Argentina | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2008

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Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of the center-left Peronist party became Argentina’s first elected female president in 2007, easily winning the October election. Her campaign was helped by the weakness and fragmentation of the opposition, as well as four years of strong economic growth under her husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner. He remained popular through the end of his term despite a string of corruption charges involving his party that emerged during the year.

Argentina gained independence from Spain in 1816. Democratic rule was often interrupted by war and military coups over the following century. 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 under a far-right military regime whose repression of leftist guerrillas and other real or suspected 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 reappointed Menem’s former economy minister in an effort to restore government credibility and stave off default on Argentina’s public sector debt. Record unemployment and reduced and delayed wages to government workers, effects of the highly overvalued and inflexible currency, spurred social mobilization and protests with an intensity that had not been seen for nearly a generation.

In December 2001, government efforts to stop a run on Argentina’s banking system sparked widespread protests along with riots and looting. 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, Menem’s former vice president, Eduardo Duhalde, was selected by Congress as Argentina’s new president. 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 little-known governor from the Patagonia region and a member of the Justicialist Party (PJ, commonly known as the Peronist Party), was elected president in April 2003 with just 22 percent of the vote, becoming Argentina’s sixth president in 18 months. While working to stabilize the economy, Kirchner quickly moved to purge the country’s military and police leadership of authoritarian elements. 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 contributed to the Argentine economic crisis, and the role international financial institutions and private banks had played in financing the hated military in earlier decades, gave 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 bolstered by high international soya prices and increased demand for Argentina’s principal exports. 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 an end to the three-year battle to restructure Argentina’s 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. The economy grew, and unemployment and poverty rates began to show improvement. Economic stability, along with 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.

In June 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that laws passed in the 1980s to protect the military from prosecution—justified at the time as a way to help avoid a military coup—were unconstitutional, thus making Argentina a world leader in efforts to fight military impunity. The decision laid the foundation for the prosecution of other military crimes. Kirchner’s aggressive pursuit of former officials involved in the dirty war included a police sergeant connected with the military junta who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2006, and the reversal of presidential pardons granted by Menem to three military leaders. In addition, Isabel Peron, Juan Peron’s third wife, who served as president from 1974 to 1976, was detained in Spain in 2007 for her alleged role in the disappearance of students during her time in power. In October 2007, a former priest was sentenced to life in prison for his complicity in seven murders and other human rights abuses.

In 2006, Kirchner implemented a series of measures centralizing political and economic power in the executive branch. Congress granted the president the authority to reallocate government spending as he sees fit, as long as the overall appropriation remains the same. Kirchner also changed the tax system to limit the influence 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.

In spite of Kirchner’s initial pledge to combat corruption, it continues to pervade Argentina’s public institutions. In March 2007, government officials were accused of receiving improper payments from a large gas-line project. Then, in June 2007, Economy Minister Felisa Miceli was forced to resign after more than $60,000 was found in her office bathroom. The series of scandals also hit the defense minister, who was accused of tax evasion. Finally, in August 2007, $800,000 in cash discovered in the suitcase of a Venezuelan businessman traveling on a private plane chartered by Argentina’s state oil company was seized at the Buenos Aires airport. The source of the funds as well as their intended destination remain under investigation, but the incident raised further suspicions.

Kirchner’s wife, Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, won the October 2007 presidential election with 45 percent of the vote, 22 points ahead of her nearest rival. The margin of victory negated the need for a runoff. Her campaign was helped by a strong economy, which had grown by 8 percent each year since her husband took office. The clear victory was also attributed to divisions within the opposition, which fielded 13 different candidates and diluted the “anti-Kirchner” vote. The new president took office on December 10. Her party, the Frente para la Victoria (FV), emerged from the legislative elections with a stronger majority in both houses.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 additional term. Presidential candidates must win 45 percent of the vote, or 40 percent with a 10-point lead, to avoid a runoff. The general elections in October 2007 were considered free and fair; midterm congressional elections are scheduled for 2009.

The National Congress consists of the 257-member Chamber of Deputies, directly elected for four years, with half the seats up for election every two years; and the 72-member Senate, directly elected for six-year terms, with one-third of the seats up for election every two years.

The right to organize political parties is generally respected. Major parties include the PJ, 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 dominant force in politics since 1946.

Nestor Kirchner’s government initially made anticorruption efforts 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 administration of stalling on its good-governance agenda, particularly by failing to ensure the effective functioning of administrative controls. Argentina was ranked 105 out of 179 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 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 still accused of verbally mistreating independent journalists, and provincial governments continue to manipulate official advertising to favor media outlets they consider friendly. After five years of debate in Congress, a Freedom of Information act failed in 2006.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Nevertheless, Argentina’s Jewish community, the largest in Latin America, is a frequent target of anti-Semitic discrimination and vandalism. Neo-Nazi and other anti-Semitic groups remain active, and the memory of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center still looms. No one has been convicted of the bombing, although it was found to have been planned and financed by the government of Iran. Nestor Kirchner catered to the Jewish population, creating a special commission to investigate the cultural center case and meeting with Jewish leaders several times each year. In November 2006, arrest warrants were issued for the eight individuals suspected of involvement in the attack.

Academic freedom is a cherished Argentine tradition and is largely observed in practice.

The rights to freedom of assembly and association are generally respected. Civic organizations are robust and play a large role in society, although some fall victim to Argentina’s pervasive corruption. Labor is dominated by Peronist unions. Union influence, however, has diminished dramatically in the past decade because of corruption scandals and internal divisions.

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 Nestor 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.

Public safety is a primary concern for Argentines, especially in Buenos Aires where crime has increased markedly over the last decade. Much of the increase has been fueled by a growth in illegal drug use that began during the Menem years, and by the complicity of high-ranking judicial and law enforcement authorities in the drug trade.

Police have been accused of misconduct including growing numbers of extrajudicial executions. The Buenos Aires provincial police have been involved in drug trafficking, extortion, and vice. Arbitrary arrests and abuse by police are rarely punished in the 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 indigenous peoples represent between 3 and 5 percent of the total population, and are largely neglected by the government. Approximately 70 percent of the country’s rural indigenous communities lack title to their lands; however, the Nestor Kirchner administration returned lands to several communities.

In 2002, Buenos Aires became the first South American city to pass a domestic partnership law, and the country as a whole is considering following its lead by allowing same-sex unions.

Women actively participate in politics in Argentina, as reflected most recently by the election of Senator Kirchner as president and the second-place showing by another female candidate. However, domestic abuse remains a serious problem, and child prostitution is reported to be on the rise. An estimated 3,000 children are homeless in Buenos Aires, double the number prior to Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse.