Argentina, Constitutions

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Argentina, Constitutions

Since its approval, and despite significant revisions, Argentina's Constitution of 1853 has continued to define the workings of the nation's legal system. Up until that time, attempts to legally organize Argentina had failed, mainly because of tensions between the interests of Buenos Aires (which controlled the country's main port) and those of the interior provinces. There had been many attempts at organization, however. Both the Provisional Regulations (1811) and the subsequent Provisional Statutes proved to be short-lived. A Constituent Assembly met in 1813, but failed to approve a constitution, though it managed to establish liberal rules that had significant repercussions for the country. The Provisional Statutes of 1815 also did not establish a sound legal foundation for the nation, but they did prompt the formation of the influential Constituent Congress of 1816, which in 1817 approved a new set of Provisional Regulations to stay in place until the final approval of a constitution.

The only constitutional texts approved before the Constitution of 1853 were the Constitution of 1819 (a product of the Congress of 1816) and the Constitution of 1826. The Constitution of 1819 was particularly important because it assured the organization of a corporate senate (that included members from the military, the church, and academia) and because it made the establishment of a monarchy a possibility. Markedly centralist, it was immediately rejected by a majority of Argentina's provinces. The same fate befell the Constitution of 1826, despite its more federalist nature and its elimination of the more elitist features of the earlier constitutional proposal.

The political crisis that erupted ended with the rise of Juan Manuel de Rosas, who became governor of the province of Buenos Aires in 1829 and later de facto leader of the country, holding power for over two decades. Rosas represented federal interests and, given his resistance to establishing a constitution, he bolstered his power through a series of interprovincial agreements (among them the Federal Pact of 1831).

Rosas's military defeat in 1853 opened the door to the establishment of the Constitution of 1853—a late product of a pact between federalist and centralist forces. Inspired by the work of Juan Bautista Alberdi, this constitution appeared to be "cast in the mold" of the U.S. Constitution of 1787, according to Benjamin Gorostiaga, one of its authors. However, Argentina's constitution differed fundamentally from its U.S. counterpart in significant ways: The U.S. Constitution's system of checks and balances was undermined in the Argentine constitution by the introduction of a stronger presidential system (that included, for instance, the concept of the "state of siege"); the "strongly federal" organization of the U.S. document was weakened in the Argentine (by establishing "federal intervention" over the provinces, for example); and the strict separation of church and state in the U.S. work also was moderated by the Argentine (by Article 2, in which the government "upholds" the Apostolic Roman Catholic faith).

In 1860, as a result of a military conflict originating in Buenos Aires, the constitution was amended for the first time in ten years, to safeguard the autonomy and interests of Buenos Aires. Another reform in 1866 regulated the use of resources from export duties, and another in 1898 specified the number of representatives per inhabitant.

The Constitution of 1853 contributed to a slow democratization of the country, a trend decidedly strengthened with the issue of the Sáenz Peña Act of 1912. This act established universal, secret, and mandatory suffrage, ending a long period of electoral fraud.

In 1930 the first of several military coups in the twentieth century seriously influenced the effective force of the constitutional text. During a period of democratic instability, President Juan Domingo Perón backed the first amending of the constitution, in 1949. The Constitution of 1949 authorized unlimited reelection to the presidency; regulated the state's "social function of ownership" and its intervention in the economy (establishing national ownership of all energy sources); reintroduced military courts; created the concept of the "state of prevention and alarm"; and, most importantly, introduced a long list of social and economic rights, including explicit protection of the traditional family structure and equal rights for men and women in marriage.

In 1955 a military coup reinstalled the former constitution, and a 1957 reform incorporated the present Article 14, which summarized the social commitments of the Constitution of 1959. This reform, for example, established the right to "decent, fair labor conditions," a limited work day, and access to decent housing, and prohibited arbitrary dismissal. In 1972, towards the end of the military interregnum, a constitutional reform (which for the first time did not resort to a Constituent Convention) established the rules to govern the democratic election of 1973, and also contained a number of other amendments that were repealed in 1976 after another military coup.

With the reestablishment of democracy in 1983, new reforming initiatives aimed at ending what was termed the "hyper-presidential" system established by the Constitution of 1853 and thought to have been responsible in good part for a century of democratic instability. The Olivos Pact signed by President Carlos Menem and former president Raúl Alfonsín in 1994 facilitated presidential reelection in exchange for some other reforms aimed at reducing executive powers and modernizing the constitution. The 1994 Constitution included provisions creating the position of cabinet chief, regulating the legislative powers of the president, and introducing a council of magistrates to curb presidential influence on the election of judges. Its reforms were particularly significant with regard to rights: It granted constitutional rank to the principal human-rights conventions signed by the nation; introduced mechanisms of direct democracy; and established equal rights for both sexes, forms of collective action (amparo colectivo), and environmental rights.

See alsoAlfonsín, Raúl Ricardo .


Alberdi, Juan Bautista. Obras selectas, edited by Joaquín V. González. Buenos Aires: Librería la Facultad, 1920.

Chiaramonte, José Carlos. Ciudades, provincias, estados: Orígenes de la nación Argentina, 1800–1846. Buenos Aires: Ariel, 1997.

Nino, Carlos. Fundamentos de derecho constitucional. Buenos Aires: Editorial Astrea, 1992.

Ravignani, Emilio. Asambleas Constituyentes Argentinas. 6 vols. Buenos Aires: Casa Jacobo Peuser, 1886.

Sánchez Viamonte, Carlos. Historia Institucional de Argentina. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1948.

                                              Roberto Gargarella

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