OBITUARY : General Juan Carlos Ongana

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The Independent Online
Juan Carlos Ongana was de facto president of Argentina between 1966 and 1970.

Weeks before he died, the old general, in a last hurrah, ran for president in the elections held on 14 May, on the claim that Argentina needed a moral renewal. The need is there, but in some provinces his ticket did not get a single vote of acknowledgement.

Ongana will be remembered as the caricature of a Latin American dictator; the moustachioed general who invoked a higher moral code to impose the most ultramontane rules on an Argentine society that had just come out of a decade of stagnation under General Juan Domingo Pern in 1955. Ongana, encouraged by a coterie of reactionary cronies fearful of a return of Peronism, seized government on 28 June 1966 from an elderly provincial doctor, Arturo Illia, who was the only decent president Argentina has known in over half a century.

Ongana's rule is remembered for his order that men must shave their beards because hairy faces looked dirty or Communist, or both; women could not use mini-skirts (in the 1960s) because showing a knee was indecent; and lights in night-clubs had to be turned up to prevent the lewdness of cuddles.

If that sounds hilarious, there was also social tragedy. Ongana is remembered for sending riot police into the School of Exact Sciences to evacuate the building a few weeks after he had become president. The event is memorable in Argentina's contemporary history as "the night of the long sticks", when students, senior researches and visiting scientists were thrown out of the building, and beaten with truncheons as they had to run a gauntlet. A whole generation of Argentine intellectuals emigrated, causing a brain drain from which the country has not recovered. As if such a move were not enough, the regime then sent mounted police into the school of architecture, and brought about the end of a short golden age of political and intellectual progress that had begun after the end of Peronism in the 1950s.

Ongana was removed by his army peers in June 1970, as guerrilla action had started to grow in the provinces and a former president, General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, had been abducted and murdered in action that marked the launch of the Montoneros urban terrorists.

Ongana's army career had started with graduation as second lieutenant in December 1934, and for all his life he was regarded by his generation as "intellectually grey". In March 1962, however, and by then a general, he seized the army leadership at a time of confusion and factional rivalry, when colonels and generals feared a return of Peronism to power. Ongana was greatly admired because he favoured an election and a constitutional solution to the crisis. But in 1966, weeks after telling an armed-forces conference in the United States that he saw no reason for an army coup in Argentina, he agreed to lead a military seizure of the presidency.

It was a time when the spooks in Washington and the Cold War businessmen of Europe thought that the only way to keep Western influence growing to the detriment of Soviet expansionism in Latin America was to encourage the men on horseback, the generals and colonels in the continent, to seize government and thwart the Communist threat. Ongana and his ilk were encouraged as saviours.

A few weeks before his death, General Ongana agreed to an interview in Noticias magazine, where he admitted that he had been dictatorial, said that he regretted the 1966 coup, only because the outgoing president was a peaceful old doctor, but claimed that he would have done the same again had the opportunity arisen.

His health failing, he first announced that he would run for president against the corruption in Carlos Menem's government, and then withdrew, arguing that the "moral right" was a bickering and divided lot and he would not represent such a disorderly electoral alliance.

With hindsight, he could be dismissed as a laughable old duffer. More realistically, the damage wreaked on Latin American society by the likes of Ongana will prompt the conclusion that he died five decades too late.

Andrew Graham-Yooll

Juan Carlos Ongana, soldier and politician: born Buenos Aires 17 March 1914; President of Argentina 1966-70; died Buenos Aires 8 June 1995.