Politics of Rights & Welfare in Argentina 1982-90


A review of In Search of the “Lost Decade”: The Politics of Rights and Welfare During the Argentine Transition to Democracy, 1982-1990, by Jennifer Adair.

Like any historical narrative that involves recent periods, Jennifer Adair’s dissertation faces the challenge of making sense out of a series of events about which there are still significant debates regarding not only their final outcome, but also the facts themselves. Unlike the great majority of works about the period she examines, which are usually centered on “human rights” (understood as basic political rights, such as physical integrity, freedom of speech, etc.), Adair’s study of Raúl Alfonsín’s government in Argentina (1983-1989), the first democratically elected president after its longest and harshest military dictatorship (1976-1983), is focused on the topic of “social rights.” The originality and intellectual depth of the dissertation makes it a great contribution to the open question about the Alfonsín years.

One of Adair’s key first insights is her recognition that “ultimately, this dissertation tells the story of a failed hegemonic project” (p. 2). Alfonsín’s administration initiated an ambitious and broad program to reform every aspect of Argentine society and its relation to public institutions, and it could be said that every single one of those attempts met with failure, with the possible exception of the consolidation of democracy itself. In the ample literature about the Argentine transition to democracy, military trials and the activism of human rights organizations have attracted the most attention; how they were first embraced and then “put on hold” by the democratic government is the main focus of many works that represent a foundation for Adair’s narrative. However, she chooses to focus on a wider definition of democracy that includes the so-called “social rights” and the (re)construction of a welfare state in an economically devastated country. In doing so, Adair recognizes the real face of the “third historical movement” promulgated by Alfonsín’s Unión Cívica Radical (UCR), a center-left political party that, despite its name, made the adherence to republican and democratic institutions a core of its identity. The party’s program was based on a new form of citizenship that would include rights to a welfare state, at a time when most of the world was moving away from that ideal.

The dissertation is organized in five chapters, and the first one goes back to the late 1960s. It was then that the seed of the UCR renovation that would culminate in its 1983 accession to power was planted, with a detailed study of the still unexplored student and youth Radical movement. Overshadowed by scholarly interest in the Peronista and Marxist revolutionary movement of the 1970s, the milder activism of young Radical (yet again, not “radical”) students and politicians trumpeted anti-imperialism and social justice, while they rejected revolutionary paths to power, embracing liberal institutions as the true way to transform the country. These activists formed the Junta Coordinadora Nacional, whose distinctive function was to target workers and the poor, usually identified with the Partido Justicialista (Juan Domingo Perón’s movement), in order to remake the UCR into a party of the masses. At the same time, most of them held university degrees and maintained a firm belief in republican institutions and the UCR itself. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, during military dictatorships and a Peronista democratic government, the young leaders of the Junta Coordinadora would create a special relation with the “youngest of old politicians,” Raúl Alfonsín (at that time in his early fifties) (p. 45). Adair explores the consolidation of that relationship with extraordinary narrative fluency, showing how, because of his ties to the Radical youth, his combative adherence to human rights and liberal democracy, and his almost solitary opposition to the seizure of the Malvinas/Falkland Islands by the military government in 1982, Alfonsín became the “obvious” candidate for the 1983 election that would restore constitutional rule in Argentina.

The second chapter focuses on the political life of poor, marginal zones of greater Buenos Aires, showing the penetration of the UCR in the everyday life of social sectors with closer ties to the Partido Justicialista and the Catholic Church. The author chooses the example of Quilmes, an industrial city pauperized by the economic policies of the military government and marked by a very active local church, both in social work and its political stance against the dictatorship—an uncommon attitude in many other parts of Argentina. She investigates the work of Bishop Jorge Novak in Quilmes from 1976 to 1983, showing how economic and social transformation paved the way for a reconfiguration of political life, which would only take place in broad daylight in the months preceding the election in October 1983. The “democratic opening” began with the Argentine defeat in the Malvinas in July 1982; studying those key months, Adair manages to explain how much the political landscape had changed, since the UCR was now addressing its constituency not only with the epic call to a stronger, newer democracy, but also with an appeal to their unsatisfied basic needs. As a matter of fact, the main innovation was the “widespread belief that from adherence to the Constitution, all else would flow,” the conviction that “with democracy, one eats, one is educated, and one is cured,” as Alfonsín famously pointed out in campaign speeches (p. 113).

The third chapter starts with the analysis of what could be considered the responses to those enthusiastic calls, looking at “what…democratic restoration [meant] to self-described ‘ordinary’ Argentines –the middle and lower-middle class individuals who wrote to the president with their observations, doubts and hopes for the future” (p. 120). Those letters embraced a democratic climate, using “democracy” as a keyword to advance opinions about economic policies (the main issue in most letters), public services, the judgment of the military and other topics that filled the public arena in the first years of Alfonsín’s administration. The intermingling of political rights and social rights in the UCR presidential campaign seems to have permeated the discourse of “the people,” in what could be considered a successful re-definition of the democratic republic in the terms of a welfare state. Alfonsín’s ambitious project moved forward in 1985, with the re-launching of the government with a new economic plan (Plan Austral) and a famous speech that would be known as the Parque Norte speech. Adair carefully analyzes its internal logic and how it developed three values—participation, an ethic of solidarity, and modernization—as the core elements of a democratic society still under construction (p. 155). “It was,” Adair explains, “as many Alfonsinistas termed it, the outline for a Second Republic” (p. 158). This second republic “took root in a baseline definition of democracy that denied the traditional separation of social justice and individual freedoms” (p. 165). The failure of that hegemonic project would start to become clear just a few months after the Parque Norte speech.

The fourth and fifth chapters are devoted to two specific policies that were conceived as part of the new republic, in which the definition of citizenship would include social rights. Chapter 4 investigates the still scarcely studied Plan Alimentario Nacional (which would be known by its acronym, PAN, meaning “bread”): “scarcely studied” because there is a disappointing lack of official records of the most important social plan during Alfonsín’s administration. Nevertheless, Adair explores local church archives, legislative discussions about the passage of the plan, and, through interviews, the memories of many of its workers. Technically well-crafted (it included preliminary surveys, direct food delivery, and informational meetings about how to cook the food provided, as well as questions of health, democratic participation, and other issues), the program relied heavily on the work of volunteers and met with uneven success throughout different parts on the country, depending, among other factors, on whether the local government was held by the same party as the federal government. Alternating again between the local scale, with the example of Quilmes, and the national scale, the author follows the more or less successful inception of the PAN and its decline due to the tightening of economic conditions and the political turmoil generated by military uprisings and the UCR defeat in the 1987 election. In the process, she successfully crafts a more general portrait of the social and political importance of the PAN, as well as the experiences of those involved in it, both beneficiaries and workers. At the same time that the UCR adopted the discourse of social rights, traditionally identified with the Partido Justicialista, the latter would renovate its own discourse to include a firmer adherence to democratic practices and republican values.

The fifth and final chapter moves the argument forward by looking closely at the national Pedagogical Congress (1986-1988) and the 42-day general strike of teachers in March and April 1988 (the beginning of the academic year), which would be known as the Maestrazo. While the Pedagogical Congress was conceived as the cornerstone for a new Argentine education, suitable for the new democratic era and thus part of the “second republic” that Alfonsín’s government was supposed to inaugurate, it was ultimately an arena for corporate negotiations between the national and provincial states, the unions, private school organizations, and, as an important representative of the latter, Catholic Church. Strongly steeped in the renovated democratic faith of the 1980s, the first step of the Congress consisted of local assemblies (asambleas de base) of educators, parents, political groups, and functionaries that would elaborate proposals for renovation to be discussed at intermediate levels and in a final national assembly. However, this final event, held in March 1988, was overshadowed in public opinion by political troubles (one more military revolt in January), rising inflation, a teachers’ strike, and, in the end, the length of the Congress itself. According to Adair’s findings, based on existing research and the statements of contemporaneous observers, the Congress was also a “failure” since its final recommendations were a compromise in vague terms, mainly due to the strength of the Catholic representation, whose objective had been to defend the right to religious education and the public funding of private institutions. “Critical issues,” Adair explains, “like the crisis of the public sector, local autonomy, or the struggle of teachers unions remained out of the debates” (p. 264).

On May 1, 1989, Alfonsín addressed the National Congress for the last time, in the ritual opening of the legislative year. Knowing that his party’s candidate, Eduardo Angeloz, was unlikely to be elected as his successor, he gave a balance of his six-year government, stressing how the consolidation of institutions was its strongest legacy. In the light of economic chaos and widespread violence in the country, with lootings that caused more than fifteen deaths, Alfonsín eventually declared a state of siege and resigned on July 8, transferring power to president-elect Carlos Saúl Menem five month earlier than planned. While Menem was part of the Justicialista renovation movement, he and his followers had also adopted the discourse of democracy and human rights as the core of the Argentine political game, but they completely transformed the idea of “social citizenship,” no longer considered both the natural consequence and the necessary basis of a democratic life. By dismantling the remnants of the welfare state and creating neoliberal economic institutions, Menem would tame inflation, consolidate a market economy, and strengthen the Argentine democratic order, though the cost was intolerable poverty and unemployment. This dissertation aims “to restore a sense of process, specificity, and complexity into the period between the promising moment of democratic restoration and the ideological and material closures of the subsequent decade” (p. 288). However, as the author recognizes, “if history is written with the present in mind, the leftist social movements and governments that came to power throughout Latin America during the 2000s are attempting to realize the promise of justice and rights that animated transitions to democracies in the 1980s” (p. 289). The fact that Argentine society is still the Latin American one that values democracy has much to do with the Alfonsín years (not only, of course, with President Alfonsín himself). Adair’s deep analysis of the period helps us realize that and better understand the “lost decade.”

Pablo Martínez Gramuglia
Philosophy Department
Universidad de Buenos Aires

Primary Sources

National General Archives: collection “Presidencia de la Nación. Secretaría Privada, Presidencia Alfonsín (1983-1989)” (letters to the president)
Buenos Aires Province Police Archives – Intelligence Division
Diocese of Quilmes (archive and interviews)
Periodicals: El Sol (1978-1989), local Quilmes newspaper, Clarín (1978-1989), Página/12 (1987-1988)

Dissertation Information

New York University. 2013. 306 pp. Primary Advisor: Greg Grandin.


Image: Image from Archivo General de La Nación(AGN), Carpeta Programa Alimentario Nacional.

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