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Peronist president Nestor Kirchner in 2005 won a significant victory in midterm congressional elections, capitalizing on a third straight year of economic growth, his government's successful renegotiation with foreign investors of the country's crushing debt burden, and his continued efforts to bring about a full legal accounting for the illegal repression carried out during a former military dictatorship. However, Kirchner's promised reform of Argentina's corrupt and politicized judiciary remained incomplete, as did his anticorruption agenda. Meanwhile, his relations with the country's independent media remained tense, and diplomatic and economic ties to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and other regional antidemocratic forces were strengthened.
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 a far-right military regime-strongly supported by the U.S. administrations of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan-whose vicious and mostly clandestine repression of leftist guerrillas and other dissidents was 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, amid hyperinflation and food riots. As president, however, he implemented, mostly by decree, an economic liberalization program and unconditionally allied the country with U.S. foreign policy-moves that traditional Peronists criticized as betrayals of the party's principals.
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 had stalled as a result of international economic strife and popular disenchantment with his government. Buenos Aires mayor and Radical Civic Union (UCR) leader Fernando De la Rua, a middle-class favorite, 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.
Facing an opposition-controlled National Congress, De la Rua sought to cut spending, raise taxes, and push forward an anticorruption agenda and unpopular labor reforms, the latter won through the purchase of congressional votes by illegally using state intelligence agency funds. De la Rua appointed Menem's former economy minister to restore credibility to the government's failing 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, angry citizens spoiled or nullified an unprecedented 21 percent of the votes.
In December 2001, government efforts to stop a run on Argentina's banking system sparked widespread protests. Middle-class housewives 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 by Congress 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 kept 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 International Monetary Fund (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. Unemployment soared to levels unheard of since the founding of the republic, and violent crime spiraled out of control.
Nestor Kirchner, a relatively unknown governor from the Patagonian region supported by Duhalde, 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, leaving Kirchner with a weak popular mandate.
Upon taking office on May 25, 2003, as Argentina's sixth president in 18 months, Kirchner 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, Kirchner also moved Argentina into closer alliances with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro. Documents declassified by the U.S. State Department in 2002 and 2003 provided additional proof of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's "green light" for the military-led "dirty war."
The 2004 admission by the IMF that it had significantly contributed to the Argentine economic crisis, and the role the international financial institutions and private banks played in financing the hated military, allowed the Kirchner government unaccustomed room to maneuver on how to repay foreign creditors. After making some efforts to put a brake on government spending, Kirchner presided over a long-hoped-for economic recovery. However, corruption and extrajudicial action by the country's law enforcement institutions continued to be a major problem, particularly in Buenos Aires province. Indigent street protestors also complicated the situation through uncontrolled demonstrations and the blocking of major thoroughfares. In October, a Buenos Aires court revoked the acquittal of Menem on charges of illegal arms running. The court's action added to his judicial predicament, as did the prosecution and conviction of top aides on other corruption charges.
By March 2005, Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna was able to declare the end of a three-year battle to restructure what had become a record $103 billion in defaulted debt, with more than three-fourths of the holders of Argentine foreign bonds agreeing to a nonnegotiable offer of 30 cents on the dollar. Argentina's financial position was also helped by Venezuela's purchase of more than $500 million in government bonds, which cushioned Buenos Aires's tense relations with the IMF. The economy grew some 7.5 percent in 2005, while during Kirchner's term in office unemployment fell from 21 to 13 percent and poverty rates went from 55 to 38 percent.
The country's improved economic fortunes, including the achievement of the largest debt reduction ever by a developing country, made Kirchner's wing of the Peronist Party the favorite going into October 23 legislative elections for 24 of 72 Senate seats and 127 of 257 Chamber of Deputies seats. The 2005 election was portrayed as a referendum on both his presidency and his prospects for reelection in 2007.
Kirchner allies significantly increased their congressional presence, winning 21 seats and a comfortable majority in the Senate, although they fell short of a legislative majority in the lower house, ending up with 115 seats, 14 less than the 129 needed for an absolute majority. Kirchner's wife, Cristina Fernandez, overwhelmed Hilda "Chiche" Duhalde, the wife of the former president, 46 to 20 percent, in the contest for senator from Buenos Aires province.
Tempering the Kirchner victory was the fact his allies lost in three of the five largest and wealthiest electoral districts, including the federal capital, where the center-right businessman Mauricio Macri handily bested Kirchner's pro-Cuba foreign minister, Rafael Bielsa, an official in both the former military dictatorship and Menem's Justice Ministry, in the race for congressional deputy. Menem, who in 2004 returned from his self-exile in Chile, where he had sought refuge from prosecution on corruption charges, experienced his first loss in an election by coming in second in the Senate race in his native La Rioja province.
In June 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that laws passed in the 1980s to protect military and security officers from prosecution-a move justified at the time of their promulgation as helping to avoid the possibility of a military coup-were unconstitutional, thus making Argentina a world leader in efforts to fight military impunity. By the end of 2005, nearly 1,000 former military and police officials either were imprisoned or faced trial for rights abuses committed during the dirty war, although some were released on grounds of not having received a speedy trial; few, if any, active duty officers were believed implicated in the atrocities. In July, the bodies of three founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights group were identified after being located in a mass grave. The women disappeared in 1977 and were secretly killed by the military. On September 28, the Senate voted to remove Supreme Court justice Antonio Boggiano, the second high court judge forced out by the legislative body in two years. The removal brought to six the number of justices known as Menem's "automatic majority" who have left office since Kirchner's inauguration.
Citizens of Argentina 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 current president, Nestor Kirchner, was elected to his first term in 2003.
The National Congress consists of the 257-member Chamber of Deputies directly elected for four years, with half the seats renewable every two years, and the 72-member Senate directly elected for six-year terms, with one-third of the seats renewable every two years. Two senators are directly elected in the autonomous Buenos Aires federal district.
The 2005 election in Buenos Aires province was marred by credible claims of vote buying by Kirchner and Eduardo Duhalde loyalists. The Interior Ministry reported that 82 percent of the 26 million Argentines who were registered to vote did so. Because Argentina's electoral system allows for three senators to be elected per district, former president Carlos S. Menem won a congressional seat despite losing 40 to 51 percent against his province's highest vote getter, and was thus immune from prosecution on corruption charges.
The right to organize political parties is generally respected. Major political parties include the Alternative for a Republic of Equals (ARI), the Justicialist Party (PJ; commonly known as the "Peronist Party"), the Radical Civic Union (UCR), and the Republican Initiative Alliance (PRO; including Federal Recreate Movement or RECREAR and Commitment for Change).
Kirchner's government initially made anticorruption pledges a central theme, and Decree 1172/03 established the public's right to information and other transparency guarantees. However, leading anticorruption activists have 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 97 out of 159 countries surveyed in the 2005 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 discrediting of public institutions and major political parties because of their corruption and clientelistic practices, although less so than in other years. The Kirchner government, whose officials are increasingly accused of verbally mistreating independent journalists, continues to boost the amount of official advertising in the media, and channels the advertising disproportionately in favor of news outlets it considers friendly. Kirchner refuses to hold press conferences, saying that he prefers press photographers "because they don't ask questions," and government spokesmen allege press conferences are unnecessary because the president "speaks directly to the people." The final passage of a Freedom of Information Act is still pending; its passage is in jeopardy because of several amendments that would undermine its open government provisions.
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 of having responsibility for the attack. 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, which increased already strong suspicions that complicity in the attack or its cover-up extended into Menem's inner circle. In 2005, Kirchner's government apologized to Argentina's Jewish community for a secret 1938 order barring Jewish immigrants fleeing the Nazis in Europe from entering Argentina.
Academic freedom is a cherished Argentine tradition and is largely observed in practice.
The right to organize civic organizations and labor unions is generally respected. Civil society organizations are robust and play a large role in society, although some fall victim to the corruption that continues to pervade Argentina's politics and economy. 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 undermined 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, positive steps have been taken under Kirchner, including the appointment of magistrates of professional quality. According to a study released in June 2005 by the University of Buenos Aires law school, of 26,000 laws on the books nationally in Argentina, only 4,000-about 15 percent- were actually in force. The arbitrary application of superfluous laws leads to juridical insecurity, the study contended.
Public safety is a primary concern for Argentines. Within the last decade, crime in Argentina doubled, and in Buenos Aires, tripled. Much of it has been fueled by a marked increase in illegal drug consumption that began during the Menem years, and by the complicity of high-ranking judicial and law enforcement authorities in the drug trade.
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 alleged 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 endemic, and the provincial penal service is rife with corruption. Prison conditions are generally substandard throughout the country.
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; however, the Kirchner government appears sensitive to their plight and has returned lands to several communities.
In 2002, the city of Buenos Aires significantly expanded the legal rights of gay and lesbian couples, although one poll conducted in 2005 reported that one in five gays say they have been the victims of violence related to their sexual orientation. Women actively participate in politics in Argentina. However, domestic abuse remains a serious problem, and child prostitution is reported to be on the rise.