50 years ago Argentina was considered by many the Europe of Latin America, given its abundant natural resources and its large and highly educated middle class. Like many Latin American countries, the 20th century was a roller coaster ride for Argentina, cycling back and forth between leftist movements and right-wing military dictatorships; economic boom and economic stagnation; times of calm and times of heavy conflict and insecurity. While change has been the norm over the past century-plus in Argentina, there are some things that have remained constant: beautiful landscapes, delicious beef and wine, dances of tango, and financial crises.
1976 was perhaps the darkest hour in Argentina’s history. The post World War II chapter of Peronist populism was overthrown by a military coup in 1976, ushering in a period of brutal military rule (“The Dirty War”, 1976-1983) that resulted in the death and disappearance of over 30,000 people, as well as the eventual collapse of the national economy.
1983 witnessed a return to democracy, with the withdrawal of the military from government and the election of Raul Alfonsin as president. However, though democracy was restored, the economy remained lifeless. Peronist candidate Carlos Menem was then elected president, and after almost a decade of hyperinflation Menem began deviating from his former Peronist populist policies, opting instead for neo-liberal economic models advocated by the IMF. Argentina soon became the poster child for the neo-liberal model. The economy was briefly steady, the peso was pegged to the dollar, and the Argentine people were told that they would soon become part of the "first world". However, unemployment ticked upwards and the peso became highly overvalued.
On Dec. 20, 2001 the bottom fell out - Argentina’s economy teetered on the brink of collapse. Banks locked, denying people access to their own accounts, as they watched the peso, along with their savings, devalue to a third of its original worth. Citizens all around the country took to the streets banging their frying pans and chanting "que se vayan todos" or "get rid of them all" for the removal of politicians in the corrupt government.
Following the economic crisis of 2001, Argentines led a movement that emerged as a response to failed economic policies advocated by international finance institutions such as the IMF, organizing into neighborhood assemblies that attempted to take the place of the void left by the insecurity and failure of the state. As a result, over 65 factories were taken over by their workers and transformed into cooperatives. Meanwhile, social movements gained in efforts to hold politicians and military officers accountable for gross human rights violations during the period of the dictatorship, and a broad effort at recuperating the memory of the lives of the disappeared brought new life to human rights cases.
The economic crisis began to calm in 2002. Due to the devaluation of the peso, Argentina’s exports suddenly became cheap and the economy boomed. 2003 witnessed the beginning of the presidency of leftist Nestor Kirchner, and he became an immensely popular leader within Argentina. The economy continued to grow, debts to the IMF were paid, and Argentina began to sense something it had not sensed in a long time: optimism. Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, succeeded him as President in 2007 and continues to hold the post today.
Unfortunately, economic woes have returned to Argentina in recent years. Inflation has skyrocketed, unemployment is spiking upwards, and debt continues to increase. Additionally, corruption persists and recent moves by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner have been viewed by some as increasingly undemocratic and heavy-handed. The president is facing mounting domestic criticism for these and other related issues, and hundreds of thousands of Argentineans took to the streets in September 2012 and April 2013 to protest. In light of all these issues, and though Cristina is not up for re-election, it will be interesting to see how it will all play out in the 2015 presidential election.
Visit Argentina with Global Exchange to better understand the collapse of the neo-liberal project and the questioning of the current political-economic scheme; witness the possibilities that Argentine movements present in building a community-based economy, hear new voices for human rights from the South, and discover how new alliances are reshaping the political horizon of the Southern Cone.