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01/04/2009 | Raul Alfonsin: A Personal Reflection

Martin Edwin Andersen

Last night, Raul Ricardo Alfonsin passed away, reportedly at peace as is befitting a man who left behind a precious legacy.

 

I had the honor of covering both his presidential campaign and his administration until I left Argentina in 1987.  In some Native American tribes in the United States, there is no precise word for learning; the closest is the phrase "to stand by," to learn by bearing witness. And in those exciting years in Buenos Aires, I learned a lot in just that way, watching what Alfonsin did for his country and for the world. Perhaps most important I understood why there are certain causes worth the risk of dying for--and why it is important to live them fully.

I believe that when the final page of history is written, it will sing praise to Alfonsin's decency and intelligence, his physical courage and moral bravery, to his restoring civility to his own country and the hope for justice to oppressed peoples around the world. Both preceded and surrounded by tin horn dictators and corrupt politicians, Alfonsin offered an example of republican austerity and, with his abiding faith in the majesty of civilian justice, put an end to the cycle of violence into which Argentina had fallen. He was missed even before he left us.

I wrote the following 20 years ago.  I think it still is as valid today as it was then.

A Flickering Torch Is Passed
 Economic Chaos Outshines Alfonsin's Accomplishments
By Martin Edwin Andersen
 
Los Angeles Times
 
Jul 8, 1989. pg. 8

Today, Argentina's young democracy takes another giant step toward its final consolidation, as Raul Alfonsin places the blue-and-white presidential sash on the shoulders of his elected successor, Carlos Saul Menem.

Although Alfonsin is the man most responsible for Argentina's political progress, the foreign press had stopped describing him in the glowing terms of his first years in office. News of army revolts, terrorist attacks and food riots have caused the the nation once known as the "breadbasket of Latin America" to relapse into the role of "sick man" of the continent.

Yet it is inaccurate and unfair to characterize Alfonsin as a failure. In fact, he has left an enviable democratic legacy. But his shortcomings are an object lesson for other moderate Latin democrats. They are also a stinging indictment of U.S. Latin American policy.

The Peronist Menem's ascent to the presidency underscores a basic tenet of political science: A democratic transition has met its final test when the group most persecuted by a preceding regime is allowed to take power. Most, though not all, of the 20,000 victims of the military-led "dirty war" in the mid-1970s to early 1980s were Peronists; Menem himself spent several years in prison where, as he once told me, he could hear his fellow prisoners being tortured at night.

Under Alfonsin's leadership, torture was made a crime punishable with the same severity as murder. The architects of the military's illegal repression are in jail, as are several of the political extremists who paved the way for the "dirty war." The federal police, once a hotbed of neo-Nazi and criminal activity, was drastically reformed. And, alone among the leaders of new Latin democracies Alfonsin put a civilian, not a general, at the head of the defense ministry. A border dispute with Chile that, under the military, almost ended in war, was peacefully resolved under Alfonsin. Claims to ownership of the Falklands/Malvinas Islands, in 1982 the site of a disastrous 74-day conflict with Britain, are today fought out in negotiations before world organizations. A longtime rivalry with Brazil has been replaced by an unprecedented degree of economic integration. And Argentina's return to the family of nations was reaffirmed last year with the election of its foreign minister as president of the U.N. General Assembly.

The rejection of Alfonsin's party by the voters on May 14 was, in a real sense, the result of malign neglect in Washington. Not only is the United States asking Latin democrats to play by an impossible set of rules; they are being required to commit political hara-kiri as well. Argentina's economic situation is illustrative.

Argentina was once known as the country of Los cien-"The Hundreds"-for the hundred liters of wine and hundred kilos of beef and bread consumed annually per capita. But when Alfonsin took office he inherited an economic disaster. Soup lines had already formed in some Buenos Aires neighborhoods. Workers' real incomes had plummeted for almost a decade.

Worse, the military had left behind a stunning $39-billion foreign debt. While the "dirty war" raged, putting Argentina at the top of President Carter's list of human-rights pariahs, foreign banks-including many U.S. financial institutions-had lent freely to the generals. Criticism grew, in the U.S. Senate and elsewhere, that the banks' loans were actually enabling the regime to get around rights-inspired economic sanctions.

The return of democracy at Alfonsin's inaugural in 1983 paralleled a change in bankers' attitudes. Gone were the days of wild lending; in its place was a new tough line for Latin creditors. Unwilling to accept responsibility-losses-for their bad business behavior, the banks demanded stringent economic "reforms" from countries whose new leaders were struggling to show their people that democracy meant freedom, not financial hardship. In exchange for temporary fixes of credit, the leaders of these fragile, fledgling democracies were pressed for even greater austerity. Latin politicians, noted conservative Argentine politician Oscar Camillion, were "being asked to learn how not to breathe."

The response of the Reagan Administration, which had tried to claim credit for the democratization wave sweeping Latin America, was the so-called Baker Plan. Named after the then-secretary of the treasury, the plan importuned harsh austerity measures while it piled new debts upon the old. Meanwhile, some influential Americans in Buenos Aires insinuated, at times not so privately, that financial relief was the reward if Alfonsin would drop his efforts for a negotiated settlement of the war in Nicaragua (a position now embraced by the Bush Administration). The bread riots this past May and the 100%-plus inflation rate in June appear to bear out Alfonsin's warnings about the debt burden's crushing toll on Latin democracy. It was later shown that small cells of leftists-people whose lives Alfonsin bravely defended as a human-rights campaigner during the dark days of military rule-had egged the rioters on. In turn, Argentina's vociferous right wing, ever the apologists for the brutality of the "dirty war," clamored for Alfonsin to call out the army, a sure recipe for disaster.

Taking it one last time on the chin, Latin America's foremost democrat refused, leaving the crowd control to the police. His popularity fell even further. He and his party had been left twisting in the wind by a do-nothing U.S. policy. Now other Latin moderates must wonder which of them is next.

**Martin Edwin "Mick" Andersen is the author of Dossier Secreto: Argentina's Desaparecidos and the Myth of the 'Dirty War' and La Policia: Pasado, Presente y Propuestas para el Futuro.

Offnews.info (Argentina)

 


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