Freedom in the World
The government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2012 continued indirect government censorship through the discriminatory allocation of official advertising and increased unfair tax treatment of political opponents. Official corruption remained a problem, with Vice President Amado Boudou becoming the latest government official to face allegations of illegal enrichment. Meanwhile, Argentina also continued to try and convict 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, 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 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 power on to his wife, Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, when 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”, leading to confusion as to who exactly was in charge.
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 rising agricultural prices. To finance increased spending, including on social welfare programs, Fernández pushed a law through Congress in February 2010 allowing the government to tap into Argentina’s foreign currency reserves. The nationalization of $30 billion in private pension funds in December 2008 provided additional financial support. Fernández continued to centralize power around the executive even after Néstor Kirchner’s sudden death in October 2010.
Fernández was reelected on October 23, 2011, garnering 54 percent of the vote, the largest margin of victory in the first round of an Argentine presidential election since the return of democracy in 1983. 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.
Capital flight, unofficial annual inflation of 20-30 percent, a growing fiscal deficit, and a debilitating drought hurt the Argentine economy in 2012. The Fernández administration’s expropriation of Spanish oil company YPF in April 2012 also contributed to economic uncertainty. Declining public services and public safety prompted “anti-Cristina” pot-banging demonstrations in September. Contributing to frustration was a commuter train wreck in February that killed 51 people and revealed the government’s neglect of the country’s transportation network. Meanwhile, the administration continued to crack down on its opponents, including economic firms publishing independent inflation statistics, through the government’s tax agency.
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 (also known as the Peronist Party), which holds two opposing factions: the center-left FPV faction, and the center-right Federal Peronism faction. Other parties include the centrist Radical Civic Union, the center-right Republican Proposal, and the socialist Broad Progressive Front. The Peronists have been a dominant force in politics since 1946.
Recent corruption scandals revealed the degree to which entrenched corruption plagues Argentine society. Former president and current senator Carlos Menem was charged in 2008 with illegally supplying weapons to Ecuador and Croatia, but was acquitted in September 2011. 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; a trial had not yet begun by the end of 2012. The trial of former president Fernando de la Rúa on charges of bribing senators to approve labor reform during his presidency in 2000 began in August 2012 and was ongoing at year’s end. Vice President Amado Boudou is also subject to an ongoing investigation for embezzlement and influence peddling. Meanwhile, the government’s censorship and manipulation of INDEC, the national statistics agency, in recent years has resulted in distorted economic figures, as well as the agency’s loss of domestic and international credibility. Argentina was ranked 102 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed by law. However, while Congress decriminalized libel and slander in 2009, the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has consistently limited press freedom in practice. The press environment as a whole worsened in 2012, as the administration carried out smear campaigns against critical journalists, usually through public media. Although a 2011 Supreme Court ruling urged the government to apply more balance in the distribution of state advertising, there are currently no laws that regulate government discretion in allocating state advertising. In 2012, the government continued to manipulate the distribution of official advertising and granting of operational licenses to reward supportive media and to damage critical media such as Grupo Clarín, Argentina’s largest media conglomerate. While the Senate passed a freedom of information bill in 2010 that would apply to all branches of the government, the bill had yet to pass the Chamber of Deputies by the end of 2012. Several Argentine provinces passed their own freedom of information laws, though enforcement and funding undermined their impact. Journalists in Argentina traditionally face less risk than in neighboring countries, but attacks were on the rise in 2012; two separate attacks on journalists occurred in August, likely in connection with their reporting on local corruption.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and anti-Semitism is reportedly on the decline. In June 2010, Fernández appointed the first Jewish foreign minister in Argentine history. Nevertheless, the country’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.
The justice system remains plagued by scores of incompetent and corrupt judges who retain their positions through tenure. The lower courts are highly politicized, and the relatively independent Supreme Court received heightened pressure from the government in 2012 surrounding the Grupo Clarín case. A 2012 report published by the World Economic Forum ranked Argentina 133 out of 144 countries in judicial independence. Police misconduct, including torture and brutality of suspects in custody, is endemic. 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 that period have continued under the Fernández administration. 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. In July 2012, former military dictator and principal architect of the dirty war, Jorge Videla, was convicted and sentenced to fifty years in prison for his plan to systemically steal the children of kidnapped prisoners. The 85-year-old Videla already had a life sentence for other crimes against humanity, and has been imprisoned since 2010.
Argentina’s indigenous peoples, who represent between 1.5 and 3.5 percent of the 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.
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. Argentina's Supreme Court ruled in March 2012 that women who have an abortion after being raped can no longer be prosecuted; an estimated 500,000 illegal abortions are performed in Argentina each year. Domestic abuse remains a serious problem, and women also face economic discrimination and gender wage gaps. 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.