Obituary: General Alejandro Lanusse

Nick Caistor
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:12

Like many Argentine soldiers of his generation, General Alejandro Lanusse spent more time fighting and conspiring in the political arena than on any battlefield. Lanusse liked to be known as the man who brought democracy back to Argentina at the start of the 1970s; many Argentines remained unconvinced of his democratic credentials.

Born into an upper middle class family in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, the young Alejandro Lanusse followed the traditional Argentine career path: military college, and then at the age of 20, enrolment in the cavalry, considered the most patrician branch of the army.

Lanusse was deeply suspicious of Colonel Juan Domingo Pern, who was part of the revolutionary army group which took power in 1942, but used his position to launch his own political movement. In 1951, the young Captain Lanusse took part in a failed attempt to oust Pern, by then president, from power. He was punished with a life term in jail, but only served four years of his sentence, until Pern was deposed in the 1955 military takeover. As a reward for his anti-Pernism, Lanusse was not only released from prison, but promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. By 1960, he was Chief of Staff of the Third Cavalry Division.

Through the next decade, Lanusse was a key figure in the often tumultuous world of the military politicians, who were attempting to rule Argentina while excluding the Pernists. He became part of the army high command, and supported the faction led by General Juan Carlos Ongania which took power in 1966. By 1968, Lanusse was Commander- in-Chief of the army, and then in March 1971 emerged from his position as kingmaker to take over the presidency.

These years saw increasing protests by the still-banned Pernist trade unionists and activists. It was also the time when extremist groups were taking on the Argentine state with acts of terror and sabotage. Lanusse became convinced that only a political compromise with the Pernists could ensure stability. He first sought to form a political accord known as the Great National Agreement, by means of which the parties would agree the steps necessary for the return to a free vote and an elected government.

At the same time, Lanusse hoped he could prevent Pern himself returning to Argentina. He negotiated the return of Evita Pern's dead body, and allowed Pern to recover the rank of General. But when he uttered what became his best-known phrase, affirming that Pern would never return to Argentina ''either because he doesn't want to, or doesn't have the guts,'' Lanusse only revealed how out of touch he was with the political situation.

The Pernists triumphed in the 1973 elections, and Lanusse was jostled and spat on as he left the presidential palace in May 1973 to make way for the Pernist Hector Campora. Pern himself soon took over the presidency, but following his death in 1974, subsequent Pernist goverments floundered in a welter of violence, corruption and indecision. In March 1976, the armed forces took power once again.

This was already the next generation of military commanders. They regarded Lanusse with suspicion for having allowed the Pernists back into power, and themselves decided that a tough line was the only response to violence and ''subversion''. When the leaders of this military coup sanctioned a massive campaign of making suspects ''disappear'' rather than arresting and trying them, killing more than 9,000 Argentines in the process, Lanusse became openly critical of their methods, although critics pointed out that the first reprisals against left-wing activists had been taken while he was president. He protested most strongly when one of his press secretaries joined the lists of the disappeared people; and when eventually in 1985 the deposed military leaders were put on trial for their human rights crimes, Lanusse testified against them.

In recent years, he continued to stress that he had always supported an army which, in his words, "existed for the fatherland, rather than the fatherland existing for the army". He wrote three volumes of autobiography seeking to justify his own position, and continued his criticism of Pernism with attacks on the policies of the present government under Carlos Menem.

At his death, he was still a polemical figure, with many Argentines arguing that he had been a basically decent, honest person, while others saw him as the archetype of generations of Argentine soldiers, constantly meddling in politics without any political vision.

Nick Caistor

Alejandro Lanusse, army officer: born Buenos Aires 28 August 1918; President of Argentina 1971-73; married Ileana Bell (nine children); died Buenos Aires 26 August 1996.

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