The Last Tango of Colonel Seineldin

December 10, 1990|By Jeane Kirkpatrick

BUENOS AIRES — Buenos Aires. CALL IT the last tango. Although the mutiny was a classic Argentine-style action which few civilians in Buenos Aires took seriously, President Carlos Menem was not amused by the abortive military uprising that shook his country fora day.

Rebels in tanks stopped traffic on major streets, shut the domestic airport, seized the army headquarters in the capital and embarrassed the government on the eve of George Bush's visit.

''All this is definitely over . . . these ridiculous antics that have harmed the country so much,'' Mr. Menem said.

Unlike his predecessor, Raul Alfonsin -- who on three occasions negotiated an end to a military insurrection -- Mr. Menem demanded that the rebels surrender or be wiped out.

They surrendered. But not until at least 13 people had been killed or mortally wounded and four times that many injured.

It was all over in time for everyone to get home for dinner.

Col. Mohammed Ali Seineldin, who led an army revolt two years ago, reportedly directed this one from the military cell to which he was restricted for threatening to repeat this sort of event. After the incident was over, Colonel Seineldin asked for a pistol with which to shoot himself, but authorities refused.

It was the fourth military mutiny since Argentina's return to democratic government, and the first since Carlos Menem became president in 1989. Many Argentines were quick to explain that this mutiny should not be called a coup attempt. The rebels, they insisted, were not trying to overthrow the government. They were trying to get better pay and more attention for their grievances.

''It is more like a strike than a coup,'' a leading Argentine journalist explained to me. ''Think of it as a labor action -- an Argentine-style labor action -- like a tango is an Argentine-style dance.''

Virtually all Argentines regard the tango with affection, as an interesting indigenous cultural art form. But President Menem feels no affection for the military uprisings that have repeatedly challenged, intimidated and sometimes overthrown his nation's civilian governments.

''A black chapter of Argentina's history is closed with this episode,'' Mr. Menem announced, adding that all rebels would face legal charges, which for some could include the death penalty.

The president is something new on the Argentine scene -- a civilian who will not be intimidated, a leader determined to complete the modernization of Argentina's political and economic institutions and to end the practices that have blocked emergence of a stable democracy and reliable economic growth. He is determined to transcend traditional divisions and put an end to old demagoguery.

Mr. Menem spent five years (1976-1981) imprisoned under harsh conditions for purely political reasons, but he is not a bitter man or a hater. He is a Peronist, with all that implies about commitment to Argentina's workers and trade unions. However, he will not permit the unions to paralyze the economy or drive wages to inflationary levels.

Like Mexico's president, Carlos Salinas, Mr. Menem is committed to liberating Argentina's economy from the layers of control, subsidy and regulation imposed by successive governments and unions in successive deals over the last five decades.

He has made privatization, decentralization and deregulation policies, not just slogans. He has sold off government-owned airlines, the telephone company and half a dozen other state monopolies. Unprecedented fiscal discipline has already brought an end to the hyper-inflation that made Argentina's currency almost worthless.

Mr. Menem eschews the anti-yanqui demagoguery and ''neutrality'' that characterized Argentina's posture toward the world during and after World War II and soured the country's relations with the U.S. and others. This doctrinaire neutralism finally confused Argentines themselves about who they are and what they are. President Menem's commitment of Argentine forces to the Gulf is only the most recent evidence of his determination that the nation should rejoin the world.

He is eager for a fresh start on relations with the United States. Mr. Menem was openly enthusiastic about the Bush visit. And neither he nor anyone around him doubted that the rebellion was timed to prevent the visit and frustrate his efforts to build closer relations with the U.S.

The fact that George Bush did not rush to change his plans in the wake of the abortive rebellion made Mr. Menem and his colleagues even more enthusiastic about the American president. Argentines like chiefs of state (and people) who do not scare easily.

Mr. Menem is not the only Latin leader determined that his country should become fully modern, fully democratic and market-oriented.

In 1978, only four Latin countries had democratic governments. Today, 14 are democracies and most of these are actually engaged in freeing their economies from a complicated form of Latin mercantilism.

Carlos Menem is typical of the new brand of Latin leaders transforming Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay and other nations in the hemisphere. At the same time that Europe looks inward, these new leaders are opening new possibilities for cooperation between North and South America.

Mr. Bush's ''Americas Initiative,'' which proposes hemispheric free trade, is an early manifestation of the U.S. interest in looking again at relationships with its neighbors.

It is a good thing indeed that Mr. Bush's Argentine visit was not interrupted by Colonel Seineldin's last tango.

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