The Indy is happy to launch a new series, telling the story behind specific, and significant, moments in Argentine history. We will recall and reflect on the past events of one day in each month, shedding some light on the lesser-known turning points that shaped the country’s destiny.
“Happy Easter!… The house is in order, there is no blood in Argentina” – Raúl Alfonsín, 19th April 1987; Plaza de Mayo.
Easter Sunday, 1987. With the late afternoon light beginning to fade, an enormous crowd packed into Plaza de Mayo roared with anticipation as President Raul Alfonsín emerged on the balcony of the Casa Rosada. The message he was about to deliver would become one of the defining moments of his presidency, and an important milestone in Argentina’s immature and fragile democracy.
Alfonsín had left the famous square a few hours earlier to personally seek an end to a military uprising some 30km away in Campo de Mayo, which for days had caused alarm among a society fearful of a return to military rule. “Wait for me!” Alfonsín pleaded with the masses. “I ask you all to wait here for me, and if God is willing and all of Argentina is with me, I’ll be back soon with a solution.”
A few hours later, the president returned with a triumphant ‘Felices Pascuas!’ (Happy Easter!) message: “The house is in order, there is no blood in Argentina… Go home, kiss your children, and celebrate Easter in peace.”
The 1987 Easter uprising was rooted in the historic trials – supported by the Alfonsín government – being brought against the military for the human rights abuses during the 1976-83 military dictatorship. After the full horrors of that period were revealed in the ‘Nunca más’ report compiled by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), the leaders of the military junta were found guilty of crimes against humanity in a landmark 1985 trial. Soon the courts were flooded with claims against military personnel of all ranks.
Major Ernest Guillermo Barreiro was among a sizeable group of lower-ranking officers incensed by what they considered a “persecution” of the military by the government, the media, and civil society, and refused to appear in court on 16th April when summoned to testify about his role in the ‘La Perla’ clandestine detention centre in Córdoba. When an arrest warrant was issued later that day, Barreiro’s unit declared a mutiny it called ‘Operation Dignity’.
Luitenant Colonel Aldo Rico – who would become the figurehead of the insurgents – joined the rebellion the next day, setting up with over 100 heavily armed troops in Campo de Mayo and demanding the resignation of the army general and an end to what he called “the continued aggression towards the Argentine army.”
In a country that had lived through more than half a century of regular military coups, and had only returned to democracy three and a half years earlier, the threat of a another break in the institutional order was obvious, even though the rebels had stated this was not their aim.
For Alfonsín, the defence of democracy, with which in the 1983 election he had claimed the country would be able to “to learn, to eat, and to heal”, was paramount. Yet the president was anxious to avoid bloodshed, and, in any case, unable to count on the full support of army generals that were reluctant to use force against their own.
Tension rose as negotiations were unsuccessful and the standoff entered its fourth day, while protests against the uprising – including outside the Camp de Mayo barracks itself – were becoming more heated. Eager to diffuse a potentially disastrous confrontation, Alfonsín gave an impassioned speech to the masses gathered in Plaza de Mayo, declaring that he himself would go and demand the surrender of the ‘carapintadas‘, so nicknamed due to their camouflaged faces.
The crowd waited, and Alfonsín brought the good news that the continuance of democracy was assured. Amidst the euphoria that greeted that announcement, it was not immediately apparent at what cost.
Contexts and Contrasts
Less than two months after the Easter uprising, Alfonsín signed the so-called ‘Law of Due Obedience’, which absolved all but the higher members of the military hierarchy of blame for the crimes of the dictatorship, based on the assumption that they were “coerced by superiors and following orders, without the possibility of inspecting, opposing, or resisting them”.
Though the controversial law was not constructed directly as a result of the Easter uprising – Alfonsín had talked about degrees of responsibility in his 1983 electoral campaign and again in a speech just weeks before the revolt – many saw it as effectively giving in to the military’s demands. And the multi-partisan “Act of Democratic Commitment”, signed as Alfonsín prepared to travel to Campo de Mayo, officially recognised this scale of guilt by the political class and paved the way for the subsequent bill.
The law was especially criticised by human rights groups, already angered by the ‘Full Stop Law’, sanctioned on 24th December, 1986, which put a limit of 60 days to start new legal proceedings for any crime committed before the return to democracy. While Alfonsín considered both laws a compromise to assure a peaceful and stable democracy, and defended them until his death in 2009, his critics maintain that they were unconstitutional and even unnecessary given the massive public rejection of the military rebellion.
Certainly, the reaction of the public on that famous weekend revealed a change in society’s relationship with the military. Whereas coup after coup in the previous 50 years had been executed before a largely complicit population, the brutality of the 1976-83 dictatorship united a vast majority behind the slogan ‘nunca más‘ (Never Again).
Yet 1987 also punctured the illusion that the return to democracy would solve all of the country’s ills. After spending much of the 20th century in the shadow of military intervention, the political state was just one of a number of actors, including the armed forces, the church, trade unions, and the corporate sector, competing for power. That the president himself was forced to travel to the base of an insurgent leader and negotiate a peaceful surrender – at first glance a display of personal courage and moral conviction – exposed the fragility of the country’s democratic institutions.
Alfonsín’s radical party suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the rival Peronists in local elections in September 1987, and as opposition spread amid a deepening economic crisis, Alfonsín ended his term prematurely, in June 1989. His replacement, Carlos Menem, would within 18 months issue a series of presidential pardons for all those involved in the military dictatorship, ushering in a period of complete impunity that would last until 2003. A period in which Aldo Rico, after leading another revolt in 1988 and also receiving a pardon from Menem, would end up as security minister in the province of Buenos Aires.
Alfonsín’s ‘Felices Pascuas!‘ would be remembered as both a high and low point of his presidency; a moment of victory for peaceful democracy over the military threat, but only at the expense of moral justice. With hindsight, these contrasts of Easter 1987 would become more clear, and judgement would be easier to cast. Alfonsín often said he was a victim of circumstance and that he remained loyal to his ideals and convictions; 26 years later, the debate continues.