The words of former president Eduardo Duhalde last week about the high likelihood of a “coup d’etat” in Argentina were inevitably a shock in a country with a long history of bloody interruptions to democratic order, which has seemingly left that era behind since the return of electoral rule in 1983.
“Do you know how ridiculous it sounds to think there will be elections next year? There won’t be an election. We have a history of military presidents, and a region where militarism is also on the rise, in Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, even in Chile the armed forces are now the main power player. Do you think the democratic system can’t fall? Argentina is a world champion of military dictatorships,” Duhalde said during an appearance in América TV, sparking a heated live discussion that spread throughout the country’s politics and media.
Although Duhalde toned down his words a few days later, it is worth exploring what led to his outburst and which parts of it should be taken seriously.
In the many interviews that followed that appearance, Duhalde said he was told by a Peronist source within the military that there were officers planning a potential overthrow, and that the trustworthiness of his source made him fear the warning was real.
Duhalde quietly reached out to former Peronist rival Cristina Kirchner, and the Vice President put him in contact with Defense Minister Agustín Rossi, who dismissed the story as false after a brief investigation.
After Duhalde made his fears public, Rossi and the armed forces immediately issued communiques dismissing the idea as completely outlandish. “A coup d’etat is an absolutely improbable scenario in our country. Argentina’s Armed Forces are completely integrated to the democratic system. I have daily contact with the military world and I know a scenario of this kind is impossible in today’s Argentina. There is a strong commitment to Democracy and the Constitution,” Rossi said.
According to journalist Iván Schargrodsky, Duhalde has been warning government officials about rumors of unhappy young officials in the army, who sympathize with former right-wing presidential candidate Juan José Gómez Centurión and see Fernández’s government as having “some communist reminiscences”, for the last three months. But neither President Fernández, nor Cristina Kirchner or Agustín Rossi have taken him very seriously, with Military Chief Juan Martín Paleo telling them that it cost the army decades to clean their name after years of discredit due to their history of coups and bloody governments, and that its officers were smart enough not to jeopardize those slow gains by falling into the same old behavior.
Duhalde ultimately admitted that his words went over the top, but insisted on the need for a “national salvation” administration uniting government and opposition because the situation is “worse than in 2002”, when he presided over one of the worst crises in the country’s history, taking over as a provisional head of state after a fortnight in which Argentina had 5 different presidents.
“This pandemic has driven us all a bit crazy, maybe I went off the rails with what I said due to the fear it caused me. When I saw that Rossi and the opposition fully agreed on the unlikelihood of any military unrest I started to believe it was me that was on the wrong and the panic wore off,” Duhalde told A24 days after the original interview.
The blunder was costly for the former president’s image, who was accused of everything from being senile to being part of a conspiracy to destabilize Fernández’s government in the days after his volatile tour through the media.
The 78-year old is already strongly disliked by the progressive part of the Kirchnerite base, in a dispute that stems from the days in which Néstor Kirchner took over the Peronist structure from Duhalde after defeating him in the 2005 mid-terms. That camp, as well as the anti-Peronists who blame Duhalde for the fall of Fernando De La Rúa‘s presidency in 2001, have often accused him of being a behind-the-scenes mastermind working to destabilize governments with the help of industrial lobbysts, media conglomerates or the mobilization of the poor from the Greater Buenos Aires’ region.
Duhalde sees himself as exactly the opposite: a “rough-weather helmsman” who rescued the country from the burning fires of the 2001-2002 crisis, before backing Néstor Kirchner in the 2003 election that marked the start of the Kirchnerite decade. Sidelined from the main stage in the years after that transition, much of Duhalde’s thought has been focused on the risks of social upheaval and civic disintegration from which he believes he steered the country away during his time in charge. And he has long been fearful of a silent rise in hunger, violence, drug addiction and general hopelessness, similar to what he experienced in those years.
He sees Cristina Kirchner as too much of a polarizing figure, whom he’d like to sideline to avoid “provoking” social confrontation, and has more of a corporatist approach in which the country’s most powerful institutions (big companies, unions, religious institutions and the main political parties) should sit down and draw a common strategy to stem out conflict and pacify the nation, which he has gone as far as saying is at risk of a “civil war”.
“Que se vayan todos”
There is ample agreement that a coup in Argentina is very unlikely. Although the image of the armed forces has improved lately, military participation in the government is especially frowned upon in the country, whose latest dictatorship was especially brutal and economically disastrous even by Latin American standards. The army’s power has also been significantly cut back since the 1990s, with the end of conscription and a series of sizable budget reductions.
But although even in the current crazy conditions (with a massive economic crisis combined with a pandemic) elections should be expected to continue to take place normally, part of Duhalde’s doomsday warnings still have a sensible element to them.
President Fernández has often stated his belief that the current crisis is at a stage comparable to his first months in charge as cabinet chief of Néstor Kirchner’s 2003-2007 administration, which ended with 4 years of solid growth, reduced unemployment, social pacification and a comfortable re-election. But those only came after the country’s macroeconomy was mostly fixed with the 2002 devaluation, defaults and bail-ins, which violently re-balanced the country’s issues in multiple fronts ranging from fiscal to monetary and commercial.
Although Economy Minister Martín Guzmán has re-negotiated the country’s debt in similar fashion to what (former Duhalde and Kirchner Economy Minister) Roberto Lavagna did in that transition, Argentina’s macroeconomy is still barely being held together by a series of draconian restrictions on foreign currency exchange which make a sustained growth spurt similar to that of the early Kirchnerite decade close to impossible. And if no path to a sustained recovery is found, and Fernández fails in similar fashion than Macri, then Argentina’s polarized political landscape could start to be seen as full-spectrum failure, a scenario similar to the 2001 street calls for all politicians to run for the doors, or “Que se vayan todos“, as the slogan stated in Spanish.
In such a scenario, a military takeover might be unlikely, but social and institutional stability could certainly make a comeback.