Capital: Buenos Aires
Population: 39,700,000

Political Rights Score: 2 *
Civil Liberties Score: 2 *
Status: Free


President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her Front for Victory (FV) Peronist party were left without a majority in either house of Congress following the June 2009 mid-term elections. The president became increasingly isolated politically, her powers diminished by her unpopularity and an economic recession following six years of uninterrupted growth. Meanwhile, a new media bill adopted in October contained provisions that could potentially limit freedom of expression.

Argentina gained independence from Spain in 1816. Democratic rule was often interrupted by war and military coups over the following century. The end of Juan Peron's populist and authoritarian regime in 1955 led to a series of right-wing military dictatorships that lasted until 1983. The beginning of civilian rule brought an end to Argentina's dirty war, waged against real or suspected dissidents by the far-right military regime.

Carlos Menem, a populist of the Peronist party who ran on a platform of nationalism and state intervention in the economy, was elected president in 1989 amid hyperinflation and food riots. As president, however, he implemented an economic liberalization program and unconditionally allied the country with the United States. His convertibility plan, which pegged the peso to the U.S. dollar through a currency board, ended the country's chronic bouts of hyperinflation.

Buenos Aires mayor Fernando de la Rua, of the center-left Alianza coalition, was elected president in October 1999. Record unemployment and reduced government wages, effects of the highly overvalued and inflexible currency, spurred protests and unprecedented economic insecurity. In December 2001, government efforts to stop a run on Argentina's banking system sparked violent protests which forced de la Rua to resign. He was replaced by an interim president, who was himself forced to quit less than a week later. On December 31, Menem's former vice president, Eduardo Duhalde, was selected by Congress as Argentina's new president. A steep devaluation of the peso and a debilitating default on its foreign debt left Argentina teetering on the brink of political and economic collapse throughout 2002. Unemployment soared to levels unheard of since the founding of the republic, and violent crime spiraled out of control.

Nestor Kirchner was elected president in 2003 on a Peronist ticket. While working to stabilize the economy, Kirchner moved to purge the country's military and police leadership of authoritarian elements. Seeking to make human rights a trademark of his administration, Kirchner also took steps to remove justices from the highly politicized Supreme Court – considered the country's most corrupt institution – and signed a decree that permitted the extradition of former military officials accused of human rights abuses. Kirchner also presided over a long-hoped-for economic recovery bolstered by high international soya prices and increased demand for Argentina's principal exports. By March 2005, Argentina was able to declare an end to the three-year battle to restructure its defaulted debt. Growing economic stability helped the Peronists increase their legislative majority in the October 2005 parliamentary elections.

In 2006, Kirchner implemented a series of measures to centralize power in the executive branch. Congress granted the president the authority to reallocate government spending, as long as the overall appropriation remained the same. Kirchner also changed the tax system to limit the influence of historically powerful provincial governors, and he created new state-owned enterprises while nationalizing privatized ones. He was able to pass this concentrated power to his wife, Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, after she won the October 2007 presidential election by a comfortable margin. In practice, she began to govern in tandem with her husband. The new president experienced numerous challenges during her first year in office, most notably a standoff with Argentina's agricultural sector stemming from her administration's failed attempt to increase export taxes on certain farm products. Kirchner's once-strong political alliance and majority in Congress were fractured after the farmers' standoff, reducing the power her husband had amassed as president.

Nestor Kirchner left his wife a legacy of corruption scandals. Several corruption cases involved government officials, including Kirchner's economy and defense ministers. In August 2007, $800,000 in cash was seized from a Venezuelan businessman, Franklin Duran, at the Buenos Aires airport; the funds were an illicit campaign contribution from Venezuela's state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, to then-Senator Kirchner. The 2008 trial in Miami revealed an extensive cover-up effort by Venezuelan officials, and Duran was sentenced in March to four years in prison.

Mid-term elections held in June 2009 – described as a plebiscite on the Kirchner regime – brought significant losses to the Kirchners. The Union-PRO coalition fared especially well, capturing 47 seats in the Senate, up from 33. In the lower house, progovernment party representation fell from 141 to 112 of the 257 seats. The government lost four seats in the Senate, bringing the total of Kirchner's Front for Victory (FV)Peronist party down to 36 – one less than needed for a majority. Nestor Kirchner resigned his post as leader of the Peronist Party. The government's defeat was influenced by growing unemployment and poverty as the country experienced a recession following six years of uninterrupted growth, and by the Kirchners' resulting diminished powers of patronage. Low approval ratings were also driven by the couple's personal fortune which had increased six-fold since the 2003 election, leading to claims that they exploited political connections.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Argentina is an electoral democracy. As amended in 1994, the constitution provides for a president elected for four years, with the option of reelection for one additional term. Presidential candidates must win 45 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. The National Congress consists of the 257-member Chamber of Deputies, directly elected for four years, with half of the seats up for election every two years; and the 72-member Senate, directly elected for six-year terms, with one-third of the seats up for election every two years. The midterm legislative elections in June 2009 were considered free and fair.

The right to organize political parties is generally respected. Major parties include the Justicialist Party (PJ, commonly known as the Peronist Party); the FV; the centrist Radical Civic Union (UCR), factions of which support the Peronists; the center-left Support for a Republic of Equals (ARI); and the center-right Union-PRO. The Peronists have been a dominant force in politics since 1946.

Former president Nestor Kirchner's government initially made anticorruption efforts a central theme, establishing the public's right to information and other transparency guarantees. However, subsequent corruption scandals tainted his administration and undermined this decree, revealing a degree of entrenched corruption. Secretary of Transportation Ricardo Jaime was forced to resign in June 2009 over 25 reported charges of corruption. In December, Argentine courts upheld the indictments of former presidents Carlos Menem and Fernando de la Rua on separate corruption charges. Argentina was ranked 106 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is guaranteed by law. A June 2008 ruling by the Supreme Court unanimously asserted the press's right to criticize government officials, and a February 2009 court ruling ordered the government to place state advertising in critical publications. However, faced with an increasingly uncertain economic environment, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner began cracking down on the press. In May 2009, the president offered to cancel the tax debts of five private media companies in exchange for official advertising space portraying the Kirchners in a positive light. In September, 200 tax agents raided the offices of Argentina's largest daily, Clarin, after it ran a story alleging the improper allocation of a large subsidy by a government farm trade agency. The raid, which came in the midst of a debate on a media reform bill backed by President Kirchner, was decried by Clarin as government intimidation. The bill, passed by Congress in October, overhauls antiquated broadcasting regulations, but it contains provisions that limit freedom of expression, such as the creation of a politically-appointed regulatory body. Critics contend that the reform bill was an attempt to control Argentina's largest media conglomerate, Grupo Clarin, which is largely critical of the government. By setting limits on the number of media outlets any one company can own, the bill forces Grupo Clarin to sell off some of its holdings within a year.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Nevertheless, Argentina's Jewish community, the largest in Latin America, is a frequent target of discrimination and vandalism. Neo-Nazi and other anti-Semitic groups remain active, and the memory of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center still looms. No one has been convicted of the bombing, although the Argentine judiciary has formally accused Iran and Hezbollah of responsibility. Academic freedom is a cherished Argentine tradition and is largely observed in practice.

The rights to freedom of assembly and association are generally respected. Civic organizations are robust and play a major role in society, although some fall victim to Argentina's pervasive corruption. Labor is dominated by Peronist unions. Union influence, however, has diminished dramatically in recent years because of internal divisions.

While Nestor Kirchner appointed magistrates of professional quality, the tenure of scores of incompetent and corrupt judges remains a serious problem. Moreover, in February 2006, Congress voted to change the composition of the body responsible for selecting judges, making it less professional and more political. Police misconduct, including torture and brutality of suspects in police custody, is endemic. The Buenos Aires provincial police have been involved in drug trafficking, extortion, and other crimes. Arbitrary arrests and abuse by police are rarely punished in the courts owing to intimidation of witnesses and judges, particularly in Buenos Aires province. Prison conditions remain substandard throughout the country.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that laws passed in the 1980s to protect the military from prosecution – justified at the time as a way to help avoid a military coup – were unconstitutional, thus making Argentina a world leader in efforts to fight military impunity. The decision laid the foundation for the prosecution of other military crimes. Nestor Kirchner's pursuit of former officials involved in the dirty war included the 2006 sentencing of a police sergeant connected with the military junta, and the reversal of presidential pardons granted by Menem to three military leaders. Other prosecutions included former president Isabel Peron in 2007 for her alleged role in the disappearance of students during her time in power and a former navy captain, Ricardo Cavallo, in 2008 for 431 cases of kidnapping, abuse, and disappearance. Cavallo was later extradited to Argentina from Spain and was scheduled to stand trial in January 2010. A former navy pilot arrested in September 2009 for his alleged role in "death flights," in which prisoners were thrown into the sea, faces extradition from Spain to Argentina.

Argentina's indigenous peoples, who represent between 3 and 5 percent of the total population, are largely neglected by the government. Approximately 70 percent of the country's rural indigenous communities lack title to their lands. While the Nestor Kirchner administration returned lands to several communities, most such disputes remain unresolved. In 2002, Buenos Aires became the first South American city to pass a domestic partnership law, and the city has established a reputation for its tolerance of homosexuality.

Women actively participate in politics in Argentina, as reflected by the 2007 election of President Kirchner and decrees mandating that one third of Congress members be women. However, domestic abuse remains a serious problem. More than 3,000 children are homeless in Buenos Aires, more than double the number prior to Argentina's 2001 economic collapse.

*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.