Thousands gathered on the streets of Buenos Aires this past week to mourn the passing of former president Raúl Alfonsín who died on 31st March at the age of 82. He had been suffering from lung cancer, which was further complicated by pneumonia.
The crowds presented countless bunches of flowers and waved posters saying “thank you” as they chanted his name. It was a powerful and emotional scene as the people joined to say goodbye to the ‘Father of Democracy’.
The affection that they have shown for Alfonsín, along with his legacy as the first democratically elected president after the last military dictatorship, has cemented his place in history.
A Funeral to Rival Perón’s
As the government announced three days of mourning following his death, throngs of people began to gather to say goodbye. Argentina has not seen such expressions of popular grief since the death of Juan Domingo Perón 35 years ago.
His body was placed in an open casket in Congreso and more than 40,000 people queued outside of the building to wait for their turn to pay their respects. People described having waited five or six hours before being able to enter to see the body. Standing in the rain, many arrived at sunrise and waited patiently. Although the crowd was enormous, there remained a reverent silence which was occasionally broken by chants of his name.
The funeral in Recoleta cemetery took place on 2nd April. A mass was held at Congreso and from there, his coffin was moved in a walking procession to the cemetery. The mass was performed by Alfonsín’s cousin, the archbishop of Santa Fe, Monsignor José María Arancedo.
“The spiritual dimension of the man is not opposed to one that values healthy secularism and calls for the autonomy of temporal and human realities; on the contrary, it is a guarantee and a safeguard of all that is human,” said the bishop during the sermon.
The procession of the coffin to the cemetery was witnessed by more than 80,000 people. Masses of people followed the coffin, which was accompanied by a regiment of mounted grenadiers, through the street. Even more people awaited the arrival of the procession outside of the gates to the cemetery. Many arrived hours before it was due to arrive to secure a place at the front, while some climbed trees for a better view. Many wielded the Radical Civic Union (UCR) party flags, while others carried red and white flowers (the colours of the party). Some were even wearing the t-shirt from Alfonsín’s election campaign 25 years ago. The shirts bear the RA logo of the election, which has a double meaning in that the letters represent the ex-president’s initials as well as those of the Republic of Argentina.
As the coffin arrived, cheers of “Alfonsín dear, the people are with you” broke the subdued silence of the previous hours.
People continued to wait outside after the coffin had entered the cemetery. Only a few family members and friends joined the ceremony to watch him being buried at the Mausoleum of the Fallen in the Revolution of 1980.
Alfonsín was born on 12th March 1927 in Chascomús. A lawyer by profession and a graduate of the University of Buenos Aires, he rose into the political scene at an early age as a member of the Radical party, the UCR. He was elected president on 10th December 1983. His election saw the return of democracy to Argentina following the fall of the military dictatorship which brought about the ‘Dirty War’.
In October of 2008, current president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner unveiled a bust in his honour in a ceremony held at the Casa Rosada that marked 25 years since his election victory. “Whether you like it or not, you are a symbol of the return of democracy,” said Kirchner during the ceremony.
However, Alfonsín is also known for his work in trying the military for human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship. His first act as president was to begin the process of trying and jailing former military officials who had tortured and killed thousands. He retracted the blanket amnesty that had been granted to those guilty of the abuses. Although he was unable to persuade the military to court martial guilty officers, he sponsored the Trial of the Juntas which brought its first case to the supreme court in April 1985. The trials ended later that year with the conviction and imprisonment of five former military leaders, two of whom were former de-facto presidents. Additionally, he established a commission to document the abuses and gathered some 9,000 cases of disappearances, although the actual number is believed to be around 30,000. The witness statements from these cases are still being used in trials today.
His efforts gave him international recognition and he was awarded several prizes as a result. However, his presidency was not always seen in a positive light. Under pressure from the military, he introduced the Full Stop Law, which limited civil trials against roughly 300 officers implicated in Dirty War, and the Law of Due Obedience, which granted immunity to officers under the pretext of following orders. He was heavily criticised for both of these laws.
Still, it is evident in the response to his death that he will be remembered for his contributions to Argentina. The love and respect of the people for Alfonsín is clear in their reaction to the news of his passing.
The People’s Reaction
Several leaders have expressed their thoughts on the legacy of Alfonsín. From London, President Kirchner said that “he symbolises the advent of democracy”. Former Brazilian president, José Sarney, called him an apostle and advocate of democracy, while former US president, Jimmy Carter, said: “Alfonsín kept intact his ideals and his commitment to social justice throughout his life.”
But perhaps the most revealing expressions of respect and grief came from the people who gathered in the streets to say goodbye to their former leader.
Horacio Rodriguéz, who is from the statesman’s city of Chascomús, described the pain and grief he felt when he had heard the news. “He has left us physically, but we understand that he has left a very important legacy for democracy,” he explained. “People, including the old and sick, waited in line for six hours to see him one last time.”
A travel agent from the capital, María Ines Bertone, felt a personal connection to Alfonsín. She voted for him when she went to vote for the very first time. “In one way, I am relieved because he is now free of suffering, but in another way sad because he is an example of how a politician should be. He was always fighting for peace. As you see everybody came naturally and spontaneously, nobody was forced to come to the funeral,” she said. “When I voted for the first time in 1983 I went with my sister to vote and I prayed that in six years, I would be able to vote again because I was never able to vote before.”
“This means a new age for Argentina. In our case, since the creation of the republic in 1916 all the governments were partial; there was never a total democracy. Now the democracy is full and for young people this is very wonderful to see how they can grow in a land with a lot of prospects for the future,” said Jorge Wexler, a geologist from Santa Fe.
For the people, Alfonsín embodied the values of democracy and brought forth the importance of the popular vote. His passing has brought to light the progress that has been made since 1983. He has become a symbol of hope for the future of democracy within Argentina as the people defiantly say “never again!”