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ARGENTINA | 01-01-2024 01:25

Military issue: The trauma affecting Argentina and its Armed Forces

In countries such as Brazil, the United States or Israel, entering the military is often a prestigious and profitable career path, one frequently chosen by individuals across different social classes and strata. But in Argentina, where the shadow of the dark era of the 1976-1983 dictatorship looms large, mistrust of the military remains high.

In Argentina, in general terms, the younger the person, the better their opinion of the Armed Forces. In general, those who were not alive during the dark era of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, hold more positive views about the military.

But in Chile and Brazil, nations which went through dictatorships, there is a better perception of the Armed Forces overall, with their respective militaries scoring better in opinion surveys than their Argentine counterparts.

“In the urban and university world there’s a negative view of the Armed Forces, and that idea is related to history, their abuses during coups and State terrorism. The critical view towards the [Armed] Forces is more, in my opinion, typical of urban academia. This was very strong early in democracy, but it’s slowly changing,” considers political scientist María Lourdes Puente Olivera, who worked for over 20 years as an international relations analyst for Argentine Navy and served in the Defence Ministry as national director of strategic military intelligence.

“After the Trial of the Juntas, the uprisings, the ‘carapintadas’ [mutineers] and the defeat in the Malvinas, disappeared people and the appropriation of children, the [Armed] Forces, from the mid 1980s, became a scorned institution,” states former security minister Sabina Frederic. and anthropologist Sabina Frederic. 

“Even the youngest soldiers, who had nothing to do with that dark period in history, were harassed. This indeed caused resentment among those who joined the [Armed] Forces,” she adds.

The Armed Forces generate mistrust for most of the population: 55 percent of Argentines do not trust them, according to a survey by analysts Poliarquía Consultores. However, with 43 percent approval, they are the second-most trusted national institution (after universities). 

Indeed, Argentina’s other democratic structures – such as Legislative and Judicial branches, the media or political parties – rank even lower when it comes to trust. The nation’s unions, for example, are mistrusted by 70 percent of the population.

The Poliarquía data comes from a research project named “The face of democracy in Brazil and Argentina,” which is being carried out by the Institute of Democracy of Belo Horizonte and the Federal University of Minas Gerais.

“The good comparative assessment of the Armed Forces is a subject of interest, controversy and hypotheses. Could their relevance be, ironically, due to their low profile?” writes Poliarquía Consultores’ analysts in the survey. 

“Fifty-five percent distrusting the Armed Forces is the same percentage of people who, according to Latinobarómetro [another regional pollster], state that in Argentina ‘under no circumstances would they support a military government,’” the authors observe.

 

“In Chile and Brazil, the Armed Forces are consulted on all strategic matters. They have a much greater status and political power than in Argentina. Not only are they viewed as a social vehicle, but they’re also a political vehicle within the power structure.”

 

Approval and memory

Collective memory seems to be tied to a specific age group. 

Another study, “Political culture in democracy of the Americas,” carried out by the Latin America Public Opinion Project (Proyecto de Opinión Pública de América Latina, LAPOP) in 2017, indicated that the lower the age of a respondent, the greater the support for a potential military coup: 48.5 percent of people in Latin America between 16 and 25 years old said they would support military intervention in government. 

Among the age range between 26 and 35, 44.6 percent would agree with a coup. Percentages then drop with ascending age – among those aged over 66, only 34.8 percent would agree. There were no differences in terms of gender. 

Experts say this finding could be related to general disappointment with democracy in Latin America and perceptions among young Latin Americans who have lived through economic crises their entire lives. 

Adding support to this thesis, a 2023 report by Latinobarómetro found that most people in the region “do not care that a non-democratic government rises to power if it solves problems.” Whereas citizens in Argentina, Uruguay, Nicaragua, and also Chile (all victims of military dictatorships), according to Latinobarómetro, concur in their negative views of military coups. In the case of the United States, which has a better quality of life overall, and where the Armed Forces enjoy great acceptance, support and trust among the population, citizens still do not support coups.

A LAPOP Barometer of the Americas poll in 2008 stated that nearly 75 percent of US citizens trusted their Armed Forces then. In the case of Argentina, the figure was 36 percent; excusing the different models in the surveys, one could argue that over the last 15 years, trust in the Armed Forces has grown domestically. 

“There are still many families where the concept of homeland is still very large. In terms of symbolism, it represents the idea that there is something beyond, not the Armed Forces, but the fact that there is someone wearing a uniform for a higher purpose, the homeland, the community or giving their life for us,” explained Puente Olivera. 

“In the United States, every time you see a soldier they say: ‘Thank you for your service.’ The service provided by the Armed Forces is highly valued, based on the idea that the person chooses an occupation which means giving your life for everyone [else],” she added.

“What is the matter then? When that set of people is in crisis, when I don’t believe in that ‘everyone’ – then there is a problem as to how the occupation is valued,” sid Puente Olivera, who holds a PhD in International Relations. 

“The sense of belonging to a homeland is distorted, and thus the [image of the] occupation is distorted,” she concluded.

 

“Our people comprise the Armed Forces. They don’t come from anywhere else. And every day we have more people who want to join.”

 

Influence and standing

According to Poliarquía, the level of trust Argentines hold of the military has changed over the past two decades: it records 30 percent of acceptance in 2003; 50 percent in 2013; 44 percent in 2021. 

“The Armed Forces bring about rejection in most of the population, which might prevent, due to lack of consensus, the political role they have in Brazil,” the consultancy explained, noting the military’s prominent role in Argentina’s giant neighbour.

In Brazil, the aftertaste of the dictatorship (1964-1985) seems to have been mostly erased or, at least, it is not expressed as a rejection of the Armed Forces overall. In 2018, trust in the military reached 64 percent. The following year, retired military man Jair Bolsonaro was inaugurated as president. A report by the LAPOP Barometer of the Americas at the time showed that one out of three Brazilians would justify a coup “if there were too much corruption.”

“In Chile and Brazil, the Armed Forces are consulted on all strategic matters. They have a much greater status and political power than in Argentina. Not only are they viewed as a social vehicle, but they’re also a political vehicle within the power structure. In Argentina, when we returned to democracy, that [trust] started eroding. It made them lose their space a bit and ultimately, they faded out too much. Politics do not attach that much importance to defence or the Forces,” explained Puente Olivera. 

Among the Chilean population, by mid-2023, trust of the Armed Forces reached 48 percent of the population, according to a study by the Centro de Estudios Públicos (CEP). But the number has fluctuated over the years: it stood at 63 percent in 2009 and dropped to 24 percent in 2019, during a lengthy period of social uprising. Most years, it remained above 40 percent. 

As seen in Argentina, universities are the institutions generating the greatest level of trust, followed by Church, the Police, and lastly the Armed Forces. The following were the least valued (less than 20 percent in all cases): Courts, unions, Congress and political parties. 

Since the Chilean dictatorship (1973-1990), Puente Olivera said that the Armed Forces’ influence in the country “has started waning, but it’s still strong – in the case of Brazil, the [Armed] Forces were a part of the government. On some issues, they’re consulted to make political decisions, but that still doesn’t happen in Argentina.”

The expert highlighted another study commissioned by Argentina's Navy in 2007 to establish the prime reasons that cadets sign up. “Sixty percent of non-commissioned officers joined with the intent of climbing socially, as did 30 percent of officers. There is an increasing number of people who start a military career for social climbing – I saw the graduation of non-commissioned officers with their families, especially in the north and centre of the country, they come from very vulnerable sectors. They weep with pride when they see their children wearing the uniform,” said Puente Olivera.

 

Price of prestige

Another factor for the lack of sign-ups could be the financials. While some may improve social standing, most aren’t doing it for the cash. According to the most recent salary index published by the Defence Ministry, the highest rank in the Armed Forces early this year earned 384,000 pesos, while the lowest rank earned 83,000. In Spain, generals make 59,000 euros per year. 

“When you’re not consulted about issues where you should have an opinion, when you’re not used in your proper function, everything stops making much sense. There was a time when it was prestigious and there were military families. There still are some, but fewer and fewer, who do it out of tradition, but are no longer in the elite,” said political scientist Puente Olivera.

“Perhaps the price of prestige in the institution has to do with the memory of the younger generations. Argentina did a lot to repair the damage it caused. I believe that loss of prestige is explained with other security institutions which are much more exposed to everyday life,” she continued.

“The Armed Forces are retired because their main objective is to prepare for war. They have subsidiary missions, in which they have done their job well. For example, their involvement in the Peace Stabilisation Mission in Haiti showed that the Armed Forces can perform a very important role. Their mission was also very significant in social and environmental catastrophes. I remember the floods in Comodoro [Rivadavia] or isolated areas, when there are risings or blizzards. They play an important role, and yet it is unacknowledged,” said Frederic, an anthropologist who headed the national security portfolio from 2019 to 2021.

“I believe over the last decade they have shown that they have a very different degree of professionalism and relationship with society from the one they had in the past. A part of Argentina has a traumatic relationship with this portion of history. And like every trauma, sometimes it’s not easy to get over,” the former official concluded.

Some serving military officers feel that perceptions among the everyday population is better than the surveys show.

“Over the last 40 years [as a serving officer], I haven’t had any inconveniences in terms of my function. I’ve been in different environments; I’ve worked with younger and older people, in Buenos Aires and elsewhere in the country,” said an Argentine colonel who preferred to remain anonymous in order to speak freely. “We’ve inevitably shared opinions about the role of the Armed Forces, but I have especially experienced concrete action, the support of the community or the direct relationship with people.”

The population is reflected in the make-up of today's military in Argentina, they added.

“Our people comprise the Armed Forces. They don’t come from anywhere else. And every day we have more people who want to join. I’ve travelled in my uniform in public transport since I was 13 years old. I’ve always received praise,” said the colonel.

“No-one else in my family is in the military. We’re part of the same community that nourishes us and welcomes us in every corner with affection and appreciation. I’ve helped in local clubs for years and everyone knew I was a soldier. It always helped to make a difference,” they acknowledged. 

“I also teach and train leaders and we share with young people that there is only one defence, that of a healthy, strong, robust Republic,” they concluded. “We’re all working on it.”

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