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Argentina received a downward trend arrow due to the absence of an elected president and generalized corruption pervading all three branches of government.
The steep devaluation of the peso and a debilitating default on its foreign debt left Argentina teetering on the brink of political and economic collapse throughout 2002, as newly appointed President Eduardo Duhalde took time out from his long-running feud with former chief executive Carlos Menem to try, without much success, to run the country. An attempt by the Argentine congress to impeach a highly politicized supreme court loyal to Menem was dropped, after international financial institutions said the move would endanger the country's access to foreign credit, and the legislature itself was the target of persistent and apparently well-founded accusations of bribery. Unemployment soared to levels unheard of since the founding of the republic, and violent crime spiraled out of control, with several of the country's police forces roundly criticized both for not being able to stop the crime wave, and for contributing to it through deep-seated corruption and frequent use of excessive force.
Menem's own hopes for succeeding Duhalde in presidential elections slated for March 2003 dimmed after the New York Times tied him to the cover-up of a 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center, in which 85 people died. Reeling from the charges, which had already been published by the Argentine newspaper, Clarin, Menem, while denying any link to the bombing, subsequently admitted he owned a secret Swiss bank account. Menem's claims for special status with the United States also appeared to be jeopardized by his selection of the governor of a poor, cocaine-ridden province as a running mate. Documents declassified by the U.S. State Department in July provided yet another direct link between former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger and the military-led "dirty war" of the 1970s and 1980s.
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 regime 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 the 257-member Chamber of Deputies elected for six years, with half the seats renewable every three years, and the 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 autonomous Buenos Aires federal district.
As a 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. As president, he implemented, mostly by decree, an economic liberalization program. He also won praise for firmly allying the country with U.S. foreign policy, particularly during the Gulf War with Iraq.
In the October 1997 elections, voter concerns about rampant corruption and unemployment resulted in the first nationwide defeat of Menem's Peronists, whose macroeconomic stabilization plan collapsed due to the "tequila effect" resulting from serious economic problems in Mexico, as well as the Asian financial crisis and a dramatic devaluation of the currency in neighboring Brazil. Buenos Aires mayor and Radical Party leader Fernando de la Rua was chosen as the nominee of the center-left Alliance for presidential elections to be held October 24, 1999. Menem's feud with the hapless Duhalde, the Peronist Party presidential nominee and governor of Buenos Aires province, sealed the latter's fate. Duhalde was defeated by De la Rua 48.5 percent to 38 percent. Weak, indecisive and facing an opposition-controlled Congress, De la Rua sought to cut spending, raise taxes, and push forward with unpopular labor reforms. He also 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 1970s and early 1980s. In October, Vice President Carlos Alvarez stepped down after De la Rua stonewalled calls for a serious investigation of the reported buying of congressional votes, in order to pass the labor legislation. In December, a judge who himself was under investigation for "illegal enrichment," dropped the charges against the 11 senators named in the scandal.
Unable to halt the economic crisis, De la Rua called upon Menem's former economy minister 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 created the kind of social mobilization and protest unseen for nearly a generation. A congressional report on rampant money laundering during Menem's rule raised questions about senior officials of De la Rua's government. In the October 2001 congressional by-elections, the opposition Peronist Party bested the ruling Alliance coalition. However, citizen anger resulted in an unprecedented 21 percent of the votes being spoiled or nullified. Public outrage was also in full throttle after the Supreme Court, dominated by Menem loyalists, set aside prosecution of the former president, under house arrest on international arms trafficking and other charges.
In December 2001, government efforts to stop a run on Argentina's banking system sparked widespread protests. Massive demonstrations by middle class housewives--the bulwark of the government coalition's base--combined with riots and looting of supermarkets in poorer districts, 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. He was replaced by an interim president, who himself was forced to quit less than a week later. On December 31, 2001, Duhalde, De la Rua's former rival in the 1999 presidential contest, was selected as the new president. Few had many hopes for Duhalde, who critics charged had a penchant for rampant nepotism, who had left the province with its biggest debt in history, and whose past friendships with drug traffickers and crime figures went hand-in- hand with presiding over one of the most violent, corrupt police forces in the region. On a positive note, a decade-old law prohibiting the use of the military for internal security, a sizable reduction in military strength carried out by the Menem government, and continuing civilian revulsion of the still-conflictive legacy of the "dirty war," all helped keep the military from intervening in politics during the weeks-long transition.
Throughout 2002 the contractionary fiscal policies urged by the IMF and pursued by the government were not matched by increases in foreign investment, which exacerbated Argentina's high debt load--$141 billion--and deepened the economic depression. According to official government statistics, between October 2001 and May 2002, about 5.2 million people belonging to the middle class sank below the poverty line. At the same time, public opinion polls showed broad rejection of the country's traditional political figures and parties. The top justice official in populous Buenos Aires province admitted that overflow from crowded jails made police stations "almost concentration camps;" human rights groups say that torture by police of detainees was endemic countrywide. At the same time, concerns over personal security in much of the country skyrocketed. In 2002 Argentina slipped from 57th to 70th out of 102 countries ranked on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.
Citizens can change their government through elections, although Eduardo Duhalde's interim presidency is due entirely to an agreement reached by the country's political establishment. 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 complete undermining of the country's separation of powers and the rule of law. The judicial system remains politicized, inefficient, and riddled with the corruption endemic to all branches of government. The tenure of scores of incompetent and--it is widely believed--corrupt judges remains a grave problem.
The press, which was frequently under attack during Menem's presidency, enjoys broad credibility and influence, the latter in part due to the discredit of public institutions and the major political parties. However, more than 150 journalists reportedly receive monthly payments from the state intelligence service (SIDE).
Labor is dominated by Peronist unions. Union influence, however, has diminished dramatically because of corruption scandals, internal divisions, and restrictions on public sector strikes decreed by Menem to pave the way for his privatization program.
Public safety is a primary concern for Argentines. Within a decade, crime in Argentina has doubled, and in Buenos Aires, tripled. In May 2002, the Argentine penal code was changed; the penalty for being convicted of killing of a police officer became a life sentence without possibility of parole. Police misconduct includes growing numbers of allegedly extrajudicial executions by law enforcement officers. 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. The torture of detainees in police custody in the province is widespread. In 2002, the armed forces--quietly encouraged by the Pentagon--pressed ahead with a 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.
Prison conditions are generally substandard throughout the country.
Military impunity continued its slow decline when, in September 2002, a judge indicted former military dictator Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri and 24 other alleged military rights violators for the disappearance of 20 former guerrillas captured in 1980.
The investigation of the 1994 car bombing of a Jewish community organization 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.
Argentina's estimated 700,000 to 1.5 million indigenous people are largely neglected. Approximately 70 percent of the country's rural indigenous communities lack title to their lands. In 2002, the total budget for the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs was less than $2 million.
Women actively participate in politics in Argentina. However, domestic abuse remains a serious problem, and child prostitution is reported to be on the rise. On a positive note, in 2002 the city of Buenos Aires significantly expanded the legal rights of gay and lesbian couples.