26 March 2007

Kirchner vs. the judges

Prompted by an anonymous comment in my post about the 31st anniversary of the last coup d'état, I'll do my best to expound what I know and think about the manner in which things are developing.

During the 1980s, after the end of the military government, it was not at all clear that Argentina had left behind any possibility of falling under their boots. The last junta left the Casa Rosada with a promise that they wouldn't be called to answer for their crimes in the trials to be held soon after. The Trial of the Juntas in 1984 was a major achievement for the new democratic government and they should be considered a source of national pride; Argentina is the only country in the world to have tried and jailed its own dictators almost immediately after they left power, when there could still be a backlash from the military. Then came the embarrassment, the humiliating laws called Punto Final (Full Stop) and Obediencia Debida (Due Obedience), which forced the ongoing investigations to stop.

These laws (some call them the Pardon Laws, others the Impunity Laws) were a terrible blow to the human rights cause. President Alfonsín, who propelled them, was and is still criticized for them. My opinion is mixed. Alfonsín himself has stated that he regrets bowing to the pressure of the military, and acknowledges that the laws were passed basically at gunpoint, He could've been braver. And he could've been overthrown. The former dictators and their minions were invited to conservative TV programmes and defended their hideous acts in magazine interviews. It was still rather acceptable for anyone to ponder on the military as an alternative to a democratic government which was, admittedly, failing. Alfonsín resigned in July 1989; inflation reached a monthly 200% and in Rosario people were rioting and looting for food.

Carlos Menem campaigned on a populist discourse and promised a new beginning, and boy did he deliver. After two years, Domingo Cavallo took up the Ministry of Economy, and Menem started implementing the policies that would change Argentina into a "modern" country. National companies became more productive, exports grew, and everybody was possessed by a consumerist fever. Unemployment started going up, as local industries were brought down by unchecked, and often disloyal, foreign competition. The middle class got indebted in dollars. Economic stagnation and political conformism were celebrated as part of a magical "stability". Nobody wanted to hear about the horrors of the past. When in 1990 Menem pardoned the military leaders of the dictatorship, only a few organizations complained. There were no massive demonstrations protesting the pardon, and nobody in the judiciary coming out forcefully to question the legality of the measure or the ethics of the presidential faculty of pardon itself.

When the illusion of stability vanished in December 2001, something broke. Argentina saw itself as a divided country. The government against the people, the poor against the rich, the politicians and the police against the public. The government ended up led by a strong Peronist leader, Eduardo Duhalde, a man of questionable practices but with a pragmatic vision. Like Alfonsín, he might have done better, and he might have failed disastrously. As it was, he left Argentina in the hands of another president in a better condition that he had found it. He managed the social unrest with appeasement, losing a lot of political capital in the eyes of many who wanted old-style repression. The claim for respect of dissidence and human rights was out in the street.

It was Néstor Kirchner who finally brought a revolutionary change. From the very beginning, he set himself at the fore of the public fight for the punishment of the crimes of the dictatorship. Even his own party companions was surprised. Kirchner was impolite, messy, unashamedly populist, excessively candid regarding certain sacred cows, disrespectful of basic principles of realpolitik.

Note I said "public". Many people have been quietly working for human rights for a longer time, people with much more to lose and much less influence, often trying fruitlessly to be heard. And here we come to the crux of the matter. Many in the human rights camp were delighted to count on the support of no less than the president, who dragged along a lot of legislators and other influential figures who'd never done anything for human rights but had enough cunning to smell the political profit of embracing a popular cause. A few, especially in the far left of the human rights movement, reacted as if human rights were their exclusive property and paradoxically reacted by demanding more and more of the president. The president, of course, cannot and will not cleanse Congress, the judiciary, his own party, and the local institutions of the whole country of all people suspected of not being extra-pure left-wing nutjobs. (The practise of making continuous demands for more extreme ideologically-motivated measures is known as "correr por izquierda" or "correr por derecha", depending on the direction.)

A third camp, represented typically by mildly conformist right-wing people and by critics of Kirchner, like the one that writes that article in La Nación, pretends to be horrified about Kirchner's abuse of power. It's a scandal to hear the president complain that the judges are being slow — the executive asking more of the judiciary is against the constitutionally mandated republican separation of powers. Clarín quotes several other reactions — from the (unfortunately pathetic) opposition and from well-known conservative law experts. Of course, the real reason is they dislike Kirchner and disagree with his ideology.

Not that Kirchner doesn't have a lot of things to dislike. Half the time he's speaking, he should be shutting up. He doesn't tolerate dissent near him, and seems to thrive on adulation. Some of his closest allies should be in jail. Yet if it weren't for him, the investigation of the crimes of the dictatorship may still be paralyzed. One has to have priorities.

Under Kirchner the laws that protected the military from legal persecution were repealed, and the trials began again. Menem's pardons were struck down as well. The Supreme Court, with a majority of new justices appointed by the president, has stated that the heinous deeds of the military, the police forces and their collaborators during the dictatorship are crimes against humanity and do not, therefore, prescribe — that is, they will not be extinguished by the passing of time and can continue to be investigated indefinitely. It's true that the general social and political climate brought these amazing changes to the human rights landscape; but it's also true that much of it has to do with having a strong, vociferous, ill-mannered, meddling president in command. It shouldn't be like that.

The article in La Nación complains about Kirchner's criticism of certain judges that are, it seems, purposefully delaying the processes of investigation and trial of human rights abuses. Four of these judges are now facing the possibility of impeachment. They have well-known personal and ideological connections to members and defenders of the dictatorship. It's terrible to see the president being disrespectful of the Constitution, but I submit that the sight of judges protecting horrible criminals is disgusting and much more a violation of republican principles than a presidential speech. As I said to the anonymous poster that started me thinking on this, never let perfect stand in the way of very good.

By the way, dear Anonymous, if you want to contribute, use a name (any name, as long as it's always the same name) and do it on topic. I'm trying to do serious work and you're dumping Noticias here.

PS: More about Kirchner's speech and the reaction: La Nación, La Nación, Página/12, La Capital, La Capital.


  1. Tremendous work, Pablo. We all owe you one.

  2. Do the ends justify the means? It’s the age old question.

    Or another way of looking at Kirschner’s criticism: The road to hell is paved with good intentions (an old English proverb).

    But more importantly, where is the hard-hitting journalism investigating why justice is not being served, and why the judicial reviews are being slowed intentionally. Where is the public outrage? Why is it left to Kirchner?


  3. Anonymous19:35

    You always provide an excellent commentary on Argentine political history but I have to confess to being a bit of a fan of Chancho Alvarez - and by connection - members of los Radicales - I think Alfonsin is given a bum rap in what he could do after restoring a democratic government when you think of the attack on La Tablada and the case of the Carapintadas - isn't it unfair of you to gloss over that? Roberto desde Miami - and please stay DRY in your rainy city!!

  4. Anonymous19:38

    You always do a most commendable job of explaining Argentine history but I do have an objection to the blame game that is placed on the shoulders of Alfonsin (probably because I am a bit of a fan of Chancho Alvarez and other radicales even poor De La Rua) - what about the (staged) attack on La Tablada (I hope I have that right) or the situation that arose with Seineldin and the Carapintadas - he was truly being pressed by the milicos and couldn't be expected to pursue the justice that was deserved, and which "K" is apparently seeking. Roberto desde Miami - and please - stay DRY! ;)

  5. Roberto, I think you posted your comment twice... Remember I'm moderating comments, so you have to wait until I get there and approve them. :)

    I should've mentioned more clearly that it was also Alfonsín who sent the juntas to trial and jail. I didn't want to focus on Alfonsín because I was trying to get quickly to the change brought by K. And I was too young to remember Alfonsín's government as good, bad, or anything, so I can't give a personal opinion. That's why I like linking to outside sources: because I want the reader to notice that there's more to be known, and that I can't give him/her that.

  6. Anonymous15:40

    Yes I did post twice - sorry! ;0

    I see what you mean about perhaps not having the knowledge of Alfonsin's government during that time period (I'm a "bit" older - jaja). You're history is just so fascinating - are you a fan of the writing of journalist Jorge Lanata? Hope you're staying dry! Roberto desde Miami


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