Jorge Rafaél Videla

Jorge Rafaél Videla (born 1925) served as the leader of the coup which overthrew Isabel Perón, president of Argentina, in 1976 and held power until 1981. Although at first considered a political moderate who favored a return to democracy, he presided over a military regime noted for its violation of human rights.

Jorge Rafaél Videla was born on August 2, 1925, in Mercedes, Argentina, a large provincial city 75 miles from the capital of Buenos Aires. His father, Colonel Rafaél Videla, was a career military officer and his mother, María Redonda de Videla, was from an old established family of Mercedes. He was raised a devout Roman Catholic. Following in his father's footsteps, Jorge Videla entered the National Military College at the age of 16 and was commissioned sublieutenant in the infantry in 1944.

During his early career Videla held a variety of posts, including those of instructor and staff officer at the Military College. From 1956 to 1958 he was stationed in the United States as an advisor to the Argentine embassy in Washington. He returned to the United States on two later assignments, once as a member of the Inter-American Defense Board and again for training at Fort Myer, Virginia. He also served in diplomatic missions in Bolivia and Venezuela. After various tours of duty in Argentina, he rose to the rank of brigadier general. In 1971 he was appointed commander of the Military College, a position he held until 1973, when he became the Chief of the Army's General Staff.

General Videla's rise to political power began in August 1975, when President Isabel Perón appointed him Commander-in-Chief of the Army, the number one position in the most powerful branch of Argentina's armed forces. Considered a political moderate, who first resisted pressure to interfere in the constitutional process, he ultimately became the leader of a three-man military junta that overthrew the crisis-ridden government of Isabel Perón in a bloodless coup in March 1976.

Although Videla assumed the Argentine presidency, the real power was vested in the military junta, whose announced goal was to eradicate left-wing terrorism and restore Argentina's deteriorating economy. Placing military men in all key positions, the junta quickly dismantled Argentina's entire democratic apparatus and established the military's absolute authority over the nation. To wipe out left-wing terrorism, the military launched a counter-insurgency campaign known as the "dirty war, " which resulted in the arbitrary detention, disappearance, and death of thousands of people suspected of subversion. The counter-terrorist operations succeeded in crushing the two main left-wing terrorist groups, the People's Revolutionary Army and The Montoneros. The scope of the repression spread to include political figures, labor leaders, journalists, lawyers, priests, and other opponents of the military regime. All were targeted by right-wing death squads seemingly operating with the sanction of the government. The excesses committed in the "dirty war" exposed Videla to severe condemnation at home and abroad for violation of human rights.

In the economic sphere, Videla's economics minister, José Martínez de Hoz, implemented a modified free market policy designed to curb Argentina's rampant inflation and stimulate private investment. The policy showed early signs of success with a marked recovery of the economy and a drop in the rate of inflation. Argentina's economic boom proved short-lived, however, and by mid-1981 the country was again facing serious economic woes.

As proclaimed by the junta at the time of the coup, Videla was to remain in power for a three-year period. In March 1978, a year before his term was due to expire, Videla announced that his government desired a dialogue with key civilian leaders to develop a plan for a return to democracy. In May, however, the leaders of the junta decided that the military should remain in power for at least another three years and that Videla should continue as president for a second term. Declaring that his final objective was to return the country in due time to authentic democracy, Videla agreed to serve out a second term.

In March 1981, when his tenure came to an end, Videla handed the presidency over to another member of the military junta, General Roberto Viola. In the aftermath of the disastrous Malvinas (Falkland) Islands War, civilian rule returned with the election of Raul Alfonsín in October 1983. In 1985, Videla was brought to trial along with other junta leaders. Videla and his navy commander, Admiral Emilio Massera, were found guilty of homicide, illegal detention and other human rights violations, and three other leaders, including Viola, were found guilty of other charges. Videla was sentenced to life in prison. President Raul Alfonsin, who took office in 1984, was credited for making possible the trial and a return to democracy in Argentina.

There is considerable controversy over General Videla's actual role as president of Argentina. His opponents regarded him as a military strongman who was responsible for a level of repression unknown in Argentina since the days of the 19th-century dictator Juan Manuel Rosas. Videla's supporters, on the other hand, maintain that he only reluctantly became involved in politics and that his relatively moderate policies were increasingly undercut by right-wing military hard-liners, who operated with almost complete independence, carrying out repressive measures against the Argentine populace as they saw fit.

In 1991, Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem, saying he wanted to "close a black chapter" in Argentina's history, pardoned Videla and the others found guilty in 1985, and they were released from prison. Nearly 50, 000 citizens protested in the streets, and Bishop Jorge Novak called the pardon a "humiliating defeat for the democratic system." Menem's goal was to appease unrest in the military; there had been four military uprisings since democracy was restored in 1983. After the pardon, Videla wrote an open letter to the military, saying his only crime was to defend the nation. He remained unrepentant and called for "full vindication" of the military.

Further Reading on Jorge Rafaél Videla

For Videla's political ideas see the The Political Thinking of the Argentine Government: Excerpts from Speeches and Interviews by Jorge Rafaél Videla (1977). Videla is profiled in Phil Gunson, Andrew Thompson and Greg Chamberlain, Dictionary of Contemporary Politicians of South America (1989). See also Janice C. Simpson, "Haunted by history: a long-awaited verdict fails to heal the wounds of the 'dirty war, "' in Time (December 23, 1985).