Echoes of the Past in Videla’s Passing

Unlike the tens of thousands of ordinary Argentines he disappeared, Jorge Rafael Videla, former general and head of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military junta, today died of old age in prison – with few people mourning his passing. Videla in life tread a bumpy path to his whimpering death in a military hospital, much the same way that the Perons have been treated in death.

Condemned for his actions upon the return to democracy in 1983 and then dubiously (and bizarrely) pardoned by Argentina’s Peronist leader of the country’s booming 1990s, the county’s most brutal military leader tread a troubled and conflict-ridden path to his 2013 demise.

One part of his Times obituary stood out, though.

By that point the military’s high command was already voicing its frustration with the civilian government, which was under siege by rampant inflation, corruption and a campaign of bombings and assassinations by radical left-wing groups. Mrs. Perón had declared a state of emergency in November 1974, giving the army free hand to pursue the militants.

As the economy and security deteriorated under the Peronist government, leftists and union leaders began warning of the threat of a revolt like General Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup against Salvador Allende in Chile.

But the coup in Argentina was carried out almost without a shot. Mrs. Perón left the presidential palace in a helicopter at midnight as General Videla and the junta took power, promising to fill a vacuum of leadership. Their objective was to install a technocratic regime capable of regaining control of the economy and restoring security.

The junta economic policies focused on privatizing the large public sector created under the populist Peronist system and developing the agrarian export sector controlled by landholders. Other measures included cutting wages, reducing welfare assistance and raising food prices.

In what could be described as a Carrie Bradshaw moment, I couldn’t help but wonder: What would be happening in Argentina today if the military still had any disruptive power?

The echoes are stunning: the wife of a wildly popular dead president, flailing in her economic pursuits, doling out subsidies to keep support, antagonizing every successful industry in sight, accused of corruption and rising insecurity in and around Buenos Aires.

In Argentina’s topsy-turvy history since World War II, the main political tension has always been a mass working class identity cobbled together under Peronism against a formless but powerful elite that lost its way after Perón (and his first wife, Evita) decimated their power in the 1950s. That elite only had the military to count on when the tide turned against them. But after 1983, and after Videla’s reign discredited even the hardest-line of military backer, that was no longer an option.

Even the Argentine elite, supported by the a military that kept their privileges in tact, needed popular support to keep the regime alive at the end, and drummed up a war with the UK over the Falklands as a result. When it became clear that the paranoid government killed tens of thousands of people, and mothers emerged in the Plaza de Mayo without their children and grandchildren, a return to brutal rule became unthinkable.

But given the rancor that the middle and upper-middle classes have for the current government, and not without reason, would they flinch again if there was a military to exert control and do to Mrs. Kirchner what they did to Mrs. Perón?

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