The Argentine Transition to Democracy: Half-Steps, Breakdown and Revival
Author: Miranda Ronghi
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 03/22/2012
In 1976, there was a coup d’état in Argentina whereby a military dictatorship came to power. Between 1976 and 1983, nearly 30,000 people disappeared, were tortured and murdered by the military regime. In 1983, Argentina began its transition to democracy. When a country begins this transition, it is important to note that there are many paths the new governments may take to achieve reconciliation. The most important things to achieve are truth, memory, justice, and above all, a stable democracy. How do we define justice? What is a true democracy? How do we define an effective and legitimate transition? In the case of Argentina, there is not simply one answer. In this case, there are thirty years of a constant transition period, and with each new President and decade there are different schools of thought and decisions made.
Before analyzing the level of effectiveness and legitimacy of each period, it is first necessary to define these words in our specific theme. A stable democracy means that the government works, elections are legal and not fraudulent, and it is not in constant risk of a military coup. Usually, it means that the army has much less power and the President has sovereignty as a part of the democratically elected government. Justice is when the new government punishes those responsible for crimes against humanity during the dictatorship. Truth and memory are issues which most concern the victims of human rights violations. It is necessary for the government to seek and tell the truth about the crimes committed, and to find a way to restore peace in the state while condemning the past dictatorship. In The Politics of Memory, Elizabeth Jelin writes, “Truth implies governmental recognition of the responsibility that governmental agents had in the crimes and abuses committed. This phase is attained through the official dissemination of the ‘truth’ of what happened” (page 50). On justice: “The phase of justice implies the formal accusation and punishment of the recognized guilty, a move that is not always politically viable” (page 51). We can evaluate Argentina under these criteria.
In each country experiencing a time of political transition, the new government faces many questions in dealing with the logistics. One of the problems is that normally there are free members of the military and military sympathizers in this first phase of transition. If the government strongly punishes the members of the dictatorship, the government might alienate even more people from the process of reconciliation. This stage of reconciliation is an important time to unify the country in order to prevent future coup attempts. The other major issue is that the democracy is still new. Newly elected officials must find the delicate balance between justice and peace. Unlike examples in more current history, Argentina had no previous models to follow. Argentina established the third truth commission in history (preceded by those in Bolivia and Uganda, which did not finish their work, did not release reports, and did not bring any officials to trial) (Hayner). Most scholars, when writing of the Argentine transition, focus mostly on the Raul Alfonsín presidency of 1983-89 and perhaps mention that of Carlos Menem of 1989-1999. I argue that reconciliation and transition are a process. Reconciliation is ‘complete’ when the society has achieved the pillars of truth, memory, justice and a stable democracy. In some states, this process requires a few years. I argue that this process in Argentina has been taking place for the past 30 years, and is only now reaching completion. The case of Argentina is unique because of a pendulum that has swung between justice and amnesty, categorized by each new decade and President.
In March of 1976, Jorge Rafael Videla led a military coup d’état to overthrow Isabel Peron and installed a military junta, which labeled the next era of Argentine history the “National Reorganization Process” or “El Proceso”. The military dictatorship lasted until 1983 and was responsible for the disappearance of roughly 30,000 people, including students, journalists, professors, unionists, and anyone who was considered leftist or Marxist, as well as their supporters and sympathizers. The military had over 300 clandestine detention centers where “enemies of the state” were detained and tortured. Methods of disappearance used by the military included lining people up in firing squads and “death flights”, where victims were often drugged and then thrown from planes or helicopters into the Rio de la Plata, the river separating Argentina and Uruguay. Specific to the Argentine dictatorship of ‘76-‘83 was the appropriation of children. If a kidnapped woman was pregnant or found with children, those children were usually kidnapped by military officials and either raised in their own families or in the families of military sympathizers. Estimates show that roughly 500 children were appropriated and only about 100 have been identified to date, leaving hundreds of children who do not know their real identity, or that of their “families”.
In 1983, after the failed war with Britain over the Falklands territory, the dictatorship declined and Argentina held peaceful elections as it tried to come to terms with its past and move toward transition. Raul Alfons’n was elected President, immediately commissioned CONADEP (the National Commission on the Disappearances of Persons), and by 1985 had begun trials against the highest ranking members of the military dictatorship to try them for human rights abuses. In How a Traumatized Society Remembers, Robben writes, “Yet in Argentina, the most painful memories were confronted immediately…before the military dictatorship collapsed” (page 122). In fact, Alfons’n’s campaign platform included his plan to seek truth and justice for the victims of the dictatorship.
1983-1989: Raul Alfonsín
When the military dictatorship ended in 1983, the junta members destroyed all of their documents. Because of the lack of corpses found, physical evidence or even a paper trail, very little was known immediately. Alfonsín commissioned CONADEP to investigate, but a lot of information was not widely known by society, and some facts that did come out were somewhat rejected as a result. The official report of CONADEP was given to Alfonsín in 1984. As stated by Robben, “CONADEP’s most important objective was truth and adversity, not reconciliation and forgiveness” (page 131). Many human rights organizations were disappointed that CONADEP did not have the power to subpoena testimony from members of the military or bring charges against violators. However, testimonies and evidence from CONADEP led to the discovery of many clandestine detention centers and was later used in the trials to come against military officials.
Alfonsín’s main struggle was the balance between justice and peace. The majority of Argentine society wanted everyone who committed human rights violations to be tried and sentenced. Alfonsín ordered the trial of nine senior military officials, including Jorge Videla and Emilio Massera (five of whom were convicted and sentenced to various amounts of time). In the interest of balance, he also ordered the trial of seven members of the Montonero and People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), guerilla organizations who had committed atrocities such as kidnapping and murder (Wright).
Argentina’s new and shaky democracy under Alfonsín was not aided by the growing military unrest that led to three military uprisings in the 1980s. Military officials, especially those of lower rank, were worried that the increase of trials foreshadowed their own impending convictions. In order to quell this unrest and reassure the military, Alfonsín created the Full Stop (Punto Final) and Due Obedience (Obediencia Debida) laws. The Full Stop Law was passed in 1986 and stated that any charges not brought before a sixty-day deadline would not reach trial. By 1986, over 17,000 actions had been filed against over 500 military officers, and the fear was that “if not curtailed by legislative intervention, the process would have taken several years” (Osiel). Within the next sixty days (half of which occurred over the December and January holiday period), 400 former officers, including 40 generals, 8 admirals and 2 former presidents still faced charges (Guest). The Due Obedience Law came later, in 1987, as trials continued for active duty officers. Alfonsín passed the Due Obedience Law, which allowed amnesty for any officer under the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. This essentially allowed for the defense of “following orders,” meaning that lower ranking officers could plead not guilty for crimes committed against humanity if they could prove they were following orders. This law noted, however, that those who committed excessive acts including rape and theft of children could not be excused for carrying out their orders with fervor. These two laws represent the first stage in Argentina’s transition to democracy, which I am labeling: Prosecuting the Few. Argentine law was only prosecuting part of the military and not all of it.
While many criticize Alfonsín for impeding full justice through these two laws, I praise him for making the difficult decisions in maintaining a balance between justice and peace, which inevitably secured a future for his new democracy. The criticism for the Due Obedience Law is rather unfounded and more ideological than practical, as the Americas Watch Report of 1987 points out: “The Due Obedience clause…did not serve to prevent prosecutions because its significance as a defense could only be assessed by the courts at the end of a trial” (page 19). This means that an officer would still have to stand trial, his crimes exposed, and only at the end could he be found not guilty on the grounds of due obedience. Thus, it did not limit the number of trials, just the number of convictions. It is no secret that Latin American political culture is unique because of its history of abundant de facto governments. One could argue that in most Latin American governments, the military is the fourth branch, and has exceedingly more power than any democratically elected president. During Alfonsín’s presidency, the Argentine government had not one single peaceful transition between administrations since 1916. Taking this into consideration, it is not surprising how difficult it was to tread lightly within the realm of justice in order to maintain a stable democracy for the Argentine people. The Americas Watch Report of 1987 argues, “The longer that the trials dragged on, the more isolated and aggrieved the armed forces would feel, thus making coexistence between them and the democratic government more difficult and strained” (page 62).
Had Alfonsín continued to prosecute or expel thousands of members of the military, he would have created even more disenfranchised citizens. Following other examples in Latin American history, when the president makes a decision of which the military does not approve, the military simply overthrows the democratic government. Argentina’s new government was still weak. The only reason the country had a democracy was because the military collapsed after losing credit in the Falklands War with Great Britain. The people had not fought and won control, nor had the people overpowered the military, and therefore the Argentine people and new president still only had as much power as the military would tolerate in this early stage of transition. Thus, Alfonsín had to be willing to compromise for the greater good. The greater good in this example included bringing fewer people to trial now, in order to ensure a stable democracy in the future. As Thomas Wright contends in State Terrorism in Latin America, “His only practical choice, it seemed, was to leave most of the criminals alone for the moment, hoping that time and dedication to democratic processes by everyone else would reduce the usefulness of such characters” (page 186). Alfonsín had hoped that future presidents would be able to bring more justice to the Argentine people once the proverbial dust of the transition period had settled. It is important to note that despite a few small uprisings, Argentina has maintained a democracy since 1983.
The main source of criticism for Alfonsín has been that four of the nine military members who faced trial were found not guilty, leaving only five out of thousands of perpetrators paying for these atrocious acts. However, I believe that if it is not possible to try an entire institution, then those who are in charge of the institution should be the first ones on trial. In the case of South Africa, Eugene De Kock is serving time in jail for the human rights abuses he committed under apartheid rule. I believe De Kock and Argentina’s Alfredo Astiz are of the same caliber. They both held power under their respective regimes as officers in the military in an anti-subversion campaign. They both stood out and were rewarded with Medals of Honor for the work they did infiltrating subversive groups and for furthering the regimes’ campaigns. And today, they are both among the most recognized and hated faces in South Africa and Argentina, respectfully. South Africans refer to De Kock as “Prime Evil”, and Argentines to Astiz as “The Blonde Angel of Death”. In Argentina, General Videla was sentenced to life in prison for leading a systematic plan of crimes against humanity, while Astiz was initially free under the Amnesty clauses. While Argentines were pleased to see Videla sentenced, the cause of much anger was seeing Astiz as a free man walking the streets of Argentina. In South Africa, we have the opposite: De Kock, also guilty of following orders in excess, is serving the rest of his life in jail. However, F.W. De Klerk, (the last president to serve under apartheid) was never charged with a single crime and is today a free man with “clean hands”.
Whereas General Jorge Videla admitted to courts in 2010, “I accept the responsibility as the highest military authority during the internal war. My subordinates followed my orders,” in some cases a government can initially only feasibly try one side of perpetrators for human rights abuses (as shown by Argentina and South Africa): either the one who planned the systematic plot, gave the orders to torture and murder, and then rewarded the officers who did so with zeal and success; or the officer who followed orders given to him while being praised and awarded for doing his job. I would rather see the perpetrator of system-wide, structural planning of ideology and abuses tried first, to allow for the trial of the lesser members at a later date. In Argentina, only the highest officials were initially tried for their crimes, but in their trials so much evidence was discovered and brought to light that it inevitably led to the trials of lower ranking members who exceeded their orders. This is preferable to the case of South Africa, where the lesser ranking official has been brought to justice while the higher ranking officials were never brought to justice as a result of the lower ranking trials.
Alfonsín may have only achieved partial justice during his presidency. However, as Wright brings to light, “Alfonsín’s approach to transitional justice was designed to balance the quest for truth and justice with the military’s sensitivity to what it perceived as persecution” (page 143). One must also note that in a balanced and working judiciary system, acquittals take place. Had everyone of the nine accused been convicted and sentenced in Argentina, this might have demonstrated an unfair and corrupt legal system. The simple fact that four were acquitted may instead be interpreted as proof of a fair and balanced system and thus, a successful transition.
The pillar of memory has rarely been included as a presidential decree of planned goals for a transitional government, and it certainly was not an outlined goal in Alfonsín’s campaign. However, memory is just as necessary to the healing of society as its counterparts of truth and justice. Memory is what is achieved through creating a space of historical memory, and it is usually achieved by members of society, human rights organizations, and many areas of the arts, such as film, television, sculpture, monuments and paintings. Memory was inevitably and successfully achieved through the appointing of playwright Carlos Gorostiza as Secretary of Culture, which led to examples of memory including the films The Official Story, Funny, Dirty Little War and The Night of the Pencils. Memory was also achieved by The Mothers of La Plaza Mayo (both Associacíon and Línea Fundadora), who staged weekly walks around the main city square in Buenos Aires just as they had done during the dictatorship in search of the truth about their children. One can also see Nunca Más as an installment of memory – the book version of the CONADEP truth commission report -, which has sold over 200,000 copies. The term “Nunca Más” became much more of a motif for the Argentine future and less of a simple report title.
Alfonsín may have only achieved partial justice, but it is inherently evident that he could not have achieved the other pillars of truth, memory and a stable democracy without compromising a portion of this justice. In reality, he was compromising to ensure that stable democracy would last into the future, in hopes of future presidents’ abilities to bring remaining justice to Argentina. Alfonsín could not feasibly prosecute the thousands of members of the military without more military uprisings. Nor did the Argentine government have the resources to do so given Alfonsín’s inherited $45 billion government debt (Guest), which limited the funds available to spend on the justice and reconciliation process. One must praise the integrity of the Alfonsín administration for fulfilling his campaign promises. While Alfonsín was campaigning for Presidency, he did so on a platform promising that he would bring the military to justice. It is important to note the bravery and danger involved in such promises before becoming president. Alfonsín promised to prosecute the dictatorship while the military was still in power, and could have very well faced deadly consequences for so doing.
Americas Watch affirms in its 1987 report, “The justice phase has been only partially achieved, but is still impressive…Even if not all the culprits will be held accountable, the principle that atrocious crimes will not go unpunished has been established” (page 85). When criticizing Alfonsín for not achieving ‘full justice’ it is important to remember how truly revolutionary his policies were at the time. Never before had any country brought members of its own society to trial for peacetime human rights violations. Even though the Nuremburg Trials set their own precedents of war crimes cases, the Nuremburg precedent still had not provided for the human rights abuses that took place in peaceful, pre-World War II Germany. Alfonsín compromised with the military to keep his democracy and citizens safe, and in so doing set a precedent that would be followed by future truth commissions and trials for decades to come.
1989-1999: Carlos Menem
In 1989, Carlos Menem became president of Argentina. President Alfonsín resigned after elections to allow Menem to start his presidency early because Argentina was amidst an economic crisis, and inflation had risen to roughly 500% (McSherry). In 1990, Menem granted a pardon to all the military junta officials who were serving prison sentences for their human rights abuses, including Videla and Massera. He also granted pardons for some guerilla members. His reasoning was that the nation needed to move toward “national reconciliation”, and for that, forgiveness needed to be granted. At the same time, Menem promoted officers accused of human rights abuses within the military and into his cabinet, and refused to cooperate with extradition requests (Wright). During the Menem years, certain military officials began confessing their deeds to the press – the most famous being Adolfo Scilingo, a retired navy captain who confirmed the stories of death flights in newspaper and on-air interviews in 1995. This simple act portrays the lack of truth and justice in Argentina under Menem. When these ‘uprisings of confessions’ began, Menem did everything he could to put them down. “Menem stripped Scilingo of his retired military status and jailed him for nearly two years. Lest anyone miss his message, Menem warned soldiers against media contact, encouraging them to confess to their priests instead” (Payne, page 50). All of the work toward truth, memory, justice and a stable democracy initiated by Alfonsín was erased by Menem’s acts in the 90s. Scilingo himself said in an interview, “I don’t think it is possible to speak of the past when the President is surrounded by important people from the military government…” (Payne, page 41).
When the confessions started, the Madres de la Plaza Mayo demonstrations began again with new fervor, and new organizations were founded, such as HIJOS (Hijos e Hijas por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio, or Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Silence and Forgetting). HIJOS is an organization founded by the children of The Disappeared. HIJOS started a new campaign in which they tracked down the addresses of pardoned officers and former torturers, and “spray painted his house with slogans and divulged his dark past by megaphone to shame the perpetrator publicly…” (Robben, page 121). It is true that amnesty is not synonymous with amnesia, and it was rather unlikely that Menem could have erased the pillar of truth through his presidential pardons. Therefore, the aspect of truth and stable government did survive under Menem, but at the high cost of justice and memory. Memory was slightly achieved by the general citizens of Argentina through the confessions that sprouted up in the 1990s. However, the Menem administration publicly condemned and punished those officers who did speak out or confess their acts to the media, limiting the potential for healing through truth and memory:
“Menem augmented military political capabilities and utilized these capabilities to fortify his own power: promoting an internal security role for the armed forces, vindicating the dirty war, pardoning officers charged with human rights abuses or sedition, and incorporating political personnel from the Proceso and military officers within his government” (McSherry, page 4).
It is true that Alfonsín did not complete the path to transition, but Menem was at the opposite end of the spectrum. If Menem did anything, he carried the transition back into the past pre-Alfonsín election. Argentina, after an incredible transition, had to begin the process of justice, memory and truth all over again. The Argentine public would have continued to achieve memory regardless of which president was in office and despite his policies, but it is no small feat that Argentina continued to make strides toward truth and memory despite being in direct conflict with Menem’s policies of the 90s.
2003-2007: Nestor Kirchner
In 2003, Nestor Kirchner was elected President of Argentina amid an economic crisis and a disaster in Argentina, which included three different presidents in a four-year period. It is imperative to point out that amid these four years of chaos, disorder, and economic downfall, which in the past would have paved the way for a de facto government, the military did not try to regain power, and the people did not expect them to. Perhaps the culture of democracy restored by Alfonsín prevented this from happening. Nestor is beloved for many things among the Argentine people, but he is most loved for beginning anew the path to truth, justice and memory. (We will refer to him as “Nestor” and not by his last name, Kirchner, to avoid confusion with his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, his successor and current Argentine president).
First, Nestor forced the retirement of dozens of military generals and admirals, and pushed for the effective and retroactive annulment of the Full Stop and Due Obedience Laws (Wright, 170). In 1998, congress repealed these two laws, but the act was not retroactive, meaning it did not allow for past crimes to be tried under law (Wright, 167). Nestor’s most important achievements in the fields of truth and justice were the steps retaken over the road that Menem had destroyed. There was an entirely new possibility to prosecute and re-prosecute hundreds of officials who committed human rights abuses under the dictatorship, including even the lower ranking officers who had escaped prosecution under Alfonsín. Although some criticize that Nestor’s methods were counterintuitive to the national reconciliation process, these were extremely important steps in Argentina’s road to reconciliation through justice. It is important to note that despite the fact that Nestor Kirchner became President twenty years after the dictatorship ended, the Kirchner administrations should be considered part of the Argentine transition to democracy.
The memory achieved in the Kirchner years (which continue today under Cristina) grows continually through the relations between the government and nongovernmental organizations, such as Las Madres de la Plaza Mayo-Linea Fundadora. Justice is achieved within the aforementioned restarted trials, annulment of amnesty policies, and the beginning of new trials for crimes such as the kidnapping of children. Truth is achieved through the opening of archives by the government and the continual cooperation with these NGOs. Memory is achieved through these roads, which allow the healing process to begin anew for Argentina as a whole. Haydee Gasteliú states, “When Nestor died, we all [the Madres] went to La Plaza Mayo and found each other there. Without thinking, we did not call each other, but we all went out of instinct, because it was the only thing we knew to do”.  This quote exemplifies what Nestor meant to the Argentine people, mainly due to the aspects of truth, memory and justice provided by Nestor’s administration to the victims of the Proceso and their families. As a part of his methods, Nestor Kirchner turned the Escuela Mechanica de la Armada (ESMA) into a museum of memory. ESMA was a secret detention center where more than 5,000 people were imprisoned and tortured, and it became referred to as “The Auschwitz of Argentina”. At the time Nestor became President, ESMA had been remodeled and was still a functioning navy school, perpetuating the lack of truth, memory and justice during the Menem administration. “Not since Alfonsín’s first two years in office had the weight of the state been so visibly tilted toward justice and against impunity” (Wright, page 170). Nestor defended himself against the armed forces without provoking another uprising and corrected the mistakes made during both the Alfonsín and Menem years. Nestor completed the path that Alfonsín could not, and the path which Menem had erased. Therefore, Kirchner was and is the rock that holds truth, memory and justice together in present-day Argentina.
One must ask if Argentina’s transition to democracy has been efficient, effective, and legitimate. In today’s politics, new governments have the option of using the International Criminal Court, and have more history of transition and reconciliation to fall back on. However, these methods were not available to Argentina in 1983, and instead the new Argentine government was left to pave a way that would determine reconciliation processes for years to come. In the case of Argentina, reconciliation and transition have lasted 33 years due to the fault and pardons of Menem, which allowed for a pendulum to swung from justice to impunity depending on which President was in office. I write of legitimacy and effectiveness. Legitimacy means that laws and acts are in accordance with normal and accepted guidelines. It also means that the law is genuine and authentic. Effectiveness means that something works (in this case, a law or set of laws) in the best way possible with the least expenditure of effort and resources.
One can analyze the three presidents separately, but it is necessary to view the reconciliation process in Argentina as one whole picture. Alfonsín, Menem, Kirchner: three parts of the same transition. Three presidents; three aspects of reconciliation: truth, memory and justice. The transition to democracy in Argentina was and is legitimate. This is because Argentina had presidents elected by the people, who made laws and acts through Congress. Those presidents used their powers given to them by the constitution and the people to change things according to their beliefs, like all presidents. That is the definition of legitimacy. Most importantly, the elections were peaceful, and there has not been an insurrection against the democratically elected government since the 70s. One can attribute this to the careful calculations of the Alfonsín administration. “Argentina was the first country to attempt real investigations and real trials,” (Dinges, page 232).
Without a doubt, Argentina is a case of a successful transition to democracy and an example for other states in transition. Argentina may not have been able to do this effectively because of Menem’s interruption of justice, but because of Nestor’s work, Argentina is now continually working toward justice and punishment for the guilty. Each day, one can read an article about a trial or sentencing for a crime in relation to the dictatorship. Each day, one can travel to various courthouses in Argentina and sit in on the public trials of the offenders accused of human rights abuses or for appropriating children. The fight is so obvious in the life and culture of present day Argentina; evidence of a healthy and almost complete reconciliation process. Reconciliation is a process, one which cannot be completed in only one presidential term. “It is safe to say that, even a full twenty years after the conclusion of the Dirty War, the cultural conflicts it reflected and reinforced remain very much alive within Argentina. Moreover, it went beyond enduring in collective memory, as Alfonsín and his advisers hoped it would” (Osiel page 24). A Prize for Argentina.
Bio: Miranda Ronghi is a graduating senior at Pace University in New York City earning a Bachelors degree in both Spanish and Latin American Studies, as well as a minor in both Peace and Justice Studies and Political Science. She has been studying and researching the topic of the Argentine dictatorship for four years, and has lived and worked in Argentina.