Raul Alfonsin: Politician who led Argentina out of the dark years of the military junta

Friday 20 December 2013 04:21

In opposition he spoke out against the Argentinian junta's use of torture and death squads who spirited away "the disappeared" and killed them. In office he set about punishing police and troops who were responsible for unknown thousands of deaths in the so-called "dirty war."

He was in office for only six years, from 1983 to 1989, and agreed to step down early because of the near- collapse of the economy and resulting street disturbances. Yet a generation recalls him as a figure who shed his country's international pariah status and, for all his shortcomings, brought it back to democratic values. As one internet tribute put it: "I voted for him in 1983, the first time Iever voted in an election. I was very young and he thrilled me as he did thousands of Argentinian people. He was truly a democratic leader, no matter his many mistakes as a president. I'll always remember him with love and gratitude."

Ironically for a figure who was to have so much trouble with the military, Alfonsí*was once a soldier himself. He emerged from a five-year stint at military academy with the rank of lieutenant but no taste for army life, later remarking: "Those were five very good years, for they served to tire me of military officials." Instead, his career took him into law and he became a human rights activist, a direction more in line with family tradition. The value of freedom was always stressed by his father, who had opposed the Franco regime in Spain.

Alfonsí*was a short, mustachioed figure who was long on passionate oratory but short on economic expertise, and who was prepared to oppose the junta publicly when it was dangerous to do so. One of his favourite phrases was: "With democracy you heal, you teach and you eat."

He mixed the law, politics and protest, going to prison three times for protesting against the generals. He became involved in local politics, while helping to found a human rights organisation opposing the tactics of General Leopoldo Galtieri and other senior soldiers.

Just as his family had opposed one General, Franco, he found himself pitted against another, Galtieri, who was to order the 1982 invasion of the Falkland islands. The exact number of people killed by the military dictatorship is unknown, although most estimate that at least 9,000 died. Many leftists were assassinated in this way, plus many uninvolved civilians: the aim of he killers was to instil a generalised sense of terror.

In this context Alfonsí*and like-minded individuals knew that the risks were high: not many spoke out as insistently as he did.

Galtieri over-reached himself in 1982, when his invasion of the Falklands ended in victory for Britain. The military government, which had failed to deliver either success in battle or improvement in the economy, fell apart. Afonsin won the subsequent election on a manifesto emphasising human rights. Although he just squeaked home, with 52 per cent of the vote, it was a watershed, as ruthless but chastened militarists ceded power to a moderate politician.

He proclaimed: "Public immorality has ended." In the six years in office that followed Alfonsí*struggled with a dire economic situation: he inherited galloping annual inflation of more than a thousand per cent and huge national debts. While his efforts brought occasional temporary successes he never succeeded in bringing the economy under proper control, demonstrating that democracy did not automatically result in prosperity.

The new-found democracy proved to be less than fully stable. The Alfonsí*administration made great strides in rebuilding a civic culture after the years of dictatorship, but dark military elements continued to lurk in the background.

Elements of the army were particularly affronted when he made an immediate priority of energetically pursuing those in the ranks who had tortured and killed. He created a "National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons" which drew up thousands of case histories. But in his most striking action he put members of the junta on trial, leading to the jailing of five generals, two of them ex-presidents of Argentina. Galtieri was one of a number acquitted, but was later imprisoned on charges of mishandling the Falklands war.

Much of the international community was amazed that Alfonsí*had taken such strong action and he himself commented later: "I think that sometimes I take too many risks because what we did no one had done before."

But then Argentina endured three limited but ominous military rebellions as middle-ranking officers made it clear they wanted such prosecutions curbed. After one of these Alfonsí*announced: "The house is in order." After another mutiny had been dealt with he said: "Democracy in this country has been consolidated."

Yet he beat a retreat, restricting prosecutions with a series of measures, one of them the "Full Stop Law." Some observers denounced this as an injustice which amounted to appeasement of sinister forces; others concluded it had to be done to stave off an army uprising.

Alfonsí*clearly did not want to alter course on prosecutions, but felt it necessary to protect the fledgling democracy. He was later to argue: "I was convinced that we couldn't build democracy based on total immunity, but it was impossible to put 2,000 members of the military on trial. We didn't have any weapons."

Alfonsí*lost the 1989 presidential election to Carlos Menem. This was unsurprising since food shortages, street disturbances and uncontrolled hyperinflation daily demonstrated emphatically that, whatever his democratic credentials, he had little economic expertise.

He was even pushed into handing over power to his successor five months early. This was an ignominious moment in stark contrast to the soaring hopes that had accompanied his election. He said sadly: "My conscience requires that I try to soften the sacrifices of the people through my own." He consoled himself with the fact that power passed peacefully from one democratic party to another, and that the army had confined itself to military matters rather than commandeering the political system.

He stepped down from power leaving a country in financial crisis but with a restored sense of order, pride and dignity. Last October the Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez unveiled a bust of him, on the 25th anniversary of his election victory, with the words: "You are a symbol of the return of democracy."

David McKittrick

Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín, politician, lawyer: born 12 March 1927; president of Argentina 1986-89; married Mario Lorenza Barrenechea (three sons, three daughters); died 31 March 2009.

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