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Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín Foulkes, DEP (12-03-1927 — 31-03-2009)

1 April 2009

Democracy, it is said, is the worst possible political system… except for all the others.  Democrats everywhere have my condolences on the loss of one of the great champions of that imperfect system, Raúl Alfonsín, who died yesterday at the age of 82.

The Buenos Aires Herald writes today

… Alfonsín faced the illness that ultimately took his life last night with the same courage, frankness and determination that were so characteristic of him as a politician. … It is not by chance that Alfonsín’s political standing persisted even after he stepped down in 1989. Throughout the memorable campaign that ushered him to office in 1983 Alfonsín was a man with a mission that far surpassed defeating a rival in an election. Alfonsín, almost single-handedly at the time, championed democracy as a supreme value above all others. It is a concept that in other times in his political career was used against him to the point of ridicule. But in the end it served him well. We owe to Alfonsín that public opinion now considers democracy is not negotiable under any circumstance. He is the father of Argentina’s democracy: a flawed and perfectible democracy, yes. But a democracy after all.

Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín Foulkes seemed destined for a career as a minor footnote in the political history of his nation, the leader of a respectable old political party (the Radical Civic Union) known mostly for good intentions and losing elections. Alfonsín, like other Argentine leaders, had military training (something often overlooked is that his education was in a military academy) which stood him no good when he first ran for a congressional seat in 1945, which he lost (badly) to a Peronist opponent.


Studying law for the next five years, as a fledgling lawyer he took up human rights issues under the Peronist administrations of the fifties, edited a newspaper (as have so many Latin leaders) and dabbled in politics, eventually earning a seat on the Buenos Aires city council. His newspaper’s editorial opposition to Peron earned him that badge of honor in dictatorhips, a prison sentence. With Peron’s overthrow in 1955, and the new ban on Peronist political parties, Alfonsín’s Radical Civic Union was left as Argentina’s most important political party.

He had a respectable, but not stellar career in the Party, moving up to a leadership role in the Chamber of Deputies and a government supporter by 1966, when another in the dreary history of military coups in Argentina again pushed Alfonsín into the wilderness. As his party moved towards accommodation with the military and conservative governments, Alfonsín moved towards leadership in a wing seeking a democratic alternative for his country. With a return to democracy in 1973, he was unsuccessful in his attempts to become the Radical Civic Union candidate for president in the national elections… which the party lost to the recently returned from exile Juan Peron.

Following the violent coup that overthrew Peron’s widow and successor, Isabel, in 1976 left in place the Chamber of Deputies as democratic window-dressing. Alfonsín, like other opposition Deputies, had no real political power, but did what they could to assist the families of the growing number of “disappeared”. Which was very little but keep the hope of an eventual accounting alive.

One of the few voices brave enough to oppose the Malvinas/Falklands War, Alfonsín was one of the few untainted national figures left when the defeat in the war, and the economic melt-down, forced the military government to seek a retreat from their role in running the nation. Alfonsín managed to eke out a victory in the October elections, taking on the thankless job of President of a discredited, bankrupt Argentine Republic.

The military, seeking a quick withdrawal, moved up the presidential term by three months, giving the new president almost no time to transition or plan for a renewal of Argentine political and economic life.

Alfonsín could not perform economic miracles, and even a new currency (the Austral, which chopped three zeros off the old Argentine peso) could do nothing to control the 700 percent inflation rate, and the effects of Argentina’s turn to World Bank and International Monetary Fund mandated solutions may not — over the long run — have been the wisest of all possible choices. But what Alfonsín did in reforming Argentine — and Latin American — political culture was inspiring.

First, although he had been a military man himself, he rescinded a blanket amnesty for human rights abuses imposed by the outgoing military regime. Five days after taking office, he ordered the trial of military leaders who were responsible for thousands of kidnappings and murders during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. Leaders of guerrilla movements were also ordered to face trial.

He cancelled an inherited presidential decree allowing warrentless wire-tapping and removed the country’s largest defense contractor from military control. And, he was just getting warmed up. The defense contract scandal gave Alfonsín the cover he needed to demand (and receive) seventy generals and admirals retire.

Bringing the armed forces under civilian control (something Argentina is at the forefront of, recently doing away with military courts, which, among other things, gives basic civil rights to the ordinary soldier), by itself was a huge step towards democracy, but Alfonsín did what would have been thought impossible… restoring confidence in the ability of the government to protect and defend its citizen’s rights. Though imperfect and openly criticized as falling short of what it could have been, Alfonsín appointed novelist Ernesto Sábato and nobel prize winner Alfonso Perez Esquivel to head the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) which documented human rights abuses, and 8,960 forced disappearances.

With even supposedly “mature” democracies still grappling with the concept of bringing leaders who have committed crimes to justice, Alfonsín, if he did nothing else, deserves praise for being wiling to admit not just that his nation’s leaders were capable of horrific acts, but willing to trust his countrymen to atone for their leaders, and lay blame squarely on the guilty.

While there were other accomplisments — restored relations with Great Britain and Chile, the start of closer economic and political cooperation with traditional rival, Brazil, and shepherding a bill that gave rank and file the right to elect their own union leaders, it was the economic situation that forced Alfonsín to call for early elections for his successor.  His  “courage, frankness and determination” to trust the people, meant he was willing to abide by the people’s wishes and peacefully (something that had not happened in sixty years) turn over power to his successor, Carlos Menem.    That Menem had to flee into exile after his term in office is instructive.  A graceful tribute to Alfonsín came from Supreme Court Judge Raul Zaffaroni, who wrote in  Critica de la Argentina in October 2008. “Alfonsin is the only ex-president who can walk the streets at ease.”

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