April 19, 2014


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Three decades of political flux

Raúl Alfonsín in 1983 after winning the first democratic election held in 10 years.
By Michael Soltys / Senior Editor / Economic Outlook

A backdrop to the past 360 months

The following timeline gives the main political events of the past 30 years as a background to today’s anniversary

1983 - Elections (brought ahead by six months from the original schedule by a demoralized military regime) are held on October 30 after million-strong rallies by both main parties in the final week and won by Radical Raúl Alfonsín — the key change is not so much in the core Peronist vote of 40 percent as the remarkable unity in a polarized election of the other 60 percent with around nine-tenths opting for Alfonsín. His inauguration on December 10 (International Human Rights Day, appropriately enough) is a true democratic festival.

1984 - Alfonsín’s political honeymoon (plus initial economic growth in a normalized society) gives him the authority to negotiate a Beagle Channel treaty broadly favourable to Chile and have it generally seen as a triumph of peace in that Orwellian year rather than a defeat for national sovereignty.

1985 - The moral victory of the junta trial plus the Austral Plan (the name of the new currency worth slightly more than a dollar with its value defended largely by a wage-price freeze) enable the Radicals to clear the hurdle of the first midterm elections successfully although they are held under a state of siege after Alfonsín denounces a “dirty dozen” against democracy — “red circle” paranoia did not begin this year.

1986 - Alfonsín proposes moving the capital to Viedma to escape democracy becoming a synonym for Greater Buenos Aires mob rule and divorce is legalized but who cares about anything else if Diego Maradona’s soccer team lifts the World Cup in Mexico?

1987 - For the first (but not last) time in these 30 years the midterms turn sour on the government (the joke was: “What does UCR stand for?” with the answer: “Únicamente Córdoba y Río Negro,” the only provinces won by the Radicals or UCR). Socio-economic factors inevitably carry weight but perhaps the main cause is the loss of moral high ground —Aldo Rico’s Easter rising stampedes the government into various concessions to a mutinous Army, especially the “due obedience” law in May.

1988 - More Army mutinies serve as bookends to this year — Monte Caseros in January and Villa Martelli in December. Two governors fight it out for the Peronist presidential nomination and Carlos Menem from backwater La Rioja unexpectedly prevails over the party machine and Buenos Aires Governor Antonio Cafiero heading Argentina’s main province.

1989 - Political violence abruptly changes its face as the Army are on the receiving-end of an extreme leftist attack on La Tablada barracks in high summer. A Spring Plan on the insistence of the Radical presidential candidate

Eduardo Angeloz fails to patch up a collapsing economy sufficiently to prevent Menem’s convincing victory, after which inflation really heads for the stratosphere (nearly 200 percent in July and over 13,000 percent for the year) — Alfonsín steps down five months early amid budding social chaos. Menem makes a shaky start with an unstable Cabinet (economic policy entrusted to Bunge & Born multinational) and the year ends with a drastic Bonex Plan.

1990 - Deepening unpopularity for Menem (especially with his “mine, mine, mine” Ferrari) but he sticks to his generally neo-conservative guns, restoring diplomatic relations with Britain, embarking on a slew of privatizations (with Aerolíneas and ENTel telephone company the multi-billion sales) and sending ships to the Gulf War. At the end of the year he packs the Supreme Court and pardons the junta leaders (sentenced to life in 1985).

1991 - The new economy minister Domingo Cavallo introduces convertibility on April Fool’s Day and the magic of dollar-peso parity (monthly inflation down to 0.4 percent by the end of the year) does wonders in winning the midterm elections.

1992 - Without even an election, this would have been a rare example in Argentine history of a totally normal and boring year had it not been for the terrorist car-bomb destruction of the Israeli Embassy on Saint Patrick’s Day.

1993 - A successful and popular Menem becomes increasingly obsessed with his own re-election and after a resounding midterm victory (when the Peronists win in even this capital for almost the only time in history), he is able to browbeat Alfonsín into the Olivos Pact towards constitutional reform.

1994 - Even the horror of another terrorist attack (the 85-death destruction of the AMIA Jewish community centre) fails to stop the relentless progress toward constitutional reform permitting Menem to run for a second four-year term. The pension system is privatized as Menem deepens economic transformation.

1995 - Both ends of Fortune’s wheel for Menem — re-elected with an absolute majority (on May 14, the date of his 1989 victory) but previously he loses his only son Carlos Junior to a helicopter crash on the Ides of March. Shortly before the elections Menem abolishes military conscription. Towards the end of the year the Río Tercero munitions plant mysteriously explodes as illegal arms sales to Ecuador in their border war with Peru start to come to light — far from the first scandals in the Menem era.

1996 - The wheels come off the partnership underpinning most of the decade’s successes when Cavallo resigns in midyear, muttering darkly about corruption. Radical Fernando de la Rúa becomes this capital’s first elected mayor as Menem shows signs that he has already peaked politically.

1997 - The year begins badly with the murder of news photographer José Luis Cabezas, which pressures Buenos Aires Governor

Eduardo Duhalde who had been regarding himself as the automatic 1999 presidential candidate. Menem responds to this situation by pushing hard for a third term for himself at the expense of his 1989-91 vice-president. In a world hit by “Asian flu,” a feuding ruling party loses the midterms to the brand-new Radical-Frepaso Alliance — since they are not presidential, Duhalde suffers more (losing in Buenos Aires province to an Alliance list headed by Frepaso’s Graciela Fernández Meijide).

1998 - Menem continues pressing for a third term for over half the year, finally giving up in July and effectively clearing the way for Duhalde whose rival emerges at the end of the year when De la Rúa defeats Fernández Meijide in the Alliance primary to the surprise of many. Postal tycoon Alfredo Yabrán, suspected of masterminding the Cabezas slaying, commits suicide.

1999 - Toward the end of a year which is virtually one long election campaign, De la Rúa convincingly defeats Duhalde whose support from Menem is underwhelming and who is also not helped by a maxi-devaluation in Brazil — also bad news for the winner’s promise of a “cleaner convertibility.”

2000 - Perhaps logically enough for a rare non-Peronist government, the new President de la Rúa makes labour reform one of his priorities but this soon lands him in trouble because “Banelco” bribery rumours buzz around the bill’s passage through a Senate with a Peronist majority, prompting the resignation of his vice-president, the Frepaso leader Carlos “Chacho” Alvarez, by October. Near the end of the year Economy Minister José Luis Machinea’s “impuestazo” tax increase deals a further blow to faltering presidential popularity.

2001 - Four presidents in the last 11 days of the year (with a 5th only two days later) typifies the most chaotic of these 30 years. No minister — neither Machinea nor Ricardo López Murphy nor even its creator Cavallo — can make convertibility sustainable, despite a 38-billion-dollar international loan and a bond mega-swap to “armour-plate” the economy. A corralito bank deposit freeze to prevent a run on the banks in November is followed by riots with almost 20 deaths the next month, leading to Cavallo’s resignation and almost immediately afterwards De la Rúa’s exit from the Pink House in a helicopter. In the last week of the year caretaker President Adolfo Rodríguez Saá defaults on 100 billion dollars of debt.

2002 - Two days into the year the 1999 loser Duhalde is president after all and does some of the dirty work toward recovery with a maxi-devaluation (including a corralón converting dollar accounts into pesos at a rate penalizing savers and rewarding debtors) but the economy shrinks 11 percent and he loses heart after the police slaying of two pickets in midyear, calling elections for early the next year.

2003 - Duhalde has problems finding an heir with Santa Cruz Governor Néstor Kirchner his third choice — making a comeback bid, Menem then edges Kirchner 24-22 percent in the first round but shirks a run-off where his vote actually stands to fall. Maintaining Duhalde’s economy minister Roberto Lavagna, President Kirchner makes a cautious start, negotiating a bond swap with a drastic haircut for Argentina’s creditors — he also wins praise by restoring the independence of the Supreme Court after Menem’s tampering.

2004 - Perhaps a year most remembered for sports with gold medals for the basketball and soccer teams in the Athens Olympics and Gastón Gaudio winning Roland Garros in tennis. Kirchner brings human rights to the forefront of his policies with his apology for state crimes on the 28th anniversary of the 1976 coup.

2005 - Kirchner and Lavagna successfully conclude the bond swap with the vast majority of creditors whereupon the president really starts to come into his own — his wife Cristina defeats the Duhaldes in their Buenos Aires province stronghold in the midterm elections and Lavagna resigns shortly afterwards. Kirchner becomes even more his own economy minister when he pays off all debt to the International Monetary Fund at the end of the year. In midyear the Supreme Court declares the 1986-7 amnesty legislation unconstitutional.

2006 - Amid continued success including strong growth (eight percent in that year, typical of that period), Kirchner manages to create a problem with the Botnia pulp mill dispute with Uruguay.

2007 - Half the year is spent on speculation as to which of the two Kirchners will be the ruling party presidential candidate but in early July Cristina Fernández de Kirchner claims the nomination on a ticket with Mendoza Radical Governor Julio Cobos and easily wins in October on the back of four successful years, garnering 45 percent of the vote and becoming the first woman to be elected president in Argentine history.

2008 - The year is dominated by CFK’s confrontation with the farming sector (with strong public opinion support for the latter) over the grain export duty sliding scale to tap the global commodity boom. Her decree is eventually forced into Congress where it narrowly clears the Lower House but is defeated in the Senate by the “not positive” deciding vote of CFK’s own vice-president Cobos. Both the Cabinet chief (Alberto Fernández) and economy minister (Martín Lousteau) resign and CFK’s opinion poll ratings slide throughout the year.

2009 - Popular discontent grows and CFK’s Victory Front suffers severe losses in the midterms although the clash with the farming sector is not the only cause — almost all governments worldwide lose during the 2008-9 crisis, crime and a dengue epidemic are also factors while “soccer for everybody” fails to improve the public mood. Before the hostile new Congress takes their seats, the Media and Universal Child Benefit Laws are whipped through. Alfonsín dies early in the year.

2010 - The shock death of Néstor Kirchner on census day is widely credited with regaining public sympathy for CFK but in fact this process had already begun with Bicentenary euphoria in May and even before. Early in the year the ouster of Central Bank Governor Martín Redrado effectively gives the government control of reserves. Gay marriage is legalized.

2011 - A widow presiding over 9.2 percent economic growth proves an unbeatable combination and CFK is re-elected with a landslide 54 percent. A good year for most people except diehard opposition and fans of River Plate (relegated).

2012 - A year starting with the Río Negro governor being shot dead by his wife in its early hours and a presidential cancer false alarm also features the expropriation of YPF oil and the 30th anniversary of the Malvinas war. But perhaps the year’s real turning-point is the 52-death Once rail crash in Friday when the public sympathy so manifest in the 2011 landslide starts deserting CFK, perhaps because big state does not seem to be better state — pot-bashing throughout much of the year reaches a massive crescendo in November.

2013 - Disenchantment continues in the August primaries where CFK loses half her 2011 vote and in the October midterm elections where her Victory Front garners less than a third of the ballots while retaining a Congress majority. The setback leads to a major Cabinet shuffle with the new Cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich becoming virtual premier in view of the presidential health problems. Today’s celebrations are preceded by police mutinies in much of the country and supermarket looting. Undoubtedly the Argentine personality of the year is the man who began the year as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and is now Pope Francis.

(All the events described above were covered from this newsroom by Senior Editor Michael Soltys, who joined the Herald in the first half of 1983).

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