Originally published June 19, 1982.
It was not a good week for Argentina. Last Sunday, the national soccer team (defending world champions) lost 1-0 against Belgium in the opening game of the world soccer finals – a sporting disaster that could be blunted, but not repaired, by a win against Hungary yesterday afternoon.
Then, on Monday, Argentina lost the war with Great Britain for the Falkland Islands.
For more than two months, the conflict had provided a place of warmth in Argentina's soul, bathing this deeply divided, often formented nation with a ruddy new glow of national solidarity – a glow that many observers believe would long survive the war itself, whatever the military outcome.
On Tuesday, Argentina lost its ruddy, new glow of national solidarity.
Direct from his utter humiliation on the battlefields of the Falklands, Argentine President Leopoldo Galtieri turned his attention once again to domestic politics, with similarly impressive results.
In a series of breathtaking blunders, he first practically exhorted Argentines to riot against him, then stood by as police attacked the crowds with tear gas anvd runcheons. Then, General Galtieri sat himself down on national television to soothe the nation's rattled nerves by issuing vague charges that virtually everyone in the country was potentially a traitor – except, of course, himself.
On Thursday, General Galtieri ceased to be the president of Argentina – or at least that's the way it appeared.
Once again, Argentina's military rulers have done what they appear to do best – taking an unassuming sort of little mistake and turning it into a great, walloping disaster.
On March 30, three days before a 4,500-man Argentina force invaded the Falklands, the government in Buenos Aires looked to be about as close to toppling as any dictator likes to get. Crowds were rioting in the streets, decrying the country's desperate economic malaise and demanding political reform. The unrest was quelled, but only by strong-arm police tactics.
Then April 2, "reoccupation" of the Falklands, although it temporily cauterized many of Argentina's more gaping social wounds, was certainly a mistake. It could, however, be turned to advanta. At any point during the grinding weeks of international efforts to forestall the Falklands war, Argentina could have cut its territorial gains, accepted a peaceful settlement and marched away from the dispute, more or less a winner.
Argentina's flag might not have been left flying over the Falklands, but the conflict would have been far closer to a long-term resolution than it has been at any time during the 149 years that Argentina has been claiming the islands from the British "interloper." Instead, the Argentina junta dug its bootheels into the Falklands bog: at least 1,000 men died so that Argentina could lose a war it had no hope of winning, while sacrificing most of the "honour" apparently at stake.
What happens next is unclear. There appears to be a trend of moderation within the armed forces, particularly within the air force, urging that the things of war be put away and that Argentina get on with the task of sorting itself out economically and politically. On the other hand, in the wake of its military defeat, Argentina seems a little short of the kind of national will required for such a task. The "greatness" that has always eluded this country's grasp may be rather more distant than ever.
Rooting through the remains of the Falklands war, it is difficult to pick out any single piece of the wreckage that could be polished up, mounted on the watt, and be called an Argentine gain. The great surge of national unity during the war appears to have been no more enduring that its immediate cause. The vaunted creation of a new Latin American pride and brotherhood as a result of the conflict has yet to be thoroughly tested – but it didn't exactly help Argentina win the war.
Throughout the conflict, voices have been raised from all over, arguing that the justice of Argentina's territorial claim to the Falklands was being ignored by those who sided with Britain in the dispute, that Argentina had a right to be frustrated after 17 years of stalling by Britain during efforts to resolve the conflict through negotiations, that the issue was important – and rightly so – to Argentina.
All of which is fair enough. All of which is true. However, it misses one essential question – essential, at least, for Argentina – which is whether the governing junta had any particular right to blunder Argentina into a bloody, military disaster which an even slightly more competent government might well have been able to avoid.
It's the sort of question that people here will probably start to ask.