Courtesy Reuters

Argentina and Democracy

For more than 50 years Argentina has been the bad boy of the Western Hemisphere. Since the military launched its first coup ever in 1930, only one freely elected government has completed its term, and that one was led by Latin America's most successful demagogue, Juan Domingo Perón. The country has since floundered between rule by the mob and rule by the military. Two years ago, it also gave the world the Falklands/Malvinas War, a seeming comic opera that turned bloodily tragic.

Last October, Argentina surprised the world again, but this time favorably. After ruling nearly eight years, the military called elections to make a new attempt at democracy. Raúl Alfonsín, a charismatic democrat dedicated to returning the country to the rule of law, handed the Peronists their first defeat in a free election. His inauguration December 10 set off a wave of optimism at home and abroad that the turmoil that began in 1930 was over.

"On the tenth of December we found an anguished Argentina, unmistakably marked with the signs of destruction," the new president said in a speech on May 1 opening the first regular session of Congress in a decade. "But from this anguish, hope, the perspective of bringing the republic back to life, would rise."

But today, six months into his term, the question is: Can Alfonsín and the new Argentine democracy last? Already, some of the old political divisions are re-emerging. The economy is in crisis as inflation, the highest in the world, resists control. Consumer prices in the first five months rose at an annual rate of 560 percent, raising the specter of Weimar Germany.

At the same time, the government is locked in tough negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and international banks over refinancing an inherited foreign debt of some $45 billion, third in size only after that of Brazil and Mexico. To meet the debt payments, the country must impose austerity measures. Alfonsín is moving to do so, but faces a

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