Tag Archive | "Carlos Menem"

Argentina’s Arms Trafficking Scandal: Inside Menem’s Trial

Carlos Menem during his presidency (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Carlos Menem during his presidency (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The afternoon of the 13th June saw waves spread across Twitter and news sites as reports began to surface that an Argentine court had sentenced former President Carlos Menem to seven years in prison. After being found guilty of illegal arms smuggling on 8th March, he would now be disqualified from holding public office for the next 16 years, in a ruling that many saw as a fundamental step against the corruption and impunity of former leaders.

As one of the most polemic figures in recent Argentine political history, Menem was accused of spearheading the trafficking of over 6,500 tonnes of weaponry to Ecuador and Croatia during his 1989-1999 presidency.

Over ten years have passed since Menem was first arrested; a decade that has seen tumultuous trials, a third presidential bid, and persistent denials. We examine the events that led to the first ever conviction of a democratically elected president by the courts of Argentina.

A History

Undoubtedly one of the more controversial figures in recent Argentine history, Menem’s two-term, 10-year presidency saw profound changes to the country’s political landscape and to the everyday lives of citizens. From the 1994 constitutional amendment and widespread business privatisation (oil, telephone, electricity, water companies, national airline, amongst many others), to the infamous pardoning of nearly 300 military officers involved in the last dictatorship and previously convicted of crimes against humanity, in what predecessor Raul Alfonsín called “the saddest day in Argentine history”.

The events related to the arms trafficking scandal for which Menem was convicted occurred between the years of 1991 and 1995. During these years, 6,500 tonnes of Argentine-made weapons officially destined for Panama and Venezuela ended up in Croatia, and later Ecuador.

Seven shipments, totalling the equivalent of over 15 jumbo jets, were trafficked by sea into Croatia; a country in the midst of its war of independence that led to its separation from the former Yugoslavia. Despite an international ban imposed by the UN that forbade any arms sales to Croatia, the first shipment set off in 1991 (officially stated to be destined for Panama), filled with what is said to have been military armoury produced by the General Directorate of Military Production (usually referred to as ‘Fabricaciones Militares’). This and the subsequent shipments included rifles, ammunition, and anti-tank rockets; all released under the authorisation of then-president Menem.

In order to release the shipments, Menem signed a total of three secret decrees, all endorsed by Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo, Defence Minister Oscar Camilión, and Foreign Affairs Minister Guido di Tella. The three decrees officially listed the countries of receipt as Venezuela and Panama (a country that did not have an army at the time). Weapons were either produced by Fabricaciones Militares or offered in a refurbished state to Croatia, which they in turn accepted.

Signing of the Rio Protocol peace treaty in 1942 (Photo: Wikimedia)

Signing of the Rio Protocol peace treaty in 1942 (Photo: Wikimedia)

Ecuador’s receipt of the illicit weapons took place in the context of the Cenepa War with Peru; a brief territorial war that lasted only a month. Argentina, as a guarantor of peace between the two countries as part of the Rio Protocol peace treaty (along with the US, Brazil, and Chile), breached its commitment under international law by selling weapons to one of the parties.

Menem has since claimed that he “only signed arm export decrees” and maintained that despite knowing the existence of and signing the secret decrees, his “acts as president were limited to signing the decrees to export the arms to Venezuela and Panama. From then on, all the documents escaped the (control of the) president. I couldn’t go to the customs service to see what the destination of the arms was.”

On 3rd November 1995, a military factory in the town of Rio Tercero, Córdoba, exploded; something that would go on to represent a significant incidence in the Menem administration’s illegal arms dealing. Killing seven people, injuring over 300, and devastating the town of Rio Tercero, the explosion of the ammunitions factory was eventually determined to be deliberate, allegedly to hide evidence of illegal weapon production and sales from Argentina to Ecuador and Croatia. Menem was investigated in August 2008 for his role in the blast, with prosecutors assuring he ordered the destruction of the factory as suspicions began to appear in early 1995 over the government’s arms deals.

The former director of Fabricaciones Militares and senior staff at the factory have been prosecuted and are currently awaiting trial. Since Menem was found guilty on the arms smuggling case, the prosecutor has requested that he be charged on the Río Tercero case as well, based on the alleged link between the two.

Inside the Trial

The hearing of 13th June 2013 was held at 3pm in Argentina’s Criminal Economic Court Number 3. Not attended by Menem due to health concerns, the sentencing seemed to mark the end of years of trials, acquittals, and denials. After 18 years of research into suspect arms shipments, the former head of state – along with his defence minister Oscar Camilión and ten other key players – was sentenced.

This followed the acquittal of Menem and 17 other defendants in 2011, when the ’90s arms deals were officially deemed a “foreign policy decision and a non-punishable political act”. After the testimony of 383 witnesses over a three-year trial, all defendants were set free. Prosecutor Mariano Borinsky, lamented at the time: “I was left with a nasty sense of injustice… I am surprised by the decision. There were three years of trial. In addition to all the evidence that was collected, the accused were accusing each other… A crime can never be allowed, even under the guise of a political umbrella.”

However, this year, an appeals court overturned the acquittal ruling, finding him guilty of being a “coauthor of the offense of aggravated contraband”, which subsequently led to the prosecution seeking an eight-year sentence for Menem. The former head of state maintained his “complete innocence” throughout the trial, assuring he was unaware that his government was violating international weapon embargoes and simply signed the shipment release forms.

Along with Menem, his defence minister between 1993 and 1996, Oscar Camilión, received a sentence of five years and six months for participating in the trafficking of weapons and ammunition.

Oscar Camilión (Photo: Wikimedia)

Oscar Camilión (Photo: Wikimedia)

The 13th June hearing also saw the sentencing to five years in prison for arms dealer and ex-army colonel Diego Palleros; and four years and six months for former Fabricaciones Militares director Manuel Cornejo Torino and former defence officials Haroldo Fusari and Carlos Alberto Nuñez. Whilst the former Rio Tercero factory director Jorge Cornejo Torino received a four year and three month sentence, former defence official Julio Sabra was senteced to four years and, along with Fusari and Núñez, was fined US$107,500.

The final sentences were handed to former Fabricaciones Militares weapons manufacturing bosses Luis Sarlenga, Edberto Gonzalez de la Vega, Luis Sarlenga, Carlos Jorge Franke, and Teresa Irañeta de Canterito, all of whom received four years.

Maria Pia Devoto, of the organisation Control Arms – Argentina, assures that “the guilty verdict and sentence of former President Carlos Menem is historic”. With Menem’s sentence and Argentina’s signing of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) at the UN in New York last month, Devoto believes “there is a commitment, both in Argentina and internationally, to achieve justice for the past disregard of arms embargoes and strengthen future arms relations in order to prevent law violations like Menem’s happening again”.

An Uncertain Future

The future of Menem and his sentence, however, continues to remain on uncertain terms. Likely to appeal before Argentina’s Supreme Court, the seven-year sentence would probably be completed as house-arrest due to Menem’s advanced age, 82, and wavering health. Menem regularly missed court appearances due to health issues, with the most recent hearing missed due to him “suffering blood pressure problems and diabetes”.

Menem’s role as Senator of his home province of La Rioja has played an important role in the unfolding of the case. Argentine law allows for parliamentary immunity, with article 69 of the constitution stating: “no senator or deputy, from the day they are elected until they cease in their post, can be arrested”. As an elected member of congress, Menem’s fate depends on whether the Senate will vote to remove his immunity or not, but only after any appeal claims have been fully studied and reconciled.

Of Menem’s parliamentary immunity, Devoto says: “Unfortunately justice is slow: bureaucracy, complex judicial processes, and politics. This needs to change. No citizen should have privileges and the issue of Menem’s parliamentary immunity is fundamental. The Senate must remove Menem’s immunity to achieve justice.”

Whether his parliamentary privileges will be stripped and whether he will see the inside of a prison cell for his crimes remains uncertain. But for now at least, Carlos Menem’s illegal acts as president no longer go unrecognised and unpunished.

We hit the streets to find out what locals think about the Arm Trafficking Scandal and Menem’s conviction. Read their thoughts here

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What do you think about Menem’s conviction for arms smuggling?

Former president of Argentina Carlos Menem was sentenced to seven years in prison on 13th June for his role in illegal arms trading to Ecuador and Croatia during his time in office from 1989 to 1999. He is the first democratically-elected president to be convicted by the Argentine courts. Former defence minister Oscar Camilión also received five and a half years in prison.

What do the people of Argentina feel about these recent developments, especially after Menem and 17 other defendants were acquitted in 2011? What do they think about his imminent appeal, and should he have received a longer sentence?

We went to the busy streets of Caballito to pose these questions to locals, and ask them if they feel justice has been served.

Jorge Alejandro Silva, Menem VOX PopJorge Alejandro Silva, lawyer, 53, Caballito

Menem is a liar and a thief like every other leader in Europe and the US. The traitor deserves a longer jail sentence and the trial dragged on for far too long. Although it is a step in the right direction there are still corrupt politicians working in our government. Menem should never have been acquitted in the first place, the man is a murderer and he belongs behind bars.


Rodrigo Jose Meziz, Menem VOX PopRodrigo Jose Meziz, bank worker, 28, Almagro

I don’t really care about Menem. If he was guilty of smuggling arms then he deserves to go to jail. The government has a history of being corrupt so it is hard to know what really happened.




Cecilia Ivana Carrasco, Menem VOX PopCecilia Ivana Carrasco, Spanish teacher, 27, Caballito

Menem left us in ruins. He stole a lot of money without thinking about the people of Argentina. The country is a better place with him in jail but when politicians are locked up you never know if they are going to be released on appeal a couple of months later. I just hope he stays in prison.



Sergio Ballerini, Menem VOX PopSergio Ballerini, actor, 32, Almagro

It has taken so long to punish him for acts he committed during the ’90s. First he was acquitted and now he has been given a sentence that he will surely appeal. If he is acquitted again then the public will begin to doubt the integrity of the country’s justice system. 



Ashley Valle, Menem VOX PopAshley Valle, environmental advisor, 27, Almagro

Hopefully it sends out a message that corrupt politicians will not be able to get away with illegal dealings. Menem is just one of many who have been punished, corruption is hard to wipe out completely because it runs so deep but at least the court recognises he is a criminal.

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Prosecution Seeks Eight Years in Prison for Menem in Arms Trafficking Case

Carlos Menem during his presidency (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Carlos Menem during his presidency (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

On Friday, 31st May, Prosecutor Marcelo Agüero Vera of Argentina’s Economic Court 3 requested that ex-President Carlos Menem receive eight years in prison for illegally selling weapons to Croatia and Ecuador during his time in office.

Oscar Camilión, who served as the late president’s defense minister should receive a seven-year sentence, according to Vera.

At least three other ex-governmental ministers of the Menem administration are set to serve jail time for conspiracy.

The defendants appeared before the Economic Criminal Court last week in its first hearing since March when the Court of Appeals overturned an annulment of the sentence brought about by the defense.

Vera’s decision regarding the prison terms was announced Friday after the court rejected a separate complaint filed by Menem’s lawyer, Maximiliano Rusconi.

Now the tribunal must review and approve Vera’s proposal before the prison terms are final. The court should announce a decision regarding the length of the prison terms and their respective start dates after it examines four more related criminal charges this week.

During the 1989-99 Menem administration, 6,500 tonnes of weapons officially destined to Panamá and Venezuela, landed in Croatia during the former Yugoslavia conflict. Many weapons also ended up in Ecuador during the country’s 1995 border dispute with Perú.

Menem claims that he “only signed arm export decrees” to Venezuela and Panamá during his time as president. The 82-year-old former leader is now a senator and has already served six months in prison for charges relating to the same crime– conspiracy to sell weapons, before being freed following a ruling by the Supreme Court.

Prosecutors are currently trying to remove the parliamentary immunity that protects Menem and Camilión from serving jail time.

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Senate to Debate Removal of Menem’s Parliamentary Privileges

The Senate’s Constitutional Matters committee will debate whether to remove former president and current senator Carlos Menem’s parliamentary immunity after being found guilty of arms smuggling.

Carlos Menem during his presidency (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Carlos Menem during his presidency (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The bill to strip senator Menem of his parliamentary immunity was put forward by senator Juan José Cano of the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) party and will be analysed by the committee, led by Kirchnerist Marcelo Fuentes, during the first fortnight of April. It proposes the creation of a special committee to evaluate the legal situation of Menem after the ruling by the Appeals Court earlier this month.

Senator Cano based his request on the fact that the Appeals Court ruling, which found Menem guilty of arms smuggling to Ecuador and Croatia during his time as president,”forces the members of this Senate to analyse an appropriate sanction to such offensive behaviour.”

Article 69 of the Argentine constitution, which deals with parliamentary immunity, states that “no senator or deputy, from the day they are elected until they cease in their post, can be arrested”, while article 66 specifies that each chamber of Congress can “correct any of its members for disorderly conduct in the exercise of their position, or remove them due to physical or moral inability (…) and even exclude them from [the chamber].” By stripping Menem of this parliamentary privilege, he would be exposed to being arrested for the crimes he was found guilty of.

Menem now also faces further investigations related to the arms smuggling scandal. Yesterday, the Supreme Court overturned a ruling by the Appeals Court which stated that the case of the explosion at the Río Tercero military factory had expired. This decision opens the door to further investigation to determine whether the explosion at the factory was related to the arms smuggling case. On 3rd November 1995, a military factory in the town of Río Tercero, in Córdoba, was blown up, and it is suspected that the explosion could have been provoked in order to cover up the fact that the arms produced in it, and which were allegedly shipped to Ecuador and Croatia, were missing from the factory.

Menem’s case is not the first case of removal of parliamentary immunity in the Senate. In 2003, the chamber attempted to strip Luis Barrionuevo of his privileges after being found guilty of burning ballot boxes during a provincial election in his native Catamarca, although the attempt was unsuccessful. In 2005, senator Raúl Ochoa’s immunity was effectively removed after he voted twice, in different locations, in the 2001 national elections.

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Top 5 Villains From Argentine History

In 2001, the words “Que se Vayan Todos” echoed around Argentina as anti-government protests spread amidst economic crisis. The phrase roughly translates as “Kick the lot of them out”. Such a brutally unforgiving attitude towards those in power stems from a long history of bad guys in Argentine politics.

Below, I have selected a few Argentines who are among the most vilified today. The fact that the list is entirely made up of men does not indicate sexism, but rather that it would appear, on the face of history at any rate, that we tend not to demonise the fairer sex to the same extent as we do men.

Let us join in our appreciation of these figures, these villains, without whom perhaps we would not have heroes. It is important to remember wrongdoing, in order to comprehend good. Churchill may never have been revered as he is if he hadn’t faced Hitler. Without the Joker, surely Batman is merely an oddly dressed adult male? We need our villains, and when it comes to Argentine political history, we are spoilt for choice.

In no particular order…

Carlos Menem

Carlos Saúl Menem, otherwise known as Carl Saul-less Menem. His name is an anagram of Narco Smell Mäuse (I added the umlaut, a necessary oversight in order to give the word its German significance – mouse). Anyone whose name is an anagram of a drug-selling odorous German mouse should surely not be trusted. Yet the hairy-cheeked politician was re-elected for a second term and enjoyed widespread popularity during the 90s as he led Argentina out of one economic crisis, but ultimately, into another.

Carlos Menem

The Ferrari-loving Menem married a Miss Universe model and fathered a child at the age of 73. What’s villainous about that you say? Nothing, impressive work. However this does not compensate for the fact that he presided over a period of immense corruption, during which class division grew, and seeds were sewn for the 2001 crisis. President of Argentina from 1989 to 1999, his tenure is known as the “pizza and champagne” years. Hardly a villain-worthy title, but misleading, as in reality very few enjoyed Moet and mozzarella amidst the rubble of Argentina’s economy post-Menem’s quick-fix solutions. He also infamously reversed the policy of his predecessor Raúl Alfonsín and pardoned almost 300 military officers convicted of human rights violations during the Videla dictatorship. Nice.

As the flamboyant Menem’s sideburns shrunk, the reverse happened to government spending, which in total doubled during his time in power. With the peso tied to the dollar, the government had to borrow its way out of trouble, and foreign debt ballooned to US$142 billion. Menem privatised countless state-run companies to the benefit of very few and opened the door to foreign investors who drove small local businesses into the ground. As he departed from the Casa Rosada in 1999 in his Ferrari, he left with 40% of Argentines living below the poverty line and unemployment at 14%.

As a result of this, an amusing belief has rippled throughout the country that the German mouse is cursed. So much so, that people have been known to touch their left testicle or breast (or both) upon shaking Menem’s hand in order to dispel his demons. The former president is blamed for the slump in form of Gabriela Sabatini towards the end of her tennis career, which came after he played a friendly match with her. It is also rumoured that he is not allowed to attend the football matches of his beloved River Plate or Argentina’s national team for fear that he may have a damaging impact on the outcome. He has taken on a Voldemort-esque persona with some Argentines even refusing to refer to him by name, instead employing “Mendez” to be safe.

Julio Argentino Roca

Julio Roca

Like many of the so-called villains on this list, Julio Argentino Roca wasn’t all bad. He is the man responsible for the creation of a civil registry in Argentina, made education free during his time in power, and oversaw a state-controlled economy which flourished. For almost a century after his presidential reigns in 1880-1886 and 1898-1904, Roca was heralded as a military hero and one of the founding fathers of the Argentine nation, having tamed the wild interior territories of the south. His face, to this day, still adorns $100 notes, although recently there have been campaigns to change this.

Why? Modern academic work has revealed nasty truths leading to a U-turn in public opinion on Roca, instead finding him to be guilty of a brutal genocide in the rural parts of Argentina. Roca is most famous for his ‘Conquest of the Desert’, a campaign that has consigned him to his fate as one of history’s worst bad guys. Once hailed as “uniting Argentina”, it has subsequently been revealed that the reality of the mission was to exterminate indigenous tribes. His armies succeeded in killing and displacing thousands of indigenous people. Native villages were pillaged and destroyed, and the local land was redistributed.

Certain avenues named after the general have subsequently been renamed and there are campaigns to topple his statues. Whilst Roca may have secured Patagonia as Argentine territory, and in doing so cemented the country’s future role as an agricultural super power, he also found time to kill and enslave thousands of Mapuche and other indigenous people.

Jorge Rafael Videla

Jorge Videla

No top 5 Argentine Villains list would be complete without Jorge Rafael Videla, arguably Argentina’s best-known tyrant. A military coup in 1976 gave him power in Argentina, amidst a backdrop of political and social chaos, and for the next five years he presided over one of the most brutal military dictatorships seen in recent Latin American history.

“As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be safe”, Videla famously declared in 1975. He sought to purge Argentine society of all remotely liberal ideology. Initially Leftist guerrillas, Peronists, Montoneros and “subversives” were targeted. But soon human rights activists, journalists, students, relatives of revolutionaries, Jews, and countless other innocent people were also being rounded up in the unmarked Ford Falcon cars of the Buenos Aires military police or death squads. The details of what happened to people in the camps are horrific – reports of electric shock treatment, simulated drowning, and mock executions have all emerged. People were tortured, raped, executed, or disappeared. In some cases, their bodies were dumped out of planes into the sea. Elsewhere, they were burned and buried in mass graves – all under General Videla’s watch.

Videla was initially nicknamed Pantera Rosa (The Pink Panther) because of his slim build. Somehow it doesn’t seem entirely appropriate to compare a mass-murdering tyrant to a lanky, tip-toeing feline animation. Some media first described him as a political moderate who sought to bring an end to political terrorism, a dove amongst hawks who could purge the military of ruthless hardliners. Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be the case. Videla is currently serving a very lengthy sentence in an Argentine prison, which proves that justice can eventually be achieved, although suffering cannot be forgotten, and his actions will never be forgiven by many people.

Juan Manuel de Rosas

Juan Manuel de Rosas

“The Louis XI of Argentine History”. “The Machiavelli of the Pampas”. “The Caligula of the River Plate”. As the nicknames suggest, Juan Manuel de Rosas was a villain who ruled with an iron fist.

Rosas officially occupied the position of governor of Buenos Aires for all but three of the years between 1829 and 1852 but in reality he acted as a dictator of the entire country. He built a ruthless secret police force, shot those who rebelled against him without trial, and required citizens to wear his colours. He managed to consolidate his position by channeling the hatred of the masses for the class system to his benefit and maintained the support of the church. Rosas was a tyrant, but he was a very clever tyrant. Despite lots of pressure, he intelligently avoided introducing a federal constitution to the gaucho-run country, since he knew that Buenos Aires Province, where he governed, was the most powerful state, and that a federation would cause potential threat to that.

Various schools of revionist historians have argued that Rosas’ harsh rule was justified in the face of the anarchy and violence that was occurring at the time in the country. Just as Menem did, and Videla claimed he did, the historian John A. Crow writes that Rosas “had indeed saved the country from anarchy” but just as the others’ solutions came with a significant price, Rosas “had given [the country] chains”.

Yet who was it that presided over the return of Rosas’ bones to Argentina, and led a riverboat procession of the coffin throughout Argentina? Yep, you guessed it, our old furry-faced friend Carlos Menem.

Emilio Eduardo Massera

Emilio Massera

Nothing screams villain louder than a pair of thick, dark, bushy eyebrows. The furry black caterpillars above Emilo Massera’s eyes give the man a disarmingly evil visage.

Many believe Massera, a former admiral and instigator of the 1976 coup, to be the true mastermind and architect behind the military junta’s brutal repression of society. This was a campaign that sought to crush all political opponents of the military and restore stability to the country. Official figures state that it resulted in the death and disappearance of 13,000 people, but human rights organisations place the figure closer to 30,000.

Massera acted as Videla’s sidekick during the late 1970s; he oversaw the most violent years of the disctatorship and headed up the Naval Mechanical School, ESMA, which essentially doubled up as the country’s most prominent concentration camp.

Massera is also highly likely to be largely responsible for the stealing of more than 500 babies born to jailed dissidents. He sold the babies of the tortured prisoners, often victims of rape, to fellow military officials and supporters of the dictatorship.

In 1985, Massera was convicted of three murders, 12 torture charges, and a further 69 kidnappings. However, he never served the full sentence for these crimes, thanks to another member of this list (Menem again), who kindly pardoned him of his crimes against humanity in what he called a gesture of reconciliation. In 2002, when these amnesties were overturned, Massera was spared trial after a stroke left him too ill and senile to be prosecuted. He died of a heart attack aged 85, just two years ago.

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Top 5 Beards of Argentina

Diego Maradona in the last World Cup (photo: Globovision)

Argentines are no strangers to furry faces. Long, wide, dark, light, thin, curly, straight and twisted beards crowd the streets as well as the history books.

We at the Argentina Independent decided to take a deeper look, bringing you a round-up of the country’s greatest whiskers.

To compile this list, each beard was analysed with three elements in mind.

First, we judged the look. Size, shape, colour and originality all played a role in who made the cut.

Secondly, we took into account the position the men held while they had their beards. It can be difficult for anyone to be taken seriously with a furry beast growing out of his face, far less a president.

Lastly, the notoriety of the beard itself was important. Although football legend Diego Maradona grew a beautiful salt-and-pepper beard, few people associate him with it.

With these guidelines in mind, it is our pleasure to introduce the Top 5 Beards of Argentina.

Eduardo Rinesi

Tiempo Argentino has referred to him as “the political expert with the long beard.”

Eduardo Rinesi takes the top spot (Photo: Victor Santa Maria)

A quick internet search finds adult bloggers lamenting, “when I grow up (?) I want to have Rinesi’s beard, but what trouble it must be to maintain it.”

With thick, dark bristles that rival those of Socrates, the political scientist Eduardo Rinesi takes our top spot.

Rinesi has managed to garner great success despite (or because of) his grand beard. He is the rector of the National University of General Sarmiento, and has penned quite a long list of books.

Born in Rosario, Santa Fe in 1964, Rinesi has had lots of time to groom his luxurious facial hair. According to Tiempo Argentino, he hasn’t shaved since he finished his “colimba”, the year-long military service that was obligatory until 1995.

Ernesto “Che” Guevara

Che Guevara and Castro and a bushy beard (Photo: Wikicommons)

Che’s organic scruff is by far the skimpiest beard on our list, but it is also the most well-known.

“Guerrillero Heroico” – that oh-so-famous photo of Che – was named a symbol of the 20th century and the world’s most famous photo by the Maryland Institute College of Art. The Victoria and Albert Museum says the picture has been reproduced more than any other image in photography.

How popular would that image be if the Argentine revolutionary had been clean-shaven?

Not only is the image printed on T-shirts, but the beard has been copied around the world. Guevara’s life became a symbol – and a part of that symbol was the beard.

What university would be complete without its crew of wannabe revolutionaries, all sporting red-star hats and their own versions of Che’s face fuzz? El Comandante may have been killed in Bolivia 45 years ago, but his beard will live for years to come on the faces of rebellious youth.

Julio Argentino Roca

Julio A. Roca, former argentinean president (Photo: Wikicommons)

According to a Latin saying, “Barba non facit philosophum”. The beard does not make the philosopher.

But could a beard make a villain? Perhaps.

Take former president Julio Argentino Roca, for example. Sure, as president he started a civil registry, made primary education free, and oversaw a state-controlled economy that boomed. But while sporting his Van Dyke of Evil – which you can see on the $100 bill – Roca terrorised the Argentine countryside as part of the Conquest of the Desert. His policies led to the killing and displacement of thousands of indigenous people in the 1870s.

During his second run as president the Residency Law was passed, allowing trade union leaders to be expelled from the country. Remember that obligatory military service our top beard Rinesi served? That was Roca’s doing. That puffy white chin was top dog when the conscription law was enacted in 1901.

Martín Fierro 

If a beard didn’t exist, can it make the Top 5 list?


While it never really had a place in time nor space, Martín Fierro’s beard lives in the minds of millions who have read José Hernández’s poems El Gaucho Martín Fierro and La Vuelta de Martín Fierro.

The gaucho Fierro was forced to leave his impoverished-but-romanticised lifestyle when he was drafted to serve at the border. He deserted and tried to return home. Difficulties ensue.

Fierro was an immediate success when El Gaucho came out in 1872, and the two poems together have been called Argentina’s equivalent to Dante’s Divine Comedy. 

But where would he be without his beard? In the Pampas with a cold face.

Carlos Menem

Carlos Menem elected president in 1989 (Photo: Wikicommons)

You could argue that Carlos Menem’s sideburns were not an official beard, but the presidential chops measure up in terms of size, quality and recognisability. There was more hair in his skunk-coloured cheek decorations than some men find on their heads, putting these puppies on our Top 5 list.

First elected as governor in 1983, Menem’s sideburns were the most visible part of his flamboyant style. Elected as president in 1989 and serving in office until 1999, “las patillas” slowly shrunk into a muted state – but his attitude did not.

At the turn of the millennium, the former president started to scoot around in a red Ferrari, married a Miss Universe model, and fathered a child in 2003 at the ripe old age of 73. Corruption charges have littered his résumé over the last decade, along with a recent obstruction of justice charge related to the 1994 Jewish community centre bombing in Buenos Aires.

These days, Menem’s jowls are bare – but pictures will always stand as proof of the former president’s fancy facial hair.

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Senate Debates YPF Takeover

Today, the Argentine Senate will debate the law proposal to make oil production a matter of “public utility,” that would make the 51% nationalisation of oil company YPF official.

The initiative is backed by the majority of Senate, including by some of the senators usually seated at the opposition benches, such as radicals and the Frente Amplio Progresista. Only four or five senators will vote against the measure, Clarín reports.

The debate is expected to last up to 12 hours. Last week, the Senate committees signed the government’s proposal as a first legislative step towards nationalising YPF. Former president and current senator Carlos Menem pushed the privatisation process of YPF forward, and today will give his vote in favor of renationalising of the company.

Senator Aníbal Fernandez, a member of the government’s party FpV minimised the warnings over YPF nationalisation made by the EU, whose leaders argued that Argentina would suffer the consequences for the expropriation of YPF for long time.

“Officials who are threatening us are just menacing,” he said. “What we have to do instead of answering them is to defend Argentine interests, and that’s what we are going to do this morning.

In recognition of the Senate debate, opposition newspaper La Nacion today ran an article reporting the critiques to President Fernández’ decision made by the main Brazilian weekly magazine, Veja.

In his article, Brazilian journalist Duda Teixeira wrote that, when nationalised, YPF “will have no capital to maintain or increase its production” and will have a budget deficit similar (or greater) to that of Aerolineas Argentinas, which was was renationalised back in 2009.

The government’s resolution, branded as “petropopulism in Chavez fashion,” will “strengthen the international conviction that Argentina is not a reliable partner […],” the Brazilian magazine opined.

“Oil is able to raise the most demagogic, reactionary and nationalist instincts of the people and their rulers.”

Spanish newspaper El Pais similarly called kirchnerism “the chavism of XXI century,” arguing that President Fernández “neoperonism” is deeply rooted on the support of “young people, the battle against private media and a soft version of anti-imperialism.”

The announcement of YPF takeover was made on 16th April, when President Fernández presented a bill to Congress to expropriate 51% of the oil company Repsol-YPF.

Repsol has been the majority stakeholder in the company since 1999. In a statement released today, Repsol dismissed Argentine government’s claim about a lack of proper investments in oil exploration by the Spanish company.


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2001-2011: The Making of a Crisis

When President Fernando De la Rúa was forced out of office on 20th December, 2001, Argentina was already deep in the worst economic, social and political crisis of its history. In the weeks that followed, the country defaulted on US$140bn of debt and devalued the currency by more than 300%, both global records at the time.

The magnitude of the collapse, and its devastating  consequences, took many by surprise, even though (and largely because) pressures had been building for years. In reality, the 2001 crisis was the ugly, mismanaged withdrawal from a decade of ‘convertibility’, where one peso equals one dollar, and the breaking point of an economic cycle that had begun in 1976 under military rule.

A New Economic Paradigm

José Martínez de Hoz as economy minister (1976-81)

For all the ghastly human rights abuses committed by the 1976-83 military dictatorship, it was its economic policies that would have a greater lasting impact on the country once democracy was restored.

On 2nd April 1976, just over a week after the military coup, newly appointed economy minister José Martínez de Hoz, launched a deep restructuring of the economy, based on the principles of neo-liberalism. In his landmark speech that day, he announced a fundamental move “from stifling state intervention to make way for the liberalisation of productive forces.”

In a short space of time, wages were frozen and new labour laws (in favour of companies) were introduced, the banking sector was deregulated, and obstacles to international trade and investment flows were eliminated. Decades of industrialisation were wiped away as domestic producers, for so long protected by the state, could not cope with the flood of cheap imports.

In the new economic reality, where borrowing was easy and financial speculation could reap big short-term rewards, there was little incentive to invest in long-term production.

It became known the era of plata dulce (sweet money) and deme dos (give me two), as those who benefited in the new model—typically large private companies and influential individuals with close links to the military regime—enjoyed a sharp rise in living standards. But as wealth and power became highly concentrated, many other social indicators declined dramatically. Real wages slumped by 40%, while unemployment, poverty, and child mortality, areas in which Argentina had long been an example for Latin America, all rose dramatically.

Just one year into the dictatorship, acclaimed writer and journalist Rodolfo Walsh wrote in his famous open letter to the military junta: “the economic policy of this government, rather than a justification for its crimes, is a greater atrocity that punishes millions of human lives with its planned misery.”

The Burden of Debt

Despite Martínez de Hoz’ pledge to reduce state involvement in the economy under the slogan “to minimise the state is to maximise the nation,” government spending remained high, focused primarily on infrastructure, defence and security. As finance for this expenditure, the country’s external debt rose from US$8bn in 1976 to over US$43bn by the time democracy was restored seven years later. A significant part of that increase was absorbed by the state after a decision by the Central Bank, in late 1982, to nationalise the debt of stricken banks and companies.

At the same time, the global era of cheap borrowing and petrodollar recycling was coming to an end, and as interest rates rose, Argentina, along with many other developing countries, was burdened with external debt and interest payments that it could barely afford.

From that point, international creditors—represented by the IMF—would exert a major influence on domestic policy, often demanding measures that ran contrary to the needs of the majority of the local population. In the most explicit demonstration of this problem, Bernardo Grinspun, the flamboyant economy minister from 1983-1985 who tried to take a hard line with foreign creditors, once declared to the head of the IMF’s mission in Buenos Aires: “If you want me to pull down my trousers, I will!” and proceeded to turn around and do just that.

By the time Domingo Cavallo was appointed economy minister in 1991, external debt had swelled to US$61.3bn and the government owed almost US$3bn a year in interest payments alone. Cavallo had experience with this debt: as president of the central bank for a short period in 1982, he played an important part in the nationalisation of corporate obligations. Now under the presidency of Carlos Menem, he embraced the so-called ‘Washington Consensus’—a standardised economic package prescribed for indebted developing countries by the IMF and World Bank—and embarked on a new phase of neo-liberal reforms that Martínez de Hoz would later claim went far beyond his own.

Domingo Cavallo launches convertibility in 1991


Alongside a another wave of deregulation, trade liberalisation and privatisations, one of Cavallo’s first and most important policies was to peg the Argentine peso at 1:1 to the US dollar, and make both currencies legal tender. The ‘convertibility law’ was brought in to combat another of Argentina’s constant economic ills: inflation. Many previous administrations—both democratic and military—had resorted to printing money to finance its spending programmes and cover budget deficits. By stipulating that every peso in circulation had to be matched by a US dollar in the central bank’s reserves, the government effectively tied its own hands in order to make the currency peg credible.

Inflation did fall in the first years under convertibility, and a new influx of investment from abroad helped spur a period of economic growth between 1991 and 1994. But the benefits were once again enjoyed disproportionately by a small section of the population, whose prosperity masked growing structural problems. Local industry was once again decimated by foreign competition, and the number of unemployed and those living in poverty rose to historically high levels.

Unable to print more money under the terms of convertibility, the government borrowed heavily to finance its budget deficits, which increased as economic activity waned and joblessness rose. To cover interest payments that were due, the government hurried through its privatisation programme, selling key strategic industries, including oil company YPF, at suspiciously low prices and often directly to those creditors awaiting payment. External debt soared, almost doubling to US$110bn by the time Cavallo resigned in 1996 amid growing reports of corruption in the Menem administration. His successor, Roque Fernández, continued the deepen the model, ignoring the economic downturn and adding another US$35bn to the debt pile during his three years at the economy ministry.

Endless Recession

By the end of Menem’s term in 1999, a series of financial crises and currency devaluations in emerging markets, including Argentina’s neighbour and main trading partner Brazil, had tipped the country into a recession from which it would not emerge until 2003.

At that point it was clear, to some at least, that Argentina could not sustain the convertibility model and pay off its debt. Investors, banks, and large businesses began moving money out of the country, and financial markets punished the country’s high risk profile with exorbitant interest rates that made it almost impossible to borrow more.

IMF headquarters in Washington D.C.

Despite these warnings, Fernando De la Rúa won the 1999 elections using the slogan “conmigo, un peso, un dólar”(with me, one peso, one dollar) and, despite generating strong expectations for change, stood by convertibility. The public support for the currency peg, which had become a straight jacket for policymakers, is now put down to fears of a return to inflation and belief that it was the rampant corruption in the Menem government that was to blame for the country’s social problems.

De la Rúa’s support quickly faded, however, after his government approved major tax increases (impuestazo) to try and reign in the budget deficit, and was then rocked by a political scandal over the alleged use of bribes in Congress to pass a controversial package of labour reforms (Ley Banelco). By the end of 2000, De la Rúa’s approval rating had plummeted, his vice-president had resigned, and his own Radical party was distancing itself from him.

Still, the IMF, which had held Argentina up as the poster child for economic reforms during the 1990s, gave its support as lender of last resort, rewarding the government for the impuestazo and Ley Banelco by agreeing a US$40bn credit line—el blindaje (the ‘armour’). De la Rúa announced the deal to the country in December 2000, in a speech that  sounded more like a plea to foreign investors and creditors. “[the IMF credit line] is a guaranteed fund so large that it clears any doubts or threats over Argentina’s future…Argentina has no more risk, Argentina is safe and transparent, and can now grow in peace…2001 will be a big year for Argentina”.

The End Game

In the space of a few months, it was obvious that 2001 would be big for all the wrong reasons.  The country’s recession was only getting worse as the government continued to cut spending in compliance with the rigid terms of the IMF loan. In a desperate move to restore confidence, De la Rúa brought back Cavallo to the economy ministry, a man favoured by the markets and big business and seen as a pillar of strength in an otherwise weak government.

Cavallo, who was given extraordinary powers to push through new measures, acted quickly to try and save the convertibility model that he had created. A patchwork collection of new taxes, spending caps, debt swaps, and cutbacks (including a 13% in pensions and some social payments) only deepened the country’s social problems and turned more people against the De la Rúa government.

The end of convertibility was now inevitable, with the question more about how to minimise its impact on the economy and society. Yet Cavallo refused to accept that his model was exhausted, and was once again backed up by the IMF, who despite serious private concerns about the minister’s actions, agreed to add another US$8bn to the blindaje, including a payment of over US$5bn on 10th September, 2001. It would be the last support Argentina received.

On 5th December, the IMF officially pulled the plug, declaring that it would not release any more funds for Argentina. Its reasoning was that the government had failed to meet its targets for deficit reduction in 2001 and could not find support for the proposed 2002 budget, which contained another $6bn in austerity measures, in a Congress now controlled by the peronist opposition.

Anger at banks in 2001 (Photo: Thomas Locke Hobbs)

With the country almost out of money, two days earlier, Cavallo had implemented the infamous corralito, a $250 weekly limit on the amount that could be withdrawn from banks. Individual savers and small businesses were most affected, and began staging protests outside their banks to demand access to their money. The banks themselves, many of them foreign-owned, had already transferred huge sums abroad, including $143million on 30th November, the last working day before the corralito came into effect.

With the middle class now directly affected, many more people joined the protests that the unemployed (18.3% of the working population) and labour unions had been organising for months. The economy was in ruins, and desperation drove more social unrest. Something had to give, and on 19th December, when De la Rúa declared a state of emergency, it struck the death knell for his government, for convertibility, and for 25 years of poorly-managed economic policy based on neo-liberal thinking.

Perhaps more importantly, the catastrophic policies of a model that had should have been withdrawn many years earlier united the popular classes against the establishment, and for the first time since 1976, the majority – Argentina’s ‘99%’ – remembered that it too had the power to shape the destiny of their country.

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The History of Peronism (Part II)

Juan Domingo Perón's funeral - July 1974

Celina Andreassi concludes the complex history of peronism in the second part of our series. To read Part I, click here.

Juan Domingo Perón died on 1st July 1974, just as the tension between the left wing of the peronist movement -embodied in La Tendencia, the left of the Peronist Youth- and its right wing -manifest certain factions of the CGT and Minister José López Rega- reached breaking point.

In his last term, Perón wife, María Estela Martínez (aka Isabel Perón), was vice president. But Isabel was no Evita, and the death of Perón left her in a position she was unable to fulfill.

Perón had met Isabel in Panama, where she worked as an exotic dancer, in 1955, and married her six years later in Spain. She was sent to Argentina in 1965 as Perón’s delegate and during this trip she met former policeman José López Rega (aka “the warlock”) and bonded with him thanks to a shared interest in astrology and religion. López Rega moved to Spain and became the couple’s private secretary, exercising a great deal of influence on them, especially Isabel.

After Perón’s return to Argentina and the presidency, López Rega was appointed welfare minister. From this position, he surrounded himself with extreme right-wing organisations and, after Perón’s split with the peronist left, he organised the paramilitary organisation Triple A (Argentine Anti-communist Alliance) to quash the “subversives”.

It is believed that the Triple A started its operations in 1973, just before Perón took office. There is some debate regarding the role of Perón himself in the actions of the Triple A: the most commonly accepted theory is that whilst he was not personally involved in the group’s operations, he was aware of its existence and did nothing to stop them.

Is it estimated that the Triple A committed over 2,000 murders in around two years of existence. Its main targets were key leftist figures—both peronist and non-peronist—including politicians, unionists, scientists and artists. The height of its activity ocurred during Isabel Perón’s government, between 1974 and 1975, when López Rega’s influence was at its peak.

In the midst of a situation dominated by violence and terror, the government was proving to be more succesful killing its enemies than in managing the country. The international oil crisis affected Argentina’s economy, causing high inflation, a decrease in capital investments, and external debt growth. In 1975, López Rega sponsored a new Economy Minister, Celestino Rodrigo, who implemented a 100%devaluation of the currency combined with a massive increase in the prices of fuel and services such as electricity.

The plan was a disaster and was met by strong opposition from the workers. This, which coincided with in-fighting between López Rega and some sectors of the CGT, brought about the first general strike against a peronist government in history, and both Rodrigo and López Rega were forced to resign. López Rega had to leave the country and returned to Spain.

Isabel Perón and José López Rega

Isabel was now alone, and subject to pressures from all sides, whilst the political violence did not wane. She turned to the Armed Forces, naming Jorge Videla as chief of the Army and giving them free reign to carry out the fight against “subversive elements”. In this way, the illegal actions of the Triple A were legitimised and handed to the military.

The conflicts did not cease, and to avoid a military coup, Isabel Perón called for early elections to be held in late 1976. This manoeuvre did not work and another coup—the last to this date—was carried out on 24th March 1976. By this time the left wing guerrilla groups were already very weak after years of illegal repression and neither the government or the opposition were able to stop it.

Despite the fact that Argentina had been suffering from coups and military governments since 1930, no one could foresee that what happened in 1976 would become the biggest tragedy in the country’s history. Not only because of the seven years of indescribable terror that followed, but also because of its deep and long-lasting political and economic consequences, which extended well beyond the return to democracy.

The Peronist Renewal (1983-1989)

Despite the massive amount of murders, kidnappings and forced exiles during the years of the dictatorship, the faces that re-emerged in the peronist movement after the return to democracy in 1983 were the sames ones as in the mid-70’s. Isabel Perón was still the president of the party’s National Council, despite living abroad and not wanting anything to do with Argentine politics. Both the party and the unions were still divided in factions.

It is not surprising then, than after losing the 1983 elections to the radical candidate Raúl Alfonsín -the first ever loss for the peronist party in a presidential election- the situation reached a crisis point.

After many years in which the trade unions had been the backbone of the peronist movement -years during which the peronist party had been banned- the renewal that took place in the 80’s was based around the need for the political wing to take control. After a conflictive power struggle, politicians triumphed over the unionists, and a new wave of peronist leaders—more liberal, more inclined to look at the middle classes for electoral support, and more concerned about the institutionalisation of the movement emerged—took control of the national peronist movement.

One of the main figures of this renewal was La Rioja governor Carlos Menem, whom, with the support of the unionists he had contributed to displace in the first place, won the internal election in 1988 and became the presidential candidate for the Partido Justicialista (PJ).

Raúl Alfonsín hands the presidential baton to Carlos Menem in 1989

The Menem Era (1989-1999)
In 1989, the economic situation was so critical that then-president Alfonsín was forced to bring the election forward by a few months, and then, after Menem’s victory, to hand over the power six months before he was due. Alfonsín’s term had been difficult and the peronist opposition -notoriously hard to deal with, as had been demonstrated during other non-peronist governments- had been more part of the problem than the solution. The president had to endure a record fourteen general strikes led by the CGT and the blockage of important bills in Congress which the peronist would later on implement themselves whilst in government.

Menem’s image and discourse in 1989 were very different to what they would become in the 90’s. He presented himself as a populist caudillo from the countryside, who got to power by promising to carry out a “production revolution”, a “salariazo” (wage increase) and to reestablish the culture of labour. As he confessed in a interview a few years later, “had I said what I was going to do, no one would have voted for me”.

In a movement broad enough to accommodate the most extreme right and left wing factions, there were always certain underlying elements— a certain nationalist rhetoric or the importance of the worker’s movement—that could be found across the factions. Menem exploited this peronist identity during his presidential campaign, but very soon after coming to power he turned his back on the historical “three banners of peronism”: social justice, economic independence and political sovereignty.

During his ten years in government, Menem finished off—in economic terms—what the last dictatorship had started: the establishment of a neoliberal model to replace the peronist-era import substitution industrialisation, putting finance at the centre of the economy. The pillars of the new paradigm were the mass privatisation of public utilities—including strategic assets such as the energy network—, the pegging of the peso to the US dollar to curb inflation, a strong market liberalisation and a reform of the State which, in theory, would make it smaller and more efficient.

After a relatively prosperous period which lasted until about 1994 -supported by funds from selling public assets- all socio-economic indicators started to drop, and would continue to do so for almost a decade.

The overvalued peso made the Argentine industry non-competitive and unable to rival the flood of imported products To counter this, labour costs were lowered and labour laws loosened, making it easier for firms to lay-off workers. Industrial activity lost ground to financial activity, and went from representing 35% of the GDP in the early 70’s to 16% in 2001. Unemployment, a minor problem in Argentina for decades, began to rise rapidly. Foreign debt soared as the government struggled to maintain the value of the peso.

The unions were not there to protect their members. Whilst many of the more combative unionists and political activists had not survived the 70’s violence, those who did often fell victim to another major component of the model: corruption. The main CGT unionists—the so-called “fat cats”—were co-opted into defending their own economic interests and those of the employers, even as state companies were sold at bargain prices to foreign conglomerates.

At odds with the menemist faction of the movement, dissident groups abandoned the peronist party and formed new organisations, though without ever renouncing their peronist identity.

Of these new groups, the most important was the Frente Grande, led by Carlos “Chacho” Alvarez, which added a new dimension to the traditional Peronist-Radical dichotomy. The Frente Grande ended up joining the Alliance with the UCR between 1999 and 2001, when the economic troubles of the 90s came to a head.

Even within the peronist party, there was significant opposition to Menem, such as the group of Santa Cruz congress-people, led by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Likewise, within the union movement there was a dissident group led by Hugo Moyano, whose unions left the official CGT and organised themselves in a new dissident faction that was against the Menem government and “fat cats”. Meanwhile, in 1991, another workers’ confederation, the Central de Trabajadores Argentinos (CTA), was created. Unlike the more traditional CGT, the CTA become more involved with social movements and allowed the unemployed to become members. In the second half of the decade, these social and piquetero (picketer) movements positioned themselves at the fore-front of the opposition.

Riots in Buenos Aires - December 2001

The Crisis (1999-2003)

After serving two terms, Menem left power in 1999. The economy was, by then, deep in recession and would erupt into crisis in two years. Radical Fernando De La Rúa was in power at the time, but the foundations of the crisis were laid by the military dictatorship and Menem’s government.

When De La Rúa resigned in December 2001, Argentina went through five presidents in a two-week period. One of them, peronist Adolfo Rodríguez Saa (whose brother Alberto is running for president in the current elections) lasted a week, which gave him enough time to default on the country’s debts but not to muster the party’s support to face the crisis.

After his resignation, peronist senator Eduardo Duhalde (who had been Menem’s vice-president and governor of Buenos Aires province in the 90’s) was appointed president by congress. It has been suggested by some journalists and politicians that Duhalde played an important role in the events that led to the resignation of both De La Rúa and Rodríguez Saa, motivated by a life-long ambition to become president.

Duhalde’s aim was to finish off De la Rúa’s term and call for elections in October 2003. He had the difficult task of ruling the country at one of its most desperate moments, with over half the population living in poverty, 25% in extreme poverty and with 20% unemployment. During his term, his economy minister Roberto Lavagna -who would remain in the job during Néstor Kirchner’s presidency, until late 2005- lay the foundations for the current economic model. Probably the most important single policy of Duhalde’s government was one of his first: the ending of the ten-year long pegging of the peso to the US dollar, which triggered a huge devaluation and opened up the possibility to reactivate industrial activity.

The 2001 crisis had an economic cause and a social reaction. After the protests that ended De La Rúa’s government, there was a state of permanent mobilisation. Social movements grew, as well as popular assemblies, and it was a time of intense social conflict. In June 2002, a piquetero protest that was blocking a bridge between the City of Buenos Aires and Avellaneda was violently suppressed by the Buenos Aires police, who killed protesters Maximiliano Kosteki and Darío Santillán. The so-called “Avellaneda massacre” had a strong political impact, forcing Duhalde to bring the election forward to April 2003 and to hand over government in May of that year.

The scandal over the death of Kosteki and Santillán also forced Duhalde to give up his hopes for a re-election, despite having control over the peronist party and a stronger position than his internal rivals Menem and the Rodríguez Saa brothers. Instead, Duhalde chose to support the relatively unknown governor of the southern province of Santa Cruz, Néstor Kirchner.

Just as in 2011, there were three peronist candidates in 2003: Kirchner, Menem and Adolfo Rodríguez Saa. The winner of the first round of the election was Carlos Menem, with 24% of the vote, followed by Néstor Kirchner with 22%. A run-off was scheduled to take place three weeks later, however Menem—aware of his weak support and probably in an attempt to weaken the next government—withdrew from the election, leaving Kirchner to take office on 25th May 2003.

Kirchnerism (2003-2011)

A decade of neoliberalism produced profound changes, not only economic, but also social, political and cultural. The intense political activism that had dominated Argentine life for decades, and that received its hardest blow during the last dictatorship, gave way to years of apathy and individualism, exacerbated by the break-up of traditional community ties brought about by unemployment and social exclusion.

Though the kirchnerist governments have so far left many pillars of the neo-liberal economic model untouched, in the last eight years there has been an undeniable cultural and symbolic change, which seeks to restore the activist spirit of the 70’s. Politics and debate have once again become means to resolve social conflict. In this context, there has also been a revitalisation of the debate about peronism and its historical role, with certain long-forgotten words brought back to every-day conversation.

The good relationship between Néstor Kirchner and Eduardo Duhalde did not last long. As Kirchner started to act with more autonomy and their political differences became obvious, the struggle to control the party intensified. In the 2005 legislative election the split was official and each leader presented its own peronist ballot—Duhalde kept the official Partido Justicialista banner, whilst Kirchner ran under the Frente para la Victoria (FPV). The FPV won the election and with it the control of the party, especially in the crucial Buenos Aires province, the most populous district in the country and a traditional peronist stronghold. Duhalde was then forced to leave the “official” peronist party and join the ranks of the dissident Peronismo Federal, led by Alberto Rodríguez Saa.

Néstor Kirchner and President Fernández in 2008 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

After a crushing victory for the FPV and its allies (which included non-peronists, like Radical vicepresident Julio Cobos) in the presidential elections of 2007, when Cristina Fernández de Kirchner succeeded her husband, Néstor Kirchner strengthened his grip over the PJ.

This, however, was short-lived, as the campo crisis of 2008 caused a massive exodus of government supporters. The FPV performed very poorly in the 2009 legislative elections and even lost to dissident peronist Francisco de Narváez in Buenos Aires province.

2009 was a good year for the opposition, and especially for the dissident peronists, who can be considered the right wing of today’s peronist party. By 2010, with this year’s presidential elections on the public agenda, a struggle began between dissident peronists looking to position themselves as candidates.

In the end, there were two pre-candidates left: Eduardo Duhalde and Alberto Rodríguez Saa, the incumbent governor of San Luis. Internal elections were scheduled to decide on one candidate, but after voting in two provinces, these were cancelled amidst crossed accusations of fraud, and both candidates decided to run separately. Duhalde, who is supported by a dissident CGT group called CGT Celeste y Blanca—opposed to Hugo Moyano’s official, kirchnerist CGT and led by the “fat cats” associated with the Menem years—performed slightly better in the primary elections in August 2011, though current polls indicate that Rodríguez Saa could obtain more votes in the October elections.

Meanwhile, the government’s image had started to improve in 2010. The death of Néstor Kirchner in October 2010 only accelerated this process. The landslide victory of Cristina Kirchner in the August 2011 primaries and the weakening of the dissident groups has opened up a new chapter in the history of peronism. As Néstor Kirchner has already been placed by his followers next to Perón and Evita on the peronist pantheon, some see kirchnerism as the final evolution of the movement.

However, history has showed that peronism is an ever-changing, contradictory political movement whose very nature lies in its capacity to adapt to the political and social environment. Even after 66 years, any attempt to provide a neat definition of peronism is doomed to fail.

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The History of the UCR (Part II)

Read about the UCR’s revolutionary origins and early struggles with the military and peronism in ‘History of the UCR: Part I.

UCR Shield

After the ousting of President Arturo Illia and return of military rule in 1966, the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) was left in a weakened state, fragmented and wounded by the failure to return as the dominant political force after Juan Domingo Perón’s exile. The recovery from this point would take almost two decades, though key UCR figures would continue to play a crucial role in local politics in the meantime.

After de facto President General Juan Carlos Onganía banned all political parties, the activity of the UCR naturally diminished. Most of the political activitism that remained was concentrated in university groups. These student organisations were behind the most important protests against the dictatorship, including those known as “Cordobazo” and “Rosariazo” which, in 1969, brought Onganía’s government to an end.

After 1970, the UCRP—led by Ricardo Balbín—and many other parties (including the peronists, but with the exception of the UCRI that had supported the new military government) united in their claim for free and fair elections. In 1971, and with a new military in charge of the government, Balbín started negotiating the so-called “electoral exit”.

At this point, the military government allowed the UCRP to change its name back to Unión Cívica Radical while forcing the UCRI to change its name. It was also at this time that Raúl Alfonsín, a lawyer from Chascomús in Buenos Aires Province, started to form his own faction, differentiating himself from Balbín and emerging as the left-wing representative of the Radical party.

Finally, elections were held in March 1973. For the first time since 1951, the peronists were able to participate in presidential elections (although Perón was still in exile) and their candidate Héctor Cámpora comfortably beat Balbín by 49.5% to 21.3%. After allowing Perón to return to the country, Cámpora resigned and new elections were called in September of that year, giving Perón a landslide victory with 62% of the vote.

UCR leader Ricardo Balbín and Juan Perón, who again, in exile, became the central issue of the 1973 campaign. (source: Wikipedia)

After Perón’s return, the differences between the ‘balbinist’ and the ‘alfonsinist’ factions of the Radicals deepened. While Balbín, after decades of confrontation, was now in favour of an agreement with Perón to achieve the much sought after “national unity”, Alfonsín maintained a strong anti-peronist stance. Balbín’s softened approach to dealing with Perón was evident when, during the latter’s funeral in 1974, he declared: “This old rival bids a friend farewell.”

The UCR became increasingly polarised during the 1976-83 military government, which captured and ‘disappeared’ around 30,000 people. Balbin’s position has been widely criticised as too forgiving towards the dictatorship, a stance he called necessary to save the lives of his fellow party members.

Alfonsín, on the contrary, had a very active role during these years. He was a founding member of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights and, as a lawyer, risked his own life by petitioning for writs of habeas corpus for political detainees. He was also one of the few politicians to publicly oppose the Falklands/Malvinas War in 1982.

After the military regime lost the war against the British, its credibility crumbled and a democratic transition process was established. Elections were called for October 1983, and surprised many when Alfonsín won with 51.7% of the vote; it was the first time the peronists had lost a presidential election in their history.

Two facts are usually invoked to explain this result: Alfonsin’s denunciation of an alleged pact between the peronist unions and armed forces to avoid the trials for crimes against humanity, and the gesture by peronist politician Italo Lúder who, during the final rally before the election, burned a coffin marked “UCR”. This gesture was considered poor taste given the country’s recent history, and was rejected by a large section of society who wanted to leave political violence behind.

Alfonsín: The Father of Democracy (1983-89)

Alfonsín took office on the 10th December 1983 – the date coincided with the anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. A massive crowd took to the Plaza de Mayo to hear the new president speak from the balconies of the old Town Hall.

Alfonsín had repeated during his campaign a phrase that would become the motto of his government: “With democracy we eat, we heal, we educate.” Amid the euphoria of an end to military rule, there was an expectation that democracy would solve the country’s ills.

Former members of Argentina's last dictatorship endure opening statements in their 1985 trial for human rights abuses. (source: Wikipedia)

Early measures fuelled this optimism. Only five days after taking office, Alfonsín decreed that there would be trials for the ERP and Montoneros guerrillas and for the three military juntas that had ruled the country between 1976 and 1983. The 1985 trials were unprecedented in the world and all the participants in the military juntas received jail terms of between four years and life.

In reality, restoring the State’s authority after half a century of military coups and counter-coups was a monumental challenge, and many of the new government’s promises were never fulfilled. The military was unrepentant, and hardline factions were already plotting another return to power. In 1986 and 1987 a series of military uprisings sent a warning to the president. With the fledgling democracy under pressure, Alfonsín was forced to negotiate with the insurgents, ending with the passing of two bills which put an end to the trials against the military men from all ranks involved in crimes against humanity. This decision cost Alfonsín dearly, his popularity diminished and the UCR lost the legislative elections that year.

At the same time Alfonsín was struggling to regain control of the economy. The last military dictatorship, unlike any of the previous ones, had made deep, structural changes in Argentine society and economy which would have lasting consequences. The political persecution of the 1976-83 period was a means to an end: to change the economic model of incipient industrialisation to one geared towards financial activities and services.

Perhaps unaware of the full extent of the changes instigated during the previous years, the government’s diagnoses were misguided and the old tried and tested solutions to overcome the crisis did not work in this situation.

The picture was bleak. The military government had multiplied the foreign debt by 5.5 times in seven years, poverty had increased, and inflation became a massive problem very early on in Alfonsín’s government. Efforts to bring prices under control—including the Plan Austral, which introduced a new currency in 1985—had only limited success.

The increasingly desperate Radical government found its efforts to introduce structural reforms blocked by the Peronists in Congress (they would later approve the same measures during Carlos Menem’s government). By 1989, the crisis had reached a critical point, with the country suffering from hyperinflation (the inflation rate reached 3000% at one stage) and a sharp rise in poverty and social unrest.

In May 1989, early elections were called and the UCR candidate, Eduardo Angeloz, lost against the peronist candidate Carlos Menem. Amid a deepening crisis, Alfonsín, who had united the UCR and arrived with such high expectations for the country, was forced to handover the government to Menem in July, five months before his term was up.

The situation that drove Alfonsín to resign has been called a “market coup”, meaning that the economic actors forced an institutional change by resorting to economic destabilisation in the form of lock-outs, rising interest rates, shortage of supplies, rising inflation.

That said, there were other, more positive policies implemented during Alfonsín’s government, which harked back to the core principles of the UCR since Yrigoyen. These included the creation of the Mercosur alliance with other South American countries, the signing of a peace treaty with Chile, the roll out of a massive literacy plan, the normalisation of the national universities under the principles of the University Reform, and the approval of the Divorce Law.

Despite the economic turmoil and the disappointment that his decision to put an end to the trials against the military government caused -for many it was seen as a capitulation and a betrayal- it would be fair to say that Alfonsín’s presidency fulfilled a crucial role of putting Argentina back on the democratic track. However, his highly ethical and idealistic stance, his faith in democracy and institutional restoration -in true Yrigoyenist fashion- were not enough to tackle the new economic and political balance of power that the dictatorship had left on its wake.

Menem and The Alianza Years (1989-2001)

It would be another ten years before the Radicals governed again. During the first half of the 1990’s, the UCR had to again deal with its legendary in-fighting following Alfonsín’s downfall and poor results in the legislative elections.

Carlos Menem in victory (Source: Wikipedia)

In 1994, a Constitutional reform was proposed by then-president Menem, with the main objective of allowing him to run for re-election (until then, a president was allowed only one six-year term). A secret agreement known as the Olivos Pact was negotiated between Menem and Alfonsín—who had remained as UCR leader—as a condition for the Radicals to support the reform. The Radicals gave Menem the changes in presidential terms (shortening of the term from six to four years, allowing one re-election, eliminating the electoral college and a second-round or ballotage system) in exchange for other reforms they considered necessary, such as the introduction of the role of cabinet chief, the autonomy of the City of Buenos Aires, changes in the election of Senators (which directly favoured the radicals), and the inclusion of third and fourth-generation human rights.

However, The Olivos Pact had a negative impact on the people’s opinion of the party and in the 1995 elections, the UCR performed poorly, finishing third for the first time in its history, behind the centre-left Frente País Solidario (FREPASO).

At the same time, and despite its overall poor results in elections, the UCR was doing quite well among the middle-class voters in the City of Buenos Aires. In 1992, Fernando de la Rúa, a conservative ‘balbinist’ who had developed his political career during the 1970’s and had been Balbín’s running mate in the 1973 election, was elected senator for the city and in 1996 became its first elected mayor (before the 1994 constitutional reform, the mayor of the city of Buenos Aires was appointed by the president).

In 1997, as the economic climate deteriorated and Menem’s government became increasingly tainted by corruption scandals, the UCR and FREPASO formed an electoral alliance called Alianza por el Trabajo, la Justicia y la Educación, or simply “Alianza”. The Alianza won the legislative elections that same year and the presidential elections in 1999, taking Fernando De la Rúa to government, along with his vice-president, Carlos “Chacho” Alvarez (from FREPASO).

De la Rúa based his presidential campaign on portraying the image of an austere and honest man, in stark contrast with Menem’s corrupt and frivolous ways. People voted for this change and welcomed it joyfully, but it was merely cosmetic. In terms of economic policy and underlying ideology, De la Rúa was hardly different from Menem and his government continued – and in some cases deepened – the disastrous policies of his predecessor.

The love affair between Argentina and The Alianza did not last long, and it did not take long for the new government to come under strain. In October 2000—less than a year after taking office—vice-president Alvarez resigned after publicly denouncing corruption in the senate. The centre-left factions within the Alianza were slowly displaced by De la Rúa’s conservative group, but they were unable to revive the economy, which was mired in debt and had been in recession since 1998.

Massive protests broke out in the streets of Buenos Aires during the 2001 economic collapse. (Photo: Fabricio Di Dio)

In 2001, after the resignation of two economy ministers (one of them, Ricardo López Murphy, only lasted two weeks on the job), De la Rúa called on one of the strongest symbols of Menem’s first presidency to rescue the economy: former minister Domingo Cavallo. The attempts to curb the crisis using the orthodox policies prescribed by the IMF continued. More budget cuts, salary cuts (for public employees and pensioners), and debt renegotiations were implemented, while the economy was kept alive via the acquisition of more loans from the IMF and the World Bank.

As the situation worsened and social tension increased, legislative elections were held in October 2001. The Alianza was defeated by the Peronists and lost control of the Congress, weakening the executive even more.

In December 2001, the grave economic and political situation caused distrust amongst investors, which in turn increased bank runs and capital flight. To avoid the collapse of the banking system, the government placed a restriction on the withdrawal of deposits, which came to be known as the “corralito” (“little [pig] pen”). This affected the economic and trade system as well as the middle classes who saw their life savings trapped in the banks and only worsened the social situation.

Protests increased and by 19th December rioting and looting – mainly of supermarkets – started to take place. It is suspected that many of these riots were not spontaneous and were being fuelled by opposition groups for political gain.

That same evening President de la Rúa declared a State of Emergency, suspending constitutional guarantees. Thousands took to the streets of Buenos Aires and other major cities to protest against the government, in open defiance of the security measure. The protests continued throughout the night and the following day, during which time an aggressive police response caused the deaths of thirty-nine people in two days.

In the early hours of 20th December, Cavallo resigned. A few hours later, in the evening and after one final failed attempt to call on peronist governors to form a coalition government, Fernando de la Rúa gave his resignation speech on TV. For the 5th consecutive time, a Radical president was unable to complete a full term, though this time, the image of De la Rúa leaving the Casa Rosada in a helicopter while the masses rioted below would be especially devastating for the UCR.

President de la Rúa upon tendering his resignation, December 21, 2001. (source: wikipedia)

Beyond 2001: Picking up the Pieces

The disaster of De la Rúa’s government and resignation left the UCR at its weakest in a 110-year history, unleashing an internal crisis from which it is still recovering. In the 2003 presidential elections, with the devastating effects of the crisis still evident and the image of De la Rúa’s helicopter still fresh in the minds of voters, the party had its worst result ever, obtaining only 2.3% support.

The UCR fell to pieces. Some of its members, like Ricardo López Murphy, left the UCR and created their own parties. Others, like Tucumán’s governor José Alperovich, even joined the Peronist party. During Néstor Kirchner’s government (2003-07), many Radical governors and mayors forged alliances with the national government and became known as “Radicales K”.

Amongst them was the governor of Mendoza, Julio Cobos, who was chosen to be Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s vice-president in 2007. Cobos was expelled from the UCR for taking the job, but barely a few months after the new government took office, in 2008, his role during the campo crisis catapulted him to the position of virtual leader of the opposition and reconciled him with the party.

In March 2009, the old Radical leader Raúl Alfonsín died at the age of 82. His funerals were attended by thousands of people drawing comparisons to those of Perón and Yrigoyen. That same year, the UCR formed an alliance with the Socialist Party and the Coalición Cívica and improved its results in the legislative elections, where it came second with 30% of the vote.

In 2010, the competition for the 2011 candidacies began. Cobos’ popularity had already begun to fade and a new contender appeared: Raúl Alfonsín’s son Ricardo. The party was going to hold internal elections between Alfonsín and his two rivals Cobos and Ernesto Sanz, but the last two decided not to take part in the internal election. This way, Alfonsín was proclaimed presidential candidate for the UCR for 2011.

Ricardo Alfonsín conceding defeat in the UCR bunker after the August primaries (Photo: Santaigo Trusso)

Despite relying heavily on his father’s image for his own political recognition, Ricardo Alfonsín went against Raúl’s centre-left, social-democratic ideals and abandoned his previous arrangements with the Socialist Party to privilege an alliance with centre-right wing politician Francisco De Narváez, much to the distress of many of his fellow party-members. This proved to be a bad move at the primary elections, where the UCR came second – in a virtual tie with dissident Peronist Eduardo Duhalde – but almost 40 percentage points behind President Fernández.

This poor showing has once again opened up cracks in the UCR. The alliance between Alfonsín and De Narváez is under strain, and some Radical deputies and provincial governors have even started campaigning against Alfonsín, trying to save their own votes by suggesting that their supporters should split their ballots and vote for a president from another party.

The latest polls show that the UCR could slip out even further from power in October, losing its second place to the social-democrat Frente Amplio Progresista (FAP), Hermes Binner’s alliance, which is picking up the more progressive voters that the UCR’s latest arrangements left behind.

As the UCR faces yet another identity crisis, it might be time for the party to reflect on its long history and rediscover the causes and convictions of the men who made it the great party that it once was.

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As a possible ‪Grexit‬ looms in the old continent, we revisit Marc Rogers' article comparing Greece's current situation to Argentina's own 2001-2 crisis.

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