Monday, June 9, 2008
Argentina has a long, troubled history of serious political, economic and social crises. The situation now seems to be stable in the world's eighth largest country --one that is rich in resources, has a well-educated workforce and is one of South America's largest economies. But stability it seems has not been the norm in this land. When the history of the place is examined, it has often fallen prey to repeated recessions, resurgence of radicalism, return of repressive regimes, and resistance to them. Has it now escaped the boom/bust cycle? Has its people reconciled with their past and with each other?
Along with numerous nomadic tribes people, two main indigenous groups existed in the land now known as Argentina before Europeans arrived. In the northwest, near Bolivia and the Andes, was a people known as the Diaguita, while further south and to the east were the Guarani.
Spanish navigator and explorer Juan Díaz de Solís arrived at the mouth of a river on the eastern coast in 1516. He named this estuary, formed by the combination of the Río Uruguay and the Rio Paraná, the Río de la Plata (the silver river). Magellan touched at the estuary four years later, but turned southwards to winter on the Patagonia's shores.
In 1527 both Sebastian Cabot and his rival Diego García Sailed into the estuary and up the Paraná and Paraguay. They formed a small settlement, Sancti Spiritus, at the junction of the Caraña and Coronda rivers near their confluence with the Paraná. Within two years it had been wiped out by indigenous warriors.
In 1536, Spaniards led by Pedro de Mendoza founded a small settlement. They called it Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre (literally "City of Our Lady Saint Mary of the Fair Winds.") Attacks by the indigenous warriors and famine forced the settlers away, and in 1541 the site was abandoned. A second (and permanent) settlement was established in 1580 by Juan de Garay, who arrived by sailing down the Paraná River from Asunción (now the capital of Paraguay). The region was made part of the vice-royalty of Peru, administered at very long range from Lima.
It was not until two hundred years had passed, that Río de la Plata became a vice-royalty with Buenos Aires as the main port and administrative center. The Spaniards could not afford to ignore Buenos Aires by this time. The city was growing rapidly thanks to illegal trade financed by British interests. Goods were smuggled to Brazil and the Caribbean Islands. Spain worried about British and Portuguese expansion and sought to control trade and collect more taxes from the growing commerce.
In May 1810, following the example set by Spanish cities after the capture of King Ferdinand VII by the French under Napoleon, Buenos Aires held a cabildo abierto, an open town meeting. A junta was elected -- the Primera Junta. It deposed the viceroy and declared itself in authority. The driving force behind the 1810 revolutionary movement, a strong commercial bourgeoisie based in the port area, created the Provincias Unidas del Río de la Plata (United Provinces of Río de la Plata).
In July 1816, a congress of provincial delegates in San Miguel de Tucumán signed a declaration of independence, after which Buenos Aires became a major force in the region. In reaction, caudillos(strongmen)from the surrounding provinces attempted to curb its power. The struggle for power between Buenos Aires, the hub of commercial activity for the country, and the provinces that provide the raw materials, continued through the late 1800s.
Conquista del desierto: Ethnic Cleansing
The only indigenous inhabitants of the area were nearly exterminated by the colonists in a series of 19th-century wars. In 1878/9 the remaining indigenous peoples were either killed or driven south into Patagonia in a campaign called the Conquista del desierto (Conquest of the desert).
The genocide was commanded by Alejo Julio Argentino Roca Paz, who proclaimed:
Our self-respect as a virile people obliges us to put down as soon as possible, by reason or by force, this handful of savages who destroy our wealth and prevent us from definitely occupying, in the name of law, progress and our own security, the richest and most fertile lands of the Republic.At the end of 1878, Roca started the first wave to "clean" the area
between the Alsina trench and the Curú Leuvú (Río Negro) by continuous and systematic attacks to the aboriginals' settlements. In 1879, he began the second wave with 6,000 soldiers, armed with new breech-loading Remington rifles supplied by the United States.
From 1880 to 1930 Argentina became one of the ten wealthiest nations in the world. Having conquered and taken control of much of the land, the Argentine government encouraged the immigration of Europeans to populate the country outside the Buenos Aires region. Buenos Aires grew from 90,000 people in 1851 to 1.3 million in 1910. By then the city was being called the "Paris of South America."
Social conflicts have always been part of Argentina's history. Social conflict was particularly intense during the late 19th century as the gap between the wealthy classes and the poor widened.
When the Argentinian rural economy began to develop the fertile regions of the pampas were divided into vast estancias owned by no more than 300 families. Each estancia covered hundreds of thousands of acres. With wealth in so few hands, oligarchy was inevitable. Argentine's gilded few ensure that power remained within their own circle by means of an exclusive club, La Sociedad Rural Argentina, which had been founded in 1866.
Revolución and Repression
By the 1890s this situation has prompted sufficient outrage for opposition groups to be formed - the Unión Cívica Radical, formed in 1892 campaigning on behalf of all shades of political opinion against the corruption of the regime, and in 1895 a splinter group, the Partido Socialista was formed. In September 1889, a student protest meeting in Buenos Aires saw the rise of the Unión Cívica Radical. In July 1890 in the Buenos Aires Artillery Park, a group of civilians, led by Leandro N. Alem, Hipólito Yrigoyen, and Bartolomé Mitre, with some military support rose against the government.
The Revolución del Parque was intended as a means, according to its Manifesto, to "avoid the ruin of the country" by bringing down "a government that represents illegality and corruption." It met with swift repression on the part of the government forces. Lacking initiative and ammunition, the revolutionaries were defeated in a matter of days, but the image of the government had suffered. The success of the revolution was limited to the resignation of the then authoritarian President, Miguel Juárez Celman, who had been notorious for his corruption and abuse of power.
The Unión Cívica Radical took up arms again in 1905, but conservative forces dominated Argentina until 1916, when the UCR won control of the government. Sadly, little changed for the working classes. Most workers could barely afford to feed their families during this time, despite the tremendous affluence of the upper class. Workers who sought to improve their working conditions were suppressed. A violent army attack against striking metalworkers in 1919 came to be known as La Semana Trágica (The Tragic Week). 700 were killed and 4,000 injured.
With that tragic event was sown seeds of the vigilante Liga Patriótica Argentina (Argentine Patriotic League), a nationalist Catholic paramilitary group. The League received military training by members of the Argentine Armed Forces and worked hand-in-hand with the Bonaerense police forces in the repression of social movements. Composed by wealthy youth, and unimpeded by the government, it assaulted workers' neighbourhoods.
It quickly extended itself through-out Argentina, carrying out a xenophobic nationalist, anti-Communist and anti-Semitic program, attacking in particular Catalans, accused of being anarchists, and Jews, accused of being Bolsheviks. At its height in the early 1920s, the Liga Patriótica Argentina counted within its ranks as many as 300,000 members throughout the country. In 1922, it participated in the Patagonia Trágica in Río Gallegos, during which 1,500 workers on strike were killed.
The crash of 1929, and the subsequent slump in the export of Argentinian beef and wheat, gave the army an opportunity and it enlisted the Liga Patriótica Argentina in the 1930 military coup of General José Félix Benito Uriburu y Uriburu, ushering in the Década Infame (Infamous Decade) when Argentina would once again by ruled by the old conservative, military-landowner oligarchy.
The Década Infame was characterised by electoral fraud, persecution of the political opposition, and generalised government corruption. Most of the military leaders were inclined to fascism, admiring the various European dictators of the time for achieving "stablility" by totalitarian means. The exercised their power against the background of the Great Depression, which forced many farmers and other countryside workers to relocate to the outskirts of the larger cities, resulting in the creation of the first villas miseria (shanty towns) in Argentina.
In early June 1943, the nationalist faction of the army, gathered around the Grupo de Oficiales Unidos and in a yet another coup overthrew President Ramón S. Castillo Barrionuevo in the midst of his unpopular attempt to impose Robustiano Patrón Costas as his successor. Composed under the initiative of the colonel Miguel A. Montes and Urbano de la Vega, the GOU included colonel Juan Domingo Perón.
The GOU established General Pedro Pablo Ramírez Machuca as chief of state. He was the founder and leader of the Guardia Nacional, an Argentine Fascist militia. Appointed to work as assistant to Ramírez's Vice President and Secretary of War, General Edelmiro Farrell, was a GOU member even the most casual observer of Argentina will know - Colonel Juan Domingo Perón.
Perón: Champion of descamisados or dictator?
In February 1944, Ramírez named Farrell president. By July 1945, Farrell announced presidential elections and his then Vice President, Juan Perón, was elected.
Under the rule of Ramírez and Farrell, Argentina had undergone an industrial expansion. This expansion was accelerated by World War II and led to the formation of a large blue-collar workforce. Perón had spent a year (1938-9) on secondment to the Italian army and had observed at first hand the methods of Benito Mussolini. In 1943 the workers of Argentina came under the direction of Perón as the military head of the Labour Department. He used his new constituency to build a power base that enabled him to be elected president.
Perón's ideology was an unusual blend of populism, authoritarianism, industrialism, and nationalism. Perónist rhetoric stressed the rights of descamisados ( literally "shirtless" poor of Argentina), but Perón used some of them to form gangs of thugs, tools with which to secure his hold on the nation much as Benito Mussolini had used his Black Shirts. Then he set about making sweeping political, economic, and social changes, pushing industrialisation hard; announcing in 1947 the first five-year plan in which he'd nationalise the railways, the docks, the central bank, the telephone system (including the American owned telephone company, IT&T).
Foreign trade was also taken under government control. Perón's state bought from producers at an officially set price all the agriculture bound for export. It then sold that produce at the higher prices prevailing on world markets. The result was perceived loss on the part of the old landed interests associated with the La Sociedad Rural Argentina, and a profit to the state which Perón used to fund his programs.
After re-election in 1951, Perón became increasingly dictatorial and erratic; especially so after the death a year later of his wife, the famed Evita. Economic problems arose. With the reserves built over the war years had been used up in the nationalisation program, the prices for export commodities fell, trade surpluses vanished, the government's deficits grew larger and inflation took off. The economic hardship led to reversals in Perón's policy; moves that favoured the old oligarchy.
As 1954 drew to a close, Perón unveiled reforms more controversial to the normally conservative Argentine public, the legalisation of divorce and of prostitution. Perón also took measures to secularise the nation's institutions; measures accompanied by descamisado attacks on church property, and even on priests. The Roman Catholic Church, which had once supported Perón's government, was by now antagonistic toward the man they called "the Dictator." By June 1955, Perón had been excommunicated by Pope Pius XII.
In response, Perón called for a rally of support on the Plaza de Mayo. But Perón had also lost the leadership of a large part of the military. As he spoke to the gathering of thousands of people, Argentine Navy fighter jets flew overhead, straffing and bombing the crowd. 364 were killed, 800 more were injured. In retaliation, extremist Perónist groups attacked and burned several churches that night.
Revolucion Libertadora: Repression returns
By September 1955 units of the armed forces had begun a campaign in the Argentine provinces. The Revolucion Libertadora, led by General Eduardo Lonardi, General Pedro E. Aramburu and Admiral Isaac El Caballo Rojas, deposed Perón and established a provisional government. Perón slipped away to exile, eventually settling in Francoist Spain.
Aramburu assumed the Presidency of Argentina. Perónismo was prohibited under Decree 4161. All things Perónist or of the Partido Justicialista: including as much as the mere mention of Perón, as well as symbols, images, or party demonstrations were prohibited. Aramburu's regime, known to Perónists as la Fusiladora hunted down known Perónists, of which many were imprisoned; some murdered.
On 9 June 1956, a Perónist group tried to regain democracy, but they didn't succeed. That night Aramburu's military forces captured some of those who had participated in the insurrection, including the leader Juan José Valle. The army took them to a dump in the neighborhood of Josea León Suárez, where they were executed by firing-squad. This terrible event was documented by the Argentine investigative journalist Rodolfo Walsh in Operación Masacre.
A year later the Grupo Tacuara de la Juventud Nacionalista (Tacuara Group of Nationalist Youth) was formed out of young well-to-do Argentines brought up in military high-schools and religious schools. Inspired by Primo de Rivera, founder of the Spanish Falange, the Tacuara were strongly anti-Marxist, opposed what they named “liberal democracy,” and admired dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Numerous tacuaristas were the children of members of the Alianza Libertadora Nacionalista (ALN) -- related to the Legión Cívica Argentina which was one of the groups that supported Aramburu's regime.
For the next 20 years, a succession of governments under the military's watchful eye attempted unsuccessfully to create a new political order. Perón in exile still had control over his movement and over the trade unions. He continued to exert considerable direct influence over Argentine politics. In 1958, the Juventud Perónista (JP) formed to restore Perón to power and create a form of national socialism. In the lead up to elections in 1958, Perón instructed his supporters to cast their ballots for the moderate Arturo Frondizi Ercoli. Frondizi won, becoming president in May 1958, but his term in office was marked by interference from the military, dominated in its upper echelons by men from Argentina's old agricultural elites.
Over the course of the late '50s the Grupo Tacuara de la Juventud Nacionalista evolved into the Movimiento Nacionalista Tacuara (MNT). When Karl Adolf Eichmann, the "the architect of the Holocaust," who had been working under a false identity in Buenos Aires since the early 1950s, was kidnapped by Mossad and Shabak agents and smuggled out of Argentina to face trial in Israel, tacuarista terrorised Argentine Jews, attacking Jewish theatres, synagogues, and students. After Eichmann was executed in 1962, the tacuarista engaged in yet another anti-Semitic rampage.
Frondizi's government ended in 1962 when, after a series of local elections were won by Perónist candidates, the military intervened yet again. José María Guido became de facto President, becoming the only civilian to take power in Argentina by military coup, but divisions among the military leaders kept the nation in a state of tension until mid-1964, when new elections were held. Dr. Arturo Umberto Illía of the rightist UCRP won the presidency.
Illía's first act as President was to eliminate all restrictions on the Perónist political parties, surprising and angering the military. In 1965, legislative elections once again took place, this time without any of the restrictions existing in 1963. The Perónists presented their own candidate lists, winning these elections. This led to another coup in June 1966, which the junta would call the Revolución Argentina. This in turn led to a series of military-appointed presidents and the implementation of neoliberal policies. While preceding military coups in Argentina had aimed at establishing temporary, transitional juntas, the Revolución Argentina aimed at establishing a new political and social order, opposed both to liberal democracy and Communism.
The first of the military men to take the presidency under the Revolución Argentina was Juan Carlos Onganía Carballo, who suspended political parties and supported a policy of Participacionismo -- whereby hand-picked representatives of various interest groups such as industry, labour, and agriculture, would form committees to advise the junta.
At the end of May 1969 there was a general strike in the city of Córdoba. Police repression escalated the strike into a civil uprising. Onganía decided to send the military to crush the uprising. The episode became known as the Cordobazo and influenced events in other parts of the country. Argentine activists discovered that they could find popular support for violent and revolutionary means to bring down Onganía's dictatorship. Argentines were being radicalised.
Response to repression: Radicalism rises
During his exile, Perón had supported left-wing Perónists, such as the JP, the Movimiento Peronista Montonero (MPM), Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR), Fuerzas Armadas Perónistas (FAP) and others; and he'd also supported right-wing Perónists such as the "Special Formations", and radicals such as the MNT and the Guardia de Hierro (Iron Guard).
Formed in 1970, the MPM had initiated a campaign to destabilise by force what they deemed a pro-American regime. They kidnapped and executed former Argentine president Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, retaliation for his involvement in the José León Suárez of June 1956. Then they continued to kidnap, financing their operations by collecting ransom for businessmen or executives.
FAR members were mostly from the Federación Juvenil Comunista of the Partido Comunista de la Argentina (PCA). Throughout 1969 they had burned 13 Minimax supermarkets in Buenos Aires.
The Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP), was the military branch of the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores (PRT). The ERP, led by Mario Roberto Santucho, adopted the foquista strategy of insurgency, engaging in targeted urban guerrilla warfare, assassinating and kidnapping government officials and foreign company executives. It soon established control over a third of the province of Tucumán,around the Famaillá Department and the Monteros mountains. It had won the support of some 2,500 sympathisers.
Eventually, Onganía was opposed by the other factions in the military, which felt that their influence would be diminished. In 1970, General Roberto Marcelo Levingston Laborda, self-appointed as de facto president, opened one of the darkest political chapters of Argentine history. Levingston had been a little- known intelligence officer stationed in Washington.
In 1971, continuing economic problems and increased terrorist activities caused General Alejandro Agustín Lanusse, the leader of the coup against Onganía, to seize power in a coup against Levingston.
Héctor José Cámpora Demaestre, nicknamed el Tío (the Uncle), was Perón's "personal delegate." A veto on Perón's participation in the 1973 election had been issued by the dictator General Alejandro Lanusse and to circumvent it Héctor Cámpora ran for president on a ticket with Vicente Solano Lima, from Argentina's Popular Conservative Party, as candidate for vice president. One of Cámpora's first presidential actions was a granting of amnesty to political prisoners who where jailed during the dictatorship prior to his assumption in May 1973. Two months later Raúl Alberto Lastiri was promoted to the presidency after Héctor Cámpora and Vicente Solano Lima resigned.
Lastiri lasted only three months in the presidency. Crucially, he had appointed as Ministro de la asistencia social his father-in-law, José López Rega, the creator of the paramilitary organisation Alianza Anticomunista Argentina, aka the death squad Triple A, and a member of former camicie nere Licio Gelli's Propaganda Due. Gelli, part of a committee along with Carlos Saúl Menem supporting Juan Perón, had provided an Alitalia plane to return Perón to Argentina in June 1973.
On the day of Perón's return, a crowd of about 3.5 million left-wing Perónists had gathered at the Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires to welcome him. Camouflaged snipers, including members of the Triple A, opened fire on the crowd at the airport and least 13 people were killed and 365 were injured. The Ezeiza massacre had been designed to remove Cámpora, a moderate of the left-wing, from power.
Perón, supporting the unions, the radicals led by Ricardo Balbín and the right-wing Perónist, denounced the "bearded immature idealists" of the Perónist left. The resignations of Cámpora and Lima paved the way for new elections, this time with Perón's participation as the Partido Justicialista nominee. Perón received 62% of the vote, returning him to the presidency for a third time. Perón appointed as Vice President his third wife, María Estela "Isabelita" Martínez de Perón. He also appointed José Ber Gelbard as Ministro de Economía.
Gelbard set about implementing a plan, El Pacto Social (The Social Pact), which basically called for a freeze in prices and salaries to enable economic progress. Gelbard also gave a boost to Argentine exports, unilaterally lifting the Cuban blockade and selling one billion dollars in goods to Cuba (including U.S.-branded, but Argentine manufactured cars).
In November 1973, Hipólito Solari Yrigoyen in the Senate criticised the reform of laws concerning workers' trade-unions, which aimed at tightening the control of the trade-union bureaucracy on the workers' movement. The Triple A targeted Yrigoyen with a car bomb and seriously injured him.
Proceso de Reorganización Nacional: Repression returns yet again
Less than a year after his election, Perón died and the government was left in the hands of his widow, Isabel Perón who assumed the office of President (becoming the first 'non-royal' female head of state and head of government in the Western world). José Ber Gelbard resigned.
Isabel Martínez de Perón signed a number of decrees empowering the military and the police to "annihilate" left-wing subversion. Latiri's far right-wing father-in-law, José López Rega, nominally the Minister of Social Welfare, became de facto prime minister setting the agenda over a broad swath of Martínez de Perón's policies. López Rega set out to secure power for himself, stacking the Secretaría de Informaciones de Estado (SIDE) with fascists who were loyal to him.
The Argentine military were soon authorised to "execute all military operations necessary for the effects of neutralising or annihilating the action of subversive elements acting in the Province of Tucumán." The ERP had shifted to a rural strategy designed to secure a large land area as a base of military operations against the Argentine state. It had taken root in Tucumán at the edge of the long-impoverished Andean highlands in the northwest corner of Argentina. So the army set out to crush the ERP in 1975, launching Operativo Independencia.
In Tucumán the Argentine military used the methods of the "counter-revolutionary warfare" developed by the French in Algeria. They used terrorism, kidnappings of desaparecidos (i.e. forced disappearances), and concentration camps where thousands of guerrilleros were tortured and assassinated. And López Rega's Alianza Anticomunista Argentina assisted in enforcing the repression against the Perónist left-wing. The CONADEP commission on human rights violations has proved the Triple A murdered 359 people in 1975. Its involvement in several hundred other homocides is suspected.
Mounting search-and-destroy missions in the mountains, the Argentine military had the ERP on the run. Montoneros, in an action supporting their ERP allies, planted a culvert bomb at the Tucumán air base in August 1975. The bomb destroyed an Air Force C-130 carrying 116 Argentine commandos. It did not turn the tide. The military soon discovered Santucho's hideout in the hills. They raided the ERP's urban headquarters in September.
In March 1976, Isabel Perón was deposed in another coup by the military, which in turn launched the Guerra Sucia (the Dirty War), whereby they commanded the illegal arrest, torture, killing or forced disappearance of thousands of people, primarily trade-unionists, students and activists. The junta, La Dictadura headed by General Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera (also a member of Propaganda Due) and Brigadier Orlando Ramón Agosti, organised the so-called Proceso de Reorganización Nacional.
Two weeks before the military coup d'état, vice-Admiral Luis María Mendía had gathered naval officers, and issued Massera's order to prepare the repression against so-called "subversive delinquents. Mendía, known as "The Christian," was later revealed as the architect of a scheme of vuelos de la muerte (death flights) whereby victims were first drugged into a stupor, hustled aboard planes or helicopters, stripped naked and pushed into the Río de la Plata or the Atlantic Ocean to drown. Death flights had been used by the French Paratroopers in 10th Parachute Division under Jacques Massu during the Battle of Algiers.
The AAA enjoyed strong backing from Videla. It carried out widespread atrocities, given free rein by his military dictatorship. "As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure", Videla had declared in 1975 in support of the death squads. In 1976, one of the generals predicted, "We are going to have to kill 50,000 people: 25,000 subversives, 20,000 sympathizers, and we will make 5,000 mistakes."
The United States government was willing to maintain normal diplomatic relations with Argentina, though transcripts show U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the US ambassador to Argentina in conflict over how the new regime should be treated. Kissinger, who had the upper hand, preferred the U.S. remaining friendly with Videla's regime based on anti-Communist interests. This was despite the human rights abuses committed by the junta.
About 340 secret detention centers operated throughout Argentina between 1976 and 1983. The military referred to them as 'Prisoner Assessment Centers'. They formed a separate and unofficial prison system that secretly functioned alongside the legal structure. According to the witnesses who testified before the National Commission on the Dissappeared (CONADEP), these centers were closely supervised by high-ranking military officials. Commanders of the Armed Forces, the police and the Gendarmería personally inspected the installations under their jurisdiction, interviewed prisoners and, in many cases, at one time or another, actively participated in torture sessions and mass executions. These Commanders were men like General Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri (Commander of the 2nd Army Corps and later on the 3rd president appointed by the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional), General Arturo Jáuregui (Commander of the 2nd Army Corps after Galtieri), General Reynaldo Bignone (the 4th and last president appointed by the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional), General Antonio D. Bussi (governor of Tucumán province), General Ramón J. Camps (Commander of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police Headquarters), Admiral Massera (Commander of the Navy), General Luciano Benjamín Menéndez (Commander of the 3rd Army Corps), Gendarmería commander Agustín Feced (police chief), General Carlos Guillermo c. Suárez Mason (Commander of the 1st Army Corps), General Cristino Nicolaides (Commander of the 7th Corrientes Infantry Brigade), General Juan Bautista Sasiaiñ (Commander of the La Ribera secret detention center and later on the Head of the Federal Police).
To be taken to a secret detention center meant to disappear. The military government consistently denied the existence of such clandestine centers, and Argentine authorities repeatedly disclaimed any knowledge of the men and women imprisoned there. The victims were physically and mentally isolated from the rest of the world. As unregistered detainees, they had no official status. They no longer existed.
"Disappearance" of people was only one aspect of the repression in Argentina under the military junta. Every secret detention center was designed primarily as a torture center. The junta's intelligence units were after names and addresses of dissidents allegedly involved in subversive activities. In order to extract such information from the prisoners, each detention center had at least one fully functional torture room run by professional teams of torturers.
These torture rooms ordinarily contained an iron bed, a table, a tub or barrel filled with water, a battery-operated field telephone that generated electric currents (the faster the turning of the handle, the higher the voltage produced), and wires or electric prods of two different intensities: 125 volts (causing involuntary muscle movements and pain all over the body) and 220 volts (causing violent painful contractions, as though limbs are being torn off the body, inducing vomiting and leaving deep ulcerations in the flesh).
All the prisoners in the secret detention centers, regardless of their sex, age and physical condition, were taken to these torture rooms. Some were compelled to witness the torture of their relatives in these rooms. Many people died in these rooms, but some of the victims were released from the secret detention centers in the same fashion they arrived there. After being warned not to talk about what they had gone through, they were unexpectedly taken by car to a street corner and let off. The hood and the handcuffs were removed at the very last moment, and the victims were ordered to look the other way and remain absolutely still or they would be shot. The anonymity of their oppressors was kept to the end.
Whilst Videla allowed the junta's repression of its "enemies", he largely left economic policies in the hands of Minister José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, scion of one of Argentina's oldest cattle ranching families. Martínez de Hoz had been president of the Sociedad Rural, as had his father and grandfather before him. His first act in government in 1976 was to ban strikes and allow employers to fire at will. Naomi Klein, in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, points out that declassified U.S. documents show that Henry Kissinger was told by William Rogers, the assistant secretary of state for Latin America, that "Martínez de Hoz is a good man," and that Kissenger was so impressed that he arranged to have a high profile meeting with Martínez de Hoz when he visited Washington "as a symbolic gesture." During the tenure of Martínez de Hoz, Argentine foreign debt increased fourfold. Disparities between the wealthy and workers became much more pronounced.
From 1977 to 1984, after the fight over the Falklands, the Argentine Armed Forces, exported counter-insurgency tactics, including the systemic use of torture, death squads and disappearances. Special force units, such as Batallón de Inteligencia 601, headed in 1979 by Colonel Jorge Alberto Muzzio, established covert military centers in Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. They began training the Nicaraguan Contras and carried out covert operations that the CIA could no longer manage under the Carter administration.
In early 1981, General Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri Castelli visited the United States and was warmly received. The Reagan administration viewed Galtieri and his ilk as a bulwark against Communism. Videla relinquished power to Roberto Viola in March that year and by the end of the year Genral Galtieri had ousted General Viola, who was, as had been Videla, considered by figures in the U.S. to be too sympathetic to Communism because of the normal relations maintained between Argentina and the Soviet Union. The official explanation given for the ousting was Viola's alleged health problems.
Galtieri had retained direct control of the army. Four months later and with his popularity low, Galtieri ordered Argentine forces to take by force the lightly-defended Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Galtieri thought he could boost his power by playing off long-standing feelings of the Argentines towards the islands and diverting public attention from a devastating economic crisis and the chilling genocidal Guerra Sucia.
Pressures: Of public opinion and economic problems
Corruption, the failing economy, growing public awareness of crimes against humanity by the regime, and the military defeat in the Falklands eroded the public image of the regime. The last de facto president, Reynaldo Bignone, was forced to call elections. He lacked support within the Army itself and the steadily growing pressure of public opinion forced his hand.
In the elections held in 1983, Raúl Alfonsín, the UCR candidate, won the presidency. Persistent economic problems plagued his tenure in office. It was also plagued by the old conservative forces.
Army factions, notably the Carapintadas, attempted rebellion against Alfonsín's government. Argentine civilians rallied to the cause of the democratic government, but when defeated the Carapintadas only their leaders, Lieutenant Colonel Aldo Rico and Major Ernesto Barreiro, were put under arrest. The Carapintadas had managed to bring about the retirement of the then Army chief-of-staff, Hector Luis Rios Ereñú, and to press the Alfonsín government and its congress into dropping all charges against lower ranked military officers. The clause came to be known as La ley de la obediencia debida (The law of due obedience).
In early 1989, Raúl Alfonsín's administration struggled against high inflation, recession, and high foreign debt. Álvaro Alsogaray, Arturo Frondizi's former Ministro de Economía, had in 1983 founded a neo-liberal party -- the Unión del Centro Democrático (UCeDé). In 1989 he called for liberalisation of trade, the exchange rate and wages; for privatisations; and for payment of foreign debt. Alsogaray was among the well-connected who had massively shorted the peso ley argentino prior to its ruinous 1981 collapse. He was also an outspoken supporter of the bloody March 1976 coup.
In the 1989 presidential elections, Alsogaray and the UCeDé endorsed the Perónist Partido Justicialista candidate, Carlos Menem. Thereafter, Álvaro Alsogaray influenced Menem's economic policies as he was appointed Argentina's chief debt negotiator in Washington. Menem introduced sweeping economic reforms--from privatisation to pegging the local peso to the U.S. dollar. The Argentine economy improved, but only at the cost of considerable unemployment. He also granted pardons to the former dictators Videla, Massera, Leopoldo Galtieri and other leaders of the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional, as well as others convicted of crimes committed during the Guerra Sucia.
In 1995, Menem had the constitution altered to allow him to run again for the Presidency. Following a first term marked by some economic success and political stability, Menem was re-elected to a second four-year term, but toward the end of that term many Argentineans had grown tired of Menem and alleged corruption in his administration. In 1999, he attempted to change the constitution again to let him run for a third time, but he failed. Instead his Vice President, Eduardo Duhalde, prevailed in securing the Partido Justicialista nomination for the Presidential election. Then Duhalde was defeated.
In the 1999 elections, Fernando de la Rúa, the former mayor of Buenos Aires, was elected on the back of his reputation for efficiency. However, his government, a coalition between the UCR and the Frente por un País Solidario (Frepaso), faced an ongoing economic crisis and was hampered by continuous fights and rivalries between coalition partners and cabinet crises. It soon gained a reputation for inaction and a failure to tackle corruption.
Within a year a political scandal broke out. It was reported that SIDE, Argentina's intelligence service, had paid massive bribes to a number of senators to approve a controversial labor law and the then head of SIDE, Fernando de Santibañes, was a personal friend of De la Rúa. The head of the left-leaning Frepaso and Vice President in the coalition government, Carlos "Chacho" Alvarez, expressed his anger over what he saw as the administration's failure to take stronger action in the scandal and then resigned his office. Ten months into his four-year term, the coalition looked doomed and de la Rúa was already looking like a lame duck. Finally, Fernando de Santibanes resigned under pressure from the ruling Alliance coalition.
A deep recession foreshadowed economic collapse in 2001. This left more than half the population living in poverty and triggered unrest. The country struggled with record debt defaults and currency devaluation. In December 2001 there were riots. Fernando de la Rúa resigned the Presidency.
Adolfo Rodríguez Saá Páez Montero, Partido Justicialista politician and governor of San Luis was selected to take over. In his inaugural speech, he announced that Argentina would default on its foreign debt. He later announced that Argentina would extradite every former military officer who was requested by foreign courts to face charges for human rights abuses during the Guerra Sucia. He was in office just seven days. The Presidency went to Eduardo Alberto Duhalde.
Duhalde was meant to serve as President until the chaotic situation of the country could be controlled. That was meant to take mere months. It took many, but he did manage to stabilise the economic situation (though only after more than a half of the population was in poverty).
A republic of equals?
In May 2003, Néstor Carlos Kirchner Ostoić was elected President on promises including one of "returning to a republic of equals". Soon after, he surprised the world by standing down powerful military and police officials and overturning amnesty laws for military officers accused of torture and assassinations during the Guerra Sucia. Kirchner, unlike his predecessors, had been schooled in Argentina (at La Plata National University in Buenos Aires, where he earned his law degree) and he began his political activism by opposing the brutal military dictatorship of Rafael Videla. Kirchner, twice arrested in the 1970s for his Peronist youth movement affiliation, backed the cause of justice for victims of the repressive military juntas.
Néstor Kirchner could see the Washington consensus was an unsuccessful model for economic development in the region. At his inauguration he strongly criticised the neo-liberal economic policies of his predecessors, blaming their slavish adherence to the IMF's rigid structural adjustment policies for the country's dire economic conditions. He also demanded that privatisation contracts for public utilities imposed on the country under the juntas be renegotiated, and declared it is the responsibility of the state to "introduce equality where the market excludes and abandons."
In other speeches against globalisation and the US plan for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), Kirchner stressed the need for a “national capitalism” independent of any international influence. He kept the Duhalde administration's Minister of the Economy, Roberto Lavagna, who declared that his first priority was to solve the social problems caused by economic crisis. Prices of essential public services were frozen, and the planes trabajar (a sort of a dole payment to unemployed) was increased.
In a statement given to the United Nations in 2003, Kirchner said the following:
Encouraging collective progress and security in an intelligent way requires an understanding of the fact that the value of security is not only a military concept but one which stems from a preexisting political, economic, social and cultural scenario. Those are the central tasks for the main players on the international agenda.
In this framework, the relations of countries such as ours, and others, with the rest of the world are marked by a crushing, gigantic debt owed to both multilateral financial institutions as well as private creditors.
As a country, we recognize our responsibility for having adopted the policies of others, which led us to such heavy indebtedness. But we also urge the international financial institutions, which, in dictating such policies, contributed to, encouraged and favoured the growth of debt, to accept their own share of responsibility. It is almost a truism to point out that when a debt grows to such an extent, it is not only the debtor that is responsible, but also the creditor.
It is therefore necessary to acknowledge an actual, verifiable and, to a certain extent, common sense fact: the terrible difficulties involved in paying such a debt. Without concrete international assistance aimed at enabling indebted countries to rebuild their economic solvency and, consequently, their payment capacity, and without measures to promote their growth and sustainable development by taking concrete steps to promote their market access and the growth of their exports, debt repayment becomes an impossible dream.
Developing exports which add value to the natural resources that most indebted countries have can lay the foundations for the first steps towards sustainable development, without which creditors will have to face their losses without any other realistic options. No one is known to have succeeded in getting their money back from the dead.
In furtherance of this objective, i.e., of making a country viable in order for it to be able to pay its debts, it would be of great help to intensify multilateral negotiations for elimination of tariff and nontariff barriers hindering access of our exports to the markets of developed countries, which have larger purchasing capacity.
The fact is that in international trade in food products, for example, which is Argentina's main export item, export and production subsidies continue, as well as tariff quotas, unjustified phytosanitary measures and tariff ladders, which distort the terms of exchange for primary products and seriously hamper market access for products with higher added value.
The failure of the WTO negotiations at Cancun should serve as a reminder to us in this regard, and should be remedied by achieving the sort of link we are highlighting as desirable between new business opportunities in international trade, growth of indebted countries and their debt repayment capacity. It is a paradox, and almost ridiculous, that we should be expected to pay our debt while at the same time we are prevented from trading and selling our products.
On the other hand, although it is true that the objectives of multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund include "shortening the duration and lessening the degree of imbalance in the balance of payments of member countries", as well as to "instill confidence in them through resources in order to create the opportunity for correction without the need to resort to measures that are detrimental to national or international prosperity", it is also necessary to redesign institutions such as the IMF.
Redesigning multilateral lending agencies should include changing their paradigms, so that the success or failure of economic policies is measured in terms of success or failure in the fight for growth, equitable distribution, the fight against poverty and in ensuring adequate employment levels.
This new millennium should put an end to adjustment models in which the prosperity of some is based on the poverty of others. The dawn of the 21st century should signal the end of an age and the beginning of a new cooperation between creditors and debtors.
Then in early 2004, Kirchner threw the G-7 nations, the leading capitalist countries, into a quandary with his declaration that private investors who bought about $50 billion in government bonds in Argentina in the 1990s would receive only 25% of the face value of their bonds. Kirchner argued that the bondholders had gambled on Argentina during the heady days of the corrupt, neo-liberal government of Carlos Menem. The bondholders who had cared little about what the exorbitant rates on those bonds meant for the Argentine people would reap the results of their speculative adventures (which had fuelled the boom and bust of the Argentine economy).
The IMF, the World Bank and other international financial institutions lent new funds to Argentina in hopes of keeping it from opting out of the international financial system. Then these institutions attempted to turn the screws, insisting that Kirchner must "be more flexible" in debt renegotiations with the private bondholders.
During his presidency, Kirchner also shifted Argentine foreign policy from the "automatic alignment" with the United States during the 1990s, to one stressing stronger ties (economic and political) within Mercosur and other Latin American countries. He forged a close relationship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, a friendship through which the Argentine president secured energy deals in return for Venezuela’s purchase of government bonds. This was certainly frowned upon in Washington. Confronting strong criticism because of his relationship with Chávez, Néstor Kirchner always affirmed that strictly economic interest, rather than ideological affinity, motivated the strategic alliance with Venezuela.
Today, Cristina Elizabeth Fernández de Kirchner, current head of the Partido Justicialista and wife of past President Néstor Kirchner, is the Argentine President. She achieved a convincing win in the presidential elections. With 45% of the primary vote, she garnered almost twice as many electoral votes as second-placed Elisa Carrió. This obviated the need for a run-off ballot.
Early into her presidency, a United States assistant attorney accused her of obtaining illegal campaign contributions. By January this year, the U.S. had backed down, with its ambassador in Argentina clarifying that the allegations "were never made by the United States government." That hasn't precluded numerous websites maintained by rightwing individuals and groups, particularly Americans, from continuing to publish material that makes out that the allegations have been proved true.
Why has she been targeted this way? Christina Fernández Kirchner takes her bearings from her husband's interventionist economic model. She also adheres to her husband’s foreign policy, preserving close ties with Venezuela. Since Chavez took office in February 1999, America’s dominant media have relentlessly attacked him because of the example he represents and threat it might spread. [More on this later when we look at Venzuela.]
In March, Christina Fernández's government then introduced a new sliding-scale taxation system for agricultural exports. The aim was to raise government funds for social investment by increasing the government's share of returns from rising world grain prices, and also to reduce domestic food prices by encouraging farmers to switch to growing staple foods like wheat and corn, rather than export crops such as soybeans. The reaction was a nationwide lockout by farming associations.
On 25 March thousands of demonstrators massed around the obelisk in the capital and in front of the presidential palace. Protests extended across the country. Rather than resort to repression as the military juntas would have done, Fernández's government organised a rally on 1 April, in which thousands of pro-government protesters marched through downtown Buenos Aires in support of her leadership. She then famously called on farmers to act "as part of a country, not as owners of a country". Within a couple of days the farming associations has suspended their strike. They were back to blockading the roads by May.
In Argentina, history tends to repeat itself. The crisis in 2008 was, in large measure, a continuation of a centuries long running struggle between the few hundred families of the landed aristocratic oligarchs who hold the vast estancias and the majority population, much of which is poor. The ruralistas consider themselves to be the owners of the natural rent that cultivation generates in Argentina, and they have clashed with all administrations that have attempted to balance out the redistribution of this income.
And all throughout the history of this place the indigenous people suffer still, just as they had during the conquista del desierto. Guaraní communities have an average life expectancy of 40 years, and the greatest number of deaths is among their children. Guaraní children living in the subtropical rainforests of Argentina's northeastern province of Misiones are dying from preventable illnesses. Having been forced to abandon their territories and crowded into the most miserable quarters of the cities, they have no access to the plant species from which they made their medicine. They lost their environment, and that caused their health system to collapse.
At the beginning of November of 2006, the National Congress of Argentina approved Law 26.160 declaring a state of "emergency with respect to the possession and property of the ancestral lands of the indigenous communities of the country." Only four months after its adoption this law, one which prohibited for a period of four years the eviction or removal of indigenous persons and indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands, was already dead letter. Members of the Diaguita indigenous community of the Tucumán Province were victims of an aggressive campaign of forced evictions and threats of removal from their ancestral lands. Argentine police, using tear gas and shooting rubber bullets at the indigenous women, children, and men, displaced a number of families from their homes, burned and destroyed the houses and other structures.
Argentina remains far from a republic of equals.
News Archive for Argentina
Wikimedia Atlas of Argentina
Amnesty International: Human Rights in Argentina
Global Peace Index Rank 2010: 71
HDI: 0.860 (Rank 2008: 46)