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Army raises profile in the region, except for Argentina

A new role for the military, decades after the brutality of the dictatorship

By | [email protected] | April 27, 2020 11:02am

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“You don’t repress the people,” Bolivian General Williams Kaliman told President Evo Morales. “This is what you taught us.” Evo’s excessive thirst for power had become toxic. After his third electoral mischief, he had to go. Alberto Fernández came to his aid, enthusiastic about defending a lost cause.

Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, proclaimed with solemn emphasis: “We are at war against a powerful enemy.” Just another rhetorical excess motivated by the popular mobilizations against him. But General Javier Iturriaga del Campo was quick to contradict him: “I am happy, I am not at war with anyone,” he said.

In Uruguay, (retired) General Guido Manini Ríos launched a presidential bid. “If Pepe Mujica could do it, why can’t I be president as well?” he probably thought. With Cabildo Abierto, his right-wing creation, Manini Ríos got 11% in the first round. Those votes would eventually prove decisive for Luis Lacalle Pou to win the runoff.

In Brazil, after some tragicomic display of bravado, President Jair Bolsonaro started to decline. The Army is eating away at his power, like with Bordaberry in the 70s, and even stopped his first attempt to fire former Health minister Luiz Mandetta, also a military man.

Despite this, 60% still oppose ousting Bolsonaro. The other 40% is not insisting too strongly with the idea either, as that would trigger a new presidential election. If they put up with him until 2021, he could be taken out like Dilma Rousseff or Fernando Collor de Melo, and be replaced by his vice-president, Hamilton Mourão — an Army man as well, although the real military power in Brazil lies with General Walter Souza Braga Netto.

No one remembers the Generals

In Argentina, the military do not set the agenda anymore. They don’t even come to close proximity with the President. Alberto Fernández was luckier than Evo, Piñera or Bolsonaro.

Only a few specialized journalists know the names of Argentine military chiefs. No one would recognize General Pascualini if they saw him walking down the street. Nor is there a lot of interest to find out how General Bari del Valle Sosa thinks. At best, there’s trivia like his shared birth date with Mauricio Macri.

And if people hear the name Agustín Cejas, they are more likely to think of his namesake former Racing Club goalkeeper.

The only one partially remembered might be General César Milani, Cristina Kirchner’s military chief. Milani was the last man of arms who raised attention. Some were even enthusiastic about him and liked to wine and dine him. “Did you eat well?” Cristina Kirchner’s Legal Secretary Carlos Zannini used to ask him the next morning, insidiously letting him know they knew of his every movement.

For Navy and Air Force chiefs, the situation is even bleaker. “We are still standing because we are cheap. Ships are in the water, they are expensive and they can sink. Planes are in the air and can fall down or fail to take off,” an Army General says during a Club Francés lunch. “With some training and a gun we can at least be something,” he said, counting the blessings of being low maintenance.

Watering geraniums

The disasters of the dictatorship sent public support for the Argentine military to the floor. Doomed to irrelevance, they occupied their days watering geraniums on their balconies in Belgrano. They drank coffee in little jars at Solar de la Abadía, remembering better times.

The Ministry of Defense had become the penultimate priority (the last one being Education). Auctioning the barracks was the sole remaining move. And the Army almost had its fire sale. Ramón Lanús, in charge of public real estate under Macri, wanted to bring in some dollars. He was sounding the market for the military lands of Campo de Mayo and Las Cañitas, and for tens of thousands head of cattle they kept to feed the troops during hypothetical wars.

This was until the COVID plague hit, giving the military a chance to show efficiency and effectiveness. They started in Quilmes, one of Greater Buenos Aires’ mini-provinces, ruled by La Cámpora’s Mayor Mayra Mendoza. Then they set camp in La Matanza, the biggest of Buenos Aires’ mini-provinces, ran by Fernando Espinosa.

The military feels protected by the halo of the “curas villeros”, priests who work in the slums near the big cities. All of them are big admirers of the charismatic Father Pepe. Father Pepe is also a long-time friend of Cejas, that little-known namesake of Racing Club’s goalkeeper. But General Agustín Cejas also happens to be the chief of Argentina’s Army.

The scene feels like a throwback to the Operativo Dorrego, in the pre-dictatorship 70s, when the Army and the left-wing Montonero guerrillas joined forces to help the victims of a massive flood. But this new people-army romance is strictly alimentary: the soldiers are there to fill tupperwares with hot stew cooked in their field kitchens, two or three times a day, for people to take home and eat during isolation.

The Operativo Dorrego II is less ambitious than the original. With none of the weapons, theories or revolutionary perspectives that would eventually end in disaster.

Coronavirus as an ally

Fernández’s luck has certainly been running higher than Bolsonaro’s. The latter’s ironclad alliance with Donald Trump made him too arrogant. Conscious of his superior power, he let himself slip into a confrontation with Fernández for a few months. The faux pas was mutual, one has to admit.

But the coronavirus was, for Fernández, a more powerful and effective ally than Trump was for Bolsonaro. Thanks to COVID-19, and playing with house money, Alberto managed to amass a political fortune of his own. The plague handed him a cause to rally around. It gave his government internal cohesion after three months of doing little else than discussing the debt.

The epic against coronavirus came just when Fernández was starting to lose steam, and gave him an admirable boost in the polls.

But those fleeting projections can go as quickly as they came. Due to the extraordinary limitations of the team in charge. Due to Alberto’s verbal incontinence. Due to pride or untimeliness.  Due to scaring capital away instead of seducing it. Due to ignoring the society they are governing and learning about it on the fly. Due to being incapable of even organizing a queue for pensioners to get their monthly pay. Due to overpaying for food to address the ever-growing need for social aid, for which no one even has a plan.

The millions of pauperized Argentines are growing hungrier by the day. And with the collapse of the economy, they are also growing in number. Job creation is far from this government’s forte, as is the structural transformation of the state. Offering something different than higher taxes is an adventurous utopia. Leveling down is the sole ideal.

Compulsive solidarity always ends in fiscal exile. And the unstoppable printing of fresh bills becomes the sole source of new income. A palliative after which there’s only stagflation. And neither luck, nor the virus, nor Alberto can indefinitely put that on hold.