After thousands were killed, millions became indebted and a few remained privileged under military rule: Argentina was reborn to democracy 20 years ago today.
After butchering political opponents, wrecking the economy, and losing a short war with the British, the seven-year-long military dictatorship did not have an easy way out. Long-desired elections were held on Oct. 30, 1983.
The dictatorship left behind a more unequal, impoverished society and a shattered culture. Merciless generals, churchgoing censors, bilingual corporate lawyers and economists had comprised the ruling elite since 1976. Yet the military only had to plead guilty after everything fell apart.
In 1983, democracy promised justice and a fair distribution of the burdens of the crisis. All this would happen in accordance with the majority’s choices, the minority’s participation and the economic and social principles of the constitution.
However, the military refused to be tried for their crimes against humanity. The privileged, in turn, sought the perpetuation of liberal economic policies executed at gunpoint during the military era. Both were successful.
The military threatened civil society with a coup or retaliation. They sought and got amnesty laws drafted by President Raul Alfonsin and countersigned by congress and the supreme court. Later on, President Carlos Menem freed the few former commander in chiefs still in prison through a presidential pardon. By 1990, all criminals were at large thanks to legally created impunity, recently found to be unconstitutional.
On the other hand, corruption in high places, backed by police force against recurrent social discontent, made possible an unfair distribution of burdens. During the ’90s, President Menem launched a massive liberalization program, which boosted both growth and inequality, and made him stand out as a Washington Consensus star.
By 1992, telecommunications, broadcasting, railroads, airlines, highways, electricity, banks and also steel, coal and oil companies had been sold or licensed in a country-size garage sale. After a complete deregulation, a severe fiscal discipline was enforced, tying the local currency to the U.S. dollar, and establishing an independent central bank board.
To implement his plan, Menem shrunk accountability controls. He packed the supreme court with cronies and occasionally threatened the press, all in the name of economic reform and modernization. Unemployment, meanwhile, rose from 6 percent in 1989 to 18 percent in 1995, as external debt and poverty levels kept growing. Increasing reported corruption, on the other hand, did not prevent applause from the lending institutions.
Policies unable to gather public support oiled their way through with generous bribes, even after the Menem era. President Fernando de la Rua took office in 1999, wrapped in the flag of transparency. A year before resigning, however, he was accused of buying off unpopular legislation demanded by the IMF and aimed to undercut labor protections.
This decade-long neoliberal experiment exploded in 2001. Argentina defaulted on its external debt with private creditors, unemployment reached 21 percent, and over 50 percent of the population dropped below the poverty line. Financial panic and an unprecedented political crisis devoured four presidents in only a week, and at least 30 people were killed by the police action.
The resort to force and corruption as a means of deluding the people’s will seems to provide a better explanation for the crisis of Argentinian democracy. People’s alienation grows as their will, expressed through elections, demonstrations and in the constitution, remains contradicted or scorned. No channel seems open to them to implement their decisions. Growing poverty affects their freedom to make decisions. A few days before the election, every poor person gets food for her vote to elect a politician committed to make her even poorer. Meanwhile, telephone companies recovered their initial investment in four years.
A more-than-friendly supreme court, bought elections and bribe-driven legislation did not cause the failure of the neoliberal program in 2001. To the contrary, all of these corrupt practices helped to keep the program going as long as possible, in spite of popular opposition.
Now something different is happening. In the last few months, society’s growing desire for justice led to prosecutions of crimes against humanity and infamous corruption cases. Amnesty laws and pardons are about to be annulled, overnight millionaires are undergoing judicial scrutiny.
Will Argentinian democracy also abandon the policies made possible by means of crime and corruption? I hope we Argentinians are ready to fulfill the promise.
Horacio J. Etchichury is an LLM student at Yale Law School. He teaches constitutional law at the National University of Cordoba in Argentina.