Wednesday, December 10, 2008

25 years of democracy in Argentina

Raúl Alfonsín, President of Argentina 1983-1989

Today (Dec. 10) is the 25th anniversary of the return of democratic government to Argentina after the brutal military dictatorship of 1976-83. That was the day Raúl Alfonsín took office as President following the elections that the junta was forced by public pressure to hold in October of 1983.

Alfonsín was the candidate of the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) and he defeated his main opponent, Ítalo Argentino Luder of the Partido Justicialista (PJ), the Peronist Party. Argentina's political parties are, shall we say, complicated. I'm hoping to do a post sometime soon about Peronism. But for now, I'll leave it at saying that the PJ campaign was not terribly impressive.

Alfonsín in the 1970s was part of a group called Renovación y Cambio, which tried to take the UCR more in the direction of being a social-democratic party along the lines of the Socialist International Parites. (Yes, there is such a thing and it includes, among others, Britain's Labour Party, France's Socialist Party, and what's left of Israel's Labor Party.)

During the military dictatorship, a period which is also called El Proceso after the junta's own self-description of their rule as "El Proceso de Reorganizatión Nacional", Alfonsín was a prominent defender of human rights.

He was a co-founder of the Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos (Permanent Sssembly for Human Rights) and authored a book, La cuestión argentina (1981) that criticized El Proceso.

In April of 1983, Alfonsín also exposed a plan between some union leaders and some military officers to establish an authoritarian regime on the model of Juan Perón's first regime. This was a significant boost to Alfonsín's democratic credentials, as well.

Historian Félix Luna writes of Alfonsín's victory in El largo camino a la democracia (1997):

The joy that colored the presence of masses of people [in Buenos Aires celebrating Alfonsín's victory] on the historic date of December 10, 1983 was neither irresponsible nor frivolous. It was the expression of the serene confidence with which the people of this country turned their faces toward the future, without ignoring the problems that his government would have to confront. It was also the undeniable demonstration that, despite the bad fortunes and frustrations dragged through so many years, the people of this land had a broad openness of heart to undertake, without weakness, the conquest of their destiny.
During his Presidency, Alfonsín concluded the Treaty of Peace and Frindship with Chile in 1984, resolving a dipute over the Beagle Canal in the southern tip of the South American continent, a dispute which had very nearly led to war under the military junta.

But he is most remembered for putting Argentina on a permanent road of being a stable democracy. As Soledad Gallego-Díaz writes:

A quarter of a century later, Alfonsín has become the symbol of democracy. And, at 81 years of age, in poor health, he is one of the few perons in the political life of Argentina who arouses the respect of practically the whole country.
When Alfonsín turned the Presidency over to his successor, Carlos Menem, in 1989, it was the first time two civilian governments had suceeded each other since 1916.

Raúl Alfonsín with the Presidential sash, 1983

One of the ways he employed in establishing democracy firmly was to take steps to make sure the country and the world new the full, ugly story of the brutal period of El Proceso. Among other things, he put on trial those who had led the dictatorship, including Jorge Videla and Emilio Massera. And they were convicted and sent to prison for their crimes. In order to put them on trial, he had to annul an amnesty they had granted themselves before leaving office.

Let me repeat that: They put the leaders of the previous government who had committed serious crimes on trial.

He also established the Comisión sobre la Desaparición de las Personas Comisión sobre la Desaparición de las Personas (CONADEP) that investigated those who went missing during El Proceso, most of them murdered. Just this week, Argentine authorized publicly confirmed that cremated human bones had been found in a location, Pozo de Arana in the city of La Plata, that former prisoners had identified as a detention and execution center.

Alfonsín's record on that score wasn't perfect. Pressured by two coups attempts, in 1987 and 1988, he approved two ill-advised laws, known as "Punto Final" and "Obediencia Debida", that put an end to further prosecutions. But Néstor Kirchner, President 2003-2007 and the husband of the current President, Cristina Fernández, persuaded the Congress to annul those laws, opening the way for additional prosecutions, though obviously a lot of time had been lost. Fernández is also committed to continuing legal charges against those who committed crimes during El Proceso. The Argentine Supreme Court also held that the Punto Final and Obediencia Debida measures were unconstitutional, after the Congress had already annulled them.

As a commemorative article in the paper Página 12 puts it, Alfonsín's Presidency "represented the end of almost seven years of what was the most atrocious, bloody and ominous dictatorshiop, marked by terrorism of the state and the destruction of the bases of production".

Argentine President Cristina Fernández and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in the Kremlin

Cristina Fernández on the anniversary date was in Moscow signing agreements between Argentina and Russia on techology, energy, space and commerce. (Firma de acuerdos entre Argentina y Rusia Official Argentine Presidencial Web site 10.12.08) In her breakfast speech of the 10th, she said among other things:

The subordination in which central countries impose policies as much in the economy as in matters of security doesn't work, neither in matters of security nor in economic matters. And the results are going to have costs on a global scale.

En el cumpleaños número 25 Página 12 10.12.2008

El complicado camino de la democracia argentina por Soledad Gallego-Díaz El País (España) 10.12.2008

Hallados huesos humanos calcinados en un centro de detención de la dictadura argentina El País (España) 10.12.2008

Veinticinco años que cambiaron la historia La Nación 10.12.2008

Hallan huesos humanos y un paredón de fusilamiento en lo que fue el "Pozo de Arana" Clarín 09.12.2008

La democracia que supimos conseguir Especial mulitmedia La Nación

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