Argentina | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2009

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President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner suffered a major defeat in the Senate in July 2008 after she attempted to increase agricultural export taxes by presidential decree. The proposed increase led to months of strikes by farmers, who were supported by the majority of Argentines. The botched handling of the tax dispute contributed to greater opposition from within the president’s own Peronist party. Combined with rising inflation and slowing economic growth, this led to a drastic fall in her approval rating, to just over 20 percent, and curbed her ability to exploit the centralization of power achieved by her predecessor and husband, Nestor Kirchner.

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 the United States. 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 a 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 was himself 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. 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, Kirchnerpresided 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 in the October 2005 legislative elections.

In 2006, Kirchner implemented a series of measures to centralize political and economic power in the executive branch. Congress granted the president the authority to reallocate government spending as he saw fit, as long as the overall appropriation remained 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.

Nestor Kirchner was able to pass this concentrated power to his wife, Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, after she won the October 2007 presidential election by a comfortable margin and took office on December 10. In practice, she began to govern in tandem with her husband. The new president experienced numerous challenges during her first year in office, most notably a standoff with Argentina’s agricultural sector stemming from her administration’s failed attempt to increase export taxes on certain farm products. Her March 2008 tax decree prompted months of strikes and roadblocks and the resignation of the economy minister. The president suffered a major defeat in the Senate in July, when her own vice president cast the tie-breaking vote against the tax measure. Kirchner’s once-strong political alliance and majority in Congress were fractured after the farmers’ standoff, reducing the power her husband had amassed as president.

Nestor Kirchner also left a legacy of corruption scandals that continued to cause problems for his wife. In March 2007, government officials were accused of receiving improper payments from a large gas-line project. Then, in June 2007, the economy minister 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, a suitcase filled with $800,000 in cash was seized from a Venezuelan businessman at the Buenos Aires airport; the funds were allegedly an illicit campaign contribution from Venezuela’s state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, to Senator Kirchner. U.S. authorities subsequently charged four Venezuelan men who had attempted to cover up the origins and intended destination of the suitcase. In the trial that ensued in September 2008, testimony implicated both the Argentine and Venezuelan governments, and it was also revealed that another case with $4.2 million may have breached Argentine customs.

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 National Congress consists of the 257-member Chamber of Deputies, directly elected for four years, with half of 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 general elections in October 2007 were considered free and fair.

The right to organize political parties is generally respected. Major parties include the PJ; the Front for Victory, another Peronist grouping; the centrist Radical Civic Union (UCR), factions of which support the Peronists; the center-left Support for a Republic of Equals (ARI); and the center-right Republican Initiative Alliance (PRO). The Peronists have been a dominant force in politics since 1946.

Former president 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, subsequent corruption scandals tainted his administration and undermined this decree, revealing a degree of entrenched corruption that has continued under the presidency of his wife. Argentina was ranked 109 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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. A June 2008 ruling by the Supreme Court unanimously asserted the press’s right to criticize government officials. However, 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 bill was rejected in 2006.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Nevertheless, Argentina’s Jewish community, the largest in Latin America, is a frequent target of 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 the Argentine judiciary has formally accused Iran of responsibility, and arrest warrants were issued in 2006 for the eight individuals suspected of involvement in the attack. The case has been complicated by Iran and Argentina’s close ties to and reliance on Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

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 major 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 recent years 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 were 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.

Police have been accused of misconduct including a growing number of extrajudicial executions. The Buenos Aires provincial police have been involved in drug trafficking, extortion, and other crimes. 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 remain substandard throughout the country.

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. Nestor Kirchner’s aggressive pursuit of former officials involved in the dirty war included the 2006 sentencing of a police sergeant connected with the military junta, and the reversal of presidential pardons granted by Menem to three military leaders. One of these, Jorge Videla, was transferred to prison in October 2008 after being under house arrest. In addition, former president Isabel Peron (1974–76), Juan Peron’s third wife, 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 the dirty war. A former navy captain, Ricardo Cavallo, was charged in June 2008 with 431 cases of kidnapping, abuse, and disappearance, and was later extradited to Argentina from Spain to await trial.

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. While the Nestor Kirchner administration returned lands to several communities, most such disputes remain unresolved. On a positive note, an indigenous candidate was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 2007.

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 by the 2007 election of Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner as president and decrees mandating that one third of Congress members be women. 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.