Argentina The Painted Faces

Lose Face By decisively putting down a military revolt, Menem saves the day -- and a Bush visit as well

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President Carlos Saul Menem was still awake in the presidential palace at 3 a.m., following a late dinner with friends, when aides informed him that rebel soldiers had stormed army headquarters in downtown Buenos Aires, just a cannon shot away. The insurgents had also seized the nearby coast-guard building and three other installations. For Menem the timing could hardly have been worse. He knew that if he did not act fast, George Bush, who was in the midst of a South American goodwill tour, was likely to cancel his visit to Argentina -- to the deep embarrassment of Menem and his countrymen.

Two days later, Bush arrived on schedule, and his one-day visit became a % celebration of Menem's victory over the rebels. Though the uprising had left as many as 22 dead and 50 wounded, forces loyal to the Argentine President had suppressed it with relative ease.

In a rousing address before the Argentine legislature, Bush, who also traveled to Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Venezuela during his six-day southern swing, congratulated his host. Said he: "The events of Monday only strengthened my resolve to come to Argentina and stand shoulder to shoulder with President Menem. The message is clear. The day of the dictator is dead."

The uprising, Argentina's fourth in as many years, came at a critical moment in Menem's 17-month-old presidency. His sure-handed response to the rebellion was expected to strengthen his political position and give him a fresh chance to deal forcefully with his faltering economy. Despite ambitious plans for slimming the public sector and selling off money-losing state companies, Menem can claim credit for few accomplishments. His privatization program is bogged down, and inflation could reach 1,500% for 1990.

Compared with such problems, the uprising by the carapintadas, or "painted faces" -- so named for the greasepaint that has become a recurring rebel trademark -- was a quickly resolved affair. After Menem ordered the army to retake the captured military facilities, loyalists and rebels exchanged small- arms fire for the better part of a day. Cars and buses in the combat zone were riddled with bullet holes. Eventually Menem told the mutineers at army headquarters that if they did not surrender, he would order the building bombed. Shortly afterward they gave up.

Referring to Argentina's succession of military uprisings, Menem called for an end to "these ridiculous antics that have hurt the country so much." He vowed that the 300 or so rebels would be tried for insurrection and implied that he would seek the death penalty for their leaders. As the insurgents were led away from army headquarters, a crowd chanted, "To the wall!" -- meaning that the rebels should be lined up against a wall and shot. While there was no guarantee that a military minority would not try again to overthrow Argentina's fragile democracy, Menem had reason to be cheered by the support his actions had elicited from both his countrymen and his allies.