Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Argentina received an upward trend arrow due to reforms in the country's judicial system.
The government of Peronist president Nestor Kirchner appeared in 2004 to confound the forecasts of international financial experts. Kirchner negotiated successfully with foreign investors in restructuring the country's debt, taking advantage of the IMF's admission that its policies had helped to cripple the Argentine economy. He also made good on promises to reform the politicized judiciary, even as his government was criticized for backsliding on other aspects of his anticorruption agenda.
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 that spawned 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 in what is known as the "dirty war."
As a provincial governor, Carlos S. 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 and firmly allied the country with U.S. foreign policy.
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 stalled as a result of international economic strife and popular disenchantment due to his own government's growing corruption. 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 in October 1999. Menem's long-running feud with his former vice president, Eduardo 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 to 38 percent.
Weak, indecisive, and facing an opposition-controlled congress, De la Rua sought to cut spending, raise taxes, and push forward an anticorruption agenda and unpopular labor reforms.
Unable to halt the economic crisis, De la Rua called on 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. In the October 2001 congressional by-elections, the Peronist Party bested the ruling Alliance coalition. However, citizen anger resulted in an unprecedented 21 percent of the votes being spoiled or nullified.
In December 2001, government efforts to stop a run on Argentina's banking system sparked widespread protests. Middle-class housewives - the bulwark of the government coalition - turned out in massive street protests. At the same time, riots and looting of supermarkets in poorer districts erupted, some of which appeared to have been organized by rivals within the opposition Peronists and by disaffected serving or former members of the 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 was selected as Argentina's new president. 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 abhorrence of the recent legacy of the dirty war helped keep the military from intervening in politics during the weeks-long transition.
The steep devaluation of the peso and a debilitating default on its $141 billion foreign debt left Argentina teetering on the brink of political and economic collapse throughout 2002, as the restrictive fiscal policies urged by the IMF and pursued by the government were not matched by increases in foreign investment. An attempt by 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 accusations of bribery. Unemployment soared to levels unheard of since the founding of the republic, and violent crime spiraled out of control.
Kirchner, a relatively unknown governor from the Patagonian region, succeeded in getting into a runoff in the first round of the April 2003 presidential election, winning 22 percent to Menem's 24.3 percent. Menem's high negative poll ratings convinced him to drop out of the contest.
Upon taking office on May 25, 2003, as Argentina's sixth president in 18 months, Kirchner promised that his government would act as "the great repairer of social inequities" in what was once Latin America's most developed country. He quickly moved to purge the country's authoritarian military and police leadership. The new head of the Federal Police was fired a few months after the election in a corruption scandal - a first in the country's history. Kirchner also took steps to remove justices from the highly politicized Supreme Court, considered the country's most corrupt institution, and signed a decree that permitted the extradition of former military officials accused of human rights abuses. A former sympathizer of leftist guerrillas active in the country three decades ago, the populist Kirchner also moved Argentina into closer alliances with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro.
After making some efforts to put a break on government spending, Kirchner presided over a long-hoped-for economic recovery after the country's worst-ever depression. The 2004 admission by the IMF that it has significantly contributed to the Argentine economic crisis, and the role the international financial institutions played in financing the hated military, allowed the Kirchner government unaccustomed room to maneuver on how to repay nearly $88 billion owed to foreign creditors.
Lawlessness among the country's law enforcement institutions continued to be a major problem, particularly in Buenos Aires province, as did that of indigent street protestors. In August, an Argentine investigative television program aired a secret video tape that a leftist activist had made of a medical supply company executive trying to bribe him into using his influence to obtain a state medical care contract. In October, a Buenos Aires court revoked the acquittal of Menem on charges of illegal arms running, adding to his judicial predicament, as did the prosecution and conviction of top aides on other corruption charges. Meanwhile, Menem returned from his self-exile in Chile, where he had sought refuge from prosecution on corruption charges, and threatened to retake the presidency in 2007.
Citizens can change their government democratically. As amended in 1994, the 1853 constitution provides for a president elected for four years with the option of reelection for 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. The 2003 elections were considered to be free and fair, despite claims made by former president Carlos Menem - and considered false by outside observers - that he was withdrawing from the presidential contest out of fear that he would be fraudulently denied the election.
The government of President Nestor Kirchner initially made anticorruption pledges a central theme, and Decree 1172/03 established the public's right to information and other transparency guarantees. In 2004, however, leading anticorruption activists accused the Kirchner government of having stalled on its good-government agenda, particularly in not ensuring the effective functioning of administrative controls. For example, there are no specific legal protections offered to either government or private sector whistle-blowers, who are forced to seek redress in inadequate administrative or judicial remedies such as the Public Employees Law or the Work Contract Law. Argentina was ranked 108 out of 146 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
The press, which was frequently under attack during Menem's presidency, continues to enjoy broad credibility and influence, the latter due in part to the continued discredit of public institutions and the major political parties, although less so than in other years. The Kirchner government, whose officials were increasingly accused of verbally mistreating independent journalists, boosted the amount of official advertising in the media and channeled the advertising disproportionately in favor of news outlets it considers friendly. In a negative development, the pro-Kirchner daily, Pagina/12, censored one of its own journalists, who was preparing an investigative report on government corruption. The ensuing scandal ended with the dissolution of the decade-old free press group, Periodistas, which split between pro-government and anticensorship factions.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Nevertheless, the 250,000-strong Jewish community, the largest in Latin America, is a frequent target of anti-Semitic vandalism. Neo-Nazi organizations and other anti-Semitic groups, often tied to remnants of the old-line security services, remain active. In 2004, a federal court acquitted five men of being accessories in the 1994 car bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) community center, which resulted in 85 deaths. At the end of the three-year trial, not a single person was convicted for responsibility for the attack. The case languished in part because of sloppy police work at the crime scene and the anti-Semitic views of members of the security forces in charge of investigating the crime. During the trial, the investigating judge deliberately sidetracked the probe by bribing key witnesses with funds from a secret slush fund. Two prosecutors were removed for alleged irregularities, increasing already strong suspicions that complicity in the attack extended into Menem's inner circle.
Academic freedom is a cherished Argentine tradition and is largely observed in practice.
The right to organize political parties, civic organizations, and labor unions is generally respected. Labor is dominated by Peronist unions. Union influence, however, has diminished dramatically in the past decade because of corruption scandals, internal divisions, and restrictions on public sector strikes decreed by Menem to pave the way for his privatization program.
Menem's manipulation of the judiciary resulted in the undermining of the country's separation of powers and the rule of law. Although the tenure of scores of incompetent and corrupt judges remains a serious problem, some positive steps have been taken. In June 2004, Kirchner took an unprecedented step toward creating an independent judicial system by issuing a decree that limited the president's powers to appoint Supreme Court judges while widening the selection process to include the views of a number of nongovernmental organizations. By September 2004, four Supreme Court justices who formed an "automatic" pro-Menem majority had died or resigned, and Kirchner appointed two women in their place in an unprecedented move to give them representation in a body from which they had been excluded. However, the Magistrates' Council, responsible for choosing judges, remained a virtually moribund institution, seemingly incapable of even disciplining judicial misconduct in the AMIA case.
Public safety is a primary concern for Argentines, much of it fueled by a marked increase in illegal drug consumption that began during the Menem years. Within a decade, crime in Argentina has doubled, and in Buenos Aires, tripled, including a 50 percent increase in the murder rate in the past five years.
In May 2002, the Argentine penal code was changed, and the penalty for being convicted of killing a police officer became a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Police misconduct includes growing numbers of allegedly extrajudicial executions by law enforcement officers. The Buenos Aires provincial police have been involved in drug trafficking, extortion, and vice. Arbitrary arrests and abuse 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. Prison conditions are generally substandard throughout the country. In May 2004, law enforcement minister Gustavo Beliz resigned after denouncing "judicial and police mafias" who, along with renegade state intelligence agents, sought to undermine his work.
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.
Women actively participate in politics in Argentina. However, domestic abuse remains a serious problem, and child prostitution is reported to be on the rise. In 2002, the city of Buenos Aires significantly expanded the legal rights of gay and lesbian couples.