1998 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 3.0
Civil Liberties: 3
Political Rights: 3

Ratings Change

Argentina's political rights rating changed from 2 to 3 due to government spying on, and the extortion of, political leaders, including the videotaping of consensual sexual acts between adults; gross indifference to official corruption; the "packing" of the Argentine senate by the ruling party; and a public campaign waged by the president against independent federal prosecutors.


In 1998, President Carlos Menem's hopes of winning legal sanction for a third consecutive term ebbed despite strong arm tactics employed against a usually compliant judiciary. Public opinion surveys continued to cite rampant official corruption and lack of public safety as major concerns. Corruption scandals involving Menem cabinet ministers and senior police officials, intelligence agency extortion of business and political leaders secretly filmed in a gay bordello, and the unseemly suicides of three key witnesses in earlier government corruption cases fueled public unease.

The Argentine Republic was established after independence from Spain in 1816. Democratic rule was often interrupted by military coups. The end of Juan Peron's authoritarian rule in 1955 led to a series of right-wing military dictatorships, and left-wing and nationalist violence. Argentina returned to elected civilian rule in 1983 after seven years of vicious repression of suspected leftist guerrillas and other dissidents.

As amended in 1994, the 1853 constitution provides for a president elected for four years with the option of re-election to one additional term. Presidential candidates must win 45 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff vote. The legislature consists of a 257-member Chamber of Deputies elected for six years, with half of the seats renewable every three years, and a 72-member Senate nominated by elected provincial legislatures for nine-year terms, with one-third of the seats renewable every three years. Two senators are directly elected in the newly autonomous Buenos Aires federal district.

Provincial governor Menem, running on an orthodox Peronist platform of nationalism and state intervention in the economy, won a six-year presidential term in 1989. After the election, he discarded statist Peronist traditions by implementing, mostly by decree, an economic liberalization program. In 1995, he handily won re-election, and his Peronist party also won a narrow majority in both houses of Congress.

In October 1997, Menem's Peronists experienced their first nationwide defeat in a decade. An alliance of the Radical Party and the center-left Front for a Country in Solidarity won nearly 46 percent of the vote. Menem's party won 36 percent. In November 1998. Buenos Aires Mayor and Radical Party leader Fernando de la Rua won a contested primary to become the alliance's presidential candidate in 1999. Fears of an impending opposition victory led Menem to direct a campaign against federal prosecutors investigating government corruption. He also orchestrated the packing of the Argentine senate with two members of his ruling party in an effort to prevent corruption inquiries until at least 2001.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens can change their government through elections. Constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of religion and the right to organize political parties, civic organizations, and labor unions are generally respected. Under Menem, legislative authority has been circumvented by the use of more "necessity and urgency" decrees than by all other previous civilian and military regimes combined.

Journalists and human rights groups are generally allowed to operate freely, but both have been subject to anonymous threats and various forms of intimidation, including more than 1,000 beatings, kidnappings, and telephone death threats during Menem's rule. International pressure has prevented the government from passing a series of restrictive press laws.

Labor is dominated by Peronist unions. Union influence has diminished, however, due to corruption scandals, internal divisions, and restrictions on public sector strikes decreed by Menem to pave the way for his privatization program. In 1998, a deadlocked parliament approved a government-sponsored labor "flexiblization' initiative after a parliamentary deputy allegedly filmed by state intelligence agents in a gay bordello changed positions and voted for the measure.

Menem's authoritarian practices and manipulation of the judiciary have undermined the country's separation of powers and the rule of law. In 1990, Menem obtained passage in the Peronist-controlled Senate of a bill that allowed him to stack the Supreme Court with an additional four members and to fill the judiciary with politically loyal judges.

Menem has used the Supreme Court to uphold decrees removing the comptroller general and other officials mandated to probe government wrongdoing. In general, the judicial system is politicized, inefficient, and riddled with the corruption endemic to all branches of government. In 1998, as Menem's re-election fortunes appeared to wane, some members of the judiciary appeared to take a somewhat more independent course. Menem nevertheless spearheaded an effort to derail an investigation into official misconduct in international arms trafficking by seeking to discredit the federal prosecutor leading the probe.

In 1990, Menem pardoned military officers convicted of human rights violations committed during the country's so-called "dirty war," in which the guerrilla threat was vastly exaggerated in order to justify a 1976 coup. In 1998, the courts ruled that five former military junta leaders released by Menem should stand trial for the kidnapping of the children of dissidents murdered by the regime.

Police misconduct, often apparently promoted by senior government officials, has resulted in a number of allegedly extrajudicial executions by law enforcement officers. In 1998, the federal police high command was purged after press reports of bribery and other wrongdoing. Arbitrary arrests and mistreatment by police are rarely punished in civil courts due to intimidation of witnesses and judges. Criminal court judges are frequent targets of anonymous threats. The investigation of a 1994 car bombing of a Jewish organization has languished in part due to poor police work at the crime scene, but also reportedly in part due to complicity by members of the security forces with the terrorists.

The country's Roman Catholic majority enjoys freedom of religious expression. The 250,000-strong Jewish community is a frequent target of anti-Semitic vandalism. Neo-Nazi organizations and other anti-Semitic groups remain active.

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