Death claims another general

This morning’s news is that General Jorge Videla, military dictator of Argentina from 1976 to 1981, has died at the age of 87. Too many dictators die in the fullness of power or in comfortable retirement, but Videla was one of the exceptions: he was in prison, serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity.

Videla seized power in a coup in 1976 and proceeded to conduct a ruthless campaign against his real and supposed enemies that became known as the “Dirty War”. Originally directed, at least in theory, against armed left-wing guerrillas, it quickly became a reign of terror against activists and dissidents of all sorts. Estimates of the number of people killed range from about 9,000 to 30,000.

Nor was it confined to Argentina: in alliance with neighboring dictators such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay (and with the tacit support of the United States), “Operation Condor” targeted subversive influences across the continent. It’s the era that turned “disappear” into a transitive verb.

In 1982 one of Videla’s successors, General Galtieri, made the mistake of starting a war with the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands. The military regime collapsed as a result and the new democratic government began inquiries into its activities, eventually putting its leaders on trial. Videla was pardoned as an act of reconciliation in 1990, but the Supreme Court later ruled the pardon unconstitutional and he was returned to prison.

You can read more about Videla in the New York Times and at Al-Jazeera and the BBC. But what none of them quite seem to convey is just how normal a dictatorship like Videla’s seemed at the time.

With hindsight, Videla’s rule took place at a time when dictatorship was already on the way out. Greece, Portugal and Spain were all moving back to democracy, and as the Cold War thawed out the United States was starting to pay more attention to human rights issues.

But no-one really predicted how quickly and completely military rule would go out of fashion, especially in South America. The continent was regarded as the natural home of tinpot military despots, where intervals of civilian government were brief and unsuccessful. (Chile had long been an exception, which was why Pinochet’s rule was especially traumatic.)

In the 30 years since Argentina’s generals gave up power, democracy has bloomed in any number of unlikely places. Back in 2006, when I compiled the Crikey dictators list, I could find only 16 remaining examples of “a species that dominated the history of the 20th century” – and six of those have since given way to something like democratisation.

No doubt the world still has many problems, and there’s a lot still to be done to secure peace and freedom to its people. But the fate of General Videla serves as a reminder of how far we’ve already come.

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