a military conflict with one of its neighbors extremely unlikely. Bolivia, under Evo Morales (a fellow member of Mercosur), has so far maintained cordial relations with Argentina.

Even Chile, with which Argentina had a border dispute for a number of years and which was resolved by papal intercession, today is on relatively good terms with Argentina. In early November 2008, both countries engaged in military exercises named Solidarity 2008, which focused on the theme of how to control a influenza pandemic. Around the same time, the Chilean and Argentine navies carried out the 11th joint patrol of the Antarctic. Nevertheless, simmering Argentine animosity towards Chile remains due to boundary issues and the fact that Santiago, at the time of the Falklands conflict, was under the control of military strongman General Augusto Pinochet, who provided important intelligence information and landing rights to Britain.

In recent years, U.S.-Argentine relations traditionally have been cordial, dating back to Argentina’s participation in the U.S.-sponsored Operation Condor during the early 1970s. The operation was essentially an intelligence and vigilante network among South American military governments (Chile, Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina) in which information was exchanged and crackdowns took place on the activities of leftist dissidents and local and foreign insurgents occurred. On the other hand, Washington did not go out of its way to aid Buenos Aires during the Falklands War, something that the Argentine military resented even though there is evidence that special U.S. envoy General Vernon Walters was in Buenos Aires during the period of the Argentine attack on the Falklands, and had been informed when told that an Argentine strike was imminent.

In 2004, Argentina called off military exercises with U.S. troops that were due to take place in the Argentine province of Mendoza. The tensions arose after Washington requested immunity for its soldiers while in Argentina, which Buenos Aires, in a particularly bold move, denied. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Buenos Aires in March 2005, where he tried to patch up ties between the two countries by stating that “the relationship between the United States and Argentina continues to strengthen […] the people of Argentina can take pride in their important global role.”

Argentina has attempted to engage other countries’ militaries in order to foster regional cooperation. For example, in July 2004, Vietnamese Deputy Defense Minister Sen. Lt. Gen. Nguyen Huy Hieu visited Buenos Aires for two days. More importantly, on February 2005, the defense ministers of Argentina and Spain met in Madrid and signed an agreement to augment their military cooperation. In October 2005, then-Vice President Daniel Osvaldo Scioli received a visiting delegation from the People’s Republic of China, including Liang Guanglie, member of the Central Military Commission and the chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The aforementioned encounter represented the highest-level visit by a Chinese military official to Argentina since the two countries established full diplomatic ties in 1972. More recently, in early October 2008, Jane’s Defense Weekly reported that at a meeting between President Cristina de Kirchner and Brazilian leader Lula da Silva, an agreement was signed regarding cooperation in defense matters.

The Kirchners and the Military
The relationship between the presidencies of Nestor Kirchner and Cristina de Kirchner with the Argentine military has been cool at best. In general, the Kirchners have done little, if anything at all, to shield suspect military officials from having to stand trial due to the abuses that occurred in the country under their leadership. For example, in 2004, then-President Nestor Kirchner took the bold move of ordering an investigation regarding accusations that the armed forces had operated training sessions on torture techniques during the early 1980s. Nestor Kirchner revealed himself as supporting the overturn of amnesty laws, which had previously protected junta-era military officers from being prosecuted for their atrocities.

In November 2007, Nestor Kirchner and hundreds of human rights activists gathered in Buenos Aires’ Memorial Park. During the gathering, he unveiled a memorial to the victims of the country’s “Dirty War.” The former president told his audience that the “monument is a great feat as it shows that the collective memory of the victims is alive in the world.”

The Falklands catastrophe continues to be a sensitive issue for the nation, and Nestor Kirchner was known to have strained relations with his military while president, especially after he declared that the attack on the Falklands had been a “cowardly” act. He uttered his words during a ceremony in 2006 marking the 24th anniversary of the Argentine attack on the British-held islands. He added that the invasion was an attempt for the junta led by General Leopoldo Galtieri to divert attention from the worsening economic situation of the country by waving the bloody flag of patriotism. “To save itself, the dictatorship planned and executed a war while lying about its intentions,” the Argentine leader added.

In a showcase moment for the Argentine military’s heated disdain for the Kirchner administration, a May 2006 AP report explained that four Argentine military officials were placed in detention for 20 days because of security lapses that allowed heckling by protesters during a public address by Kirchner. During the speech, he was quoted as saying, “I want to make it clear, as president of the nation, that I am not afraid of you,” Kirchner said. “We want an army that is completely separate from state terror,” the then-head of state added. Cristina de Kirchner tried to improve her relationship with the military on her own, uttering pro-Argentine populist statements about the Falklands conflict and Argentina’s rightful ownership of the islands. In April 2008 the Argentine daily El Clarin reported that Fernandez de Kirchner had declared that Buenos Aires’ claim to the island will not end. She also defined the London-controlled archipelago as a “colony in the 21st century.”

A positive sign in contemporary Argentine civil-military relations is that the Argentine armed forces do not appear to have any marked interest in taking advantage of the country’s present hard economic times by trying to exercise any control over the government, much less rustling their saber as a prelude to launching a new crusade to reclaim the Falkland islands or a domineering place in Argentine domestic society.

Heading South?

The Argentine military is at a crossroads in terms of defining its identity and determining its raison d’etre. Unfortunately for the armed forces, a lack of public interest in its status induces the military to look south, to raise the visibility and vigor of its claim to a section of Antarctica.

Yet for the decades ahead, the Argentine military will continue to be viewed through the prism of its actions during the monstrous 1976-1983 period of military rule and the 1982 Falklands War, when it turned its guns and unleashed its power against the nation rather than a bona fide enemy.


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