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Rollback of Human Rights in Argentina

By Kristina Hille

In the European Union, there is currently a debate about the democratic situation of Poland, especially regarding the freedom of media. If we take a look at Argentina, something similar is happening with the new elected government–yet nobody complains. While Poland received an official letter from the European Commission regarding undemocratic developments in the media sector, the new Argentine administration is being celebrated by most foreign political leaders.

In January 2016, the administration of Argentine President Mauricio Macri closed the Federal Authority for Audiovisual Communication Services (AFCSA), an institution created in 2009 by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government as a democratic pillar to monitor the implementation of Law Number 26.522 on Audiovisual Communication Services. The so-called “law of media” was meant to guarantee the plurality of audiovisual media. Establishing this law had been a long process, set back by several appeals, including those from Clarín Group, Argentina’s largest media conglomerate.

The official reason for Macri's closure of AFCSA was the objective to create a new entity called the National Entity of Communications (ENACOM). While the creation of a new media entity is nothing, it is criticized that Macri’s government completely shut down AFCSA before ENACOM was ready to begin operations. The sudden and violent closure of AFCSA therefore created a legal vacuum. The director, Martín Sabatella, was dismissed, despite his official term of duty as a public officer lasting until 2017. The whole building was evacuated by police forces. Journalists were fired nationwide, including Victor Hugo Morales from Radio Continental. Public TV programs were shut down, such as the program 678 on Canal 7 or Radio Nacional. For these reasons, concern for freedom of media and speech was reported to the Organization of American States and discussed before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 

Since January 2016, Parlasur politician Milagro Sala has been imprisoned without trial and with habeas corpus dismissed. This is against international law standards–the European Human Rights Convention prohibits the random disappearing of people. In order to protect the freedoms of speech and opinion, and to guarantee the functioning of parliament, politicians have immunity that can only be lost after a parliamentary decision.

Sala was accused of illegal protest, impeding free movement of people and vehicles, while peacefully protesting for cooperatives' rights in front of the governor's building. Amnesty International has accused the Argentine government of an intention to criminalize social protests, and some members of the European Parliament wrote a letter to President Macri in response to Sala’s imprisonment.

There is a repressive atmosphere throughout the country. State workers in La Plata who peacefully protested after being fired from their jobs were put down by police with plastic bullets. Residents of Buenos Aires' 1-11-14 slum, including children, claimed to be shot by police while participating in a Murga festival, a traditional dance event. It is unclear why they were shot down, and the Argentine human rights organization Center for Legal and Social Studies claims that the case is not being seriously investigated by Minister of the Interior Particia Bullrich.

During its first month, the new government enacted more than 200 decrees. Among these were the appointments of two Supreme Court judges, Carlos Fernando Rosenkrantz and Horacio Daniel Rosatti, replacing Carlos Fayt and Eugenio Zaffaroni. While the abuse of legislative process via presidential decree is a common habit in Argentine politics, the Macri administration immediately started its term with this kind of lawmaking.

General protests against the new administration have been rare until now. People still seem to celebrate the change after tiring of the Fernández de Kirchner government, which isolated the country from international financial institutions. High inflation was leading to overvaluation, limiting imports and a clandestine market for U.S. dollars. With the caudillismo of Perón, the Kirchner couple governed the country with an almost religious political ideology, alienating many.

In Peronist tradition, the Kirchner administrations tried to reduce inequalities and applied a policy of redistribution in favor of the working class, though at the expense of the agro-elite. According to the UNDP Human Development Report, income inequality in Argentina decreased between 2010 and 2013. In 2009, the right to social benefits for children was established. According to World Bank data, the open unemployment rate decreased from 17.9 percent in 2002 to 7.2 percent in 2012. The Kirchner administrations also implemented several programs to invest in the local economy and create jobs in small and medium enterprises. They oversaw the construction of nuclear reactor CAREM, rockets Thronet I/II, and satellite ARSAT-2, which made Argentina a regional satellite leader. The administrations also restructured and reduced the country’s debt. These policies were supported by most syndicates, although—not in Perón's tradition—the Kirchner administrations created an effective middle-class movement, displacing parts of the workers' movement.

So why complain about threats to democracy in Poland but not about those in Argentina? Are there different standards of democracy in the EU and South America? We could say that it's a return to neo-colonial thinking, where the political actions are made in Argentina, but the designs are written by and work in favor of interests abroad, in addition to a small, cooperative elite in Argentina interested in profiting from the country’s resources. It seems as if Argentine elites plan to serve international corporations, organizations, and banks with another Rodrigazo, another age of austerity, with job cuts and rising public tariffs, for redistribution of resources into fewer hands. We should remember U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who said, “we may have democracy or we may have wealth, that is concentrated in the hands of a very few. But we can't have both. If we choose the latter, we accept weakened democratic institutions. This will inevitably lead to greater economic inequality.” 

There is a danger of a process of undemocratization starting in Argentina, in the worst case ending with an authoritarian regime. A government elected by the people and a formal democracy would be a de facto dictatorship in which the opposition has no right to talk in parliament or in any other environment, and a critical media doesn't exist. Anti-government journalists, as well as politicians and political activists, must have freedom of speech instead of being fired or put into jail. Congress must have a chance to participate in governance, with fewer presidential decrees and a sophisticated culture of debate.

Argentina should finally put an end to a kind of anarchic pluralism that governs the country, and should choose to represent the interests of the whole society. The industrialization process in the country should continue, massive firing of employees should be stopped, and small and medium enterprises should be supported, as they were in the Kirchner era. In order to maintain strong democratic institutions, wealth should not be re-distributed into few hands, neither to the Argentine elites nor to the global ones. Finally, the European Commission should not applaud the undemocratic development of a governing administration.

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Kristina Hille works as a journalist and as lecturer for the Berlin School of Economics and Law. Her latest paper on the latest Argentine economic and social policies was published in the Challenge Magazine of Economic Affairs.     

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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