Thursday, April 02, 2009

Former Argentine President, Human Rights Champion Raul Alfonsin Dies

by: Sam Ferguson, t r u t h o u t | Report

Former Argentinian President Raul Alfonsin died on Tuesday. (Photo: Owen Franken / CORBIS)

Raul Alfonsin, president of Argentina from 1983 to 1989, died on Tuesday. He was 82.

He governed Argentina during the country's fragile transition to democracy. Since 1976, Argentina had been ruled by a brutal military junta, which was responsible for the deaths of more than 14,000 Argentine citizens, known as "the disappeared," because they were kidnapped and murdered in undisclosed locations.

A maverick politician, human rights activist and a founding member of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, Alfonsin made prosecuting those responsible for these crimes a central component of his electoral strategy. His first act after assuming office was to order prosecution of the country's top military leaders. In 1985, a criminal appeals court convicted five of nine of Argentina's former military commanders, an accomplishment that was compared to the Nuremburg trials against Nazi war criminals after World War II. On the eve of his election, writing in The Washington Post, Joseph Kraft explained, "If politics is the art of the possible, Argentina has just expanded the universe." He was the first democratically elected president to take office in Latin America after the brutal wave of military dictatorships which swept the region in the 1960's and 1970's.

Graciela Fernandez Meijide, who met Alfonsin as an activist at the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights after the military kidnapped her teenage son Pablo, said that many people joined the human rights movement to find their children, but Alfonsin did so out of conviction. "He had courage, and was committed to institutions - the laws of the republic. He assumed that crimes of state terrorism should be judged." Remarking on Alfonsin's character as a politician, she said "he didn't have any antecedents in the world."

Despite the success of the trial against the military commanders, Alfonsin was also plagued by difficult political choices. As prosecutions reached further down the chain of command, the armed forces grew restless and staged a series of rebellions against the nascent democratic government. Argentina had suffered six successful military coups against civilian governments throughout the 20th century. The conflict came to a climax on Easter weekend of 1987, when rebels barricaded themselves in the Campo de Mayo army base in opposition to Alfonsin. Alfonsin convened a rally in the Plaza de Mayo, outside the government house, which drew around 400,000 people. He then flew to the Campo de Mayo to speak with the rebels, and they laid down their arms. Alfonsin returned to the Casa Rosada, where, in a famous speech he announced, "the house is in order and there is no blood in Argentina, happy Easter," easing fears of civil war.

But shortly thereafter - though he always denied negotiating -√√§Alfonsin pushed a series of amnesty laws through the congress to ease military fears. This tainted his human rights records amongst activists, who saw the move as an unnecessary cave to military pressure and suspected that the amnesty was offered in exchange for surrender.

Horacio Verbitsky, an Argentine investigative journalist, claimed in his book, "Civilies y Militares: La Memoria Secreta de la Transicion" ("Citizens and Soldiers: The Secret Memory of the Transition") that Alfonsin and his cabinet always planned to limit the scope of military prosecution, and that his cabinet at times intervened in the judicial process to slow the pace of cases.

Alfonsin was also left with more than $45 billion in foreign debt when he assumed office. Debt eventually lead to hyper-inflation of 2,000 percent annually in the late 1980's, which ultimately brought down Alfonsin's government. He was forced to resign three months before the expiration of his term, handing over power to Carlos Menem. It was, however, the first time that power was democratically transferred from one party to another in Argentina since 1918.

The headline of Alfonsin's obituary in Argentina's left-leaning daily, Pagina 12, called the leader a "symbol of democracy." Supporters of the ex-president gathered outside of his apartment on Santa Fe Avenue, in the upscale Barrio Norte neighborhood, shortly after his death was announced. He had been at home for several days, with advanced stages of lung cancer.

During his tenure, Alfonsin experienced great shifts in popularity. He was elected as the Radical Party candidate in October 1983 with 52 percent of the vote, and was the first candidate to ever beat a candidate from the Justicialist Party, founded by Juan Peron, Argentina's populist president who ruled from 1945-1955, and again from 1973 until his death in 1974. But his popularity quickly suffered as he failed to curb inflation, and as prosecutions against those responsible for the dirty war stalled.

He quickly regained popularity when the commanders were finally put on trial in April 1985, but shortly thereafter suffered a downturn in popularity as general strikes from the opposition unions challenged his economic policy and the passage of amnesty laws for the military.

Alfonsin was also criticized for the so-called "Olivos Pact," named after the presidential palace, in which Alfonsin is said to have supported the extension of presidential term limits (a move by then-president Menem to seek re-election) in exchange for constitutional reforms.

In retrospect, however, many admire the former president for creating sustainable democratic institutions in Argentina, though they may have disagreed with his policies. Last October, President Cristina Kirchner invited the ex-president back to the Casa Rosada, Argentina's government house, and praised him as the symbol of the "return to democracy." The event was attended by political leaders from across the political spectrum. Kirchner and her husband Nestor, who preceded her as president, had previously been critical of the ex-president for failing to fully prosecute military officials.

Alfonsin, trained as a lawyer, was known equally as a passionate speaker, a master organizer and an intellectual. Some of his closest advisers - Jaime Malamud Goti, Carlos Nino and Genaro Carrio - were known as "the philosophers" because they all came from the academy, rather than inside the party. Friends recall that he often spoke about John Rawls, the moral philosopher.

Marcelo Alegre, a professor of law at the University of Palermo who worked with many from Alfonsin's group of philosophers, said in an e-mail "his contribution to democracy in the region was enormous, in the terrible years of Reagan. He ordered the prosecution of members of the juntas when the repressive intelligence apparatus was still intact, the day after he assumed [office]," continuing that "he was a very generous person and very valiant." Comparing Alfonsin to other Argentine leaders, Alegre said that "within Argentina, there was nobody comparable.√√Ę A Peronista" - a follower of Juan Peron - "would not agree, of course. But I would tell them, with all due respect, that the last decision of Peron was to leave the country in the hands of Isabel and Lopez Rega," referring to Peron's ex-wife and his minister of social welfare, who forced the country into near-anarchy after Peron's death. "Alfonsin died asking for dialogue and consensus."

Upon word of his death, Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli said that Alfonsin had "overcome political party boundaries to forge the path of democracy, human rights, the national constitution, dialogue and peace." President Cristina Kirchner, from London, said that Alfonsin was "a man of conviction, many times different from ours, but with deep convictions." Gerardo Morales, president of the Radical Party, said that, "No, we don't just admire him; rather we love him, and we thank him for his courage."

For the last nine years, Alfonsin had been in a weakened physical state, after suffering a damaging car accident. His once-fluffy signature mustache had receded with his hairline. Since last year, he had been frequently ill, suffering from advancing lung cancer. He died at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. The government has called for three days of mourning. He is survived by his wife and six children.


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