Guy Gugliotta
Guy Gugliotta

Fellowship Title:

The Inner Workings of Dictatorship

Guy Gugliotta
February 7, 1986

Fellowship Year

To outsiders, the military juntas that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 presented an image of austere, almost frightening efficiency and unity of purpose. The “Process of National Reorganization,” as the juntas called themselves, sought to impose and maintain order where there had been none. On March 24, 1976, when the “Process” overthrew constitutional President Isabel Peron, Argentina had 700 percent annual inflation, negative economic growth and dwindling international reserves. For three years political violence–involving the Army and police, a variety of freelance right-wing gunmen and two separate leftist guerrilla groups–had spread terror across the nation. By early 1976 not a day passed in Argentina without a dozen political murders and disappearances of people, who for reasons generally unknown, suddenly vanished from their homes and jobs.

It was the disappearances–nearly 9,000 documented cases–and their accompanying horrors that defined the 7 1/2 years of the Process, a history of state terrorism documented by survivors from more than 300 secret detention camps organized and controlled by the Argentine armed forces and the state security apparatus. The Process imposed order and crushed the leftist insurgency. In doing so it became an international symbol of the implacable police state–a closed, monolithic, elite military organization manipulating the machinery of repression in accordance with rules understood only by its members. The juntas decided everything and explained nothing.

With the collapse of The Process following the 1982 Falkland Islands War and the return of democratic government a year later, however, it has become possible to examine the Process from the inside. The nine members of the Process’s first three juntas were arrested and put on trial for multiple human rights violations; military prestige has deteriorated to an extent never imagined in this century. Self-justification and concern for the historical record have made many high officials of the Process willing to discuss and explain a government that for much of Argentina remained a disorienting–and often terrifying–enigma during the time in which it shaped their lives. For the first time it is possible to take a look at the inner workings of dictatorship.

What emerges is a disconcerting blend of deeply felt idealism adulterated by personal vanities and the petty jealousies and vindictiveness of the principle players. It is obvious even from a superficial reading of the Process’s internal documents, that its leaders believed to a man that they were embarked on a crusade to preserve Argentina from international Marxism-Leninism. It is also clear that Argentina’s military rulers never seriously analyzed the rightness or wrongness of their so-called “Dirty War.” In closed testimony before a military tribunal the chieftains admitted that they never discussed the repression in any depth in weekly junta meetings and that the three Armed Forces–whose leaders made up each junta–had no mechanism to share intelligence or tactical information. The result–which would eventually damn the Process in the world’s eyes–was a casually organized but horrifically efficient security apparatus run by fanatics.

What occupied the chieftains was not the Dirty War, but power: how to get it, how to manipulate it and how to hold it. The internal political history of the Process is a low-life chronicle of service rivalry, elaborate plots, endless betrayals and venal backbiting. The power struggle consumed the Process’s leaders, and Argentina paid the consequences. The vicious chaos of the Dirty War was in many respects a product of the anarchy within the government.

Plotting The Coup


The groundwork for confusion was laid in late 1975 when Argentina’s three service chiefs and Process junta members-to-be–Army Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, Navy Adm. Emilio Eduardo Massera and Air Force Brig. Orlando Ramon Agosti-began plotting the March, 1976 coup.

The commanders were not particularly friendly, indeed, Videla, a staid Roman Catholic family man, and Massera, a sharp-tongued bon vivant, could already be said to dislike each other. Still, the chiefs found much common ground and made their coup plans accordingly. They wished above all to avoid past mistakes: service rivalry must be minimized and there must be no caudillos–no military chief would be allowed to try to convert himself into a popular political leader.

The chiefs agreed that the commanders’ junta–they themselves–would serve as the source of state power. Jobs and authority would be divided in three so that no service would predominate. The chiefs would select the president of Argentina, and he would rule as a “Fourth Man” with no personal power except that conceded him by the junta. The chiefs–particularly Massera–envisioned an administrative “chief of government” whose main task would be to implement the junta’s directives.

The Navy recommended that Videla’s chief of staff, Gen. Roberto Viola, retire from active duty in order to become the first “Fourth Man,” but the Army demurred. Videla and Viola–longtime associates and friends–agreed that the new government in its initial stages would require a firmer hand than a “Fourth Man” could provide. Videla, already the Army chief and a junta member, would also have to be president. The other two services agreed with this, but the Navy made clear that it understood the Videla presidency to be a term of “exceptionality” that in no way invalidated the concept of the “Fourth Man.” Future presidents could not also be junta members.

The arrangement, designed to avoid a service rivalry and inhibit personalism, instead encouraged a perpetual free-for-all among the junta members and their subordinates. The Process lacked a “strong man.” Everyone wanted to fill the void.

Videla held the Argentine presidency for five years, and during this period the Process never lost its illusion of order, even after it became obvious that Armed Forces unity was an ill-concealed fraud. Videla was seen first as the epitome of everything good that the Process hoped to accomplish, then, as his plans began to unravel, as an embattled “moderate” frustrated by “hard-liners” in the other services and within the Army itself.

The “moderate” vs. “hard-liner” debate, the fogged prism through which most of Argentina glimpsed its government, was seen as a conflict over the course and conduct of the Dirty War. But this was not what the leaders of the Process worried about. As one Videla aide later remarked: “In the struggle against subversion they were all hardliners.” Human rights violations and state terrorism–described in the Armed Forces as “excesses”–were the prices to be paid for social peace. The moderate-hard-liner was about power.

Videla’s reputation as a moderate stemmed not from his views on counterinsurgency, but from his desire to involve civilians in the Process and to promote a political apertura -or “opening” that would in a reasonable period of time lead to the reestablishment of constitutional government. He was consistently supported in this venture by chief-of-staff Viola.

At the same time, Videla sought to maintain close contact with his other generals, especially the four powerful Army corps commanders who led the vast majority of Argentina’s armed men. He consulted these chieftains constantly and scrupulously avoided messing in their affairs.

Some of the generals rewarded Videla with unbridled loyalty and support for his political apertura. Others, particularly Gen. Carlos Guillermo Suarez Mason (I Corps commander in Buenos Aires) did not, and passed to the ranks of the “hard-liners.”

Within the Process, then, hard-line had little to do with counterinsurgency. Instead it meant “anti-Videla” or “anti-apertura,” or both. III Corps Commander (Cordoba) Luciano Benjamin Menendez, for instance, was among the hardest in the Process’s repression of leftism, but a moderate in his relations with Videla and in his politics. II Corps (Rosario) Chief Leopoldo Galtieri was viewed as a moderate across the board. Interior Minister Gen. Albano Harguindeguy was clearly pro-Videla, but held little brief for civilian politicians and seemed lukewarm at best on the apertura.

No doubts surrounded Suarez Mason and his group, hard-line in all respects. Suarez Mason’s opposition came as a surprise at first since the I Corps commander was Videla and Viola’s military academy classmate and a close ideological collaborator for years. Videla’s men eventually concluded that Suarez Mason had become so obsessed with “subversion” that his politics had veered deep into the authoritarian right. There, among the elitists of Argentina’s civilian aristocracy, he had concluded that. the Process was too valuable to throw away with a quickie return to democracy.

Almost immediately Suarez Mason became the moderates’ bete noir, a political saboteur with little interest in Videla or his policies. He made his views known in endless news conferences, memos and meetings of the general staff. In October 1976 his closest colleague, Buenos Aires Governor and retired Gen. Iberico Saint Jean, submitted a confidential, internal document entitled “A New Argentine Historical Cycle,” which suggested that the Process needed at least 10 years just to wipe Argentina’s political slate clean and set up the mechanisms for a carefully controlled return to civilian government. There would be no more “populism” or “democracy of the masses.” The Radical Civic Union party–with which Suarez Mason had once had close contacts–was described as an “excrescence.” So much for “apertura.”

The internal Army power struggle endured throughout Videla’s tenure, nurtured by the President’s inexplicable reluctance to assert his authority, force a showdown and break the power of his most fractious subordinates. Videla was mild-mannered and gentlemanly, ill-fitted for the political rough-and-tumble that his office required. He had tremendous capacity for “loyalty down” the chain of command, but Suarez Mason repaid him with constant political backstabbing, and by supervising a pogrom in Buenos Aires province. Once the criticisms of Argentina’s Dirty War began, it was Videla, not Suarez Mason, who had to answer the human rights denunciations.

Suarez Mason was a problem that Videla as Army commander should have had the authority to control. The same could not be said for Navy commander Massera, his junta partner and equal in the tripartite arrangement set down in 1975. Massera, urbane and cunning, hoped to be president and did not hide his intentions. He and the Navy intrigued constantly to mitigate the power of the Army, make Videla look foolish and block the presidential aspirations of Viola, who had the inside track on succession as next in line to Videla in the most powerful of the three Armed Forces. Massera respected Viola, an astute political player in the power game, but had nothing but contempt for Videla. He was thus a hard-liner in his personal relations with the president, but a moderate in that an apertura favored his own political ambitions.

Massera and Videla confounded each other in innumerable ways. The active duty admiral who served as foreign minister was unable to block Videla’s determination to name aperturista ambassadors in key countries, but the Navy took revenge by snubbing the presidential appointees in protocol matters and bypassing them in policy. In September 1976 Videla’s man in Washington, Arnaldo Musich, had a run-in with the Foreign Ministry and had to resign.

This sort of jurisdictional conflict ruled the Process, and the leadership used everything at its disposal to fight the attendant battles. Videla’s Ambassador to Venezuela Hector Hidalgo Sola disappeared in Buenos Aires in 1977 in the midst of a conflict similar to Musich’s. Former Paris Cultural Attaché Elena Holmberg Lanusse was murdered in 1978 after running afoul of the Navy.

Many cases were so Byzantine that even insiders had difficulty discerning a motive. The most famous of these began on April 1, 1977 with the disappearance of Edgardo Sajon, production manager at La Opinionnewspaper. Two weeks later, La Opinion’s editor Jacobo Timerman and managing editor, Enrique Jara, also disappeared. A week after that Jara reappeared to suggest that Suarez Mason’s police thought Timerman was involved with the leftist Montonero guerrillas. Jara left the country, Timerman was sent to federal prison and later to exile in Israel. Sajon was never see again. What did it all mean? The Process never found Timerman guilty of anything. His arrest may have simply served as an excuse to close down La Opinion, acquiring stature as a voice of dissent; or it may have responded to the anti-Semitism of Timerman’s jailer, provincial police chief Col. Ramon Camps; or it may have been another way for Suarez Mason–Camps’ boss–to embarrass Videla. Timerman was the most famous political prisoner in Argentina, an enduring source of international outrage against the Process.

Timerman’s real or imagined sins did serve, however, to deflect attention from Sajon’s case. No one ever claimed that Sajon had done something wrong, yet it was Sajon who disappeared.

Besides service rivalry, personal jealousy and animosity, the question of transition loomed large as a source of contention for the leaders of the Process. The government’s basic documents had handily installed the military in power, but offered little guidance concerning what was supposed to happen next.

Between late 1976 and early 1978 military officers and civilians in the government circulated at least 11 different plans for Argentina’s future. Saint Jean’s “New Argentine Historical Cycle” was the first, and all were confidential, internal memoranda. All were “working documents,” all were harshly critiqued and all, ultimately, ended up on the trash heap, victims of the Process’s power struggle or abandoned for lack of interest.

The planners agreed that the Process’s fundamental political task was to create a durable, constitutional system intolerant of populism and political incompetence and capable of resisting Marxist ideological incursions. This having been said, two primary questions dominated the debate. How long should we stay in? How do we get out?

Videla’s group worked in secret for the first year of the Process elaborating a two-phase “Proposal for National Unity,” designed to serve as the blueprint for apertura. The plan envisioned that the March 24 arrangement or forces would remain in place until the end of 1978 at which time Videla would be named by the junta to a second, four-year term. During this period, the Process would open the system with a series of civilian-military “dialogues” and elections. At the end of that time Argentina would elect a president.

The plan went nowhere, fundamentally because it locked Videla into the Casa Rosada for eight years, an extremely unattractive proposition to Massera, to the Army hard-liners and ultimately to Viola. “On the one hand Viola would always say ‘we have to have the apertura,’ ” said one Videla adviser. “At the same time he was always planting doubts.” With Videla in power until 1983, Viola could see that his own chances for the brass ring would disappear.

The Navy’s plan, “Considerations on the Process of Institutionalization and the Movement of National Opinion” called for creation of an official political party supported by a national civic movement. This scheme proposed no timetable, but clearly offered Massera his best shot at the presidency. As long as the junta and the Process remained a closed military shop there was no chance for an admiral to become president. In an official party with civilian participation, however, Massera could make his superior wit and political acumen count.

This empire-building phase of the Process, which began in 1976 and lasted for approximately two years, ended abruptly when Videla’s original period of “exceptionality” ran out in the middle of 1978. In August he had to retire from the Army, leave the junta and either abandon the Process or become the “Fourth Man” to serve at the orders and whim of the junta.

The Navy’s position was that the “Fourth Man” could be “anyone but Videla.” The Army’s position was that it could be only Videla. Discussions began in early 1978 and immediately reached deadlock. The junta needed a unanimous vote, and the Navy refused to cooperate.

The commanders finally agreed to kick the decision downstairs. Each commander summoned his major generals, vice admirals and major-brigadiers to a conference at which the new president would be chosen. The so-called junta grande, or “big junta,” of 22 officers met once, argued savagely, adjourned and met again. The Navy suggested Saint Jean and other retired generals, hoping to seduce Suarez Mason and other “hard-liners” to change their service allegiance. Viola, however, fiercely championed Videla and ultimately prevailed. Videla would serve for three more years to March 29, 1981.

Next came the selection of a new Army commander-in-chief/junta member, which in accordance with prior agreement of the general staff, was to be made by Videla, the outgoing commander, after “previous consultation” with his major generals. More fur flew. Videla wanted Viola, but the hardliners held out for Suarez Mason. In the end, however, the hardliners couldn’t muster the necessary votes and Viola stepped into the junta. His biggest supporter, apart from Videla, was Galtieri, the Rosario corps commander.

At this point, important heads began to roll. Massera retired a month after Videla and was replaced in the junta by his second-in-command, Armando Lambruschini, a quiet man friendly to Viola. Agosti retired, and was replaced by Omar Graffigna, even less visible than his predecessor. Also finished was Suarez Mason, who became Viola’s chief-of-staff, a position which did nothing for him except allow Viola to watch him closely. He had gone as far as he could and so retired at the end of 1979.

Viola, master of the Army’s house, also retired at the end of 1979, a risky move for a general who wanted to be president. Power was in the hierarchy; he who was no longer in the hierarchy risked losing it. Still, Viola, his advisers said, did not want to “self-elect himself,” and needed time to prepare his political program. His choice of Galtieri as successor in the junta seemed obvious. Galtieri was senior corps commander, had always supported him and had never made any trouble for the Process. Naming Galtieri also froze Interior Minister Harguindeguy, Viola’s last potential challenger. Galtieri and Harguindeguy were military academy classmates and once Galtieri became Army commander, Harguindeguy became redundant.

Except it wasn’t that easy. At the end of 1979 Galtieri started encouraging the retirement of Viola’s favorite generals and moving his own followers into key spots. He forbade the corps commanders to make public statements and forbade Viola to lobby active duty generals.

In September 1980, the junta sat down again to “elect” another Argentine president. This time each service came to the table with two names. Galtieri consulted with his entire general staff and then with his major generals. The answer came back the same both times: “Viola and Harguindeguy, but it must be Viola.”

The junta met-and deadlocked. Harguindeguy was on the Navy’s list, Viola was not: “Anybody but Viola.” On the Sept. 30 deadline, the junta announced a 10-day extension of its deliberations. On Oct. 3, Viola was elected: 2-1. The junta had again waived unanimity.

Viola took office in March, 1981, but Galtieri had cemented his power base within the Army and began harsh criticism of the government almost immediately. The showdown began Nov. 9, when the government issued a statement saying Viola had undergone a medical examination at Buenos Aires’ military hospital, Rumors of a palace coup began to spread immediately. Galtieri consulted the junta and “his” major generals. Everyone gave him the green light. On Dec. 11, 1981 the junta fired Viola and named Galtieri to serve out his three-year presidential term. Slightly over three months later Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands.

©1986 Guy Gugliotta

Guy Gugliotta, a reporter on leave from The Miami Herald, is investigating the military in power in Argentina from 1976 to 1983.