Freedom in the World
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Argentina received a downward trend arrow because of President Kirchner’s centralization of power in the executive branch and limiting of other government branches’ autonomy, including changing the tax system to limit the influence of provincial governors, gaining higher spending discretion at the expense of Congress, and politicizing the process of Supreme Court justice selection.
President Nestor Kirchner governed with a stronger mandate in 2006 following legislative elections in October 2005 in which the ruling Justicialist Party (PJ), commonly known as the Peronist Party, gained a larger congressional majority. Kirchner benefited from a fourth consecutive year of impressive economic growth, as well as from his ultimately successful standoff with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and his departure from the orthodox policies of the 1990s. He also made strides in holding previously immune individuals responsible for the repression carried out during the former military dictatorship. However, 2006 saw a marked increase in the centralization of presidential power, which could prove to be at the expense of Argentina’s still fragile democratic institutions.
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 populist and 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 whose vicious and mostly clandestine repression of leftist guerrillas and other dissidents was known as the “dirty war.”
Provincial governor Carlos Menem, running on 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. While traditional Peronists criticized his policies as betrayals of the party’s principles, his convertibility plan, which pegged the peso to the U.S. dollar through a currency board, finally ended the country’s chronic bouts of hyperinflation.
Buenos Aires mayor Fernando De la Rua, of the center-left Alianza coalition, was elected president in October 1999. 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. De la Rua appointed Menem's former economy minister in an effort to restore credibility to the government's failing economic program and to stave off default on Argentina's $128 billion public sector debt. Record unemployment and reduced and delayed wages to government workers, effects of the highly overvalued and inflexible currency, created the kind of social mobilization and protest unseen for nearly a generation.
In December 2001, government efforts to stop a run on Argentina's banking system sparked widespread 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. 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, Menem’s former vice president, Eduardo 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 legacy of the dirty war kept the military from intervening in politics during the weeks-long transition. A 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. 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 and member of the Justicialist Party (PJ) [commonly known as the Peronist Party], was elected president in April 2003, becoming Argentina's sixth president in 18 months. In addition to working to stabilize the economy, Kirchner quickly moved to purge the country's authoritarian military and police leadership. Seeking to make human rights a trademark of his administration, 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.
The 2004 admission by the International Monetary Fund (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 in repaying 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.
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 9.2 percent in 2005, while unemployment fell from 21 to 13 percent and poverty rates from 55 to 38 percent. The country’s improved economic fortunes, including the achievement of the largest debt reduction ever by a developing country, helped the Peronists increase their legislative majority after the October 2005 legislative elections, portrayed as a referendum on both Kirchner’s presidency and his prospects for reelection in October 2007.
In June 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that laws passed in the 1980s to protect the military from prosecution—a move justified at the time of their promulgation as a way to help avoid a military coup—were unconstitutional, thus making Argentina a world leader in efforts to fight military impunity. In addition, in August 2006, Julio Simon, a police sergeant connected with the military junta, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in the dirty war; he became the first individual to be convicted and sentenced since the impunity laws were overruled. More than 200 other dictatorship officials are under investigation and could face trial. Separately, in September 2006, federal judges reversed presidential pardons granted by Menem to three leaders of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
In 2006, Kirchner implemented a series of measures centralizing political and economic power in the executive branch. Helped by the influence of his wife, who holds a Senate seat, Kirchner in August persuaded Congress to grant him the right to alter the budget without legislative approval; this privilege was created during the 2001 economic crisis but had expired in 2005. The now permanent executive power allows Kirchner to reallocate government spending as he sees fit, as long as the overall appropriation stays unchanged. He also changed the tax system to limit the power of historically powerful provincial governors, and created new state-owned enterprises while nationalizing privatized ones, such as the postal service and Buenos Aires’s water utility company.
Argentina is an electoral democracy. As amended in 1994, the 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 a free and fair election in 2003; with a 70 percent approval rating, he is likely to run again in 2007.
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 right to organize political parties is generally respected. Major political parties include the PJ (Peronist Party), the Frente para la Victoria (FV), the Radical Civic Union (UCR), the Alternative for a Republic of Equals (ARI), and the Republican Initiative Alliance (PRO). The Peronists have been a predominant force in politics in Argentina since 1946.
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. Argentina was ranked 93 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed by law, and government meddling in the press is not nearly as heavy-handed as during the presidency of Carlos Menem. However, government officials are increasingly accused of verbally mistreating independent journalists, and provincial governments continue to boost the amount of official advertising disproportionately in favor of media outlets they consider friendly. As noted in a recent study by the Association for Civil Rights in Buenos Aires, government advertising accounted for three-quarters of the total revenue of a local media outlet in Tierra del Fuego province. Kirchner refuses to hold press conferences, saying that he prefers press photographers “because they don’t ask questions,” and government spokespeople 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 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 the attack. 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 rights to freedom of assembly and association are 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.
Menem's manipulation of the judiciary undermined the country's separation of powers and the rule of law. Although positive steps have been taken under Kirchner, including the appointment of magistrates of professional quality, the tenure of scores of incompetent and corrupt judges remains a serious problem. Moreover, in February 2006, Congress voted to change the composition of the body responsible for selecting judges, making it less professional and more political. Human Rights Watch has written that the move makes the courts more susceptible to political pressure. Separately, according to a study released in June 2005 by the University of Buenos Aires law school, of the 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 contends.
Public safety is a primary concern for Argentines. Within the last decade, crime in Argentina doubled, and in Buenos Aires, tripled. Much of the increase has been fueled by a marked growth 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. Frustration with levels of crime in Buenos Aires was manifested in an historically large anticrime rally on August 31, 2006.
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—two women occupy Supreme Court seats, and as of December 2005, women serve as economy and defense ministers. However, domestic abuse remains a serious problem, and child prostitution is reported to be on the rise.