Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri

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Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri

Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri (born 1926) served as president of Argentina during the 1982 Falkland Islands War with Great Britain. After his country's defeat he was cashiered.

Had it not been for the Falklands Islands War of 1982, Leopoldo Galtieri would have become just another forgotten Latin American general. As a result of this war, though, he became the most memorable of the generals to rule Argentina since Juan Peron was driven from power in 1955.

Galtieri was born July 15, 1926, in Caseros, a suburb of Buenos Aires. He was the second of three children born into a working class family of Italian descent. In 1943 Galtieri entered the Argentine military academy, where he studied civil engineering. He graduated in 1945 and was commissioned a second lieutenant. For the next 35 years Galtieri steadily moved up through the ranks, eventually becoming commander-in-chief of the army. At six foot two inches, Galtieri was an imposing figure, often referred to as a "soldier's soldier."

There was little to distinguish Galtieri in his early career. His first assignment was to the Military School of Engineers in Concepción del Uruguay, in the Province of Entre Ríos. In 1949 he was promoted to lieutenant and attended a military engineering course at the U.S.-run military school in the Panama Canal Zone. In the 1950s he was promoted to captain and major, serving with the Fourth Battalion of Zapadores (Sappers) and as a staff officer assigned as professor in the Argentine Army War College.

Climbing the Promotion Ladder

In 1960 he spent six months studying advanced combat engineering at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Upon his return to Argentina he served in the inspection office of military engineers. Then in 1962 he was appointed as staff officer of the Second Infantry Division. At the end of 1962 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and assigned as professor of administration at the Army War College. In 1964 he became deputy commander of the Military School of Engineers. Then in 1967 he was promoted to colonel, and the next year he became commander of the military engineers 121st Construction Battalion.

Galtieri continued to advance through the ranks in the 1970s. He was appointed to deputy commander of the Engineer Corps in 1970, and two years later he was promoted to brigadier general and made commander of the Ninth Infantry Brigade. In 1973 he was made chief of staff of logistics and finance, and in 1974 he was appointed commander of the Seventh Infantry Brigade. The next year he became deputy commander and chief of staff of the Second Army Corps. Then Galtieri was made chief of staff for operations with the army general staff.

In the 1970s Argentina became increasingly unstable. Juan Peron returned from exile in 1973 and was elected president later that year. Upon his death in 1974 his wife (also the vice-president) assumed the presidency. She proved unable to resolve Argentina's economic problems or to respond effectively to leftist urban guerrillas. As a result, in 1976 a military coup by the heads of the army, navy, and air force removed her from office and installed General Jorge Rafael Videla, the army commander-in-chief, as president.

The Military Takes Over

At this time the army was conducting what is commonly known as the "Dirty War" against the guerrillas. During this period several thousands of suspected opponents of the government were secretly killed and buried by security forces. It remains unclear to what extent Galtieri was involved in the widespread abuses associated with this activity.

Galtieri's promotions continued. In 1977 he was promoted to the rank of major general and was named deputy commander of the Second Army Corps. Two years later he was named to command the First Army Corps. In December 1979 army commander-in-chief Roberto Viola announced his retirement, and Galtieri became commander-in-chief with the rank of lieutenant general.

March 1981 marked the end of the second three-year term General Videla had been appointed to by the junta. The junta, which included Galtieri as army commander, chose General Viola as president for the 1981-1984 term.

In 1981 Galtieri drew national attention for the first time by closing the border with Chile as part of the dispute with Chile over islands in the Beagle Channel. During that year he made two trips to the United States and was referred to by President Reagan as "a magnificent general."

On December 22, 1981, General Viola was forced from the presidency by the junta and was replaced by General Galtieri. Viola had proved incapable of dealing with the country's triple digit inflation and the sluggish economy. At the time he took office, Galtieri announced that he would finish the three-year term to which the junta had appointed Viola. In addition to becoming president, Galtieri retained his positions as army commander-in-chief and junta member. Serving with Galtieri on the junta were air force commander General Basilio Lami Dozo and navy commander Vice Admiral Jorge Anaya.

A War to Unite the Nation

Galtieri was known as a strong anti-Communist. A month before the coup placed him in the presidency he stated, "Argentina and the United States will march together in the ideological war being waged in the world." He shared the accepted idea of the time that the Argentine military should play a major role in directing the country. Galtieri's initial measures to deal with hyperinflation, including a freeze in public salaries and a cut in government spending, only added to the hardship of the Argentine people and increased popular dissatisfaction with military rule.

On April 2, 1982, faced with rising discontent, Galtieri took the classical way to divert attention from domestic problem. He started a foreign war, invading the Falkland Islands. Simply dismissing this as a desperate maneuver to cover domestic failure, though, is to over-simplify the situation. Viewed through Argentine eyes, the British occupation of the Falklands, some 300 miles off the Argentine coast in the South Atlantic, was an affront to national honor. The islands, called the Malvinas in Argentina, are felt to have been unjustly seized from Argentina in 1833. Their continued occupation by the British was a longstanding source of resentment. Some 20 years of talks with Britain had produced no results. Argentina held out for sovereignty over the islands. However, Britain noted that the 1,800 settlers of British origin vehemently opposed being ruled by Argentina, and so maintained control.

In this context the invasion produced euphoria in Argentina. The invasion itself hardly merited the word. After three hours of resistance by the small British garrison, the Argentines took control. On April 10 Galtieri called for a public demonstration of support for the invasion. One hundred thousand exuberant Argentines, forgetting their economic problems for the moment, appeared in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires.

It soon became apparent that Galtieri had made two serious miscalculations. He had felt that the United States would either back Argentina or at least remain neutral. He felt Argentine support of U.S.-backed governments in Central America and for the U.S.-funded Nicaraguan contra forces would gain him U.S. support. In addition, he felt that Reagan's attempt to lift the ban on military aid to Argentina reflected Reagan's support. However, after Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, Jr. engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Buenos Aires and London in an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the dispute peacefully, the United States openly sided with Britain.

Galtieri's second miscalculation was his assumption that the British, in the twilight of their colonial role, would only respond to the invasion diplomatically. Again he proved to be wrong. Britain not only declared a naval blockade of the islands but sent an invasion fleet across the Atlantic, some 8,000 miles. To compound Galtieri's problems, the European Economic Community voted an arms embargo on Argentina. That was a serious blow, because after U.S. military aid stopped Argentina had become increasingly dependent on European arms suppliers.

However, once having occupied the islands Galtieri was determined to maintain Argentine control. On April 22 he visited the capital of the Falklands, Port Stanley, renamed by his government Puerto Argentina.

Defeat and Disgrace

Events early in May removed the last hope for peaceful settlement. On the second of May the British sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano even though it was outside the 200-mile exclusion zone declared by the British. The hundreds of Argentine lives lost made it even harder for Argentina to accept anything less than a clear victory in the dispute. Britain was placed in a similar position two days later when an Argentine-launched missile set the British destroyer Sheffield afire.

On May 21 the British established a beachhead on East Falkland. Heavy fighting continued until June 15, when the British finally took Port Stanley, capturing 15,000 Argentine soldiers. British training and equipment proved superior. In addition, at 300 miles off shore the Argentine air force was at the limit of its operational range and could not effectively support its troops.

The military defeat turned the euphoria of April into rage directed at the junta. Galtieri was forced from his positions as army commander-in-chief, junta member, and president. He stated, "I'm going because the army did not give me backing to continue as commander and president of the nation."

Had Argentina followed the normal pattern for Latin America, Galtieri would have simply faded from the scene. However, a remarkable event occurred. After election of Raúl Alfonsín in 1983, military officers were put on trial for offenses which occurred during the military rule. In December 1983 five former military leaders were convicted of crimes committed in the 1970s. Four other military officers on trial, including Galtieri, were acquitted.

In May 1986, however, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Argentina's highest military tribunal, convicted Galtieri, Former Navy Commander Anaya, and former Air Force Commander Lami Dozo of the military crime of "negligence." All three received a prison sentence and were stripped of their military rank and the privileges of retired officers. All three were subsequently pardoned in 1989 by President Carlos Menem. Outraged by this action, human rights groups fought extensively for the Dirty War files in an effort to return Galtieri to prison. They succeeded in filing charges against the former general, and in May 1997 Spain issued an international warrant for his arrest. Argentine officials scoffed at the action by stating that those involved in the Dirty War had been appropriately tried and jailed for their crimes under Argentine law. Despite Argentine claims that their actions effectively closed the Dirty War case, the outstanding warrant exiled Galtieri in Argentina for the rest of his life.

Further Reading

Although no biography of Galtieri has appeared in English, information concerning him can be found in the following, Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins, The Battle for the Falklands (1983); Stephen Brown, "Spain vows to help expose truth of Dirty War," Reuters (April 22, 1997); Tito Drago, "Argentina-Human Rights: Spanish court cracks down on ex-dictator," Inter Press Service English News Wire (March 26, 1997). □

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