Democracy was restored to Argentina in 1983 after a brutal period of military rule. Under the leadership of the centrist civilian government of Raúl Alfonsín, a series of investigations and prosecutions began of former military officers suspected of involvement in the “Dirty War” between 1976-83, which had resulted in the torture and murder of at least 10,000 Argentine guerrillas, trade unionists, leftists, and other suspected dissidents. By March of 1987, 51 officers had been prosecuted, 12 of whom had been sentenced (the Supreme Court had already upheld five of those sentences). As many as 450 additional human rights prosecutions were in progress, about one-third of which implicated active-duty soldiers or officers. Anxiety was growing among those who had been active participants in state-sponsored crimes against humanity.
On April 15, 1987, Major Ernesto Barreiro (a.k.a. “Cachorro,” an Air Force officer and the chief torturer at the La Perla concentration camp) refused to comply with a civilian court subpoena to appear and defend himself against allegations of murder and torture. Instead, he secluded himself within the 14th Airborne Infantry Regiment camp in the city of Cordoba, where he had support from the local Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Luis Polo. One hundred thirty fellow officers and soldiers soon joined him there and together demanded amnesty for crimes committed during the Dirty War. Allied military rebels quickly established various satellite fortifications at other military bases and barracks, such as at the Campo de Mayo infantry school (which had been the scene of many human rights crimes), where Lieutenant Colonel Aldo Rico joined with 80 other officers. Another rebellion took hold of a base in the northern city of Salta.
Participants of the coup attempt were known as Carapintadas (painted faces) and they called the uprising “Operación Dignidad” (Operation Dignity), insisting that they were being scapegoated for following orders. The uprising had support of a much broader segment of the military than those who personally feared prosecution, however. The Alfonsín government was determined to professionalize and depoliticize the military, which for many decades had been the most powerful institution in the country. Many of the armed forces’ most influential officers were upset about the prospects of civilian oversight, both in terms of their own careers as well as in their distrust of politicians. They also held a strong belief that military leaders were the best guardians of the national interest.
Though the carapintadas did not explicitly claim they were seeking to overthrow the government, this was indeed the assumption on the part of the public, as there had been literally dozens of coup attempts in Argentina since the military first toppled a civilian government in 1930. Additional cues for this assumption included the individuals involved in the armed revolt, a series of bombings targeting the judiciary, and troops’ refusal to obey orders from Army Chief of Staff General Rios Erenu to suppress the rebellion.
The Argentine military was divided. Even among those not actively part of the coup, there was hesitation and unwillingness to suppress it. And the response from President Alfonsín was ambivalent. On the one hand, he mobilized loyal army units to challenge the coup plotters and insisted “no negotiations had taken place,” announcing to cheering members of Congress—who had gathered for a special emergency session— that “There’s nothing to negotiate… The Argentine democracy is not negotiable” (Fitch, 2015). At the same time, Alfonsín strategically sought a compromise for “all the major political parties” to endorse. In an attempt to strike a conciliatory tone toward the rebel officers, he called them “heroes of the Malvinas war” during a public address. But the crowd found Alfonsín’s gesture unnecessary and responded with “jeers and catcalls” (wsws.org, 2013).
As the president’s office was negotiating a compromise, Argentines themselves were taking matters into their own hands. On April 17, 1987, about 500 civilians—ignoring officials’ pleas to avoid the area—gathered outside the Cordoba base shouting “Long live democracy! Argentina! Argentina!” The coup plotters positioned a tank to intimidate the crowd, but the protesters marched into the base, forcing the 80 rebellious officers to surrender (Drosdoff, 1987a). Meanwhile, 400,000 people took to the streets in Buenos Aires to rally in opposition to the coup, and thousands besieged the rebel stronghold of Campo de Mayo just outside the city (see Table 4 on page 38).
Massive demonstrations took place throughout Argentina on successive days, with the rallying cry “nunca más” (“never again”) in reference to a return to military rule. Throughout the country, motorists honked their horns and waved the country’s flag out of their windows. The trade union federation called for a general strike, shutting down the country and enabling workers to mobilize in opposition to the coup attempt. Street art with slogans such as “for democracy—against coups” sprouted around the country (Chaffee, 1993, 126).
President Alfonsín, who had largely been in the background during this period, then became more pro-active, encouraging mass actions and lining up leaders of every major political party, along with leaders of civic organizations, business groups, the Catholic Church, and labor unions to sign a document pledging to “support in all ways possible the constitution, the normal development of the institutions of government and democracy as the only viable way of life of the Argentines.” This was the first time in history that such a broad spectrum of Argentines had united in support for democracy over military rule. Empowered with such widespread support, and the coup plotters finding virtually the entire society opposed to their rebellion, President Alfonsín personally went to Campo de Mayo on April 17 and negotiated their surrender.
This was a dramatic break in Argentina’s traditional apathy and fatalism towards successive military takeovers of the government. President Alfonsín triumphantly announced, “The time of the coups has ended.” A UPI wire service report at the time noted, “The message to the rebels was clear: they could hold a military base, but could not win control of the country,” noting how Argentines had learned “if they stand up and be counted, a coup d’état can be avoided after all” (Drosdoff, 1987b).
Argentina has remained democratic ever since. The tradition of mass nonviolent action remains, as large-scale civil resistance toppled a series of governments in late 2001 and early 2002 for ceding to international financial institutions’ demands to adopt draconian austerity measures. Meanwhile, workers have seized scores of factories facing closure that are now run as worker-owned cooperatives. Other grassroots nonviolent movements have remained an important force in Argentine politics. A series of competitive democratic elections have subsequently brought both center-left and center-right governments to power. For the first time in the country’s two centuries of independence, there is no longer a realistic threat of a military coup.