Argentina: celebrating democracy

Celia Szusterman
19 December 2008

The citizens of Argentina have not had much to celebrate in a year of economic difficulties and political tensions, but the end of 2008 brings a noble twenty-fifth anniversary: for it was on 10 December 1983 that the country returned to democratic rule (with the inauguration of a civilian president, Raúl Alfonsín) after seven years of military dictatorship marked by violent repression, torture, fear and thousands of "disappearances".

Celia Szusterman is principal lecturer in Spanish and Latin American studies at the University of Westminster and an associate fellow at the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London

Also by Celia Szusterman in openDemocracy:

"Argentina: the state we're in" (26 October 2005)

"Latin America's eroding democracy: the view from Argentina" (1 June 2006)

"Argentina's mirror: the causa Malvinas" (3 April 2007)

"The Kirchner model: king and queen penguin" (17 July 2007)

"Argentina's new president: Kirchner after Kirchner" (29 October 2007)

"Pulp friction: the Argentina-Uruguay conflict" (30 January 2008) A quarter-century and eight presidents on (albeit three of them serving for only a few days each in the chaotic 2001-02 meltdown) is an appropriate moment to reflect on this generation of democratic rule in the context of Argentina's longer and often troubled history.

The tempest

Argentina's tumultuous 20th-century history makes the years of democracy from 1983-2008 look all the more remarkable. It was only in 1916 that the first government, headed by the Unión Cívica Radical (Radical Party / UCR) was chosen on the basis of universal (male) suffrage. In 1930, institutional continuity was broken when a coup of figures impatient with the increasingly erratic ways of Hipólito Irigoyen's second term in office.

This was the first in long series of shameful acts by groupings who justified their interventions as attempts to "rescue" the motherland. At various times  they included representatives of Argentina's powerful landowning sectors; conservatives and liberals dismayed at the increasing corporatist tendencies of that vernacular version of fascism known in Argentina as Peronism after its creator, Juan Perón; and (in 1966), elements of the Peronist trade unions themselves.

In this sense the 1930 coup was a formative event in the country's political evolution. It prefigured the coup of 1943 that paved the way for Perón's rise to power - from positions as minister of labour and social welfare, and vice-president to his installation as president in June 1946. After winning successive elections in 1946 and 1952, Perón himself was deposed in September 1955.

The next coup would be against the Radical president Arturo Frondizi, who took office democratically in May 1958 only to be deposed in March 1962. Frondizi's successor-but-one Arturo Umberto Illia was himself overthrown in June 1966. After seven years of military government there was a brief period of democratically elected Peronist government led by an ailing Juan Perón - returning from eighteen years of exile in Franco's Spain - from October 1973 until succeeded a few days before his death in July 1974 by his third wife (former cabaret dancer Isabel Martínez, "Isabelita"), herself overthrown by a military junta in March 1976.

The chill

As ever when the rule of law was ruptured by a military coup, the 1976 takeover was legitimised by many beyond the immediate circle of perpetrators.  The fear of the actions of urban terrorists, some of whom called themselves "Peronists" (they were also known as the Montoneros), was itself a potent force driving people towards endorsement or passive acceptance of the junta.

The militant Peronists, acting alongside other self-described Trotskyist armed groups, had had no qualms about taking up arms against a democratically elected government - and a Peronist one. In part consequence, Argentina from 1976 to 1983 underwent the most horrific period of state terror in its own history, and arguably in that of Latin America as a whole. The military led a "dirty war" against their own compatriots, then blundered into a conflict with Britain in April-June 1982 over the Malvinas/Falkland islands under the illusion that a patriotic diversion would help erase memories of that other, illegitimate and cruel, war.Also in openDemocracy on Argentinean politics since 2001:

Ivan Briscoe, "Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve" (17 April 2003)

Michele Wucker, "Argentina and the IMF: will they benefit from hindsight?" (4 September 2003)

Mariano Aguirre, "The many cities of Buenos Aires" (16 February 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, "Nèstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell" (25 May 2005)

Horacio Verbitsky, "Breaking the silence: the Catholic Church in Argentina and the 'dirty war'" (27 July 2005)

Carlos Forment, "The democratic dribble: Buenos Aires's politics of football"  (15 June 2006)

Ivan Briscoe, "Argentina and the Malvinas, twenty-five years on" (2 April 2007)

Ana Caistor-Arendar, "Cristina Kirchner's moment" (14 December 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, "Argentina: a crisis of riches" (17 July 2008)

The ignominy of defeat in the windswept south Atlantic was followed by the end of the junta's rule and the gradual exposure of the dirty war's unspeakable horrors. The opening to a new epoch compounded the enthusiasm with which the return of political parties and of democracy itself were welcomed in the elections of October 1983. For the first time in many years, Argentinean society experienced the euphoria and joy that democratic elections bring: the thrill of hope, of the expectation of change. 

The sense of national euphoria was enhanced by an extraordinary development. For the first time since Peronism's triumph in 1946, what had seemed impossible since then was shown to be possible: Peronism was defeated in demonstrably fair and competitive elections. The Unión Cívica Radical, tainted by previous electoral victories on account of the proscription of Peron's Partido Justicialista (PJ), received 51.75% of the vote and thus saw its democratic credentials vindicated.

The return of politics; the end of decades of authoritarianism and corporatist control of Argentinean affairs; the replacement of the military, trade unions, protected businesses and the Catholic church by political parties as the true representatives of societal interests - all this marked the beginning of a new political era in Argentina. Bliss it was in that democratic dawn to be alive!

The return

In the course of his presidential election campaign in 1982-83, UCR leader Raúl Alfonsín repeatedly denounced the existence of el pacto militar-sindical - an agreement among military and union leaders that he saw as symbolising all that had been wrong with Argentinean politics until that moment. The focus on this theme - in the context of the previous seven years of unaccountable rule - helps explain why, in the first post-dictatorship election, an overriding concern with the rule of law and public ethics eclipsed the issues of redistribution and social justice that could normally be expected to dominate the public agenda.

It was all very understandable. But there was a worm in the apple of liberty, indicated in a phrase used by Alfonsín; carried away by the passion of the times, he declared that with democracy "we shall eat, we shall educate, we shall heal". Such nice words, such lousy politics.

The affirmation was the seed of a retreat and failure. Post-military politics in Argentina became a statement of hope and principles, rather than delivery - and this became a problem far more more for consistent democrats than for those whose ideas were impregnated with authoritarianism.  

Peronism, consistent in its populism, had never felt the need to debate what it was convinced it embodied and represented: the "popular will", the "people's interest", all that was "national and popular". The implication was to eliminate from the idea of governing everything that makes democratic politics relevant and meaningful to citizens' lives (the law, economic policy, poverty, social exclusion, competing views of the best policies to attain the "good society") and to import into it a messianic and polarising populist discourse (where any problems are the result of "anti-popular" decisions taken by a state deprived of its "popular" content, perhaps "utilised" by "obscure forces" both national and international).

The anti-political logic was insistent: once "the people" (i.e. Peronists) were in power, only "popular" decisions could result. The Peronist majority, mystical rather than statistical in its presumptive ownership of Argentinean interests and wishes, would take all and consign the loser to be an outcast or fellow-traveller.

Raúl Alfonsín led an incomplete transition. He was the figurehead of a political class that had spent too long in the wilderness, and was too preoccupied about its own survival to have the time or the energy to debate policies. Alfonsín campaigned in 1982-83 without a manifesto; he was content to recite the preamble to Argentina's constitution of 1853 to underline the principle that the country's government from now on would be identified with the rule of law. 

Behind the declaration of principles and good intentions, Alfonsín showed little understanding of how the economy worked; and a period of difficult adjustment led in the late 1980s to Argentina's first hyperinflationary crisis, and subsequent chaos and looting. In July 1989, the eve of a springtime of nations elsewhere, a pioneer of the return to democracy was replaced by his democratically elected successor, albeit six months before the due date of December.

The twilight

Carlos Menem, to the dismay of those who had voted for Alfonsín in 1983, was elected president. Peronism was back. The style of celebration was very different: instead of the reciting of the constitution, the monotonous thumping of the Peronist bombos (drums) and the slogan Siganme (follow me).

The hope now was that the "incorrigible" Peronists - those who had organised thirteen general strikes against the hapless Alfonsín, and who clearly did not understand what the role of the opposition in a democracy should be - would have to deal with the mess. Who, after all, could be better suited to prevent a fire than an arsonist?

In the event, Menem surprised everyone: followers and opponents alike. Those who had dismissed him as "un tarambana de provincias" (a scoundrel from the provinces) - as did one who became a long-serving minister under him - were impressed by his quick understanding of the seriousness of Argentina's situation. A president aware of his own limitations surrounded himself with those who knew more (though his choices were not always happy ones).

Menem grasped the predicament of an economy where around 70% was under state ownership (and every company effectively bankrupt) and pulverised by hyperinflation. A strategy of privatisation, deregulation, and stabilisation of the currency (guided by Domingo Cavallo, the economy minister) took Argentina out of its deep hole. It was a sovereign decision, derived from the internal situation, and not any "imposition" by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or anybody else.

The problem was that Menem lacked a statesman's true stature. He could not fully "own" the "neo-liberal" policies for which he was later blamed, in part because he could not grasp or articulate them. The Peronist party meanwhile, continued its tradition of following the leader without itself understanding what was going on. Peronists, as has been said, are for rent rather than sale. So while Menem ("neo-liberal") was president, Peronists were Menemistas; just as under Néstor Kirchner and now Cristina Kirchner ("leftwing") they are Kirchneristas.

The glimmer

After Carlos Menem's replacement in December 1999 by Fernando de la Rúa came an extraordinary period of turmoil and implosion in Argentina. The election of Néstor Kirchner, another Peronist, in May 2003 put an end to this, in what has become (after the election of his wife and successor Cristina Kirchner in December 2007) a long duopoly.

An end, but not a beginning. For the Kirchners' personalised and capricious rule has exposed the flaws that still haunt Argentinean democracy after this twenty-five-year journey. It is partly a matter of the concentration of power in individuals; partly a lack of talent and of the will to delegate; partly the institutional search for obedience rather than competence in ministers; partly the lack of strong parties, and the preference for "movements"; partly the arbitrary and arrogant manner in which policy decisions affecting people's lives are taken; partly the opacity and the lack of accountability; partly the lack of debate and intolerance of opposition.

All this remains a serious deficit in the democratic politics of Argentina. But the years from 1983 to 2008 have also represented constitutional continuity - a notable achievement in light of Argentina's often painful modern history. The road ahead may be longer than it need have been thanks to the wrong turnings and bad decisions of the country's rulers in the last quarter-century. Yet Argentinean democracy is still standing. The moment may no longer be one of bliss or dawn, but it is something to celebrate.

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