Raúl Alfonsín, President of Argentina 1983-89, passed away on Tuesday evening due to complications from lung cancer.
Alfonsín was an attorney by profession. He was affiliated with the Radical Civic Union (UCR) party and served in local and national posts, including as a senator. During the military dictatorship of 1976-83, he founded the Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos (Permanent Assembly for Human Rights) and defended political prisoners. He became leader of the UCR in 1981 upon the death of the previous leader, Ricardo Balbín.
Despite the "radical" in its name, the UCR was and is basically a conservative, democratic party. But ideological labels are very tricky with Argentine parties, and Alfonsín himself was more of a social-democratic viewpoint and was said to have been influenced by German utopian thought and French humanism.
The Mavinas War of 1982 with Britain, called the Falklands War by the British, destroyed what public support the brutal military junta still enjoyed. And they found themselves forced to step down and agree to a transition back to democratic government. Alfonsín and the UCR won a clear majority with 52% of the vote. As one of the Clarín articles cited below puts it, "Tenía 56 años y la potencia política para encarar la transición de la dictadura a la democracia." (He was 56 years old and had the political power to confront the transition from dictatorship to democracy.)
A major task of Alfonsín's was to deal with the crimes of the outgoing dictatorship. As part of the deal for the junta to step down, the civilian parties had agreed to an amnesty law for crimes committed by the junta. Alfonsín annulled it two days into his first term and put senior officials of the dictatorship on trial in what is known as the Juicio a las Juntas. Some leaders of the violent guerrilla opposition were also put on trial at the same time. 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, most of them murdered, during El Proceso, the self-designation of the military dictatorship.
But, under the pressure of two coup attempts by the military, he later approved two laws known as "Punto Final" and "Obediencia Debida", that put an end to further prosecutions until they were revived a few years ago. Alfonsín also framed the period of the dictatorship as one of two evils, the other being the guerrilla/terrorist movement that led the military to overthrow the previous democratic government. It's still a matter of not-inconsequential dispute whether that framing of the issues may have given excessive credence to the military's justification for their coup and the "dirty war" against real and alleged subversives that ensued.
His administration ended in 1989 with inflation at galloping rates, in major part a result of the huge debts taken on by the junta's government.
He was widely respected and honored as the President who led the successful transition to democracy and began to re-establish the rule of law after a difficult period of lawless government.
Not only Argentines have found lessons and inspiration in his example.
Former President and current leader of the Partido Justicialista (PJ; Peronist) Néstor Kirchner remembered him as a "political leader of the highest stature":
Los argentinos van a tener un profundo reconocimiento porque encabezó el proceso democrático a partir de 1983, pero además el juicio a las juntas militares fue un parangón histórico que le deberán reconocer.
[Argentines are going to have a deep gratitude [to Alfonsín] because he embodied the democratic process startingin 1983, but in addition, the trial of the members of the military junta was an historic paragon that should be remembered.]
Aurora Kochi in a blog post (Adiós Alfonsín Madre Padre Tutor o Engargado blog 04/02/09) recalled the sense of freedom that she felt as a young person then along with others:
De golpe, nos sentíamos libres. Algo nuevo y prometedor comenzaba. Alfonsín representó para muchos de nosotros, una época llena de esperanzas de cambio. Representó la recuperación de aquellos sueños, y el entusiasmo con el nuevo modo de vida, la democracia, incipiente, a la que apostábamos con mucha vitalidad.
La sensación de apertura. La efervescencia de la expresión después de tanto silencio, de tanta mordaza. Las instituciones educativas habían estado comandadas por personajes con pensamiento arcaico y los planes de estudios plagados de contenidos extemporáneos. Todo ello empezaba a ser sustituído. La emoción que sentíamos cuando en las librerías encontrábamos nuevamente los libros de autores que se habían prohibido, la posibilidad de poder elegir qué leer; las carteleras de cines y teatros que nos ofrecían una variedad en cantidad y calidad de temáticas, qué películas ver, qué música escuchar, qué poder decir, sin censuras...dejar de estar silenciados....no fue poca cosa...
Se nos abría un futuro. Sentíamos aires de libertad, y con fervor participábamos en proyectos impensables hasta ese momento.
[Suddenly we felt free. Something new and promising was beginning. Alfonsín represented for many of us an era full of hopes of change. He represented the recuperation of those dreams, and the enthusiasm about the new style of life, democracy, in its beginning, with which we aligned ourselves with much vitality.
The sensation of openness. The effervescence of expression after all the silence, of so much of being gagged. Educational institutions had been headed by people with archaic thinking and the study plans plagued by extemporaneous restraints. All that began to change. The emotion we felt when we newly encountered in the bookstores books by authors that had been prohibited, the possibility to choose what to read; the billboards for movie houses and theaters that offered us a variety in quantity and quality of themes, what movies to see, what music to listen to, what we could say, without censorship ... no longer being silenced ... it was not a small thing.
A future opened up before us. We felt the air of freedom, and participated with fervor in projects that had been unthinkable before this moment.
Being remembered as a symbol and embodiment of freedom and democracyis a real tribute. Jimmy Carter (see link below) calls him "uno de los líderes más importante de la recuperación de la democracia en América Latina" (one of the most important leaders in the recuperation of democracy in Latin America). Carter says that during Alfonsín's presidency, the Argentine leader "abrió un nuevo ciclo de libertad en la región por su fuerte compromiso con los derechos humanos" (opened a new cycle of freedom in the region by his strong engagement with human rights). Alfonsín worked with Carter in monitoring elections in Nicaragua and Venezuela. "El ha mantenido un firme compromiso con sus ideales de justicia social a lo largo de su vida, y yo estoy muy orgulloso de haber sido su amigo personal." (He maintained a firm commitment to his ideals of social justice throughout his life, and I am very proud to have been his personal friend.)