Tag Archive | "Raúl Alfonsín"

Top 5 Stories in Argentine History (That You Probably Didn’t Know)

Argentina has only been an independent nation since 1816, yet, in this relatively short time, it has accumulated any number of fascinating historical stories and events.

You might be familiar with the Perón presidency, the 1976-1983 dictatorship, and the Malvinas/Falklands war but, today, the Indy hopes to extend your knowledge with five interesting historical events that, perhaps, you weren’t aware of.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, so let us know what other offbeat historical stories from Argentina you find most interesting.

Poster for the 1984 film of the murder in the senate.

Poster for the 1984 film of the murder in the senate.

Murder in the Senate

The period from 1930-1943, known as the ‘Decada Infame’ (Infamous Decade), was dominated by Argentine military leaders, supported by the oligarchy. It was characterised by electoral fraud, the repression of opposition, and widespread corruption.

It was in this context, in 1933, that Argentina and Great Britain signed the highly controversial Pacto Roca-Runciman, in which Britain agreed to continue to import meat from Argentina, albeit at a low price, in exchange for a number of economic concessions from Argentina. These included the removal of import duties on a number of British goods, and measures which gave Britain a virtual monopoly over activities such as meat packing and transport in Buenos Aries.

The senator of Santa Fe, Lisandro de la Torre, of the Democratic Progressive Party, vehemently opposed the deal. In a report to the Senate, he accused several British meat packing companies of fraud and implicated the then economic and agricultural ministers, Federico Pinedo and Luis Dahau, of involvement.

On 23rd July 1935, during a heated debate in the Senate, De la Torre advanced towards the finance minister, Pinedo, saying, ¡Usted no se bate conmigo porque es un cobarde! (You don’t want to face me because you are a coward!).

The Minister of Agriculture, Luis Dahau, tried to block De la Torre and, in doing so, knocked him to the ground. On seeing his friend and party colleague fall, another senator for Santa Fe, Enzo Bordabehere, moved forward. As he did so, he was hit by three bullets, fired from the corner of the Senate chamber, and later died in hospital.

The assassin, ex-police officer Ramón Valdez Cora, one of Dahau’s bodyguards, was later detained by the police. It is widely thought that the gunshots were intended for De la Torre, who escaped the attack unscathed. When he heard of the assassin’s identity, he allegedly muttered, “We know the name of the killer, now we need to know the name of the mastermind”.

As a consequence of the tragic death of his friend and colleague, De la Torre ended his protest. Valdez Cora was sentenced to 20 years in prison, while Pinedo and Dahau, whose reputations had been destroyed, were later removed from their posts. In 1937, Senator De la Torre stepped down – he committed suicide two years later.

The event remained a key, yet often overlooked, part of Argentine history, until in 1984, Argentine director, Juan José Jusid, made a film about it called ‘Asesinato en el Senado de la Nación’.

The Kavanagh building, c. 1937. (photo via Wikipedia)

The Kavanagh building, c. 1937. (photo via Wikipedia)

The Revenge of Corina Kavanagh

Although all titles associated with nobility were abolished in Argentina in 1813, renowned families of Spanish descent, who benefitted from the distribution of land during Spanish colonisation, have exerted considerable influence throughout the country’s history.

The Anchorena family is one such example, boasting large stretches of land and holding influential political positions. In Buenos Aires, they owned a beautiful palace, ‘El Palacio Anchorena’, now ‘Palacio San Martín’, which they built between 1905 and 1909, and where they lived with a staff of 150 servants.

As the story goes, one of the Anchorena sons fell hopelessly in love with a girl from another wealthy family, the Kavanaghs. But despite their riches, the Kavanaghs did not have the same lofty social status and Mercedes Catellanos de Anchorena, the boy´s mother, forbade the romance.

The Kavanagh family took the rejection as a personal insult and Corina Kavanagh, mother of the jilted and heartbroken girl, started planning a very particular revenge.

The Anchorena palace looks out over the San Martín plaza. Mercedes Anchorena commissioned the construction of a family mausoleum, the Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento, one of the most beautiful churches in the city, on the other side of the plaza. The view from the Palace was magnificent and it is said that the Anchorenas were very proud of it.

In front of the church was an empty plot of land, which Mercedes Anchorena planned to buy. However, she made the mistake of taking a trip to Europe before making the purchase, and while she was away, Corina Kavanagh sold three plots of her own land and bought the land in front of the church. In just 14 months in 1934, she built a reinforced concrete skyscraper on the plot, standing 120 metres tall, with 33 floors and containing 113 luxury apartments. For many years, this building was the tallest in South America and remains an emblematic landmark in the capital.

When Mercedes Anchorena returned from her trip she could no longer see the beautiful church from her house. In fact, the only way she could now admire the view of the front of the church was from a passageway named …. Corina Kavanagh.

Evita photographed by Annemarie Heinrich in 1939

Evita photographed by Annemarie Heinrich in 1939

The Mystery of Eva Peron’s Body

For over 16 years, one of the biggest mysteries in Argentina was the whereabouts of the body of Eva Perón.
On the night of 23rd November 1955, two months after the coup d’état which overthrew Juan Domingo Perón, a group of soldiers led by the head of the Army Intelligence Service, Carlos Moori Keoing, broke into the headquarters of the CGT, the largest umbrella trade union in Argentina, and stole the embalmed body of Eva Perón.

For many years, little was known about what happened to Evita’s body, and the fascinating stories that have since emerged remain shrouded in mystery. According to one version, Moori Koenig, ignored instructions from the de facto president Pedro Aramburu to give the body a clandestine Christian burial and, in the first few months after the kidnap, the body was reportedly driven around Buenos Aires in a flower delivery truck.

After an unsuccessful attempt to deposit the body in a unit of the Marines, the most anti-Peronist regiment of the military, the body was dropped off at the residence of Major Eduardo Arandía. One night, believing that the Peronist resistance had come to reclaim the body, Arandía panicked and fired his gun, killing his pregnant wife.

Moori Koeing became obsessed with the corpse, which was then taken to his office where he is said to have abused it, and even to have shown it off to visitors. News of this reached Aramburu, who dismissed Moori Koeing and gave Colonel Héctor Eduardo Cabanillas the responsibility of giving Evita a Christian burial. But, again, that responsibility was never discharged.

Soon, candles and photographs of Evita started to appear close to where the body was being held, indicating that Peronists knew of the location. Concerned, Coronel Alejandro Agustín Lanusse, with the help of the church, devised a plan to remove the body. Eventually, following approval of the church in Italy, Evita’s body, travelling under the name María Maggi de Magistri, was taken by boat to Italy and buried in a cemetery in Milan.

Only Cabanillas knew exactly where the body had been buried and it remained a secret for nearly 14 years. However, in 1970, the Montoneros, a Peronist guerilla group, kidnapped ex-president Aramburu and, among other things, demanded the return of Evita’s body. Aramburu was assassinated, but the following year, Lanusse became president of Argentina and, in an attempt to appease the Peronists, returned Evita’s body to Juan Domingo Perón, now in exile in Madrid.

The body was exhumed on 1st September 1971 and taken in a truck to Spain where it was given to Perón. According to the doctor who restored the body in 1974, it was in a very poor condition and Perón eventually returned to Argentina without it. Ever persistent, the Montoneros then kidnapped Aramburu’s body, vowing only to return it once Evita was returned to Argentina. Eventually, after Perón’s death in 1974, ‘Isabelita’, his wife, ordered the body to be bought back to Argentina.

In 1976, Eva Peron’s body was finally laid to rest in the family tomb in the Recoleta cemetery, protected by two thick steel plates.

Herminio Iglesias became renowned for the coffin burning incident in 1983 (photo via Wikipedia)

Herminio Iglesias became renowned for the coffin burning incident in 1983 (photo via Wikipedia)

A Coffin Burning Electoral Gaffe

1983 heralded the end of the violent military dictatorship and the first democratic elections in the country since 1973. Of the two candidates – Italo Lúder, a Peronist, and the Radical leader, Raúl Alfonsín – it was widely thought that Lúder would be the clear winner.

Lúder attracted huge crowds to the closing rally of his electoral campaign, which took place on 28th October, two days after Alfonsin’s rally and just two days before the vote. It is estimated that between 800,000 and 1,200,000 voters turned out to the event, many of them workers from the unions that form the Peronist electoral base.

Lúder was the only speaker at the rally but was accompanied, in the presidential box by union leaders Lorenzo Miguel and Herminio Iglesias. In his speech, Lúder appeared confident that he would win the election, assuring the crowd that on 30th October he would give his first speech as President elect. While he made his speech the crowd cheered and chanted in support.

“Siga siga siga el baile, al compás del tamborín, que el domingo lo aplastamos, a Raúl Alfonsín.”
“Let the dance continue, to the rhythm of the tambourine, because on Sunday we are going to destroy Raúl Alfonsín”.

Iglesias, union leader and candidate for the governor of the province of Buenos Aires, was also lauded by the crowd. His sharp remarks had turned him into the main target for criticism from Alfonsin’s Radical Party. Over the entire campaign, the relationship between Iglesias and Alfonsín had been very tense and there had been bitter exchanges between the two.

But at the end of Lúder’s closing rally, Iglesias went one step further. A group approached the platform with a coffin decorated with the colours and symbols of the Radical Party and topped with a wreath. Iglesias set fire to the coffin in front of the crowd, an act that was heavily criticised for its violent message given the circumstances at the time. Argentina, it seems, had seen too much violence and death to tolerate such an act.

Alfonsín went on to win the election with 51% of the vote; Lúder received only 40%. It is commonly held that this sinister act cost the Lúder the election, the first Peronist defeat in open elections since Juan Domingo Perón was first elected in 1946.

President De la Rúa fleeing the Casa Rosada by helicopter on December 20, 2001 (Photo: Walter Astrada)

President De la Rúa fleeing the Casa Rosada by helicopter on December 20, 2001 (Photo: Walter Astrada)

A Desperate Escape from the Financial Crisis

You probably know about Argentina’s economic default and crash in 2001, but tales of then president Fernando De la Rúa’s unexpected behaviour as the crisis reached its climax may be less familiar to you.

In his book El Corralito, economic journalist Lucio Di Matteo reveals anecdotes, which he says show De la Rúa’s “disconnection from reality” at a crucial moment for Argentina. According to Di Matteo, after it had been revealed that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would not provide Argentina with any more financial assistance, a meeting was arranged between De la Rúa and US President George W. Bush. Before the meeting, it had been established that De la Rúa would use the occasion to ask Bush to put pressure on the IMF to provide Argentina with the money it desperately needed. However, as the 30 minute meeting in the White House drew to a close, De la Rúa was still making small talk, prompting Bush to allude to the problem.

“Tell me, Mr. President, is there nothing more substantial worrying you?” he asked. “Yes,” responded De la Rúa. Then, after a long pause and as everyone present at the meeting expected him to ask for help, he said, “Lemon exports. There are some trade obstacles in your country and it is very important for us that you lift them.”

Also in his book, Di Matteo reports that on the morning of 20th December, while the streets of Buenos Aires descended into chaos as violence escalated between protesters and the police, President de la Rúa casually arrived at the Casa Rosada at 11.50am. He then shut himself in his office, refusing to answer any phone calls.

Di Matteo reveals that a minister went to De la Rúa’s office in search of the president, where he found him watching television. Feeling relieved and also curious, the minister glanced at the screen expecting to see news coverage of the developing situation on the streets. However, instead of monitoring the looting, tear gas attacks, shooting and death that were taking place around him, he found that the president was watching cartoons.

Later that day, De la Rúa resigned and said goodbye to the chaotic scenes of Buenos Aires, escaping in a helicopter from the roof of the Casa Rosada. The image of the president fleeing the chaos from the roof of the Casa Rosada has since become a powerful symbol associated with the severity of the 2001 economic crisis in Argentina and De la Rúa’s powerlessness to address it.

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On This Day in… 1987: Raúl Alfonsín and the Easter Rebellion

The Indy is happy to launch a new series, telling the story behind specific, and significant, moments in Argentine history. We will recall and reflect on the past events of one day in each month, shedding some light on the lesser-known turning points that shaped the country’s destiny.

“Happy Easter!… The house is in order, there is no blood in Argentina” – Raúl Alfonsín, 19th April 1987; Plaza de Mayo.

Easter Sunday, 1987. With the late afternoon light beginning to fade, an enormous crowd packed into Plaza de Mayo roared with anticipation as President Raul Alfonsín emerged on the balcony of the Casa Rosada. The message he was about to deliver would become one of the defining moments of his presidency, and an important milestone in Argentina’s immature and fragile democracy.

19 de abril de 1987, el presidente Raúl Alfonsín habla en los balcones de la Casa Rosada, antes de reunirse con el teniente coronel Aldo Rico, en un momento de máxima tensión de la rebelión.

President Raul Alfonsín speaks from the balcony of Casa Rosada on April 19th, 1987.

Alfonsín had left the famous square a few hours earlier to personally seek an end to a military uprising some 30km away in Campo de Mayo, which for days had caused alarm among a society fearful of a return to military rule. “Wait for me!” Alfonsín pleaded with the masses. “I ask you all to wait here for me, and if God is willing and all of Argentina is with me, I’ll be back soon with a solution.”

A few hours later, the president returned with a triumphant ‘Felices Pascuas!’ (Happy Easter!) message: “The house is in order, there is no blood in Argentina… Go home, kiss your children, and celebrate Easter in peace.”

‘Operation Dignity’

The 1987 Easter uprising was rooted in the historic trials – supported by the Alfonsín government – being brought against the military for the human rights abuses during the 1976-83 military dictatorship. After the full horrors of that period were revealed in the ‘Nunca más’ report compiled by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), the leaders of the military junta were found guilty of crimes against humanity in a landmark 1985 trial. Soon the courts were flooded with claims against military personnel of all ranks.

Major Ernest Guillermo Barreiro was among a sizeable group of lower-ranking officers incensed by what they considered a “persecution” of the military by the government, the media, and civil society, and refused to appear in court on 16th April when summoned to testify about his role in the ‘La Perla’ clandestine detention centre in Córdoba. When an arrest warrant was issued later that day, Barreiro’s unit declared a mutiny it called ‘Operation Dignity’.

17 de abril de 1987. Aldo Rico, líder de la sublevación, habla despectivamente con la prensa en Campo de Mayo

Aldo Rico, leader of the uprising, speaking to reporters at Campo de Mayo.

Luitenant Colonel Aldo Rico – who would become the figurehead of the insurgents – joined the rebellion the next day, setting up with over 100 heavily armed troops in Campo de Mayo and demanding the resignation of the army general and an end to what he called “the continued aggression towards the Argentine army.”

In a country that had lived through more than half a century of regular military coups, and had only returned to democracy three and a half years earlier, the threat of a another break in the institutional order was obvious, even though the rebels had stated this was not their aim.

For Alfonsín, the defence of democracy, with which in the 1983 election he had claimed the country would be able to “to learn, to eat, and to heal”, was paramount. Yet the president was anxious to avoid bloodshed, and, in any case, unable to count on the full support of army generals that were reluctant to use force against their own.

Tension rose as negotiations were unsuccessful and the standoff entered its fourth day, while protests against the uprising – including outside the Camp de Mayo barracks itself – were becoming more heated. Eager to diffuse a potentially disastrous confrontation, Alfonsín gave an impassioned speech to the masses gathered in Plaza de Mayo, declaring that he himself would go and demand the surrender of the ‘carapintadas‘, so nicknamed due to their camouflaged faces.

The crowd waited, and Alfonsín brought the good news that the continuance of democracy was assured. Amidst the euphoria that greeted that announcement, it was not immediately apparent at what cost.

Contexts and Contrasts

Less than two months after the Easter uprising, Alfonsín signed the so-called ‘Law of Due Obedience’, which absolved all but the higher members of the military hierarchy of blame for the crimes of the dictatorship, based on the assumption that they were “coerced by superiors and following orders, without the possibility of inspecting, opposing, or resisting them”.

Though the controversial law was not constructed directly as a result of the Easter uprising – Alfonsín had talked about degrees of responsibility in his 1983 electoral campaign and again in a speech just weeks before the revolt – many saw it as effectively giving in to the military’s demands. And the multi-partisan “Act of Democratic Commitment”, signed as Alfonsín prepared to travel to Campo de Mayo, officially recognised this scale of guilt by the political class and paved the way for the subsequent bill.

The law was especially criticised by human rights groups, already angered by the ‘Full Stop Law’, sanctioned on 24th December, 1986, which put a limit of 60 days to start new legal proceedings for any crime committed before the return to democracy. While Alfonsín considered both laws a compromise to assure a peaceful and stable democracy, and defended them until his death in 2009, his critics maintain that they were unconstitutional and even unnecessary given the massive public rejection of the military rebellion.

16 de abril de 1987, Masiva concentración en apoyo a la democracia inundó la Plaza de Mayo y sus adyacencias. Los manifestantes, con banderas de todo el arco político argentino, aguardan el discurso del Presidente

A massive rally in support of democracy flood Plaza de Mayo and the surrounding area.

Certainly, the reaction of the public on that famous weekend revealed a change in society’s relationship with the military. Whereas coup after coup in the previous 50 years had been executed before a largely complicit population, the brutality of the 1976-83 dictatorship united a vast majority behind the slogan ‘nunca más‘ (Never Again).

Yet 1987 also punctured the illusion that the return to democracy would solve all of the country’s ills. After spending much of the 20th century in the shadow of military intervention, the political state was just one of a number of actors, including the armed forces, the church, trade unions, and the corporate sector, competing for power. That the president himself was forced to travel to the base of an insurgent leader and negotiate a peaceful surrender – at first glance a display of personal courage and moral conviction – exposed the fragility of the country’s democratic institutions.

Alfonsín’s radical party suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the rival Peronists in local elections in September 1987, and as opposition spread amid a deepening economic crisis, Alfonsín ended his term prematurely, in June 1989. His replacement, Carlos Menem, would within 18 months issue a series of presidential pardons for all those involved in the military dictatorship, ushering in a period of complete impunity that would last until 2003. A period in which Aldo Rico, after leading another revolt in 1988 and also receiving a pardon from Menem, would end up as security minister in the province of Buenos Aires.

Alfonsín’s ‘Felices Pascuas!‘ would be remembered as both a high and low point of his presidency; a moment of victory for peaceful democracy over the military threat, but only at the expense of moral justice. With hindsight, these contrasts of Easter 1987 would become more clear, and judgement would be easier to cast. Alfonsín often said he was a victim of circumstance and that he remained loyal to his ideals and convictions; 26 years later, the debate continues.

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Ernesto Sabato: Literature’s Conscience

As we approach the first anniversary of his death, the Beyond Borges series arrives at the Argentine essayist and existentialist author Ernesto Sabato.

Ernesto Sabato, the essayist and novelist known for bringing Existentialism to Argentina

As revered at the time of his passing as Jorge Luis Borges, Sabato is widely-known for his role in bringing about justice for the crimes committed by the nation’s military leaders during Argentina’s most infamous dictatorship.

Having received a great deal of critical acclaim for his novels ‘El túnel’ and ‘Sobre héroes y tombas’ he was awarded the 1984 Miguel de Cervantes prize and is commonly regarded one of South America’s most influential writers.

Scientific Beginnings

Born in 1911 in Riojas, a small town in Buenos Aires province, Sabato was the tenth of 11 sons born to Italian immigrant parents. Whilst studying physics and mathematics at the University of La Plata he joined a movement of student activists calling for university reform and independence. By 1933 he had set up a campaign group of communist ideals and, during the same year, was appointed general secretary of the Communist Youth Federation.

Recognising Sabato’s waning belief in Stalin’s methods a year later, the Communist Party of Argentina ordered him to attend the International Lenin School (ILS) for two years. En-route to Moscow he travelled first to Belgium as a delegate of the party and onto Paris, where he is said to have drafted his first unpublished novel, ‘La fuente muda’.

On his return to Argentina he married Matilde Kusminsky Richter, a woman he’d met at a Marxist lecture in Belgium three years earlier, and in 1938 gained his PhD in physics from the University of La Plata aged 27.

Sabato's signature (Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Nobel laureate Bernardo Houssay helped to secure Sabato a research fellowship at the prestigious Institut Curie in Paris, which placed him among surrealist writers in an environment that would only draw out his creativity.

“During that time of antagonisms, I buried myself with electrometers and graduated cylinders during the morning, and spent the nights in bars with the delirious surrealists. At the Dôme and in the Deux Magots, inebriated with those heralds of chaos and excess, we used to spend many hours creating exquisite cadavers,” he said.

In 1939 he transferred to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and returned to Argentina one year later, intent on leaving science behind. Disillusioned with what he called the dehumanising effects of science, Sabato turned to literature, where he found the unexplained aspects of the human personality relayed in German romanticism and existentialism.

Whilst he became almost immediately active in Argentina’s literary circles he continued juggling his writing and teaching careers until 1943, when he eventually made a more permanent transition to writing.

Echoes of Existentialism

Sabato published essays on a variety of scientific and literary topics, but famously burned many of his manuscripts. A surviving trio of novels includes the existentialist classic ‘El túnel’ (1948), ‘Sobre héroes y tumbas’ (1961), and the lesser known ‘Abaddón el exterminador’ (1974). Though the second is generally considered his best work, it is his first novel which will likely remain the most known outside Argentina.

Originally published in Sur magazine in 1948, it received a great deal of attention from Nobel prize laureates Alfred Camus and Thomas Mann and was almost immediately picked up for translation by French publishing house Gallimard. The first English translation in 1950 was superseded by a 1988 translation and the release of ‘The tunnel’ as a Penguin Classic only two days before Sabato’s death last year will likely secure its place for some time as the most-widely read of all his novels.

The opening lines from 'El Túnel' displayed outside Casa Museo Ernesto Sabato (Photo: Kate Bowen)

Covering little more than 100 pages, ‘El túnel’ takes us on a discomforting journey into the mind of a convicted killer – the painter Juan Pablo Castel. Imprisoned for the murder of his lover Maria Iribarne, the novel begins with his confession and continues by explaining the circumstances of his crime.

Narrated entirely in the first person, the scene is set entirely within Castel’s conscience. Never stepping for a moment outside of his self absorbed and over-analytical mind, we are carried down every dark hallway of his paranoid imagination, charting the growth of every obsessive thought.

Whilst some praise Sabato’s approach for accurately presenting the complexities of a crazed mind, others have criticised him for painting his protagonist with too broad a stroke. Nonetheless, the novel succeeds in raising questions about logical understanding and rationality – is our killer insane, or quite the opposite?

Though the reader may never be intended to achieve empathy, he does achieve, in some terrifying way, an understanding of his subject. Throughout the novel he is asked to continually shift his stance until it rests somewhere between sympathy and abhorrence.

Since the opening lines of the novel grab the readers attention so firmly, Sabato sets himself the challenge of continuing a novel where the outcome is already known and the element of intrigue is lacking. While this does demand a certain tolerance from the reader, Sabato steers clear of tedium with an energy and a darkness that could only have been maintained successfully in such a short novel.

Opinion remains divided, however. Some argue that Sabato’s stab at the existentialist genre amounts to nothing more than an un-engaging retrospective that fails to reveal much about the human condition. For others, it is a novel well deserving of its place among the likes of Camus’ ‘The stranger’, Franz Kafka’s ‘The trial’ and George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen eighty-four’ on a shelf of existentialist classics.

Many crime novels have since offered slices of insight into their killer’s minds but, at the time, Sabato’s edgy existentialism followed a genuinely innovative European wave and represented the height of originality in Argentine writing.

Political Poles

Though Sabato may always be remembered as a tireless campaigner for justice and human rights he has also come under occasional fire for his changing political positions. Where the likes of Leopoldo Lugones and Leopoldo Marechal made themselves unpopular with their political views, Borges and Sabato managed to swing their political stances relatively easily and relatively unnoticed.

Journalist Osvaldo Bayer, however, accused him of forming part of the “Argentine hypocrisy” in light of his actions and apparently contradictory statements made during the Argentine dictatorship of 1976- 1983.

Sabato was characterised by his thick framed glasses, bald head and moustache

Critical of the government of Juan Domingo Perón, Sabato originally appeared welcoming of the military dictatorship that began in 1976 and lasted until 1983. In the same year, both he and Borges attended a dinner held by the military leader Jorge Rafael Videla, after which Sabato was recorded as commenting that Videla was a “cultured” man. Several years later he explained to a German magazine that the majority of Argentines had welcomed the military power because they’d been able to put an end to the leftist groups threatening the stability of the country.

At the end of the dictatorship, newly elected president Raúl Alfonsín appointed Sabato to preside over the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) – a newly created commission tasked with investigating the fate of tens of thousands of Argentines who disappeared at the hands of the military.

Sabato presented his findings to Alfonsín on the 20 September 1984. His 50,000 page report entitled ‘Nunca más’ was later used to prosecute nine members of the military establishment for crimes committed during the dictatorship years.

Despite whatever he may have said before, it is the undeniably good work he performed as president of CONADEP that has stayed in the memory of Argentines and resulted in Sabato’s non-literary legacy being shaped to appear as significant as his literary one.

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CFK Wins Second Consecutive Election by Record Numbers

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her vice-presidential running mate Amado Boudou, candidates for the Victory Front party, won a sweeping victory this afternoon in the presidential race with over 54% of the vote according to preliminary official figures based on 15.5% of polling stations.

Last August the team won slightly over 50% of the vote in the primary elections. Today, Fernández beat the prior record holder Raúl Alfonsín, for highest percentage of votes in a presidential election. Alfonsín, whose son was in the race today for president, won after the last military dictatorship in 1983, with 51% of the vote.

None of the candidates for the opposition in today’s race came close to achieving the votes necessary to force Fernández to a run-off election. Hermes Binner (Ample Progressive Front) came in second place with16.98% of the vote. Ricardo Alfonsín (Union for Social Development party) ended in third place with 13.21%. Alberto Rodríguez Saá (Federal Convergance party) finished fourth with 7.33%. Eduardo Duhualde (Popular Union party) came in fifth with 5.66%. Jorge Altamira (Left Front Party) won just 2.12% and Elisa Carrió (Civic Coalition party) finished in last place with 1.66% of the vote.

Governor of Buenos Aires Province Daniel Scioli beat candidate Francisco de Narvaez by more than 40 points with 57.6%. Narvaez won just 19.8%. The candidate of the Broad Progressive Front (FAP), Margarita Stolibizer, earned just 9%.

Over 29 million residents came out today to cast their ballots in the elections. Fernández will hold office until December, 2015.

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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.

Posted in Analysis, TOP STORYComments (1)

Goodbye to the ‘Father of Democracy’

Photo by Jess Kraft
People on the streets of Buenos Aires show their support for Alfonsin

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.


Photo by Jess Kraft

“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.

The Man

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.

Photo Courtesy of Archivo Nacional
President Alfonsín receives The ‘Nunca Mas’ report describing human rights abuses during the dictatorship from Ernesto Sábato in Casa Rosada, September 1984

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.”

Photo by Thomas Locke Hobbs
People gathered outside Recoleta Cemetery awaiting the arrival of Alfonsin’s coffin

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.”

His Legacy

“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!”   

Posted in News From ArgentinaComments (1)

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