1976-1983 Military Rule (Generals Videla & Galtieri)
The most famous Argentinian politician, Juan Peron, died in 1974. Following Peron’s death, his wife, Isabel, had assumed the presidency. Isabel Peron's term ended abruptly on March 24, 1976, during a military coup d'état. The military arrested Isabel Peron and established a military dictatorship under General Videla in 1976.
Through violent means the military solidified power and initially weakened the opposition, especially on the left. The military, headed by General Videla, took control of the country. The military ramped up the "dirty war", combining widespread persecution of political dissidents with state terrorism. The death toll rose to tens of thousands (human rights organizations claimed it was close to 30,000). Many of these were "the disappeared" (“desaparecidos”), people kidnapped and executed without trial or record.
Eventually, the brutality of the government and the worsening economic conditions opened a crack in the foundation of military rule. The most famous of the protest organizations was the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The women occupied the central plaza in Buenos Aires and demanded the return of their “disappeared” children and grandchildren. Their courage in the face of the brutal military became a symbol of principled and brave opposition.
The combination of protest movements and economic disarray further widened the crack in the foundation. In 1981 General Galtieri assumed the presidency. Galtieri, inheriting a worsening economy and a huge foreign debt, saw challenges to the military’s rule. He decided whip up nationalist fever by starting a war against the British of the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands.
In April 1982, Argentina attacked the British-held Falklands, 300 miles off the coast of Argentina. The military expected little opposition from the United Kingdom and no interference from the United States. The reality was different, as the British reacted to a challenge to their national honor and fought to maintain their territory. The United States lent support to the British as well. The war lasted over 2 months with almost a thousand combatants killed, Argentina’s forces suffering most of the losses. Argentina suffered a humiliating defeat. The war was a disaster for Argentina. Thoroughly humiliated and discredited, the generals had to yield power to a civilian government.
In the face of military and economic disaster (inflation was up to 400%), along with ongoing social unrest, the military allowed the reestablishment of civilian rule in 1983. Democracy returned to Argentina in 1983.
Democracy Returns in 1983
Raul Alfonsin, a human rights activist, was elected president in 1983, winning a majority of votes against a variety of candidates. Alfonsin’s major crisis was the ruined economy: in 1985 annual inflation reached 1000%.
Alfonsin instituted the “austral plan”. This established wage and price controls by the government. Alfonsin also introduced a new currency (austral replaced the peso.)
Alfonsin’s economic policies, in the first five years of his presidency, dropped inflation dramatically from 1000% to 25%. Alfonsin’s economic remedies did initially stabilize the economy, although unemployment stayed high.
But in 1989, there was another economic crisis as GDP fell by 15%:
The debt to the IMF only deepened and required more foreign loans to stay solvent.
Food rationing and electrical blackouts became the norm.
Furthermore, the public grew angry over insufficient “dirty war” prosecutions. There were trials that convicted several generals and gave them long prison sentences. However, fearing a military take-over, Alfonsin ended the prosecution of most lower-rank military for human rights abuses on the grounds that they had simply carried out orders.
In Alfonsin’s 6 years of rule and economic policy implementation, a combination of inherited economic weakness, only partially effective initial governmental policies revealed the Alfonsin administration to be a failure.
The devastated economy led to the election of the Peronist Partido Justicialista (PJ)party leader Carlos Menem in 1989.
Menem immediately began to concentrate power in the Executive branch. From 1989 to 1994, he issued 336 legislative orders known as “Need and Urgency Decrees”. These had the effect of law without legislative action.
The concentration of legislative power with the executive was a huge change, the democratically elected leader created an overwhelmingly powerful president who acted without interference from the other branches of government.
The Menem government acted forcefully to stabilize the economy. He openly admired the U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Quickly, the new president began a program of privatization of many state-owned enterprises.Menem wanted to create a modern free-market economy. The process of privatization was carried out with a wild speed. Menem also made huge cuts in health, education, welfare and pensions.
Menem’s policies resulted in economic growth of approximately 7% per year during the first half of the 1990s and low inflation.
Menem’s economic policy was being hailed as the start of the “Argentine miracle.” The U.S. rewarded Menem’s governmental spending cuts by approving a “Brady Plan” that refinanced 21$ billion of Argentina’s foreign debt over 35 years.
Spurred by economic stability, Menem won reelection in 1995 with just under 50% of the popular vote, while the closest challenger got fewer than 20%. This was despite Menem’s 1994 statement supporting the military’s behavior in the “Dirty War”.
It looked like Argentina had finally created a modern free market economy. But Argentines were soon disillusioned with economic progress during the following four years.
Trade, especially with Brazil, became increasingly important for economic growth.
When Brazil devalued its currency in 1999, Argentine products became more expensive and Brazilian ones more affordable. Argentine’s trade deficit with Brazil exploded, causing severe economic distress. Furthermore, increased competition from Asian countries in a growing global economy hurt Argentinian exports.
The poverty level rose to include more than 1 out of 5 Argentines.
The 1999 elections resulted in a loss for Menem. As the 21st century dawned, apathy was on the increase as no political institution appeared both effective and trustworthy.