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Arrest of Galtieri lights fuse under Argentina's apprehensive generals

A slow-burning fuse with potentially explosive repercussions was lit within Argentina's armed forces with the arrest of former President Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri last week.

General Galtieri - who ordered the invasion of the Falkland Islands last year - was taken to the country's main Army barracks after apparently refusing to comment on remarks he made to a leading newspaper that were highly critical of the conduct of fellow officers during the war.

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Gen. Cristino Nicolaides - the Army chief who plays a major role in this country's military rule and is thought to have presidential ambitions - is understood to have hoped that the military would not react to Galtieri's remarks.

But a series of stormy meetings with some of the country's leading generals left Nicolaides with little doubt of the depth of anger about Galtieri's criticisms.

Nicolaides realized that his reluctance to punish the former President's actions raised the specter of military destabilization. This is a sticky situation for Nicolaides; he was one of Galtieri's strongest supporters when Galtieri led the coup that toppled President Robert Viola in 1981.

In an interview published by the mass-circulation newspaper Clarin in early April, Galtieri was quoted as implicitly accusing Argentina's military governor of the Falklands, Gen. Mario Benjamin Menendez, of cowardice and incompetence in his conduct of the war. The former President said he had held the governor in high esteem before the outbreak of the war, but that he subsequently was became disillusioned.

In the interview, Galtieri also claimed that he narrowly averted a civil war by agreeing to step down from the presidency. He said Army chief of staff Gen. Nestor Calvi, Interior Minister Gen. Llamil Reston, and Gen. Horacio Varela Ortiz, essentially the head of the military-industrial complex Fabricaciones Militares, threatened to mount a military coup against him. Galtieri says he stepped down rather than call on loyal troops to defend him.

The generals whom Galtieri singled out are the ones who are believed to have complained about the interview. They are believed to have demanded not only the former President's arrest but also the creation of a tribunal of honor to examine what they believe are libelous accusations.

There is deep discontent among middle- and junior-ranking sectors of the armed forces as well as among the generals. Many officers have become critical of what they believe is an attempt by the present military government to whitewash responsibilities for the military defeat.

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In fact, it is still difficult to find an Argentine who does not believe the Falklands belong to this country. But the overriding mood remains one of disillusionment and confusion.

A group of war veterans led a demonstration of more than 1,000 people through the streets of the city April 2. The vets burned British and US flags and an effigy of Galtieri. They chanted: ''The firing squad for the generals who sold out the nation,'' and ''It's going to end, the military dictatorship is going to end.'' Argentina has also experienced a general strike and other antigovernment demonstrations.

Elections have been announced for Oct. 30, but the reins of power remain in military hands. And in some cases divisions between the military and civilians are not very deep.

Within the Peronist Party, the favorite to win the election, party workers remember that their founder, the late Gen. Juan Peron, was first a general and only second an elected president. Military officers and the main political parties are still linked by their ingrained nationalist feelings.

But Argentines are waiting for an a full report on military conduct of the war. More than 50 officers of all grades have been removed from their posts in all three sectors of the armed forces, but many officers are unhappy that members of the former junta have not been court-martialed for strategic mistakes that contributed to a British victory.

One problem seems to be that Galtieri, according to those closest to him, is not prepared to go down without putting up a fight. He has hidden tape recordings of a number of conversations he held with leading generals during and immediately after the war. He has threatened to release them publicly if he is put on trial. Sources say they tapes may show that many of the officials firmly backed Galtieri's war efforts but turned against him at the last minute.

According to some military sources, one of the men who would be hurt the most by the release of the tapes is none other than General Nicolaides.

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