Freedom in the World
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was reelected in a landslide in October 2011, defeating the nearest challenger by an unprecedented 37 points. Her Front for Victory coalition also regained control of both houses of Congress in concurrent legislative elections. Meanwhile, the Fernández administration continued to prosecute perpetrators of human rights violations committed during the “dirty war”.
Argentina gained independence from Spain in 1816. Democratic rule was often interrupted by war and military coups over the following century. The end of former president 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”, which was 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 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 interim president Adolfo Rodríguez Saá, who resigned 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.
Néstor Kirchner of the Front for Victory (FPV) coalition, a faction of the Peronists, was elected president in 2003. 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. In 2006, Kirchner implemented a series of measures to centralize power in the executive branch. He 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 legislative elections held in June 2009 in the midst of an economic downturn brought significant losses for Fernández and her party.
Beginning in mid-2010, the economy began to recover, fueled by a more benign international economic environment and increased agricultural prices. The administration also increased social welfare spending, including a grant program that provides $50 per month to approximately 3 million poor children.
To finance increased spending, Fernández pushed a law through Congress in February 2010 allowing the government to use $6.5 billion of Argentina’s foreign currency reserves. The nationalization of $30 billion in private pension funds in December 2008 provided additional financial support, and also gave the Kirchner administration increased control over companies owned in part by these pension funds. Fernández continued to centralize power around the executive even after Néstor Kirchner’s sudden death in October 2010.
Garnering 54 percent of the vote, Fernández was reelected on October 23, 2011. She obtained the largest margin of victory in the first round of an Argentine presidential election since the return of democracy in 1983, 37 points ahead of runner-up Hermes Binner of the socialist Progressive Broad Front (FAP) party. Fernández’s FPV, with its allies, also won eight of the nine governors’ races, reclaimed the lower house of Congress, and increased their majority in the Senate. A fragmented opposition contributed to Fernández’s reelection, as did strong economic growth fueled by government spending and high commodity prices. Ongoing sympathy for the death of Néstor Kirchner, still wildly popular, also contributed to her landslide election. While beginning her second term with a strong mandate, monthly capital flight of $3 billion, unofficial annual inflation of 20-30 percent, and a narrowing trade surplus threatened the strength of the Argentine economy at the end of 2011.
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, whose members are directly elected for four-year terms, with half of the seats up for election every two years; and the 72-member Senate, whose members are 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 Justicialist Party, which includes the center-left FPV faction, the centrist Radical Civic Union (UCR), the center-right Republican Proposal (PRO), and the socialist FAP. 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. Former president Carlos Menem (and current senator) was charged in 2008 with illegally supplying weapons to Ecuador and Croatia, but he was acquitted in September 2011. Allegations of vote-buying on the part of the government arose in 2010 due to various opposition congressmen voting against opposition-led reforms. Former secretary of transportation, Ricardo Jaime, was indicted twice in 2010 on separate charges of embezzlement that reportedly occurred during his tenure from 2003 to 2009; no trial had taken place by the end of 2011. A corruption scandal emerged in May 2011 surrounding the Association of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women campaigning to discover the fate of their children under Argentina's military dictatorship. The government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had provided them with an estimated $175 million dollars in state financing to build homes for the poor; the group allegedly committed fraud, money-laundering, and illegal enrichment. More than 60 members of the group faced criminal charges at year’s end. Argentina was ranked 100 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed by law. However, while Congress decriminalized libel and slander in 2009, the Fernández government has consistently limited press freedom in practice. In 2011, it continued to manipulate the distribution of official advertising to reward supportive media and to damage critical media such as Grupo Clarín, Argentina’s largest media conglomerate. A media reform bill passed in 2009 was designed to help break up 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. In August 2010, the government canceled the operating license of Fibertel, a broadband internet service provider owned by Grupo Clarín, based on licensing issues. The government also moved to take over Argentina’s only newsprint company, Papel Prensa, and filed criminal charges against its owners for allegedly conspiring with the dictatorship to buy the company in 1976. However, a federal court ruling overturned the government’s cancelation of Fibertel in September 2010—a decision that the Fernández government appealed in March 2011; the case was pending at year’s end. While the Senate passed a freedom of information bill in September 2010 that would apply to all branches of the government, the bill had yet to pass the Chamber of Deputies by the end of 2011.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and anti-Semitism is reportedly on the decline. In June 2010, Fernández 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 of 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 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. Prisons are overcrowded, and 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. Prosecutions of perpetrators of human rights violations committed during the dirty war have continued under the Fernández administration. In December 2010, former military dictator and principal architect of the dirty war, Jorge Videla, was found guilty of crimes against humanity. The 85-year old was sentenced to life in prison; more than 20 other former military and police officials were also convicted along with Videla. Twelve military and police officers, including Ricardo Cavallo and Alfredo Astiz, were convicted with torture, murder, and forced disappearance in October 2011 and sentenced to life in prison.
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 Kirchner administration returned lands to several communities, most disputes remain unresolved. Forced evictions of indigenous communities still occur, despite laws prohibiting this practice. 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. In addition to the 2011 re-election of Fernández as president, women were elected to 38 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies in October and 39 percent of seats in the Senate. Decrees mandate that one-third of Congress members be women. However, domestic abuse remains a serious problem. Women also face economic discrimination and gender wage gaps.