Argentina | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Argentina

Argentina

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores

Status

Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3.0

Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3

Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3
Ratings Change: 


Argentina's political rights rating declined from 1 to 3, its civil liberties rating declined from 2 to 3, and its status changed from Free to Partly Free, due to the resignation of an elected president; an abject absence of professionalism in the judiciary, particularly in the Supreme Court, and significant increases in public insecurity, including common crime, police misconduct, and organized civil disturbances.

Overview: 


In December 2001, President Fernando De la Rua resigned from office in the face of an imminent default on Argentina's ballooning foreign debt, his government's inability to pull the country out of a three-year economic crisis, and a series of grave public disorders followed by heavy-handed police repression. His fall from public grace came as a consequence of having embarked upon a series of highly unpopular public spending cuts designed to restore Argentina to financial health, while leaving untouched one of the root causes of Argentina's economic meltdown--a massive debt to foreign banks that had eagerly lent money to both dictators and a corrupted political system. The hapless De la Rua left office after little more than 18 months in office, a time plagued by his own failing health, the virtual collapse of his ruling coalition, broad public discontent with Argentina's traditional political leadership, and a corrupted judiciary inherited from his predecessor and favorite in Washington, D.C., Carlos Menem. A congressional report on rampant money laundering during Menem's rule also raised questions about the activities of senior officials in a government elected after candidate De la Rua claimed Menem's ten-year reign had resulted in $10 billion in public corruption. Even as Menem was placed under house arrest for his alleged role in a murky international arms trafficking scandal, the De la Rua government seemed more interested in protecting its powerful patrons than redeeming anticorruption promises, and it backtracked on commitments to add teeth to anti-money-laundering legislation. In the October 2001 by-elections, the opposition Peronist party bested the ruling Alliance coalition in the congressional contests, and citizen anger resulted in an unprecedented 21 percent of the votes being spoiled or nulled. Citizen outrage was also in full throttle after a highly politicized Supreme Court dominated by Menem loyalists set aside prosecution of the former president on arms trafficking and other charges.

In December, De la Rua ordered that limits on cash withdrawals from banks be established to stop a run on Argentina's banking system, but the move sparked widespread protests. Within days, massive spontaneous demonstrations by housewives from the middle class--the most important sector of the government coalition's base--were joined by the rioting and looting of supermarkets in poorer districts around the country, some of which, at least, appeared to have been organized by rivals within the opposition Peronists and by disaffected serving or former members of the Argentina's intelligence services. As the death toll reached 27, De la Rua resigned, and was replaced by an interim president, who himself was forced to resign just a week later. On January 31, De la Rua's former rival in the 1999 presidential contest, former Buenos Aires provincial governor Eduardo Duhalde, prepared to don the presidential sash the next day. Duhalde, however, was himself criticized for leaving the province with its biggest debt in history, as well as past friendships with drug traffickers and organized crime figures, and for presiding over a violent and corrupt police force.

The Argentine Republic was established after independence from Spain in 1816. Democratic rule was often interrupted by military coups. The end of Juan Peron's authoritarian rule in 1955 led to a series of right-wing military dictatorships as well as left-wing and nationalist violence. Argentina returned to elected civilian rule in 1983, after seven years of vicious and mostly clandestine repression of leftist guerrillas and other dissidents.

As amended in 1994, the 1853 constitution provides for a president elected for four years with the option of reelection to one term. Presidential candidates must win 45 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. The legislature consists of a 257-member chamber of deputies elected for six years, with half the seats renewable every three years, and a 72-member senate nominated by elected provincial legislatures for nine-year terms, with one-third of the seats renewable every three years. Two senators are directly elected in the newly autonomous Buenos Aires federal district.

As provincial governor, Menem, running an orthodox Peronist platform of nationalism and state intervention in the economy, won a six-year presidential term in 1989, amidst hyperinflation and food riots. Once inaugurated, Menem discarded statist Peronist traditions by implementing, mostly by decree, an economic liberalization program. He also won praise for firmly allying the country with U.S. foreign policy.

In the October 1987 elections, voter concerns about rampant corruption and unemployment resulted in Menem's Peronists being handed their first nationwide defeat. The Alliance, composed of the centrist Radical Party and the center-left Front for a Country in Solidarity, beat Menem's party, 46 percent to 36 percent. On November 29, 1998, Buenos Aires mayor and Radical Party leader Fernando de la Rua won a contested primary to become the Alliance candidate in the 1999 presidential elections.

Menem's feud with the hapless Peronist Party presidential nominee, Buenos Aires Governor Eduardo Duhalde, sealed the latter's fate as Duhalde was beaten by De la Rua 48.5 percent to 38 percent in national elections held in October 24, 1999. Upon taking office, De la Rua sought to put the government's accounts in order, cut spending, raise taxes, and push forward with unpopular labor reforms. He also made a series of appointments and issued sweeping rules and regulations designed to rein in public corruption. In April 2000, De la Rua dismissed a nine-member military tribunal after it claimed military, rather than civilian, courts had jurisdiction over cases in which military personnel had been accused of kidnapping, and in some cases killing, hundreds of babies born to detainees during the so-called dirty war of the 1970s and early 1980s.

In May 2000, the Alliance received a boost when its candidate, Anibal Ibarra, won the Buenos Aires mayoralty vacated by De la Rua when he assumed the presidency in December. In October, De la Rua twice reshuffled his cabinet, the second time after Vice President Carlos Alvarez announced his stunning decision to resign. Alvarez stepped down after the president's determination appeared to waiver on uncovering the truth about the reported buying of congressional votes in order to pass labor legislation. Government involvement, including members of De la Rua's inner circle, was suspected in the vote buying. In December 2000, a judge who himself was under investigation for "illegal enrichment," dropped the charges against the 11 senators named in the scandal, saying he lacked sufficient evidence to proceeds.

As the economic downturn began to endanger the government's own solvency, De la Rua called upon Menem's former Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo, to restore credibility to the government's economic program and to stave off default on Argentina's $128 billion in public sector debt. Record unemployment, reduced and delayed wages to federal and provincial workers, and the closing of public schools have created the kind of social mobilization and protests unseen for nearly a generation. In June 2001, supermarkets in Buenos Aires province were raided by local residents for food; similar activities in 1989 spelled an early end to Argentina's first democratically elected government, which had come to power following a period of harsh military rule. The disintegrating economy also created a climate of xenophobia, as foreign companies that participated in the purchase of privatized state companies were targeted by Argentine labor groups for protest.

Street crime has become one of the most important challenges now facing Argentina. The depression-like state of the economy has been a major factor in the steady increase in the rate of violent crime experienced throughout the country. The long-running economic crisis--including a widening gap between rich and poor, generalized corruption of both Argentina's political class and its judiciary, and a historical lack of attention by the political community to law enforcement needs--have forged an unfavorable set of circumstances that has proven resistant to change. The fight against crime has been complicated by Menem's legacy of restoring to the security forces and intelligence agencies both former death squad activists and former members of a lethal military regime, whose presence has exacerbated a troublesome and long-standing problem of excessive violence and corruption on the part of the police. Drug trafficking, the existence of which has long been ignored by Argentina's political community, is also on the rise, and the political corruption and potential for violence it represents pose perhaps the single greatest threat to public safety in the country today. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, attention focused on the "Triple Border" area Argentina shares with Brazil and Paraguay, a reputed way station for Middle Eastern terrorists. Inefficiency and corruption within Argentina's intelligence and police services have called into question their ability to deal with this threat.

Two positive events also occurred in 2001, although by the end of the year one of them had been reversed. Throughout the year a congressional commission, working in cooperation with members of the U.S. Senate, exposed the degree to which money laundering--sometimes aided and abetted by U.S. and other foreign banks--in Argentina had facilitated political and narcotics corruption, a charge that resulted in the dismissal of the powerful head of the Central Bank. In a decision hailed by international human rights groups, in November, a federal court struck down two laws promulgated in the 1980s and 1990s that exempted most Argentine military officers from trial for rights atrocities committed during the "dirty war." Also, the arrest of Menem--the first democratically elected president to be arrested during a period of constitutional rule--on charges stemming from illegal arms sales restored some confidence in the judiciary. Few Argentines believed that he would face the consequences of a decade in power tainted by scandal and public excess. The De la Rua government first appeared to allow the judicial system to function without political interference; however, in late 2001 the Argentine press was rife with speculation that senior officials were quietly letting judicial authorities know that they would not object to the charges against Menem being dropped.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Citizens can change their government through elections. The by-elections held in October 2001 were free and fair, although there was concern about the unregulated role of money in election campaigns and the continued use of listas sabanas (sheet lists) in which multiple candidates are elected from a single constituency.

Constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of religion and the right to organize political parties, civic organizations, and labor unions are generally respected.

Former President Carlos Menem's authoritarian ways and manipulation of the judiciary resulted in the undermining of the country's separation of powers and the rule of law. In 1990, Menem pushed a bill through the Peronist-controlled senate that allowed him to stack the supreme court with an additional four members and to fill the judiciary with politically loyal judges. He used the supreme court to uphold decrees removing the comptroller-general and other officials mandated to probe government wrongdoing. Overall, the judicial system is politicized, inefficient, and riddled with the corruption endemic to all branches of government. The politization of the judiciary and the tenure of scores of incompetent and--it is widely believed--corrupt judges remain grave problems.

The situation of human rights groups and journalists, the latter of which had been subject to more than 1,000 beatings, kidnappings, and death threats during Menem's rule, improved notably under President Fernando De la Rua.

Labor is dominated by Peronist unions. Union influence, however, has diminished because of corruption scandals, internal divisions, and restrictions on public sector strikes decreed by Menem to pave the way for his privatization program. In 1998, a deadlocked congress approved a government-sponsored labor flexibility initiative after a congressional deputy who was allegedly filmed by state intelligence agents in a gay bordello operated by the agents changed positions on the measure and voted for it.

Public safety is a primary concern for Argentines, who just a generation ago enjoyed a country with one of the world's lowest rates of violent common crime. Within a decade, crime in Argentina has doubled, and, in Buenos Aires, tripled. Criminal court judges are frequent targets of anonymous threats. Police misconduct includes growing numbers of allegedly extrajudicial executions by law enforcement officers. In July, the cash-strapped government cut the salaries of already low paid Federal Police a second time in less than a year--at a time when the number of officers killed in the line of duty spiraled upward. The Buenos Aires provincial police have been heavily involved in drug trafficking, extortion, and vice. Arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment by police are rarely punished in civil courts owing to intimidation of witnesses and judges, particularly in Buenos Aires province. There the governor, Carlos Ruckauf, has pursued ironfisted anticrime policies, exhorting a police force already heavily criticized for excessive force to shoot at criminals' arms and legs without prior warning, "pumping them full of bullets." The torture of detainees in the province has become endemic, and in late 2001, international and local human rights groups sounded an alert over an alarming number of adolescents killed by the police.

In 2001, the armed forces--quietly encouraged by the Pentagon--pressed ahead with their plan to be once again permitted to participate in internal security, a role prohibited by two model laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of the military's legacy of dictatorship and "political" policing. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, several senior government officials added their voices to efforts the generals were making. However, in November, the senate voted to maintain the ban on armed forces participation in internal intelligence operations.

Prison conditions are generally substandard. In 2000, it was revealed that prisoners in a federal jail ran a workshop to strip stolen cars and paid wardens who smuggled drugs into the prison for them. Witnesses at a trial told how mutineers in a recent prison riot killed seven fellow inmates, cooked their bodies, and fed them to their hostages.

The investigation of a 1994 car bombing of a Jewish organization, in which more than 80 people died, has languished because of sloppy police work at the crime scene and the alleged complicity by members of the security forces with the terrorists. On September 24, 2001, seven years after the outrage, the trial of several suspects--most of them policemen--began in Buenos Aires, but a senior U.S. law enforcement official called the effort "a joke" and suggested that complicity in the attack went high into Menem's inner circle. The 250,000-strong Jewish community is a frequent target of anti-Semitic vandalism. Neo-Nazi organizations and other anti-Semitic groups, frequently tied to remnants of the old-line security services, some of whom retain their posts, remain active. The Roman Catholic majority enjoys freedom of religious expression.

A study released by the United Nations Children's Fund in 2000 showed that child prostitution was a serious problem, exacerbated by a growing number of hungry children.