Argentina entered a period of deep reflection following the recent death in old age of Raúl Alfonsín, the country’s first democratically elected president after the military dictatorship of 1976-1982. In three days of official mourning, Argentines waited hours in lines that stretched many city blocks to view the former president’s body. The government and opposition united in praise for the departed leader whom they lauded as the father of Argentina’s current democracy. While Alfonsín’s handling of the country’s perpetual economic woes left something to be desired, Argentines remembered his outstanding integrity, honesty, and incorruptibility — in contrast to the country’s current political class. Vastly unpopular by the end of his presidency in 1989, Alfonsín’s death on March 31 from lung cancer has moved the Argentine people nonetheless.
Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín Foulkes was born in 1927 in the town of Chascomus, 78 miles from Buenos Aires, and was educated at the General Martin military school, where one of his classmates was the future general and president, Leopoldo Galtieri. "Those were five very good years, for they served to tire me of military officers," Alfonsín remarked on his decision not to choose a career in the military after graduating at age 18.
At university, studying law and sociology, Alfonsín first became active in the Union Civica Radical, founded in the 19th century as the party of the upper-class liberals but now cutting a wide span across the left-right divide. The 1955 coup that overthrew Peron also banned Peronist political activity, and the UCR became the most important legal party by default. The Peronists nonetheless had a broad base of support among the members of the CGT, Argentina’s labor union confederation, and Alfonsín was convinced the UCR was not doing enough to woo the working-class supporters of the Partido Justicialista (or PJ, the Peronist party).
In the presidential election of 1973, a year after the military had allowed Peron to return from his twelve-year exile, the UCR’s conservative presidential candidate fared poorly. The cunning ex-dictator had won the support of many of the people who most feared his return by refusing to acknowledge the increasingly violent left wing of the Peronist movement. The most fervent anti-Peronists found themselves voting for him out of fear of a more destabilizing element coming to power, and trusting his ability to control the labor unions.
Peron was elected but died in office, and was succeeded by his third wife, Isabel, as president, who was in turn overthrown in a March 1976 coup. Thus began the notorious "National Reorganization Process," in which a nihilist military regime persecuted not only the violent leftist terror groups who sought to turn Argentina into a communist dictatorship, but thousands of others who had no connection to the leftist guerillas. Alfonsín, as a lawyer, defended many political prisoners in the courts during the dark period of "disappearances."
With Argentina’s defeat in the Falklands War, the junta realized their loss of public support and began a transition to democracy by first rescinding the six-year ban on political parties. Alfonsín toured the country, addressing UCR rallies and recruiting new members to the party. In July 1983, he was made the UCR candidate for the presidential election. The PJ’s Ítalo Lúder was the widely recognized frontrunner, but voters, wary of the continual conflict between the Peronist movement and the military, chose Alfonsín instead with 52 percent to Lúder’s 40 percent. It was the first time the Peronist movement had been defeated in a free and fair election.
Ascending to the presidency, Alfonsín performed a number of early achievements. He quickly established civilian control of Argentina’s nebulous intelligence services and set up a commission to investigate the notorious "disappearances" under the previous regime. But the country’s economic woes were not solved by the center-left tendency of the cabinet he appointed. Interest payments on Argentina’s massive foreign debt consumed most of the country’s $3 billion trade surplus. Wild inflation was countered by a price freeze, which inevitably exasperated the situation by creating a black market in which prices rose even higher than before.
On the foreign policy front, Alfonsín renewed diplomatic ties with the United Kingdom and secured the end of Britain’s trade sanctions. He also, with Vatican arbitration, settled a long-standing border dispute with neighboring Chile over the Beagle Channel. But the losses of poorly managed state-owned corporations, the cost of paying off the public debt, and widespread tax evasion left the budget a shortfall amounting to 13 percent of Argentina’s GDP.
Alfonsín finally responded with a more conservative policy: budget cuts, privatization, and an end to printing money to pay the bills. The economic situation, however, continued to spiral out of control. The government had spent much of the country’s diminished foreign currency reserves in an effort to prop up the revalued Argentine currency, but in February 1989 the dollar gained 40 percent against the "austral" in a single day. Kicking Argentina when it was down, the World Bank called in a massive portion of the loan package it had agreed on the year before, sending the currency into a tailspin. Prices rose, wages stagnated, and labor unrest grew — the continuing global aftermath of the 1987 Wall Street crash compounded Argentina’s crises.
Realizing both his deep unpopularity and the need for decisive action on the economy, Alfonsín moved the presidential election scheduled for October 1989 up five months to May and refused to stand as a candidate himself. The flamboyant and charismatic PJ candidate Carlos Menem won an easy landslide victory, and Alfonsín handed over the sash of office and presidential baton on July 8, 1989.
Why then the deep mourning and profound sense of loss on the streets of Buenos Aires after hearing of the death of Raúl Alfonsín? While his competency in government was severely challenged by political and economic crises, no one has ever questioned the integrity of Alfonsín the man. Here was a politician who never took a bribe, nor offered one, who never accepted a nepotistic preferment or profited from a government contract.
More controversial was Alfonsín’s handling of the crimes, excesses, and abuses that occurred under the last military regime. His predecessor as president, Reynaldo Bignone, had issued an amnesty for all crimes of state, not only to cover the backs of the criminals but also to avoid a prolonged inquisition that would divide the country and perhaps provoke another military seizure of power. The wisdom of this policy escaped the liberal Alfonsín, who was influenced by the psychologically vengeful theories of "transitional justice."
When a number of courts-martial against members of the 1976-1982 regime failed to secure convictions, Alfonsín had the legislative door opened to pursuing them in special civil courts, and was awarded the Liberal International’s Prize for Freedom and the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Prize accordingly. The 1985 "Trial of the Juntas" resulted in life sentences for one military president and a former navy chief (as well as 17-year sentences against three others), but former president Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri was acquitted. (Galtieri was later convicted of malfeasance and got a twelve-year sentence).
The overwhelming majority of the military backed the new democratic regime, but a widespread fear took hold of many officers because of the arbitrary justice handed down not only to military torturers and murderers but their innocent associates as well. Cases had been prosecuted in which little evidence could be shown that the indicted had partaken in, approved of, or even had knowledge of the crime they were accused of.
Alfonsín recognized that he had created an open-ended inquisition and — to the howls of the international pressure groups that had only just been lauding him — initiated the "Full-Stop Law" in December 1986, which gave prosecutors a final 60 days from the passing of the law in which to bring cases to trial. Despite three small-scale mutinies during Alfonsín’s presidency, the military remained loyal to the elected president, and in return Alfonsín allowed the army a relatively free hand in dealing with the leftist terror groups that continued their campaigns of violence.
Alfonsín opened a hornet’s nest when he began prosecuting the leaders of the previous regime, but when he came to understand the need for stability and reconciliation, he put a swift end date to prosecutions while allowing the chance for the worst offenders to reach justice. While he often mishandled the economy, his privatization of state corporations increased the economic freedom of all Argentines. His legalization of divorce recognized a social reality but was at odds with the constitution’s requirement that the government "support the Apostolic Roman Catholic religion." His harebrained scheme to move the national capital from Buenos Aires to the Patagonian town of Viedma was luckily scuppered, but his proposal for a constitutional reform converting Argentina to a parliamentary-style government with a prime minister would have advantageously adapted Argentina to its European temperament and away from the U.S.-style system of government, which has never suited it. The death of Alfonsín reminded Argentines that, despite persistent corruption and never-ending crises, they can still produce men of integrity.
The writer Jorge Luis Borges, who had become so used to the arbitrary continuity of military dictatorship and corrupt democracy that all he expected from life was death, declared after Alfonsín’s election that he and other Argentines now had "the duty to go on living." Raúl Alfonsín — with six children, 24 grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren — certainly believed this. But death, he readily admitted, comes to us all. "Ideas go on," Alfonsín declared in his last public appearance. "Men don’t."
Andrew Cusack is a New Yorker who spent part of his high school days at the Colegio San Albano in Argentina. He currently lives in South Africa. Visit his blog at www.andrewcusack.com.