Freedom in the World
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High government spending, a manufacturing rebound, and booming trade with Argentina’s main partner Brazil contributed to Argentina’s economic rebound in 2010. The recovery helped bolster the falling approval ratings of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. However, the sudden death of her husband and political partner Néstor Kirchner in October 2010 left her and the Peronist party in a state of political uncertainty. Separately, relations between the leftist administration of President Kirchner and an opposition-led Congress deteriorated in 2010. Corruption and government crackdowns on press freedoms continued throughout 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 Perón’s populist and authoritarian regime in 1955 led to a series of right-wing military dictatorships that lasted until 1983. The beginning of civilian rule brought an end to Argentina’s dirty war, waged against real or suspected dissidents by the far-right military regime.
Carlos Menem, a populist of the Justicialist Party (PJ, commonly known as the Peronist Party) who ran on a platform of nationalism and state intervention in the economy, was elected president in 1989 amid hyperinflation and food riots. As president, however, he implemented an economic liberalization program and unconditionally allied the country with the United States. His convertibility plan, which pegged the peso to the U.S. dollar through a currency board, ended the country’s chronic bouts of hyperinflation.
Buenos Aires mayor Fernando de la Rúa, of the center-left Alianza coalition, was elected president in October 1999. Record unemployment and reduced government wages, effects of the highly overvalued and inflexible currency, spurred demonstrations and unprecedented economic insecurity. Government efforts to stop a run on Argentina’s banking system sparked violent protests in December 2001, forcing de la Rúa to resign. He was replaced by an interim president, who was himself forced to quit less than a week later. On December 31, Congress selected Menem’s former vice president, Eduardo Duhalde, 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 and violent crime spiraled out of control.
Néstor Kirchner was elected president in 2003 on a Peronist ticket. While working to stabilize the economy, Kirchner moved to purge the country’s military and police leadership of authoritarian elements. He 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. Kirchneralsopresided over a long-hoped-for economic recovery bolstered by high international soya prices and an increased demand for Argentina’s principal exports.
In 2006, Kirchner implemented a series of measures to centralize power in the executive branch. Congress granted the president the authority to reallocate government spending, 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.
Kirchner successfully passed his concentrated power on to his wife, Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, after she was elected president in October 2007. In practice, she began to govern in tandem with her husband, and the Argentine media commonly referred to their rule as a dual presidency, or “Los K”.
Fernández’s once-strong political alliance and majority in Congress fractured following a standoff with Argentina’s agricultural sector in 2008 over her administration’s failed attempt to increase export taxes on certain farm products. Mid-term elections held in June 2009 brought significant losses to the Kirchners. The Union-PRO coalition fared especially well, capturing 47 seats in the Senate, while Kirchner’s Front for Victory (FV)Peronist party took 36 seats—one less than needed for a majority. In the lower house, progovernment party representation fell from 141 to 112. Néstor Kirchner subsequently resigned from his post as leader of the Peronist Party.
The government’s defeat in 2009 was influenced by growing unemployment and poverty amid an economic recession. However, beginning in mid-2010, the economy began to recover, fueled by a more benign international economic environment and increased soya prices. The administration also increased spending on public works and the unemployed, including extending an annual $2.6 billion child-support system for poor families, distributing 250,000 laptops to secondary-school students, and subsidizing 15,000-20,000 mortgages for principally first-time buyers. Separately, the president’s relations with the opposition-led Congress deteriorated, revealed by bitter and ultimately failed budget negotiations in November 2010.
To finance increased spending, President Fernández pushed a law through Congress in February 2010 allowing the government to use $6.5 billion of Argentina’s foreign currency reserves. Central Bank president Martín Redrado was fired by decree after refusing to support the plan, further eroding nominal Central Bank independence. The nationalization of $30 billion in private pension funds in December 2008 provided additional financial support. This move not only made the pension system one of the government’s main creditors, but also gave the Kirchner administration increased control over those companies owned in part by these pension funds. Néstor Kirchner’s sudden death in October 2010 left the policy direction of the executive branch unclear, and also left the 2011 presidential race wide open. Without the unifying enemy of Mr. Kirchner, the opposition became increasingly fragmented.
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 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 midterm legislative elections in June 2009 were considered free and fair.
The right to organize political parties is generally respected. Major parties include the Peronist party; the FV; 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 Union-PRO. The Peronists have been a dominant force in politics since 1946.
Former president Néstor Kirchner’s government initially made anticorruption efforts a central theme, establishing the public’s right to information and other transparency guarantees. However, subsequent corruption scandals revealed the degree to which entrenched corruption plagues Argentine society, tainting his and his wife’s administrations. In December 2009, Argentine courts upheld the indictments of former presidents Carlos Menem and Fernando de la Rúa on separate corruption charges, though neither case had gone to trial by the end of 2010. Allegations of vote-buying on the part of the government arose in 2010 due to various opposition congressmen voting against opposition-led reforms. One opposition senator also alleged that he was offered a large sum of money to vote in favor of the contentious 2008 agricultural export tax proposal. Argentina was ranked 105 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed by law. In November 2009, Congress decriminalized libel and slander, and a February 2009 court ruling ordered the government to place state advertising in critical publications. Despite these encouraging rulings, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government has consistently limited press freedom in practice. A media reform bill passed in 2009 was designed to help break up Argentina’s largest media conglomerate, Grupo Clarín, and limit monopoly abuses by large media corporations. However, the bill also contained provisions limiting freedom of expression, including the creation of a politically-appointed media regulatory body with control over interpreting and implementing the law. This commission was not yet created by the end of 2010. Additionally, President Fernández increased the government's advertising budget from $16 million in 2003 to $223 million in 2009, enabling it to purchase friendly coverage from media that rely heavily on advertising revenues. In August 2010, the government canceled the operating license of Fibertel, a broadband internet service provider (ISP) owned by Grupo Clarín, claiming the ISP’s license had expired. In August 2010, the government also moved to take over Argentina’s only newsprint company, Papel Prensa, and filed criminal charges against its owners for allegedly conspring with the dictatorship to buy the company in 1976. On a positive note, on September 29, the Senate passed a right to information bill that would apply to all branches of the government; the Chamber of Deputies was reviewing the bill at year’s end.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and anti-Semitism is reportedly on the decline. In June 2010, Fernandez appointed a Jewish foreign minister, the first person of the Jewish faith to become foreign minister in Argentina. Nevertheless, Argentina’s Jewish community, the largest in Latin America, remains a target of discrimination and vandalism. The 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center continues to play a role in Argentine politics, as no convictions have been made. 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, though union influence has diminished dramatically in recent years due to internal divisions.
While Néstor Kirchner appointed magistrates of professional quality, the tenure of scores of incompetent and corrupt judges remains a serious problem. Police misconduct, including torture and brutality of suspects in police custody, is endemic. 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. Prison conditions remain substandard throughout the country.
In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that laws passed in the 1980s to protect the military from prosecution were unconstitutional. The decision laid the foundation for the prosecution of past military crimes, leading Néstor Kirchner to initiate prosecution proceedings against former officials involved in Argentina’s dirty war. Former navy commander, Ricardo Cavallo, faced prosecution in 2008 for 431 cases of kidnapping, abuse, and disappearance. Cavallo was extradited to Argentina from Spain in 2008,but was still awaiting trial at the end of 2010. On December 23, 2010, formermilitary dictator and principal architect of the dirty war, Jorge Videla, wasfound guilty of crimes against humanity. The 85-year old was sentenced to 25 years in prison; more than 20 other former military and police officials were also convicted.
Argentina’s indigenous peoples, who represent between 3 and 5 percent of the total population, are largely neglected by the government. Approximately 70 percent of the country’s rural indigenous communities lack title to their lands. While the Néstor Kirchner administration returned lands to several communities, most disputes remain unresolved. In 2002, Buenos Aires became the first South American city to pass a domestic partnership law, and Argentina became the second country in the Americas—after Canada—to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide in July 2010.
Women actively participate in politics in Argentina, as reflected by the 2007 election of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Decrees also mandate that one third of Congress members be women. However, domestic abuse remains a serious problem.