Argentina



Argentina Before the Great Depression

Argentina, a non-industrialized country, experienced recession after World War I and before the global depression hit, but unlike neighboring countries, maintained relatively healthy growth rates throughout the 1920s.

Learning Objectives

Describe Argentina’s economic status before the global depression hit.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Argentina was not an industrialized country in the lead-up to the Great Depression and lacked the energy sources necessary to make it so.
  • One of Argentina’s most lucrative industries was agriculture, and its exports of frozen beef, especially to Great Britain, proved highly profitable.
  • Argentina, like many other countries, entered a recession after the beginning of World War I as the international flow of goods, capital, and labor declined.
  • Foreign investment in Argentina came to a complete standstill from which the country never fully recovered.
  • Nonetheless, Argentina maintained relatively healthy growth throughout the 1920s, unlike neighboring countries, because it was relatively unaffected by the worldwide collapse on commodity prices. However, the global depression would eventually halt economic expansion within the country.

Key Terms

  • Southern Cone: A geographic region composed of the southernmost areas of South America, south of and around the Tropic of Capricorn. Traditionally, it is comprised of Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. It is bounded on the west by the Pacific Ocean and to the south by the junction between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Argentina was not an industrialized country by the standards of Britain, Germany, or the United States in the lead-up to the Great Depression, and lacked energy sources such as coal or hydropower to make it so. Experiments in oil extraction during the early 20th century had poor results. Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales (YPF), the first state-owned oil company in Latin America, was founded in 1922 as a public company responsible for 51% of oil production, with the remaining 49% in the hands of private concerns. Moreover, one of Argentina’s most lucrative industries was agriculture, and its exports of frozen beef, especially to Great Britain, proved highly profitable following the invention of refrigerated ships in the 1870s.

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YPF workers (1923): YPF workers are shown working on an oil well in 1923.

Argentina, like many other countries, entered a recession following the beginning of World War I as the international flow of goods, capital, and labor declined. Additionally, following the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, Argentina and other Southern Cone economies declined as investors turned their sights to Asia and the Caribbean. Even beef exports took a hit as Britain imposed new restrictions on meat imports in the late 1920s. Argentinian ranchers responded by switching from pastoral to arable production, but lasting damage had already been done to the Argentine economy. The United States viewed Argentina, and to a lesser extent Brazil, as a potential rival on the world markets, making collaboration less likely between the two countries. In light of the United States’ emergence from WWI as a political and financial superpower, this would prove particularly harmful to Argentina.

Meanwhile, foreign investment into Argentina came to a complete standstill from which the country never fully recovered. As a result, investable funds became concentrated over time at a single institution: the Banco de la Nacion Argentina (BNA). This made Argentina’s financial system vulnerable to rent-seeking. Re-discounting and non-performing loans grew steadily at the BNA after 1914 as a result of crony loans to other banks and the private sector, polluting the bank’s balance sheet. The state bank allowed private banks to shed their risks, using money not backed by collateral as security, then lent the private banks cash at a rate of 4.5%, below the rate the BNA offered to its customers on certificates of deposit. Ultimately, neither the Buenos Aires Stock Exchange nor any of the private domestic banks within the country would develop rapidly enough to fully replace the loss of foreign capital, the bulk of which was sourced from now heavily indebted Great Britain.

Nonetheless, Argentina maintained relatively healthy growth throughout the 1920s, unlike neighboring countries like Brazil and Chile, because it was relatively unaffected by the worldwide collapse on commodity prices. Similarly, unlike many European countries that abandoned it, the gold standard was still in place in Argentina during this time, contributing to the country’s relative financial stability. Automobile ownership in the country at 1929 was the highest in the Southern hemisphere, an indicator of the healthy purchasing power of the middle class on the eve of the Great Depression. However, the economic downturn would eventually halt economic expansion within the country.

The Infamous Decade

The 1930s in Argentina is referred to as the Infamous Decade due to rampant electoral fraud, persecution of political opposition parties, and generalized government corruption.

Learning Objectives

Explain why the 1930s were referred to as the Infamous Decade

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Argentina’s Infamous Decade refers to the period of time that began in 1930 with Jose Felix Uriburu’s coup d’etat against standing President Hipolito Yrigoyen and ended with Juan Peron’s rise to power after the military coup of 1943.
  • Lieutenant General Uriburu’s regime was strongly supported by rightist intellectuals and his government adopted severe measures to prevent reprisals and counter-revolutionary tactics by friends of the ousted regime.
  • Agustin Pedro Justo Rolon’s administration was tarnished by constant rumors of corruption and is best remembered for the outstanding diplomatic work of his Foreign Minister.
  • One of the most controversial successes of Justo’s presidency is the signing of the Roca-Runciman Treaty in 1933.
  • Justo’s first minister of the Treasury, Alberto Hueyo, took very restrictive measures against the economy. Hueyo was eventually replaced by Frederico Pinedo, whose plan for government intervention into the economy was even more significant.
  • Pinedo began Argentinian industrial development via a policy of import substitution and created Argentina’s Central Bank.
  • Roberto Marcelino Ortiz was fraudulently elected president and assumed his office in February 1938. He attempted to clean up the country’s corruption problem and cancelled fraudulent elections won by conservative Alberto Barcelo.
  • In June 1942, Ortiz resigned the presidency due to sickness and died a month later. He was replaced by Vice President Ramon S. Castillo.
  • On June 4, 1943, a nationalist secret society within the army called the Grupo de Oficiales Unidos (GOU) overthrew Castillo in a coup.

Key Terms

  • Infamous Decade: The period of time in Argentina beginning in 1930 characterized by electoral fraud, the persecution of political opposition, and generalized government corruption.
  • import substitution: A trade and economic policy that advocates replacing foreign imports with domestic production.

Argentina’s Infamous Decade refers to the period of time that began in 1930 with Jose Felix Uriburu’s coup d’etat against standing President Hipolito Yrigoyen and ended with Juan Peron’s rise to power after the military coup of 1943. The decade is marked by a significant rural exodus as many small rural landowners were ruined by the global depression, which ultimately pushed Argentina towards a policy of import substitution industrialization. The poor economic results of this policy and the popular discontent it engendered led directly to the coup in 1943. The period was characterized by electoral fraud, the persecution of political opposition, and generalized government corruption.

Uriburu’s Presidency (1930-1932)

Lieutenant General Jose Felix Benito Uriburu y Uriburu achieved the position of President of Argentina via military coup, and his tenure lasted from September 6, 1930 until February 20, 1932. Known as the “father of the poor”, standing president Hipolito Yrigoyen was overwhelmingly elected to his second non-consecutive term in office in 1928, but found himself increasingly surrounded by aides who hid the true effects of the Great Depression on the country from him. As a result, fascist and conservative sectors of the army plotted openly for regime change, as did Standard Oil of New Jersey, an American company that opposed both the president’s efforts to curb oil smuggling from Salta Province to Bolivia and the dominance YPF held over the Argentinian oil market. These factors made the timing perfect for Uriburu to stage Argentina’s first military coup since the adoption of the Argentine constitution against Yrigoyen’s democratically-elected administration with the help of the far-right Argentine Patriotic League.

Portrait of Jose Felix Uriburu

Jose Felix Uriburu: Jose Felix Uriburu was the 22nd president of Argentina.

Uriburu’s own regime was strongly supported by rightist intellectuals such as Rodolofo and Julio Irazusta and Juan Carulla, and the new government adopted severe measures to prevent reprisals and counter-revolutionary tactics by friends of the ousted regime. Anarchists in particular were considered public enemies by Uriburu’s dictatorship. During Uriburu’s regime, three anarchists were given life sentences for allegedly assassinating family members of conservative politician Jose M. Blanch during a show trial in which the anarchists were openly tortured. The show trial came on the heels of the Sacco and Vanzetti case in the United States, in which two Italian-born American anarchists were given the death penalty after being found guilty of murder in what was widely regarded as a politically motivated sentencing. The Argentinian case drew many parallels to Sacco and Vanzetti and raised international public indignation.

President Uriburu was diagnosed with stomach cancer in early 1932 and died in Paris following surgery on April 29, 1932.

Justo’s Presidency (1932-1938)

Agustin Pedro Justo Rolon was president of Argentina from February 20, 1932, until February 20, 1938. He was a military officer, diplomat, and politician. Justo earned the Concordance’s nomination for the 1931 presidential campaign and won with the support of an alliance created between the National Democratic Party, the Radical Civic Union, and the Socialist Independent Party. Nonetheless, accusations of electoral fraud abounded and Justo’s administration was tarnished by constant rumors of corruption. His administration is best remembered for the outstanding diplomatic work of his Foreign Minister, Carlos Saavedra Lamas.

Portrait of Agustin P. Justo

Agustin P. Justo: Agustin P. Justo was the 23rd president of Argentina.

The Roca-Runciman Treaty

One of the most controversial successes of Justo’s presidency is the signing of the Roca-Runciman Treaty in 1933. Due to the UK’s adoption of measures favoring imports from its own colonies and dominions, Justo sent his vice president, Julio A. Roca Jr, as head of a technology delegation to negotiate a commercial agreement that might benefit Argentina. The British were previously the main buyers of Argentinian grain and meat, making their production protectionism measures threatening to Argentinian landowners who traded in these agricultural products. The Roca-Runciman Treaty assured the UK a provision of fresh meat in exchange for important investment in Argentina’s transportation, requiring certain concessions such as handing over Buenos Aires’ public transport to a British company. The treaty created a scandal because although the UK agreed to continue importing Argentinian meat, they allotted Argentina an import quota less than any of its dominions: 390,000 tons of meat per year, with 85% of Argentine exports arranged via British refrigerated shippers. There were other far-reaching concessions as well; for instance, railways operated by the UK did not have regulated tariffs in place, customs fees over coal remained unestablished, and British companies with investments in Argentina were given a number of special dispensations, such as reduced export pricing. Although the Roca-Runciman Treaty salvaged the Argentinian-British trade in agricultural products, it exasperated those already critical of British involvement in their country.

Hueyo and Pinedo’s Economic Policies

Justo’s first minister of the Treasury, Alberto Hueyo, took very restrictive measures against the economy. Hueyo reduced public expenses and restricted the circulation of currency in addition to applying other harsh fiscal measures. An emprestito patriotico, or patriotic loan, was made in an attempt to strengthen the country’s budget. Eventually, however, Justo sought to replace Hueyo with the socialist Frederico Pinedo, whose plan for government intervention into the economy was even more significant.

Pinedo began Argentinian industrial development via a policy of import substitution. The Juntas Reguladores Nacionales was created under Pinedo’s guidance to help develop private and state industrial activity. The Juntas also oversaw quality and price control for domestic consumption and export. For example, to avoid overproduction, the Juntas destroyed entire loads of corn and millions of pesos per year in wine products.

Pinedo also created the Central Bank (BCRA), which was advised by Sir Otto Niemeyer, the director of the Bank of England. Niemeyer’s involvement drew heavy criticism from those who disavowed British involvement in Argentina. A national project of road construction was launched that competed with the railway system, which remained in the hands of mostly British companies. With national roadways reaching 30,000 kilometers in 1938, U.S. automotive firms were able to penetrate the Argentinian market and increase sales. U.S. foreign direct investment grew under Pinedo’s policies with textile firms like Sudamtex, Ducilo, and Anderson Clayton establishing themselves in Argentina. Tire companies, electronics firms, and chemistry firms also began to migrate to Argentina during this time.

The Ortiz and Castillo Administrations (1938-1943)

Roberto Marcelino Ortiz and Ramon S. Castillo’s candidacies for the 1938 elections, for president and vice president respectively, were launched at the British Chamber of Commerce and supported by its president, William McCallum. Ortiz was fraudulently elected president and assumed his new office in February 1938. He attempted to clean up the country’s corruption problem, ordering federal intervention in the Province of Buenos Aires, which was governed by Manuel Fresco. He also cancelled fraudulent elections won by conservative Alberto Barcelo.

Pinedo remained as the Minister of the Economy during Ortiz’s administration. On November 18, 1940, he presented an Economic Reactivation Plan, which would have implemented heavily protectionist measures and advocated for the building of public housing to deal with the influx of people into urban centers. Pinedo also proposed nationalization of the British-operated railways and even agreed upon advantageous terms with the railway owners before presenting his policy publicly. Nevertheless, conservative factions voted against these measures, and Pinedo resigned his office shortly thereafter.

During World War II, Argentina maintained the same neutrality it adopted during the first World War, which was advantageous for Great Britain. Although the USA attempted to push Argentina into the war, the country was able to resist with support from the British. In June 1942, Ortiz resigned the presidency due to sickness and died a month later. He was replaced by Vice President Castillo. The same year, the Democratic Union political coalition, which included the Radical Civic Union, the Democratic Progressive Party, and the Socialist and Communist parties, was formed. Their electoral platform aimed to tackle endemic corruption, guarantee freedom of thought and assembly, and secure labor union rights. The coalition also claimed active solidarity with people struggling against Nazi-Fascist aggression.

On June 4, 1943, the nationalist secret society within the army called the Grupo de Oficiales Unidos (GOU) overthrew Castillo in a coup. The GOU was organized under Colonel Miguel A. Montes and Urbano de la Vega and included members such as Colonel Juan Domingo Peron and Enrique P. Gonzalez. Their coup d’etat ended the Infamous Decade and established a military junta that lasted until 1945. The group was sympathetic to the causes of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. General Arturo Rawson was made president, but only held office for a few days before the GOU replaced him with General Pedro Ramirez.

Peronism

The Argentinian political movement Peronism is based on three main principles: social justice, economic independence, and political sovereignty.

Learning Objectives

Outline the key characteristics of Peronism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Peronism, or Justicialism, is an Argentine political movement based on the political legacy of former President Juan Domingo Peron and his second wife, Eva Peron.
  • The pillars of the Peronist ideal, known as the “three flags,” are social justice, economic independence, and political sovereignty.
  • Peron’s ideas were widely embraced by a variety of groups in Argentina across the political spectrum, and since its inception in 1946, Peronist candidates have won nine out of 12 presidential elections from which they have not been banned.
  • Defenders of Peronism describe the doctrine as populist in the sense that they believe it embodies the interests of the masses, and in particular, the most vulnerable members of society.
  • Peron’s opponents, however, view Peronism was an authoritarian ideology, compare Juan Peron to fascist dictators, accuse him of demagoguery, and deride his policies as too populist.
  • Eva Peron, popularly known as Evita, was instrumental as a symbol of hope to the common laborer during her husband’s first five-year plan. Her strong ties to the poor lent credibility to Juan Peron’s first presidential term and ushered in a new wave of supporters to his regime.
  • Evita established the Eva Peron Foundation in 1948 and ran as the vice presidential candidate with Juan Peron during the 1951 election.

Key Terms

  • corporatism: Also known as corporativism, corporatism is the sociopolitical organization of society by major interest, or corporate, groups.
  • third position ideology: A political ideology that emphasizes opposition to both communism and capitalism. Proponents typically depict themselves as beyond the left or right wings of politics while borrowing ideas from each end of the spectrum.

Peronism, or Justicialism, is an Argentine political movement based on the political legacy of former President Juan Domingo Peron and his second wife, Eva Peron. The Justicialist Party derives its name from the concept of social justice. Since its inception in 1946, Peronist candidates have won nine out of 12 presidential elections from which they have not been banned. As of 2016, Peron was the only Argentinian to have been elected president three times.

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Juan Peron wearing the presidential sash: President Peron at his 1946 inaugural presidential parade.

Ideology

The pillars of the Peronist ideal, known as the “three flags,” are social justice, economic independence, and political sovereignty. Peronism is considered a third-position ideology because it rejects both capitalism and communism. Peronism advocates corporatism as a means for mediating tensions within society, with the state responsible for negotiating compromises if conflicts arise. Traditionally, its adherents come primarily from the working class and unions, and the ideology has been described as proletarian in nature. Peronism, however, is a generally ill-defined ideology, with contradictory statements sometimes expressed in its name. The
legacy of Peron is thought to transcend the confines of any political party in modern times and blend into the broader political landscape of Argentina.

Peron’s ideas were widely embraced by a variety of groups in Argentina across the political spectrum. Peron’s personal views later became a burden on the ideology, however. For example, his anti-clericalism did not strike a sympathetic chord with upper-class Argentinians. Peron’s public speeches were consistently nationalist and populist. In fact, Peronism draws many parallels with corporate nationalism due to the nationalization of many Argentinian corporations during Peron’s administrations. At the same time, labor unions became more corporate in nature, ceding the right to strike in the early to mid-1940s.

Defenders of Peronism describe the doctrine as populist in that they believe it embodies the interests of the masses, especially the most vulnerable members of society. Admirers hold Peron in esteem for his administration’s anti-imperialism, non-alignment, and socially progressive initiatives. Peron’s governments made social security universal, education free for all who qualified, and provisions for one paid week off before every major examination for working students. Vast low-income housing projects were created and paid vacations became standard. All workers were guaranteed free medical care and mothers were given three paid months off prior to and after giving birth. Workers’ recreation centers were constructed all over the country, including a vast resort in the lower Sierras de Cordoba that included eight hotels, riding stables, swimming pools, movie theaters, and scores of cabins.

From the perspective of Peron’s opponents, however, Peronism was an authoritarian ideology. Peron was often compared to fascist dictators, accused of demagoguery, and his policies derided as too populist. Claiming to be an embodiment of Argentinian nationality, Peron’s government often silenced dissent by accusing opponents of being unpatriotic. Peron’s corporatism also drew attack from socialists who accused his administration of preserving capitalist exploitation and class division. Conservatives, on the other hand, rejected his modernist ideology and felt their status was threatened by the ascent of Peron’s governing officials. Liberals condemned Peron for his regime’s arbitrariness and dictatorial tendencies.

Influence and Contributions of Eva Peron

Eva Peron, popularly known as Evita, was instrumental as a symbol of hope to the common laborer during her husband’s first five-year plan. Her strong ties to the poor lent credibility to Juan Peron’s first presidential term and ushered in a new wave of supporters to his regime. She was loathed by the elite due to her humble origins, but adored by the poor for her work with the sick, elderly, and orphans. She was involved in behind-the-scenes work to secure women’s suffrage in 1947 and supported a women’s movement that concentrated on the rights of women, the poor, and the disabled. The extent of her role in her husband’s first term remains disputed, although it is clear that she was responsible for introducing social justice and equality into the national discourse. It is speculated that Eva’s influence on her husband led to the stipulations within the five-year plans that called for full employment, public healthcare and housing, labor benefits, raises, and humanitarian relief efforts.

Photograph of Evita giving a speech

Eva Peron: Eva Peron, known as Evita, worked to secure women’s suffrage, which was granted in 1947.

Evita established the Eva Peron Foundation in 1948. Enjoying an annual budget of approximately USD 50 million, which was nearly equivalent to one percent of Argentinian GDP at the time, the Foundation had 14,000 employees and founded hundreds of new schools, clinics, old-age homes, and holiday facilities. It also distributed hundreds of thousands of household necessities, physicians’ visits, scholarships, and other benefits. During the 1951 presidential campaign, Evita replaced Juan Peron’s ailing running mate, Hortensio Quijano, to become the official candidate for vice president. Her political hopes, however, were defeated by her own health problems and opposition to the Peron-Evita ticket from within the military. On September 28 of the same year, an attempted coup was launched against Peron by General Benjamin Andres Menendez and elements within the Argentine Army. Though they were unsuccessful, they proved the final nail in the coffin of the first lady’s political ambitions. She died the following July.

National Reorganization and the Dirty War

The Dirty War began as the government became increasingly fearful and repressive of leftist dissidents.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the reasons for the outbreak of the Dirty War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Dirty War was the name used by the Argentina Military Government for a period of state terrorism in Argentina from roughly 1974 to 1983.
  • The military, supported by a significant number of the general populace involved in the Radical and Socialist parties, opposed Juan Peron’s populist government and overthrew his regime in 1955 during the Revolucion Libertadora. Afterwards, Peronism was outlawed.
  • Peronists and other revolutionary groups within Argentina began organizing and militarizing, with many groups combining forces.
  • By the early 1970s, guerrilla groups were kidnapping and assassinating high-ranking military and police officers almost weekly, as well as bombing government buildings.
  • Juan Peron returned from exile and after his death, his widow Isabel Martinez de Peron held the presidency, only to be ousted from power during a military coup in 1976.
  • The resulting junta, led by Jorge Rafael Videla until 1981 and subsequently by Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri until 1983, organized and carried out strong repression of political dissidents via the government’s military and security forces, which they referred to as their National Reorganization Process.
  • The junta was forced to resign power in 1983 following their disastrous defeat to Great Britain in the Falklands War, which paved the way for the resumption of Argentine democracy.

Key Terms

  • Peronism: Also called Justicialism, an Argentine political movement based on the political legacy of former President Juan Domingo Peron and his second wife, Eva Peron.
  • disappeared: A person who is secretly abducted or imprisoned by a state or political organization, or by a third party with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of a state or political organization. Following abduction, there is a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate or whereabouts, essentially placing the victim outside the protection of the law.

The Dirty War, also known as the Process of National Reorganization, was the name used by the Argentina Military Government for a period of state terrorism in Argentina from roughly 1974 to 1983. During this time, the military, security forces, and right-wing death squads such as the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (Triple A) hunted down and killed left-wing guerrillas, political dissidents, and anyone believed to be associated with the socialist movement. A total of 7,158 left-wing activities, terrorists, and militants, including trade unionists, students, journalists, and Marxist and Peronist guerrillas, were victimized. Official records account for 13,000 missing people, known as the “ disappeared.” Meanwhile, leftist guerrillas accounted for 6,000 casualties among military and police forces as well as civilians.

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Photos of the “disappeared”

Collections of photos from families whose children and grandchildren had disappeared.

Background

The military, supported by a significant number of the general populace involved in the Radical and Socialist parties, opposed Juan Peron’s populist government and attempted to overthrow his regime once in 1951 and twice in 1955 before finally succeeding on a third attempt in 1955 during the Revolucion Libertadora. After taking control, Peronism was outlawed. Peronists began organizing a resistance movement centered around workplaces and trade unions, and the working classes sought economic and social improvements. Over time, as democratic rule was partially restored and promises to allow freedom of expression and other political liberties to Peronists was not respected, resistance groups militarized, forming guerrilla groups.

Jorge Ricardo Masetti, the leader of the Guevarist People’s Guerrilla Army (EGP) that infiltrated Bolivia’s army in 1964, is considered by some to be Argentina’s first disappeared person. Prior to 1973, the major revolutionary groups within Argentina were the Peronist Armed Forces (FAP), the Marxist-Leninist-Peronist Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), and the Marxist-Leninist Armed Forces of Liberation (FAL). Over time, many of these guerrilla forces combined or were effectively eradicated by the government. For example, FAR joined the Montoneros, formerly an urban group of intellectuals and students, and FAP and FAL were absorbed into the Marxist People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP). Meanwhile, the EGP and the Peronist Uturuncos were small enough to be overcome by government forces and ceased to exist.

A Decade of Violence

By the early 1970s, the consolidated guerrilla groups that remained were kidnapping and assassinating high-ranking military and police officers almost weekly. The extreme left bombed and destroyed numerous military and police buildings in its campaign against the government, but unfortunately a number of civilian and non-governmental buildings were targeted as well. For instance, the Sheraton Hotel in Buenos Aires was bombed in 1972, killing a woman and injuring her husband. A crowded theater in downtown Buenos Aires was also bombed in 1975. In 1978, a powerful bomb meant to kill an Argentine admiral ripped through a nine-story apartment building, killing three civilians and trapping many others under the debris.

In 1973, as Juan Peron returned from exile, the Ezeiza massacre marked the end of an alliance between left- and right-wing factions of Peronism. In the subsequent year, Peron withdrew his support of the Montoneros shortly before his death. During the presidency of his widow Isabel Martinez de Peron, the far-right paramilitary death squad Triple A emerged, increasing armed struggles. In 1975, Isabel signed a number of decrees empowering the military and the police to step up efforts to destroy left-wing subversion, particularly the ERP. Isabel was ousted from power the subsequent year, 1976, by a military coup.

U.S. Involvement

In August 2016, the U.S. State Department released 1,080 pages of declassified State Department documents that revealed a growing hostility between the administration of US President Jimmy Carter and the 1976 junta that overthrew Isabel. Carter took issue in particular with Argentina’s growing list of human rights violations, although the previous administration under Gerald Ford was strongly sympathetic to the junta, with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger even advising Argentina’s Foreign Minister, Cesar Guzzetti, to carry out anti-Communist policies before Congress was back in session. Despite this, there is no documentation suggesting that the U.S. government had direct involvement or knowledge of the developments leading up to or following the coup that ousted Isabel.

The National Reorganization Process

The juntas, led by Jorge Rafael Videla until 1981 and subsequently by Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri until 1983, organized and carried out strong repression of political dissidents via the government’s military and security forces, which they referred to as their National Reorganization Process. They were responsible for illegal arrests, torture, killings, and the forced disappearance of an estimated 9,000 to 30,000 people. Assassinations occurred via mass shootings and throwing live citizens from airplanes to their death in the ocean below. Additionally, 12,000 prisoners, many of whom had not been convicted via any legal processes, were detained in a network of 340 secret concentration camps located throughout Argentina. The government coordinated actions with other South American dictatorships as well.

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Memorial to the disappeared: Photographs of victims of the 1976-83 dictatorship.

Faced with increasing public opposition and severe economic problems, the military tried to regain popularity by occupying the disputed Falkland Islands. It suffered a lopsided defeat against Great Britain, which was in possession of the territories, during the subsequent Falklands War, and was forced to resign governing powers in disgrace, paving the way for the restoration of Argentinian democracy.

Alfonsín’s Presidency

Although Alfonsín began his administration well-liked due to his prosecution of war crimes and consolidation of Argentina’s democratic institutions, his inability to prevent worsening economic crises caused his popularity to decline.

Learning Objectives

Detail why Alfonsín was so unpopular by the end of his presidency

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Raul Ricardo Alfonsín Foulkes was an Argentine lawyer, politician, and statesman who served as the President of Argentina from December 10, 1983, until July 8, 1989.
  • Three days after assuming the office of president, Alfonsín sent a bill to Congress revoking the self-amnesty law established by the military. The Trial of the Juntas began at the Supreme Court in April 1985 and was the first time the leaders of a military coup were put on trial in Argentina.
  • Alfonsín’s first priority while in office was to consolidate democracy in the country, incorporate the armed forces into their standard role within a civilian government, and prevent further military coups.
  • Labor unions were still controlled by Peronist elements, and Alfonsín sought to reduce their influence, fearing they may become destabilizing forces for the fledgling democracy.
  • Alfonsín began his term with many economic problems. Argentina’s foreign debt was nearly $43 billion by the end of 1983, and the country narrowly prevented a sovereign default in 1982.
  • The Austral plan froze prices and wages, choking inflation for some time; put a temporary hold on the printing of paper money; arranged for spending cuts; and established a new currency, the Austral. However, inflation rose again by the end of 1985, the CGT opposed the wage freeze, and the business community opposed the price freeze.
  • In 1987, Alfonsín’s government attempted new measures to improve the state of Argentina’s economy, increasing taxes and privatizations while decreasing spending. However, many measures could not be effectively enforced, and the government lost the 1987 midterm elections as well as the general elections of 1989.

Key Terms

  • command responsibility: Sometimes referred to as superior responsibility, the legal doctrine of hierarchical accountability in cases of war crimes.
  • hyperinflation: In economics, when a country experiences very high and accelerating rates of inflation, which erodes the real value of local currency and causes the population to minimize their holdings of said money.

Raul Ricardo Alfonsin Foulkes was an Argentine lawyer, politician, and statesman who served as the President of Argentina from December 10, 1983 until July 8, 1989. He was elected a deputy in the legislature of the Buenos Aires province in 1958 during the presidency of Arturo Frondizi and a national deputy during the presidency of Arturo Umberto Illia. He opposed both sides of the Dirty War and filed several writs of Habeas corpus, requesting the freedom of victims of forced disappearances during the National Reorganization Process. He denounced the crimes of the military dictatorships of other countries and opposed actions of both sides of the Falklands War. He became the leader of the Radical Civil Union (UCR) following Ricardo Balbin’s death and was the Radical candidate for president during the 1983 elections, which he won.

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Alfonsin’s Official Presidential Portrait, 1984

Alfonsin’s presidential inauguration was attended by Isabel Peron in a sign of support, despite internal recriminations regarding the Peronist defeat. Left-wing terrorism had been neutralized by this time, but both parties were eager to prevent the return of military rule, and there were factions within the military eager to reinstate an authoritarian government. Three days after assuming the office of president, Alfonsin sent a bill to Congress to revoke the self-amnesty law established by the military, as he had promised to do while on the campaign trail. He also ordered the initiation of judicial cases against guerrilla and military leaders, as well as the extradition of guerrilla leaders living abroad. These acts were well-received by groups such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo that were seeking reparations for the actions of the military during the Dirty War.

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Raúl Alfonsín’s presidential inauguration, 1983

Alfonsin assumed the presidency after the darkest period of dictatorial rule in Argentina’s modern history.

Prosecution of the Military

The Trial of the Juntas began at the Supreme Court in April 1985 and lasted the remainder of the year. It was the first time the leaders of a military coup were put on trial in Argentina. In December, the tribunal handed down life sentences for Jorge Videla and former Navy Chief Emilio Massera, as well as a 17-year sentence for Roberto Eduardo Viola. The trials were followed by bomb attacks and rumors of military protests and coups. In order to appease the military, Alfonsin proposed the full stop law, which set a deadline for Dirty War-related prosecutions. The Congress approved the law despite strong public opposition. Prosecutors rushed to start cases before the deadline, filing 487 charges against 300 officers, 100 of whom were still in active service.

Two officers refused to appear in court, starting mutinies in Cordoba and Campo de Mayo. The rebels were referred to as Carapintadas, which is Spanish for “painted faces”, a reference to their use of military camouflage. The General Confederation of Labor (CGT) called a general strike in support of Alfonsin, and large masses rallied in the Plaza de Mayo to support the government. Alfonsin negotiated directly with the rebels and secured their surrender. However, the timing was exploited by the  military and opposition parties, and they painted the outcome as a surrender by Alfonsin.

Alfonsin’s first priority while in office was to consolidate democracy in the country, incorporate the armed forces into their standard role within a civilian government, and prevent further military coups. He used budget and personnel cuts to attempt to reduce the political power of the military. Despite the revocation of self-amnesty and prosecution of senior officers, Alfonsin was willing to dismiss charges against lower-ranking military personnel under the principle of command responsibility. He also created the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), composed of several well-known personalities, to document cases of forced disappearances, human rights violations, and abduction of children. In its “Nunca mas” report, the CONADEP revealed the wide scope of crimes committed during the Dirty War and how the Supreme Council of the military supported the military’s actions against guerrillas.

Relationship with Unions

Labor unions were still controlled by Peronist elements, and Alfonsin sought to reduce their influence, fearing they would become destabilizing forces for the fledgling democracy. He rejected their custom of holding single-candidacy internal elections and felt union administrations were totalitarian rather than a genuine reflection of the demands of the workforce. He proposed changing the laws by which those internal elections abided and removing union leaders appointed during the military juntas. The CGT rejected the proposal, claiming it was too interventionist, and prompted Peronist politicians to vote against it. The law was approved by the Chamber of Deputies, but failed to pass in the senate by one vote. A second bill was proposed that simply called for new internal elections, without changing the laws by which they abided, and that bill was approved. As a result, the labor unions remained largely Peronist.

Alfonsin made use of a regulation established during the junta that allowed the president to regulate the level of wages, and authorized wage increases every 3 months to keep up with inflation. The CGT rejected this and proposed instead that wages should be determined by free negotiations. Alfonsin allowed strike actions, forbidden during the junta, which also allowed the unions to expand their influence. There were 13 general strikes and thousands of minor labor conflicts during his administration. Conflicts centered around high inflation, and the unions remained supportive of the president in the face of military rebellions and despite political differences.

Economic Policy

Alfonsin began his term with many economic problems. Argentina’s foreign debt was nearly 43 billion dollars by the end of 1983, and the country narrowly prevented a sovereign default in 1982. During that year, GDP fell by 5.6% and manufacturing profits fell by 55%. Unemployment was around ten percent and inflation was nearly 209%. It also seemed unlikely the country would received badly needed foreign investment.

Many possible solutions, such as devaluation of the currency, privatization of industry, or restrictions on imports, would have proven unpopular. Instead, Bernardo Grinspun, the first minister of the economy, arranged to increase wages, which caused inflation to decrease significantly. Negotiations were also entered to obtain more favorable terms on the country’s foreign debt, but those were unsuccessful. Grinspun resigned in March 1985 when debt reached $1 billion. He was succeeded by Juan Vital Sourrouille, who developed the Austral plan. This plan was a success in the short term. It froze prices and wages, choking inflation for some time; put a temporary hold on the printing of paper money; arranged for spending cuts, and established a new currency, the Austral. However, inflation rose again by the end of 1985, the CGT opposed the wage freeze, and the business community opposed the price freeze.

With the support of the World Bank, Alfonsin’s government attempted new measures to improve the state of Argentina’s economy in 1987. The government increased taxes and privatizations and decreased spending. However, many of these measures could not be effectively enforced, and the government lost the 1987 midterm elections. Many of the large unions that previously supported the government attempted to distance themselves from it, and the business community was unable to suggest a clear course of action to resolve the crisis that was unraveling. A “spring plan” was proposed to keep the economy stable until general elections took place in 1989. The plan consisted of freezing prices and wages as well as reducing the federal deficit and received even worse public reception than the Austral plan, with no political parties fully endorsing it. Meanwhile, the World Bank and IMF refused to extend credit to Argentina, and many big exporters refused to sell dollars to their central bank, depleting reserves. The austral was devalued in February 1989 and the already high inflation evolved into hyperinflation. As a result, Alfonsin’s government lost the general election to Peronist Carlos Menem.