Raúl Alfonsín, 82

Former President of Argentina Raúl Alfonsín Dies at 82

Soon after Raúl Alfonsín was elected president in 1983 he ordered the trial of military leaders responsible for violence during the 1976-83 dictatorship.
Soon after Raúl Alfonsín was elected president in 1983 he ordered the trial of military leaders responsible for violence during the 1976-83 dictatorship. (1984 Photo By Eduardo Di Baia -- Associated Press)
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By Eliana Raszewski
Thursday, April 2, 2009

Raúl Alfonsín, 82, a former human rights advocate who presided over Argentina's return to democracy from military dictatorship and later resigned amid economic chaos, died March 31 in Buenos Aires of lung cancer.

Mr. Alfonsín was elected president in 1983 as the candidate of the Radical Civic Union. Five days after taking office, he ordered the trial of military leaders who were responsible for thousands of kidnappings and killings during the 1976-83 dictatorship. Leaders of guerrilla movements were also ordered to face trial.

He created a commission made up of intellectuals such as Nobel Prize winner Alfonso Perez Esquivel and writer Ernesto Sabato to investigate the crimes. The commission issued a report called "Nunca Mas" ("Never Again") that counted about 10,000 slayings. Human rights organizations such as the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo say as many as 30,000 people were killed during the dictatorship.

During Mr. Alfonsín's presidency, there were three attempted military coups, labor unrest, budget deficits, unstable currencies and hyperinflation. Economic chaos forced him to resign in July 1989, five months before his term was to end. His successor was Carlos Menem, from the opposition Peronist Party.

"All of those who are holding a public post aspire to be able to walk in the streets afterwards without any problem," Supreme Court Judge Raul Zaffaroni wrote in the newspaper Critica de la Argentina in October. "Alfonsín is the only ex-president who can walk the streets at ease."

Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín was born March 12, 1927, in the town of Chascomus, south of Buenos Aires. A lawyer, he was a founder of the Human Rights Permanent Assembly, which condemned the rights violations of the 1970s. After the 1976 coup, Alfonsín volunteered to represent relatives of people who were kidnapped by the military junta.

In 1985, during his presidency, junta leaders Jorge Rafael Videla, Emilio Massera and Orlando Agosti were convicted of charges ranging from human rights violations to murder and received sentences ranging from four years to life in prison.

Under pressure from military officials unhappy with the trials, Alfonsín persuaded Congress to pass bills that limited the period during which charges could be brought and specified that only senior officials could face charges. In 2005, the Supreme Court declared the laws unconstitutional.

In 1985, Mr. Alfonsín and Brazilian President Jose Sarney took the first steps to create the Mercosur trade bloc. The bloc also includes Paraguay and Uruguay.

Mr. Alfonsín's government was marred by confrontations with organized labor movements. The General Labor Confederation, Argentina's biggest union umbrella group, staged 13 national strikes to back claims for higher wages when a weakening currency led inflation to accelerate. In 1989, consumer prices rose by more than 5,000 percent.

His economic plan included the creation of a currency, the austral, in 1985. The currency collapsed after government overspending caused prices to spiral and production to slump.

Mr. Alfonsín's resignation meant he was unable to achieve his goal of being the first elected president in four decades to complete his six-year term. Yet, even his departure made democratic history, marking the first time in more than 60 years that an elected Argentine president handed over power to a successor from another party.

He is survived by his wife, María Lorenza, and six children.

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