Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Obama and the ‘tea-ed off’ GOP

For a lot of people abroad who were following the events of last week in the United States on TV, this whole thing about the “tea parties” held around the country must have been baffling. In fact, with what some Americans themselves know about our history in this day and age, in which vast sectors of the population appear to have developed a virulent allergy to books and reading, it was probably just as puzzling an event to many of them as well. The fact is, however, that the original “Boston Tea Party”, was a brief but very major event in American history, since it constituted a catalytic episode in the run-up to the Revolution against British imperialist tyranny.

Caption: "The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor", an 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier.

The ones who know precisely how important that “party” was, however, are the guys in the Republican Party’s dirty-tricks think tank who organized and promoted it. And don’t give me that bull about how it was a spontaneous outpouring of American anti-tax and anti-liberal sentiment, because I’m not buying it. You don’t get the kind of press this protest got – especially on “fair and balance” Fox news (come on, Murdock, gimme a break!) – if it’s a spontaneous grassroots thing, especially not when it all ostensibly came together “overnight”. And particularly not when they bring out the big guns in prime time to rally ‘round the cause.

Fox and (Dubya’s) Friends.

Take “registered independent” (as he reminds us, ad pukeum) Fox News star Bill O’Reilly, who “doth protest too much” when anyone accuses him of being a conservative lackey, but who, if he doesn’t already have a GOP elephant tattooed on his chest, should really get one, because he clearly got hit in butt with the White House door when ex-President Bush left office and is ticked off about it. Yes, Bill, we can tell. If not, his night-time “news” commentary show, The O’Reilly Factor, wouldn’t keep on defending the Bush Administration tooth and nail every evening, when it’s so obviously a new day in Washington. I means, geez louise, Bill! Get the heck over it! Dubya’s gone home. He’s through. And unless you’re going to stop toiling every single night with all of the rest of the far-right dinosaurs on your show (like your buddy and arch-conservative pit-bull Newt Gingrich) to prepare the groundwork for the next election four years down the road, then maybe you ought to quit insisting about how “independent” you are or how “fair and balanced” Fox is. How can you expect decent, fair-minded folks not to call you (to paraphrase one of your favorite epithets) a “rightwing loon” when you rant and rave like you do every night against the Obama Administration. Especially when the guy who writes your multi-million-dollar pay check each year (Fox President Roger Ailes) was a media consultant for Republican presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush (the elder) – let’s face it, telling three US Presidents, all from the same party, how to meet the press, seems like a trend – before he was recruited from NBC’s cable division by Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdock to create Fox News.

And then there’s Sean Hannity who follows O’Reilly each night with practically the same format as his – bash everyone left of Adolph Hitler – but in this case, with no apologies for being a frothing-at-the-mouth far-right mad dog. Even the Fox News management seems to have thought that Hannity was too right to be “right” and for 12 years created a parody of fairness by running him alongside “Fox liberal” (and I use the term advisedly) Alan Colmes. Colmes’ job was basically to lose every argument and let Hannity bully and dump on him every night, but still, there was a limit to just how insanely far-right Hannity could get without someone saying, “Hey, wait a minute, Sean, get a grip!”

But even the almost comatosely mild Alan Colmes apparently decided a dozen seasons of playing the “straw man” to Sean Hannity’s ruthless attacks was more than enough and this year left the show, according to him, “to make a greater contribution” to the network. If his personal blog, Alan Colmes’ Liberaland, is anything to go by, Alan’s “greater contribution” isn’t going to scare Hannity in the ratings. Topping yesterday’s items was this lead, and I quote:

“Edgar Mitchell, who flew on the 1971 Apollo 14 mission to the moon, says there is extraterrestrial life, and that it’s being concealed by the United States government, among others.”

The story’s legitimate enough, though not original – it has already been on other TV channels as a human interest feature – but is just the sort of thing that promises to keep Colmes’ “contribution” as zanily “liberal” as possible and keep him or anybody else from undermining the apparent intention of Fox News to destabilize and, if possible, destroy the current administration of the United States.

An exaggeration? Suffice it to say that after cheerleading for the “tea parties” for days on end, Sean Hannity last night interviewed former Vice President Richard Cheney and the clear theme of his questioning was “just how dangerous is Barack Obama to the security of the United States and the world?” Cheney, the most dangerous vice president in history, as current Vice President Joe Biden once referred to him, was only too happy to comply in the orchestrated, nightly character assassination that Fox has sought to carry out since Day One of the Obama Presidency. The virulence of Hannity’s attacks is the kind formerly reserved by rightwing commentators only for figures like Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez, openly considered enemies of the United States. But it should be remembered that the person he is attacking in this way now is the overwhelmingly elected Chief of State of his own country, and his intention is obvious: to undermine the presidency of the United States of America. If the shoe were on the other foot, and the person under such virulent attack were George W. Bush instead of Barack Obama, both Hannity and O’Reilly would surely be asking their audiences if the perpetrator weren’t, perhaps, a terrorist and deserving of waterboarding to find out whom he is working for.

But, okay, let’s all pretend we don’t know who’s behind the “tea parties” – like many tried to pretend they didn’t know Nixon was behind the Watergate break-in scandal that ended up costing him his presidency – and just agree that whoever organized them, their purpose was to send out a message of rebellion, with a pseudo-patriotic bent.

The Original Festivities.

The original Boston Tea Party took place in 1773, three years before the 13 original New England colonies declared their independence from Britain and engaged the crown in full-scale war. Details are somewhat sketchy as to the event itself, but not so regarding the context. What it boils down to is that friends of the Court who formed part of the British East India Company – a concern that was long at the forefront of British expansionism – lost some of the tax breaks that it had been receiving under former agreements for the tea they brought into England from abroad. The East India Company did not supply tea directly to the American colonies, but sold it at auction in England to tea merchants who then exported it to the colonies, adding their commissions to the cost. However, when the crown imposed its thirst for greater revenues on the East India Company’s tea trade, it was the American colonists who took the hit for the higher costs that the East India monopoly passed on to the tea merchants.

To add insult to injury, the colonists could buy their tea much more cheaply from Dutch traders, for instance, but the East India monopoly began to lose vast sums of money to these traders from other countries. To get around this, the solution arrived at by the British government, with a nod from King George, was the Tea Act of 1773. This law gave the East India Company a full refund of a 25% tax it paid on the tea it imported into England, while permitting the monopoly, for the first time, to export tea directly to the colonies. This allowed it to cut out the cost of middle men and to better compete with Dutch traders. But to further cripple the competition, the only merchants that could handle tea in the colonies were now crown-appointed colonial merchants in major American ports, with any purchases they made elsewhere becoming tantamount to smuggling. The main fly in the ointment, however, was a tax known as the Townshend Tax that was only paid on tea shipped to the colonies. It was a direct imperial tax on the settlers and was considered discriminatory by the colonists. Those who favored the tax in Britain argued that it was used to defray the cost of salaries paid to British officials in the colonies. If the tax were repealed the risk was that payment of colonial officials would eventually become the responsibility of the colonists themselves and the fear was that the imperial officials’ loyalty would eventually lie with the British Americans who paid them, rather than with the crown. So the controversial tax on tea stood.

The colonists of Massachusetts protested that they had a right to only pay taxes levied by their elected colonial representatives – and this was backed by earlier agreements hammered out with the crown – since, in England itself, they were not adequately and directly represented and, therefore, whatever was dictated in this way was basically tyranny. Furthermore, it seemed to them that they were the butt of a cruel irony since the Townshend Tax paid colonial officials whose very job it was to protect the interests of the crown in detriment to those of the colonists themselves.

And they were not alone in their protests. By the time of the uprising in Massachusetts, demonstrators in three other colonies had already managed to prevent British merchant ships from unloading taxed tea in their ports. But the crown had apparently decided to make a stand in Boston Harbor and Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson was under pressure to keep the protest from succeeding in the influential Massachusetts Colony. Despite his subjects’ fervent requests – and, eventually, heated demands, with angry rallies in Boston where protesters numbered in the thousands – that the tea be turned away from the harbor, the governor refused to be a part of the self-styled embargo and the tea landed on Boston’s wharf, backed and enforced by the governorship.

Hutchinson was obviously out of touch with the depth of sentiment among the colonists he governed regarding actions taken by a Parliament on the other side of the ocean in which they had no direct representation and it was his stubborn refusal to listen to reason that led to the direct action taken by a group of what today would probably be called “terrorists” and “leftwing loons” – especially by “conservatives” of the ilk of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and former Speaker of the House Gingrich.

Details of this action, as I say, are sketchy but it seems that somewhere between 30 and 130 men (…um, what shall we call them? Militant activists? Far-left extremists? Freedom fighters? Enemy terrorists? Far-left loons? Patriots? Pinheads? You call it, O’Reilly…), some disguised as Indians to avoid identification, climbed aboard the ships under cover of night, broke open the crates on board and dumped the taxed tea into the waters of the Boston Harbor.

British demands that the rebel colony pay for the damages were rejected, resulting in a British embargo on trade with Massachusetts until reparation was made. It was indeed a controversial point, and even some people who would later be considered major American patriots, such as Benjamin Franklin, thought such a vandalistic act was going too far and that reparation should be made. But the stand-off between the colonies and the crown over this and other increasingly coercive acts on the part of the British government eventually led to the first shots of the Revolution’s being fired just two years later.

Tea Parties Today.

So what does this have to do with last week’s “tea parties” organized and orchestrated across the United States? In point of fact, nothing. Indeed, it is important here – since the GOP has insisted on making the comparison by shamelessly using an act of rebellion against imperialist tyranny with a tax package passed by the elected Congress of the United States in a desperate effort to clean up the ungodly mess that an eight-year Republican administration left behind – to figure out who’s who in this farcical tableau.

What every schoolchild recalls about the Boston Tea Party is that it was about “taxation without representation”. But what no one knows without in-depth study of the event, is that the accent was on representation. The tax was no more than a symbol of imperial tyranny. What the colonists were seeking by refusing to pay the Townshend tax was self-determination and what the British crown was seeking by insisting on imposing it was authoritarian control over its American subjects. The protests of last week that shamelessly sought to link the Obama Administration’s policies to this historical event were about perceived high taxes. That was never the issue in the Boston Tea Party. In fact, with the passage of the Tea Act, certain taxes were repealed and the price of tea in the colonies went down to such a degree that it became competitive with smuggled Dutch tea. The Townshend tax on the colonists was only 3%. So the protest and direct action were not because of taxation as such, but because of the principle involved. What the colonists rejected was London’s tyrannical decision to impose a tax in which they had no say and from which they derived no benefits. What they were opposing was despotic interference in their internal affairs. The tax was merely a symbol of their enslavement to and exploitation by the crown.

Last week’s protest has nothing to do with anything except the GOP’s whining about losing the election last November and being so soundly trounced by Barack Obama. Typically, rather than seeking to cooperate and help find a consensual solution to a grave crisis that is affecting the nation, the ultra-conservative political machine is busy seeking ways of taking advantage of the situation in order to undermine the authority of the Democratic Administration and further deepen the perception of crisis and chaos, with the aim of weakening the president’s position at every turn and ensuring that he will be replaced by a Republican at the end of his four years. It is an attitude that is unworthy and unpatriotic, but, unfortunately, not unexpected in a group of self-interested, far-right radicals who refuse to admit that the problem, like the bailout itself, started with them and that it is now President Obama’s job to try and fix the overwhelming mess they left behind.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Malvinas: Where the ‘Proceso’ Went to Die

This week marks the 27th anniversary of the Argentine Armed Forces Government’s pre-emptive takeover of the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands on April 2, 1982. The move triggered a 10-week conflict with Britain that cost 649 Argentine and 258 British lives. It was also the beginning of the end for the ‘Proceso’ dictatorship.

Invasion Day – April 2, 1982.
I recall the morning that Buenos Aires and the nation as a whole awoke to find that the Armed Forces had taken over the Malvinas (Falklands) from the British. It was an unseasonably cold and crisp day. Barely the start of South American autumn, but a sharp Patagonian wind had cleared away the clouds, chilled the air and left the sky a deep and limpid blue. It was as if the weather itself were announcing the advent of the series of events that would follow in the freezing climate of the sub-Antarctic islands.

But on that date, in Buenos Aires, it was a gorgeous, clear, cold and sunny day. I walked the streets of downtown to ‘test the waters’ before going in to work. I was general news editor and an editorial writer for the English-language Buenos Aires Herald at the time. Normally, I wouldn’t have been headed for work before mid-afternoon (when you work for a daily, you do the bulk of your actual writing at night, although you’re usually busy, one way or another, all day as well), but considering the top news of the day, I wanted to get an early start.
One of the first signs of reaction I noted was that Harrods, the emblematically English department store was absolutely festooned with sky-blue and white Argentine flags, dozens of them, the larger the better and no vestige of a Union Jack anywhere in sight. Furthermore, the store would, in short order, put out a press release reminding everyone that it had long since been bought out by Italian and other interests.
The large English-speaking and Anglo communities in Argentina had long thought of Harrods as an oasis of English popular culture on the posh Florida pedestrian street in the heart of the city. Opened in 1912, it was the first and only foreign branch ever founded by the famed London emporium, and although it became independent of its English parent store in the late 1940s, until the morning of April 2, 1982, it had remained a British icon in downtown Buenos Aires. Now, suddenly, it was demonstratively, almost ‘euphorically’ Argentine.
And a little further down the street, it would only be a matter of hours before the ever-traditional Franco-Inglesa pharmacy and fine perfume store would scratch the gold-lettered second half of its name off the windows and paint it over on its sign to become merely “the Franco”. Nor would these be the only victims of combined paranoia and anti-Anglo jingoism to suffer modification.
It was a Friday, but from early on, as people started finding out the news, it began to have a holiday feel. Perhaps, a better than holiday feel. People seemed excited but happy, smiling and nodding to each other on the street, stopping to chat about the news. And little by little, people began gravitating toward the main square of the city, Plaza de Mayo, where a spontaneous demonstration was taking shape, under the nervously watchful eyes of Federal Policemen whose number also began to climb as the day went on.
None of this was normal under the iron-handed government of the National Reorganization Process, or ‘Proceso’ as it was known for short. Gatherings had been banned since 1976, following the coup that brought the ‘Proceso’ to power, as was union activity, political parties, and any other kind of cultural group or association that might be construed as threatening to the military government. Of late, the ‘Proceso’ had become even more paranoid than usual. It was losing its grip and it knew it. So its reactions to political demonstrations that, little by little, were again beginning to rear their heads, had become increasingly severe and violent.

But today they were reading the crowds differently. There was no belligerence in those headed for the Plaza. There was only jubilation and rampant national sentiment. They were going there to celebrate, to congratulate the very dictators that had repressed them for seven long years, to thank them for taking back what British colonialism had usurped so long ago from Argentina’s sovereign territory. It was a far cry from the attitude of growing unrest that had been seething just beneath the surface and that, just that week, in the final days of March, had boiled over into unbridled violence.

Spare the Rod...
You can beat a dog to make it obey. Tie it up and beat it hard enough and it’ll cringe every time you draw near and try its best not to displease you in order not to be beaten. For a while, at least. Until it gets accustomed to the pain and violence and decides to bite back. And beating a dog will never make it loyal. It’ll only make it wary, terrified and, ultimately, mean. Show weakness, show the slightest sign of helplessness and you’ll be lucky if it doesn’t turn on you and tear your throat out. It’s a basic and primitive law of survival. It takes no human (or humane) sentiment into account. It is when all that exists is the power of brute force exercised by one over the position of weakness of another. It’s an almost baseless relationship that only stands on might and abuse, with no love lost between the parties involved and with each wanting what’s worst for the other. It is the tense “peace” and order of a prison, the ever-shaky standoff between life-long prisoner and jailer.
This was the relationship that Argentina’s military came to have with common society in the bad old days of the National Reorganization Process (1976-1983). At first, like a starved and frightened dog, society had cozy up to a new master and licked its hand, hoping for protection from the other one that it had chosen, but that was now starving and abusing it, the one that demanded loyalty and gave abuse in return. But it didn’t take long to find out that the 1976 coup was all about leaping from the skillet into the scorching fires of authoritarian hell.
The Armed Forces government’s top brass swaggered over the human and civil rights of the people like feudal lords, taking and doing whatever they wished and killing off those who stood in their way. The abusive practices of those who served them were as consummately vile as any that might invade your worst nightmares. Beatings with nightsticks and rifle butts, electric cattle prods applied to gums, genitals and other sensitive body parts, and water and suffocation torture of all kinds (wet submarine, dry submarine, waterboarding, etc.) were standard operating procedure to be applied to just about anyone questioned by military and security forces. And here the word anybody meant just that: anybody, at any time and practically at random.
But even worse things were done to the people who fell into the limbo of “the missing”: repeated rapes and beatings, the abuse of pregnant women by inserting electrodes into their bodies and torturing their unborn babies in the womb, bodily mutilation with blowtorches, hanging prisoners by their wrists or thumbs or ankles and beating them with clubs – in short, every kind of atrocious torment that a perverted mind could conjure up – all cowardly, all despicable. And then there were the other abuses and atrocities: extortion of the families of the “missing” in which they gave everything they had worked for to try and save a loved one that they would, nonetheless, never see again; pregnant political prisoners separated from their babies and murdered after giving birth in prison, their babies then being given over to an ad hoc “adoption agency” that provided children to barren friends of the regime; mere high school children jailed, tortured and murdered for protesting a hike in the price of the school bus ticket; truckloads of prisoners taken to remote sites, machine-gunned en masse and their bodies blown up with dynamite; prisoners drugged and pushed from military helicopters to their deaths in the River Plate or in the ocean; business people accused of subversion and jailed, their businesses confiscated and their personal properties snatched because their interests conflicted with those of the despots in power; so-called third-world clerics summarily executed for speaking out, for defending Christian ethics, for calling for an end to the madness, for ministering to the poor.
People were scared. People didn’t talk about what was going on. They pretended not to know. They looked away, as they might look away from a facility for the criminally insane, not wanting to imagine what went on in there, afraid that by looking they might make the madness spill out into the street and grab them, afraid that they themselves might end up “inside”. But although they “didn’t know”, they knew enough to warn their loved ones not to “get into anything”, not to “mess with politics”, not to look authority in the eye, to lower their eyes, to lower their heads, to ‘circulate’.

Breaking Point: The Jimmy Carter Era.
By 1982, the situation could no longer be ignored. With very occasional exceptions, the military had, by then, made just about everybody disappear that they planned to. There was no longer any “enemy” for them to pretend to be fighting. The “subversives” were all dead or gone or crushed beyond being any danger to the regime. The ‘Proceso’ now talked in the past tense about the “dirty war” it had supposedly had to fight in order to “save the Christian and Western world”. But its international image had been so tarnished by then that even the common folk back home could no longer pretend nothing had happened: International organizations were calling for an end to the regime and the advent of democratic elections. Human rights groups targeted the ‘Proceso’ as one of the bloodiest and most abusive regimes in the world. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo had been on major television news programs in the Unites States and Europe, calling for the “return alive” of their missing children and grandchildren. Renowned news columnists and writers had described the atrocities committed and called on their governments to censure the regime.
Four years of the Jimmy Carter Administration (1977-1981) in Washington had also made a major difference. After decades of US policy that took a hands-off approach to “friendly dictators”, President Carter imposed a foreign policy whose key tenet was the protection of human rights through diplomacy. The dichotomy of US foreign policy up to then had always been that while Washington preached democracy, rule of law and the Bill of Rights as basic inalienable human and civil rights at home, it applied a double standard elsewhere, as if to say that North Americans were just a little more human than the people who had to live under the heels of dictators’ boots in rightwing regimes that posed as front men for the US in its war on communism. Never in modern times had a US president emphasized as much as Jimmy Carter did the idea that US foreign policy should reflect the highest human ideals of the United States and Western democracy.
He named staunch human rights activist Patricia Murphy Derian to be his Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and she immediately took on the authoritarian regimes in places like Chile, Paraguay and Argentina, as well as in apartheid-era South Africa and elsewhere. President Carter was criticized by the right for overlooking human rights abuses in Korea, China, Iran and other Eastern countries but his concentration on cleaning up the human rights situation in Latin America and putting these countries on the road to democracy was clearly a question of starting in his own backyard and turning the Americas into a showcase for basic Early American ideals.

The Derian Factor.
Assistant Secretary Derian proved a tenacious defender of that policy and of human rights in general. In the case of Argentina, she called a spade a spade, openly accusing the regime of crimes against humanity and becoming instrumental in setting up an inspection mission that the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IHRC) carried out in Argentina under authority from the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1979. It was also in that year that she helped secure the release of Jacobo Timerman, owner and publisher of the center-left newspaper, La Opinión, who had been imprisoned and tortured after being falsely accused of helping launder leftwing terrorist extortion money. Her campaign to gain Timerman’s release helped catapult his case to the forefront of international interest and put such intense pressure on the Argentine military that they finally had to let him go. Although the regime showed its displeasure at having to do so by taking over Timerman’s paper, stealing his property and stripping him of his citizenship before letting him leave the country, his release still caused ultra-rightwing factions in the Army to accuse the junta of being soft on terrorism and to stage a military revolt in the interior of the country that was eventually put down, but not without loss of face and power for the leaders of the ‘Proceso’.
Assistant Secretary Derian’s actions so infuriated the Argentine military that they internally declared her their Public Enemy Number One and are even reported to have entertained plans to have her killed. (Not surprising, since this was how they had been handling the opposition of every color up to then, and they were clearly arrogant enough to think they could get away with it).
Weakening the military’s image still further, in 1980 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, an Argentine artist and human rights activist who was tortured and held for 14 months by the ‘Proceso’ before international outcry brought his release.
With Ms. Derian leading the action, President Carter slapped sanctions on Argentina for failing to heed his demands that human rights be respected, alienating the leaders of the ‘Proceso’, but at the same time drawing ever-increasing international media attention to what was going on, and making it impossible for the military to operate with the kind of impunity that they had early on after the coup. Suddenly, the ‘Proceso’ was high-profile and its image was abysmal.
This obviously weakened its position at home as well. You can’t ‘tie your dog up and beat it’ before the eyes of the whole world, because somebody bigger and stronger is almost bound to intervene and stop you – and perhaps hit you with your very own stick. Which was precisely what President Carter did, because one of the sanctions imposed was keeping the Argentine military from getting their hands on US arms if they were going to use them to repress their own people.
Just Call Me Pontius Massera.
Ms. Derian would remain a champion of human rights in Argentina long after she and Mr. Carter were out of office. When the respective military juntas were tried for human rights violations after democracy was restored, the former Assistant Secretary of State went to Buenos Aires to testify against them. One of the most chilling parts of her testimony had to do with a meeting she had with Admiral Emilio Massera to explain the Carter Administration’s policy to him.
Massera was a cynic and a bully. He was also apparently hopelessly obtuse if he thought he could pull the wool over the eyes of such a thorough investigator and such a brilliant intellectual as Patricia Derian. Or perhaps he was simply so arrogant that he thought he could convince her of whatever sort of spurious nonsense he made up.
At any rate, when Assistant Secretary Derian met with him on August 10, 1977 (when the worst human rights violations of the ‘Proceso’ were in full swing) and bluntly told him that Washington was aware of the abuses being perpetrated by the regime and that they would absolutely have a negative impact on relations with the United States if they didn’t stop immediately, Admiral Massera said that the Navy hadn’t tortured anyone. It was the Army and Air Force that did those things, he said.
Ms. Derian was flabbergasted by the denial. She stated that she was in possession of hundreds of reports from people tortured by naval officers. Moreover, she had reports from people within the Argentine Navy itself, as well as from within the Army and the Air Force. Massera again denied all participation, saying that he had made special efforts to keep union leaders safe after the coup and that this was why they were being held aboard a ship anchored off shore. (There were already reports by that time that Light and Power Union Leader Oscar Smith, for example, had been murdered and his body disposed of at the Naval Mechanics School, so the falsehood of his statements was almost laughable, had the cases not been so tragic).
Losing patience, Assistant Secretary Derian said that in one of the reports, she had seen a layout of the very building where she was meeting with Massera, and she added: “It’s possible that, as we speak, someone is being tortured on the floor below us.”
Then, she would be astonished as Massera broke into a broad leering grin, made a histrionic hand-washing gesture and said: “You remember what happened to Pontius Pilot, right?”
Ms. Derian would have to wait nearly three decades to receive the recognition she deserved for hobbling the dictatorship and very likely saving thousands more lives that would otherwise have been taken, but finally, in 2006, she was awarded the Order of the Liberator General San Martín, with the rank of Officer – the highest decoration granted by the Argentine government to foreign officials.

Enter Ronald Reagan.
Be that as it may, by the start of the South Atlantic War, the regime had already gotten chummy with Washington again, thanks to former actor and governor Ronald Reagan’s election win over Mr. Carter in 1981. Mr. Reagan had an old-time rightist approach to foreign policy and almost immediately sent his foreign policy architect, Jeane Kirkpatrick, to let the ‘Proceso’ leaders know that the Jimmy Carter era was stone cold dead and that from now on they would no longer have to fret about pesky human rights investigators out of Washington.
Dr. Kirkpatrick was a fervent anti-communist and the author of what came to be known as the “Kirkpatrick Doctrine”, one of the main principles of which was the exact opposite of the Carter policy pinning US support to democratic government and, above all, respect for human rights.
The Kirkpatrick policy advocated Washington’s support of just about any kind of government, including harsh rightwing dictatorships, with the only prerequisite for membership in the Reagan Administration’s group of ‘friends’ being hard-line opposition to all things leftist. The ‘Proceso’ was, obviously, a shoo-in. It had been so tough on reds that it had wiped out every opponent that ever even dared to blush. And the ‘Proceso’ was more than willing to lend support to Reagan’s rightwing Contra guerrillas (freedom fighters as his administration dubbed them) in Central America.
The Kirkpatrick Doctrine had a side that was obviously ‘for general audiences’ who might find supporting perverse dictatorial regimes distasteful. The theory that supposedly made doing this ‘okay’ was that leftist regimes could never be turned toward democracy, whereas ‘allowing’ rightwing dictatorships to ‘help’ Washington in its war on communism would cement ties between them and the US and permit Washington to eventually give them a friendly nudge toward a US-style democratic system.

In theory, it almost sounded plausible, as espoused by the brilliant Dr. Kirkpatrick. But in fact, it didn’t always work. For instance, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, better known as the Shah of Iran, was brought to power as a rightwing dictator through a CIA plot called Operation Ajax that ended the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in the 1950s after his administration nationalized Anglo-US oil interests. Previously a figurehead king within a democratic system, the Shah became an absolute monarch with military backing. Although he protected US interests for three and a half decades and practically became a cult icon in the West, he never showed signs of being ‘nudged toward democracy’. On the contrary, his despotic policies and intolerance of dissent were the direct cause of the Iranian Revolution that brought Islamic extremist clerics to power in the late ‘70s, turning Iran into a bitter and dangerous enemy of the United States.

Nor was the definition of ‘rightwing’ always clear. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, for instance, was an Arab Socialist. And yet, because of his position as a bulwark against Iranian advances in the Middle East, he was seen as ‘a friendly’ by Washington. In addition to the billions upon billions of dollars that the US had already pumped into Iraq prior to the Reagan era, the Reagan Administration alone handed Saddam another 40 billion dollars in loans in the 1980s to help him prosecute his war with Iran – a war in which, according to some estimates, a million lives were lost. And in addition, during that same period, Washington sent Saddam billions in direct aid, basically to prevent him from forming any strong alliances with the Soviet Union. Undoing that diplomatic ‘marriage’ is still costing American lives and billions of dollars in US taxpayer money each year to this day.

The ‘Proceso’ was also seen as having certain strategic value in the war on communism with which the Reagan Administration seemed so thoroughly obsessed. And, according to some sources at the time, the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands played a role in certain US contingency plans.
But even President Reagan and Dr. Kirkpatrick couldn’t give the junta free rein to rekindle its “dirty war” in order to stem growing opposition to its permanence in power. With Jimmy Carter, a new ethical line had been drawn in the Americas and even Ronald Reagan couldn’t ignore it completely if he hoped to remain in office for eight years.

A Union Protest Turns Popular Riot.
Although the Armed Forces obviously already had their invasion of the islands well under way by the end of March, it was still a well-kept secret from the rest of the world, and particularly from the Argentine people, who had been tolerating the perversely repressive ‘Proceso’ for six long and harrowing years. The Carter years and international repudiation for the regime, despite Washington’s newfound love affair with it, had so undermined its image that Argentines were no longer willing to put up with its permanence in power and were clamoring for a political opening. And with the whole world now watching, the tactics the dictatorship had applied back in 1976 had been rendered out of the question.
Just four days before that crisp, sunny April 2nd, when I had walked the downtown streets of Buenos Aires and watched people spontaneously gathering in Plaza de Mayo to celebrate the Malvinas takeover, I had also been out observing the scene in the heart of the city. And on that day, Tuesday, March 30, 1982, people had also gathered in the center of the capital city, not to celebrate but to protest against the ‘Proceso’.
The protest began as a general strike and mobilization called by the Peronist labor unions grouped in the General Confederation of Labor (CGT). The demonstration was commanded by the CGT’s firebrand leader, Saúl Ubaldini. The strike and mass protest were billed as a call for “peace, bread and jobs”. It was the most serious protest the military regime had had to face in its six years in power and it gravely challenged the dictatorship’s ability to continue to repress the tide of popular support for a return to democracy.
The Interior Ministry had banned the mass protest, claiming that it might have permitted a peaceful protest, but that the CGT had neglected to request the proper permit. The march, the government said, would not be allowed. But Saúl Ubaldini pushed ahead with his plans, claiming that the dictatorship had run its course, undermined by internal contradictions and reaching the point of collapse in the midst of an economic crisis that was starving the nation’s workers.
Emboldened by the CGT’s decision to forge ahead, other civil, political and social organizations joined the march. Despite an intimidating display of police and military power, the protest drew a crowd of some 50,000 workers, students and other young people. And these began to be joined by some of the passersby, who, inspired by the resolve of the marchers, decided that they too had had enough of the dictatorship and that the time had come to start bringing it down.
The regime panicked and ordered the protest crushed. Riot forces armed with tear gas, nightsticks and weapons loaded with rubber bullets, as well as their regulation arms, advanced on the crowds. Many people broke and ran, adding to the confusion, but significant numbers of grimly stubborn protestors stood their ground and clashed head-on with riot police, turning the wooden staves of their protest signs into clubs with which to return the blows they received, lobbing tear gas canisters back at the cops and converting trash dumpsters and cans into makeshift barricades, setting their contents ablaze. Riot-control detachments from the Federal Police Infantry Guard – under Army command since the coup – chased rioters that fled the Plaza down central side streets, using their riot shields to surround themselves and becoming a human battering ram, reminiscent of the Roman army’s tortoise maneuver, so that as the protestors mingled with the passersby on the streets, these too became fair game as the armored platoons ran roughshod over whomever wondered into their path. Office and shop workers took refuge in stores that remained open, but many had already lowered their security curtains to avoid damage. At the center of the protest, however, the direct confrontation continued, as well-organized squads of union and political activists attacked individual mounted police, pulling them from their mounts or even dragging their horses down, jerking the cops from their saddles amidst a barrage of kicks and blows.
And then something started happening that the police and military hadn’t counted on: white-collar workers in the surrounding office buildings started hurling anything they could lay their hands on from the windows and balconies – chucking out wastebaskets, paper weights, phonebooks, staplers, flower pots, anything heavy enough to do some damage – in a bid to injure or intimidate the riot squads and make them retreat.
Clearly, this was no longer a labor union protest, but a spontaneous outpouring of repudiation and hatred for the dictatorial regime. Skirmishes raged on for six hours, as rioters broke for the side streets, thus disbanding the solid police and military front that had been holding firm in the Plaza. When things grew quiet that night, the streets were littered with debris and small fires burned in the makeshift barricades that remained, giving off an eerie flickering glow and lending the usually civilized city a savage, dangerous atmosphere.
Nor was this the only protest: In Rosario, Mar del Plata, Neuquén and other cities in the interior, police and rioters clashed in similar demonstrations. In the Andean city of Mendoza, the protest and clashes between rioters and police ended in the killing of unionist Dalmiro Flores, sparking still further ill-feeling and unrest. Civil disobedience had burst from the box the military had kept it in for more than half a decade, and it clearly wasn’t going to be easy to put it back.

A Common Cause.
On April 2nd, however, one never could have imagined that all of this had taken place just a few days earlier.
Now the square in front of Government House was teeming with well-wishers. Why such a radical change of mood? Because Argentina’s claim to the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands was an almost universal common cause among the country’s people. It was, in a word, Argentina’s “Alamo”, an issue about which there was no question: The Malvinas were Argentine and the British (who had held the archipelago since 1833), were trespassers there.
The ‘Proceso’ generals and admirals knew that if they could win the Malvinas back, it might well consolidate their political power and line the rest of the country up behind them at a time when the country’s tottering economy was making it increasingly difficult to maintain order. Their certainty of this was clearly bolstered by reassurances provided by Nicanor Costa Méndez, who became the ‘Proceso’ government’s Foreign Minister at the end of 1981. Dr. Costa Méndez was chief advisor to then-President Leopoldo Galtieri, who had taken over the reins from General Roberto Viola in what was basically a palace coup. General Galtieri probably entertained visions of becoming a popular authoritarian president. He retained control of the Army after ousting General Viola instead of naming a new Army chief as the previous ‘Proceso’ presidents had done, began talking about an eventual political opening and permitted limited dissent, all of this quite probably on the advice of Costa Méndez, who was a career diplomat.

General Galtieri gives the high sign to well-wishers on April 2, 1982

In the process of trying to legitimize the regime’s image, they had, of late, been courting international organizations in a bid to generate backing for their call for negotiations to end a century and half of British colonialism in the tiny, remote enclave located less than 300 miles off Argentine shores and, so the government argued, forming part of the nation’s continental shelf.
Dr. Costa Méndez was well-spoken in English and had apparently gained certain respect in both Washington and London. General Galtieri, for his part, seemed to make a hit with the Pentagon crowd. A tall, swaggering, tough-talking, blue-eyed hard drinker with a voice like gravel and a jaw like a lantern, he couldn’t help but remind more than a few military men of George Scott playing General George Patton. Between the two of them, General Galtieri and Dr. Costa Méndez had managed to get a tentative indication from Reagan’s Washington that the US might be willing to support a request from Argentina that Britain start thinking about giving the islands back.
But what now seems utterly delusional on the part of both men is their having convinced each other that the US would remain neutral in the face of an armed invasion of an ostensibly British territory, or that Britain had become such a second-rate power that it would permit a tin-pot South American dictatorship to take over one of its possessions without doing something about it. This seems clear, no matter how enthused Washington might have appeared about the possibility of setting up a US base on the islands once Britain had handed them over. Britain had never considered the Falklands of strategic importance, while the United States, in its Cold War with the Soviets, might well have – and was, in fact, strongly rumored to – as a sort of natural aircraft carrier in the South Atlantic. But neither did London consider negotiations to recognize Argentina’s claim to be a priority, and Dr. Costa Méndez’s British counterpart, Lord Carrington (and his eventual replacement, Francis Pym), made this clear to an increasingly irritated Costa Méndez. Britain probably would, someday, take a look at some kind of joint administration or even a British phase-out. Just not right now.
But the ‘Proceso’ needed it to happen right now, and if it wasn’t going to, they would make it happen. The first truly clear signal from Washington came once the invasion was practically under way, when General Alexander Haig, who was then US Secretary of State, told Galtieri’s government that if a conflict was in the offing, the Reagan Administration would, of course, side with Britain.

Glory and Disgrace.
Wars are almost always about politicians with veiled or not so veiled interests appealing to patriotic fervor in order to convince soldiers and sailors to march and sail off to battle and give their lives for the ‘higher cause of freedom and justice’. The ten-week South Atlantic War was no different. The Argentine military’s ever more tenuous grip on power and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s flagging level of public confidence were a lethal combination that kept either side from laying down their weapons and going back to the negotiating table under UN supervision. What was truly disgraceful about the war is the political subterfuge and petty interests that spawned it, by appealing to the highest sense of patriotism and ethics of the people of both countries.
What also must be separated from the political issues is how the war was prosecuted on the battlefield by both sides in the conflict.
The same Argentine Armed Forces that had repressed and murdered tens of thousand of its own compatriots, managed to take over the islands in a lightning invasion that was orchestrated in such a way as not to spill a drop of British blood. This mission was carried out so well that the only death on April 2 was that of Marine Lt. Commander Pedro Giachino, leader of the detachment under orders to take over the house of the British governor of the islands. He, an aide and a corpsman were cut down by British Royal Marine fire, when he and his men surrounded the governor’s house and ordered those inside to surrender. The corpsman managed to get himself and the two officers patched up but Commander Giachino succumbed to his wounds. The Royal Marines, meanwhile, hopelessly outnumbered, surrendered.
Officers and men on both sides would later have words of praise for each other’s performance. Reports from Britain would discuss the grit of Argentine soldiers in the field who despite being under-armed, under-clothed and underfed, fought hard, inflicted serious casualties on some of the best trained and best equipped troops anywhere. Argentine soldiers, for their part, would recall how they were better treated and cared for by their British captors than they had been by their own commanders, who had sent them to war with defective equipment, scant munitions, poor training and totally deficient rations.
The conditions of surrender were signed in an atmosphere of mutual respect and honor, and it was only when Argentine fighting men returned to the mainland that they would suffer the oblivion of the vanquished.

Surrendered arms on the ground at Port Stanley (Puerto Argentino)

Malvinas: Where the ‘Proceso’ Died.
Be that as it may, the war attained one major achievement: It spelled the beginning of the end for the National Reorganization Process. Gone from Plaza de Mayo were the fawning crowds of April 2, 1982. With the announcement of the mid-June surrender, the angry throngs of March 30 returned to the center of downtown Buenos Aires, pelting police and paramilitary units with rocks, coins, sticks, anything hard enough to draw blood as they clamored to reach the doors of Government House and kick them in. Rioting and skirmishes raged long into the night and fiery barricades flamed into the early morning hours and smoldered there as the sun came up on the wintery morning of Argentina’s discontent.
Galtieri was removed from office just as he had removed Viola, replaced by a junta that named General Reynaldo Bignone to immediately start guiding the country toward a democratic opening and presidential elections.
The war and the ‘Proceso’ were at an end, but the sense of loss and suffering that both wrought in Argentina continues even today, a quarter-century later.

©2009 by Dan Newland. All Rights Reserved by the Author

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Remembering Dr. Alfonsín

Dr. Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín, who died yesterday at the age of 82, will very likely be judged more fairly by history, as the major statesman he was, than he has been in his own lifetime. The former president of Argentina has often been more highly criticized for passage of the so-called “Full Stop” Law – putting an end to trials against repressors who kidnapped, tortured and murdered citizens and foreigners alike under the military’s bloody National Reorganization Process – or for leaving office six months early (after what was arguably the most arduous presidency in Argentine history) than he has been praised for taking the former military juntas to trial or for capably putting down an extremist military revolt that threatened to immerse the country in civil war.
In terms of the unrealistic expectations that President Alfonsín’s rise to office generated and the largely unfair criticism that his administration’s term in office ultimately elicited, parallels might well be drawn with the Obama Administration in the United States. In both cases – and making allowances for subtle degrees of ignominy - the voting populations were reacting to eight years of unprecedented abuse of authority, disrespect for human rights, undermined rule of law and hidden yet clearly underlying economic chaos and manipulated stagnation. Like Barack Obama, Raúl Alfonsín’s election victory brought an almost delirious outpouring of popular celebration. Dr. Alfonsín’s December 1983 rise to office produced a spontaneous manifestation of public support that choked the streets of downtown Buenos Aires and the lawn of Plaza de Mayo in front of Government House with cheering crowds estimated at well over a million people. Never before had Argentine politics witnessed such a mass demonstration of political frenzy and celebration – not even in the days three decades before when Juan and Eva Perón harangued the “descamisados” from the balcony of the presidential offices.
For nearly a decade – starting with the reign of terror that began even before the 1976 military coup, provoked by the band of thugs that formed part of the entourage surrounding Isabel Perón when she took office following President Juan Perón’s death in 1974 – Argentines had lived in fear of authority, in fear of politics, in fear of almost anything but going from their homes to their jobs and from their jobs back home. President Alfonsín, very much like President Obama, seemed to represent the blazing beacon at the end of a very dark tunnel. And the brilliance of that light made Dr. Alfonsín – like Mr. Obama – seem just a little bit bigger than life.
Such tall expectations, however, can be a true liability. Colorless leaders in boring times have the advantage of being quickly forgotten and free from blame. Leaders of great promise are subject to close scrutiny and to myriad accusations when what they seek to achieve falls even slightly short of the mark (as witnessed by the campaign of “de-mystification” mounted against President Obama from his first hour in office and the demands that he keep his campaign promises word for word and show instant results after only two months in office).
The newborn democracy that President Alfonsín inherited was, in a sense, a “democracy by permission” from the military. It was semi-transitional in the sense that there was nothing unconditional about the political and judicial power in place at the time. The military had taken steps to ensure that its members would continue to enjoy the impunity they had during their seven-and-a-half-year usurpation of power: General Reynaldo Bignone, the last in the series of dictators at the head of the ‘Proceso’, handed a sweeping general pardon to all military personnel and officers for their part in the massive human rights abuses and murders that took place under the regime.
Considering the earlier half-century of Argentine history, in which elected presidents had been removed from office like barely tolerated pawns by one military coup after another, it was a truly bold move on Dr. Alfonsín’s part to rescind the Bignone pardon and push ahead with the long and highly publicized trial of members of successive ‘Proceso’ juntas. Bolder still was his forming of the National Commission on Missing Persons (CONADEP), the high profile of which he ensured by asking world famous Argentine novelist Ernesto Sábato to head it. The CONADEP did its job swiftly and thoroughly, bringing home the truth about some 30,000 disappearances under the military regime by gathering documentable evidence on as many cases as possible. When Mr. Sábato handed the report to Dr. Alfonsín, 8,900 victims of State terror were no longer stuck forever in the limbo of “the disappeared”. Suddenly, they had names and faces and the details of their abductions, incarcerations and deaths were published in black and white for all the world to see. And people like Lieutenant General Jorge R. Videla – the emblematic first president of the dictatorship – who had cynically stated that the word “missing” said it all, that those who had disappeared simply “didn’t exist”, was now in court, sitting before the special tribunal at a table with the other ‘Proceso’ accused.
Despite the fact that successive military uprisings led by insurrectionist extremists in the middle ranks from lieutenant colonel down would force the president to negotiate an end (albeit temporary) to further court action against the former regime, the trials and sentencing against the general officers of the military juntas stood, in what was an unprecedented victory for national democracy.
And Dr. Alfonsín made other rapid inroads against armed forces domestic dominion, by shifting the concentration of military might away from the Federal Capital and into areas of strategic importance in case of foreign attack, as well as by restricting the economic autonomy of the Armed Forces. One of the major ways in which he did this was to remove the country’s top defense contractor, the powerful Fabricaciones Militares, from Armed Forces control and place it under the administration of the Federal Government. This was a move so unpopular within the military that the Alfonsín Administration was forced to order literally scores of general officers (generals and admirals) into retirement to quell opposition to the action and thus prevent organized resistance.
Despite concessions made in putting down the revolts of the so-called carapintadas (painted-faces) – a relatively reduced group of military rebels who hid their identities by smearing their faces with camouflage grease-paint – President Alfonsín demonstrated outstanding leadership in not only rallying public support from the civilian population, but also by maintaining the backing of the bulk of the Armed Forces, in the face of a situation that could well have sparked civil war and the return of a military faction to dictatorial rule. Even the “Full Stop” on prosecution of military men accused of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity was not an outright ban as such. It limited legal action against several hundred suspected repressors to trials against only those who could be indicted within a 60-day period following passage of the law. Be that as it may, due to the reluctance to testify of many of those who had suffered at the hands of the ‘Proceso’ and considering the plodding pace of the Justice System, a two-month statute of limitations was practically an effective ban and clearly compromised the otherwise stellar return of rule of law in Argentina. But in all fairness to Dr. Alfonsín, and in 20-20 hindsight, at that point in history, his pragmatism on this point is very likely what kept the country from being plunged back into a pending coup mode – and this time led by rightwing extremists who would have made the ‘Proceso’ look like a walk in the park.
Furthermore, his democratically elected successor, opposition Peronist politician, Dr. Carlos Menem, far from rescinding the amnesty, further sealed it, by promoting the so-called “Due Obedience” Law. This law basically stated that the former juntas that had already been tried and convicted were the only officers responsible for the horrendous crimes of the ‘Proceso’ era and that all others were “only obeying orders”. Despite the Nazi-like ‘logic’ behind the tenets of this law and the international precedents for placing no statute of limitations on heinous crimes against humanity, it is only now, a quarter-century after Dr. Alfonsín’s election triumph and nearly two decades after the Menem Administration took over from him, that the ban has been lifted and a handful of aging repressors are finally tottering before the court for indictment and trial.
Despite such setbacks, with the election of President Alfonsín, Argentines breathed a new air of freedom on the streets of the country’s cities. For the first time in decades, citizens could look policemen and military men in the eye and not fear being detained, beaten or tortured on an arbitrary whim. The government went from being the nation’s jailer to being at the service of the people and the law. The courts became independent of Executive “oversight” and people’s civil and human rights were fully and demonstratively respected. Journalists, politicians and the common folk regained their voices and posed their opinions. Dissidence was once again considered a right, and taking a stance almost became a moral and ethical obligation. Artists, writers and intellectuals who had lived in exile – and often in hiding, even abroad – came back by the score, some with pre-adolescent children, or husbands and wives, who had never known their spouses’ or parents’ native land. It was a celebration of freedom and democracy, a national honeymoon with a new destiny. But expectations were blatantly unrealistic and jealous political motivations made them even more so. In the end, President Alfonsín would find himself embattled and berated on all sides, in spite of his having consolidated a new national legacy of democracy, ethics and respect for the individual like no other in recent memory, and having done it all in a mere half-decade.
In point of fact, President Alfonsín’s most powerful enemy – like that of President Barack Obama – was the economy he inherited. And his merciless political opponents, particularly in the Peronist movement, used it to their advantage to undermine his government’s popularity and credibility at every turn, while creating a climate of impending chaos. The chief opposition party made use of its pressure groups, and particularly of the Peronist labor unions grouped under the General Federation of Labor (CGT), to severely hamper the administration. While to his credit, firebrand CGT leader Saúl Ubaldini had previously organized several nationwide general strikes against the military, during President Alfonsín’s administration he promoted no fewer than 13 general stoppages that paralyzed the country.
The economy inherited from the military was in ruins, with the juntas having run up tens of billions of dollars in foreign debt spent on Pharaonic projects and arms for a near war with Chile and an effective conflict with Great Britain – the Falklands (Malvinas) War, the loss of which spelled the beginning of the end for the regime – at a time when international interest rates were on the rise. Although the country was recording modest growth and a better than modest trade surplus, these attributes were ravenously swallowed up by the looming shadow of the burgeoning international debt, which had reached crisis proportions. Already by the end of the military regime, following the South Atlantic War fiasco, the country’s inflation was soaring at around 18% a month. But by Dr. Alfonsín’s second year in office, it had skyrocketed to almost twice that much, breaking world records, and the country’s currency was devalued practically by the hour.
Seeking to counter this and inject new confidence into the economy, the Alfonsín Administration created a new currency, the austral, which was swapped for the old peso argentino at a rate of a thousand pesos to one austral. President Alfonsín tied promotion of the new currency to the similar promotion of a plan to move the Federal Capital from Buenos Aires to Viedma, gateway to Patagonia, seeking to de-concentrate the population in and around the country’s largest city, while sparking a wave of development and settlement in the largely under-populated interior of the country.
Meanwhile, the administration sought renegotiation of the foreign debt and injections of new direct foreign capital investment into the economy. But for the most part, international confidence in Argentina’s economy was shattered and the crisp new austral, that had opened foreign exchange trade at a higher than parity rate against the US dollar was not sufficient (even with imposed product price controls) to stem the tide of rampant inflation at home.
Complicating matters still further, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States and was clearly unfriendly to the Alfonsín Administration. Mr. Reagan had had two years to get to know the military regime and one of his first acts back then was to send word to Buenos Aires to tell the ‘Proceso’ leaders that the Jimmy Carter era, with its human rights priority in foreign diplomacy was over and that the military’s stand against international communism was more important now to Washington than the atrocities the regime had committed against its own citizens. Even when the regime took over the South Atlantic islands and courted war with Britain, the ‘Proceso’ managed to maintain fairly civil relations with Reagan’s Washington. US-Argentine relations became severely strained, however, when the Alfonsín Administration withdrew support for Washington-backed Contra guerrillas that were resisting the leftist Sandinistas that overthrew pro-US dictator Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. The ‘Proceso’, for its part, had been providing the Contras with material support in order to win favor with Washington. The Alfonsín Administration further miffed Reagan by turning down an offer to reinstate US arms sales to Argentina, telling Washington that “arms were not a priority” for the nation’s new democratic government. So it was that the Reagan Administration remained
less than receptive to Buenos Aires on principle throughout the rest of President Alfonsín’s term in office.In spite of the lack of solidarity shown by Washington and the flurry of rising criticism over the “Full Stop” Law from formerly staunch allies in the international human rights movement, the Alfonsín Administration managed to start mending fences with Britain and to promote the end of a border dispute in the Beagle Channel with neighboring Chile, as well as scoring numerous other international diplomatic victories and positioning the country as a moral and ethical force in the Americas and the developing world.
But without the economic help and massive investment that the country needed to rise above its economic woes, the moral capital accrued and the democratic legacy constructed by the Alfonsín presidency was doomed to be overshadowed by impending economic and social chaos. Hyperinflation spun out of control, rendering the austral worthless and opposition political shock forces took advantage of the confusion to organize rioting and supermarket looting that thrust the country into a nightmare of disorder and decay. By the end of Dr. Alfonsín’s presidency, most people had forgotten what his election had signified for democracy and what his outstanding leadership had done toward consolidating the republic and ensuring that the ‘Proceso’ was the last of Argentina’s myriad de facto governments.
Today would be an excellent day to recall what Raúl Alfonsín and his presidency signify from a panoramic historical viewpoint and honor him as the great Argentine statesman that he was. Twenty years ago, when Dr. Alfonsín was practically shoved from office in near-disgrace, his former Foreign Minister, Dante Caputo, placed things in historical and political perspective when he admitted that there were still grave economic problems to be resolved in Argentina, but added: ''The fundamental accomplishment of Alfonsín has been to prove that we Argentines – not just the Government – were capable of breaking the vicious cycle [of authoritarian rule] and constructing a democratic country.''


  • Top - President Alfonsín wearing the Presidential sash.
  • Lower - Crowds jam Plaza de Mayo on Inauguration Day.