Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín

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Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín

Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín (born 1927) was an Argentine politician who opposed the ruling military junta from 1976 to 1982. In 1983 Alfonsín was elected president of Argentina.

Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín was born in Chascomús, Buenos Aires province, Argentina, on March 13, 1927. After completing primary school, he entered the General San Martín Military Academy, graduating five years later as a second lieutenant (reserve). He joined the Unión Cívica Radical (Radical Civic Union, UCR, also known as Radical party) in 1945 and soon became active in the Movimiento de Intransigencia y Renovación (Movement for Intransigence and Renovation). This was a reform movement that attempted to give new life to the Radical party after its defeat in the February 1946 presidential elections which brought Gen. Juan Domingo Perón to power.

The same year he joined the Radical party, Alfonsín entered law school. Upon graduation in 1950 he returned to his hometown, where he began to practice law, published a newspaper (El Imparcial), and was elected a member of the Chascomús city council.

After the September 1955 military coup put an end to nine years of Peronist rule and banned all political activity by Gen. Perón's followers, the Radical party emerged as the best organized and strongest political force. However, before the 1958 presidential elections took place the party split. It went to the polls divided into the Unión Cívica Radical Intransigente (Radical Intransigent Union, UCRI), which eventually changed its name to MID, Movimiento de Integración y Desarrollo (Movement for Integration and Development), led by Arturo Frondizi and the Unión Cívica Radical del Pueblo (The People's Radical Civic Union, UCRP) under the leadership of Ricardo Balbín. Alfonsín joined Balbín's party and was elected provincial deputy, although Frondizi won the presidency.

In 1960 Alfonsín was reelected for a four year term, but his mandate was terminated in 1962 when President Frondizi was deposed by another military coup. The following year the military held elections. Since the Peronist party was still banned, Arturo Illia, the UCRP candidate, won the contest. Alfonsín was elected national deputy for a four year term and became vice-president of the Radical caucus, but once again a military coup put an abrupt end to his mandate when Gen. Juan Carlos Onganía deposed President Illia in 1966.

Return of Perón

The new military regime sought to transform Argentina and announced widescale reforms. Six years and two military coups later the armed forces decided to return the government to civilians, allow the Peronists to run for office, and put an end to Perón's long exile, permitting his return to Argentina. The call for elections brought about a heated debate within the Radical party. Balbín's longstanding leadership was challenged by a new reform movement, the Movimiento de Renovación y Cambio (Movement for Renewal and Change), created in 1972. Alfonsín was one of its founders and became its presidential candidate. Balbín and the party old guard successfully contained Alfonsín's challenge.

Defeated, Alfonsín supported Balbín, who received the endorsement of the Radical party. The March 1973 elections, however, returned the Peronists to power and eventually led to Perón's third term in office.

The Peronists stayed in power until 1976 when another military coup deposed President María Estela Martínez de Perón (Isabel), who had succeeded her husband in 1974. The coup put an end to a period marked by significant right-wing and left-wing violence, government corruption and inefficiency, and economic chaos.

The "Dirty War"

Headed by a junta composed of the commanders-in-chief of the three armed forces, the new government announced the beginning of the "Proceso de Reorganización National" (Process of National Reorganization). While enacting unprecedented liberal policies intended to bring about economic development, it proceeded to establish a rigid authoritarian regime which became the most repressive government in the history of modern Argentina. Responding to guerrilla violence with state terrorism, the junta launched a brutal campaign that led to large scale human rights violations and killed thousands of innocent persons, including children.

Despite the ban on political activity, Alfonsín was an early critic of the junta's human rights violations. He was a co-founder and active member of the Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos (Permanent Assembly for Human Rights) which included prominent jurists, politicians, and churchmen. He also became its president, together with Monsignor Jaime de Nevares, Bishop of Neuguén.

By 1980 the armed forces faced serious economic difficulties and found themselves increasingly unable to solve the problems created by their anti-guerrilla campaign, especially the question of the desaparecidos (disappeared), persons who had been kidnapped by security forces and had literally disappeared. The defeat of the Argentine armed forces in the April-June 1982 war with the United Kingdom over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands hastened the deterioration of the military regime. A transition government headed by Gen. Reynaldo Bignone was given the task of holding elections and negotiating assurances that the armed forces would not be held accountable for their acts during the "dirty war," as the military itself called the anti-guerrilla campaign. General Bignone failed to reach an agreement with political parties, and elections were set for October 30, 1983.

Alfonsín Takes Command

Taking the initiative, Alfonsín successfully altered the minority status of Renovación y Cambio within UCR and won his party nomination. Then, while the Peronists were still seeking a nominee, Alfonsín launched his campaign. He defined the elections as a contest in which the Radical party's democratic credentials were far superior to those of the Peronist party. He emphasized the need to restore the rule of law to Argentina, extolled democratic values, and projected an image of honesty and hope in the future that found a response not only among the middle class, but also made inroads in the traditionally Peronist working class. When the returns came in, Alfonsín had won the elections with 52 percent of the vote.

When Alfonsín took office on December 10, 1983, he faced a difficult task. He had to strengthen democratic institutions, weakened by successive military coups since 1930; curb the armed forces; dismantle the security forces that had carried out the repressive campaign of the 1970s; satisfy the demands of human rights groups and relatives of desparecidos; and bring about the economic recovery of a country burdened by a $45 billion foreign debt. Taking an exceptional step, he brought the members of the three military juntas that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1982 to trial. Although he failed in his attempt to democratize the labor movement, he tackled inflation with a bold economic plan and, despite his austerity measures, managed to increase his support in the 1985 congressional elections.

Carlos Saul Menem, from the (Peronist) Justicialist Party, was elected President of Argentina in 1989 and reelected in 1995. Alfonsín remains the leader of the Radical Civic Union Party.

Further Reading

There is no full-length biography of Alfonsín in either English or Spanish. For more information on modern Argentine history, James R. Scobie, Argentina: A City and A Nation (1964, 2nd ed. 1971) provides an excellent background. For radicalism, see Peter G. Snow, Argentine Radicalism: The History and Doctrine of the Radical Civic Union (1965); David Rock, Politics in Argentina, 1890-1920: The Rise and Fall of Radicalism (1975); and David Rock (editor), Argentina in the Twentieth Century (1975). For current information on the World Wide Web, see: http://www.yendor.com/vanished/conadep.html (information on the disappeared); and http://www.buenosairesherald.com/thisweek/onth1.htm (Buenos Aires news weekly). □