ARGENTINE President Carlos Menem's quick, firm action to put down the army rebellion of Dec. 3 signaled an entirely new way in dealing with threats to democracy in Latin America, and may set an example for other civilian democratic governments in the region facing military unrest. Analysts point out a sharp contrast between Mr. Menem's determination and predecessor Raul Alfons'in's hesitation and concessions. After negotiating with the rebels during three insurrections in 1987 and 1988, Alfons'in gave in to demands for removal of the army's chief of staff and for wage increases.
The minute he heard about the rebellion, Menem ordered the chief of staff, Gen. Martin Bonnet, to apply the strongest possible means of repressing it. Pressure to return things to normal before George Bush's scheduled visit played an important role in Menem's decision to use a strong hand, but the Argentine president's excellent relations with the majority of the armed forces was a big factor too.
Alfons'in, who took office in 1983, made a point of souring relations with the military, blaming it for all the problems Argentina has had since the 1970s. Menem, by contrast, regained military sympathies by pardoning several officers and promising to restore armed forces wages to ``decent'' levels. He had just reaffirmed his decision to grant amnesty to five former junta commanders convicted of human-rights violations when the revolt erupted.
His all-out repression, which caused at least 21 dead and several injured and ended with the arrest of scores of rebellious officers, marked the first time in decades that a Latin American country's armed forces have obeyed a civilian president's orders to shoot their own comrades. Menem's firm attitude may help other presidents in the region, especially his Peruvian colleague, Alberto Fujimori, who recently admitted there had been a coup attempt in the early days of his presidency.
Similarly, the military establishment in Argentina may have sent a message to its counterparts in Chile and Uruguay, which have been resisting civilian moves to investigate human-rights violations during the military dictatorships of the 1970s, that the time to fold under the democratic cloak has come.
The Argentine rebels' demands for better pay and larger budgetary allocations, though, may tempt the Brazilian military to put similar pressure on President Fernando Collor de Mello. Reports from Rio and Brasilia have indicated that discontent is spreading among officers over what they call ``free falling salaries.'' The fierce repression ordered by Menem, however, may have discouraged those who were thinking of open revolt.
Menem's internal popularity may be stronger because of the Dec. 3 episode. Although Argentines hadn't seen such a bloody repression since the ``dirty war'' of the 1970s, support for his action came from all quarters, especially from civilians who claimed to be fed up with the arrogance of the ``painted faces'' (carapintadas), as the rebels are called.
The rebels, mostly followers of Col. Muhammad Ali Seineldin, wanted him to become the army's chief of staff - a demand Menem dismissed as ``preposterous.'' Seineldin and Menem were on good terms before he took office in July 1989. But Menem had Seineldin arrested twice in the last few months for strongly criticizing his policies, especially the Argentine president's support of the US invasion of Panama and the US-led blockade of Iraq.
Acting with unusual energy, Menem has not only reaffirmed his constitutional role as commander of the armed forces but has been unexpectedly boosted by the military itself in the political arena, one analyst in Buenos Aires said.
``For the first time in recent years, a civilian has gotten all the bayonets he needed to put down a rebellion,'' that analyst claimed. If he now purges the army and, as promised, and lets some officers be court-martialed - and perhaps face the death penalty under military rules - there is no telling how strong his popularity could become.