Political Transition From Dictatorship to Democracy in Spain and Argentina

In this essay, I am going to examine the political transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain and Argentina. I will consider the themes of justice, truth, and reconciliation and explain how the post-dictatorship governments tried to tackle these issues (or how they were covered up). I will also be comparing the situations in both countries today, questioning whether their transitions were successful or if there is still work to be done.

In relation to Argentina, I will be spanning over three decades of constant transition, first speaking about Raul Alfonsín’s time in government. I will first mention the immediate commission of CONADEP and the series of amnesty laws put in place, in an effort to promote both peace and justice throughout the country. I will then proceed to speak about how Carlos Menem reversed these efforts, pardoning military officials and encouraging them not to confess to their crimes. Finally, I will discuss the work that Nestor Kirchner did when he came to power in 2003, re-transitioning Argentina back to democracy.

In relation to Spain, I will be speaking about the attempts by the post-dictatorship government under Adolfo Suárez to cover up the crimes committed by the Franco regime, focusing on the Amnesty Laws introduced in 1977. Furthermore, I will be mentioning the moral problems that these laws created and the work done by social justice groups to ensure that new, justice-seeking legislation was introduced.

After a failed military campaign in the Falklands, the level of public confidence in ‘el Proceso’ (the ruling Military Junta at the time) was at an all-time low. After Raul Alfonsín came to power in 1983, he immediately commissioned ‘la Comisión Nacional por la Desaparición de Personas’, also known as ‘CONADEP’. Its objective was to ‘document the nature and the extent of the repression unleashed following the military takeover’. Following truth commissions in both Uganda and Bolivia, CONADEP was the third truth commission ever to be established. The establishment of CONADEP was already a huge step forward for Argentina since it meant that there was an official recognition of the war crimes and atrocities that took place, and an official effort to search for the truth. The ‘Nunca Más’ report was published in 1984 and gave the names of 8,961 ‘Desaparecidos’. It also revealed that there were over 300 clandestine detention centers across the country. Although this evidence was used in trials against military officials, CONADEP itself did not have the authority to directly prosecute perpetrators. This disappointed those who were fighting for justice at the time, namely Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, an organization set up by mothers whose children had ‘disappeared’ (or more likely, were taken by the military). One of the Madres, Carmen de Guede, publically criticized CONADEP, stating: ‘CONADEP served to waste a year. This Commission did nothing more than reproduce all the information the human rights organizations already had’. Therefore, it is fair to say that although the effort was made to set up a truth organization, it had a very little overall effect and did nothing more than provide evidence, due to its lack of prosecution power. In fact, from the nine members of the Military Junta that were put to trial, only five were sentenced to life imprisonment, showing how little power the evidence actually had.

In Spain, the situation was almost the opposite. After the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, Spain entered two years of transition, where the government, under Adolfo Suárez, would have to decide how to move on from the dictatorship. The solution was to create an amnesty law, which exonerated those who had taken part in ‘Todos los actos de intencionalidad política, cualquiera que fuese su resultado’. This made the prosecution of those who committed atrocities and war crimes illegal under the new Spanish constitution. Suárez stated that it would allow for a smoother transition to democracy, but the question must be raised about whether it was put in place for the sole reason of avoiding any further backlash from both the victims and the perpetrators. The establishment of the ‘Pacto de Olvido’, introduced as a part of the ‘Ley de Amnistia’ further supports this point, as it was, in essence, a pact to neglect the past in order to move on with the future. Therefore, unlike Alfonsín in Argentina, Suárez showed no desire to obtain justice for those who had been affected by the war, and made no attempts to set up a truth commission or even investigate any crimes – he simply repressed all memories and attempted to cover them up by pretending that they hadn’t happened.

However, despite commissioning CONADEP, Alfonsín also attempted to cover up the atrocities committed by military officials in Argentina. The introduction of the ‘Ley de Punto Final’ in 1986 ended the investigation and prosecution of those in the military accused of war crimes and violence whilst in power. This meant that the evidence collected by CONADEP was essentially worthless since there would be no more trials, the persecutors would be immune from the law and no one else would be found guilty. In addition to this, the ‘Ley de Obediencia Debida’ amnestied military officials under the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, by stating that they were only following orders and so they could not be held accountable. However, the law did state that those who had committed extreme acts including the kidnap of children and of rape could not be pardoned. Although these laws reversed the work that had been done by CONADEP, they may have been necessary to introduce in order to avoid a military coup. This is due to the fact that the transition was still in the early stages, and Suárez’s government had only taken over due to a fall in public support for the military. Therefore, if Alfonsín was seen to be too biased towards those against the previous regime, he may have angered those in the military, causing a potential coup and a return to dictatorship.

The situation in Argentina worsened in 1989 with the presidential appointment of Carlos Menem. Menem immediately pardoned the military officials who were serving prison sentences for human rights violations. He did this ‘in exchange for…a firm commitment by the military commanders to prevent further rebellions by their subordinates’, showing that he too was worried about a military uprising. However, in doing this, Menem gave the message that human rights were of little importance to him, as author James P. Brennan claims: ‘The Menem pardons…led to a decade in which human rights issues…[were] basically moribund’. Menem also gave the impression that he did not care about the search for truth and justice, only about the state of the country. Therefore, it seems fair to say that Carlos Menem completely reversed the initial efforts by Alfonsín’s government to demonstrate that Argentina had parted ways with the corrupt ideologies of the dictatorship. Instead, he took the country back to the dictatorship, where actions by military officials would be covered up all the time, and where there was censorship of the press.

During Menem’s time as president, military officials began to confess their actions to the press, speaking about the things that they did and saw during the war. Menem warned them against this and encouraged them to go to church and confess to their local priests instead of talking to the press. This was seen as a return to the censorship of the press and sparked protests and the creation of new organizations, such as ‘Hijos e Hijas por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio’. HIJOS publically shamed those who were pardoned, demonstrating outside their houses and sometimes even vandalizing them. ‘Their…communal marches to the homes of known repressors…have had a simple message: We know who you are and you cannot live among us as a normal citizen’.

The creation of non-governmental groups with the objective to seek justice also transpired in Spain. The ‘Ley de Amnistia’ and ‘Pacto de Olvido’ had caused huge ethical problems, leaving those who had suffered without justice. Furthermore, the families and the subsequent generations of those who had suffered were also suffering, as they could see that there were no attempts being made to punish those who had committed atrocities during the Civil War and the dictatorship. When journalist Emilio Silva found the remains of his grandfather (who was killed in the Spanish Civil War) in a mass grave, he subsequently uncovered ‘part of a larger historical…problem in Spain’. In response to these findings and also to the fact that this issue was not being addressed in Spanish society (due to the amnesty laws protecting the persecutors from prosecution), Silva founded the ‘Asociación para la recuperación de la memoria histórica’ or ARMH, which went on to uncover hundreds of mass graves across Spain and made society aware of the history that Suárez’s government had attempted to cover up. However, the ARMH was not the only grassroots organization to be set up in response to the Spanish amnesty laws. In a similar fashion, ‘la Federación Estatal de Foros por la Memoria’ (FEFM) was set up with the aim of salvaging the historical memory of those who fought for the republicans. Much like the ARMH, FEFM put pressure on the Spanish government under José Zapatero to recognize the victims of the war and to change the legislation that had been in place for 30 years.

In 2007, Zapatero passed the ‘Ley de la Memoria Historica’, with the main aim to recognize and amplify the rights of those who suffered persecution or violence due to political, ideological, or religious beliefs. Amidst other things, the law promised to rename streets and historical monuments which linked back to the dictatorship. It also condemned the regime under Franco and pledged to help support the location of mass graves. Furthermore, it officially recognized the work done by non-governmental organizations including ARMH and FEFM.

Much like Spain, Argentina also took action to reverse legislation that had been put into place in order to avoid any further conflicts in the country – and much like Spain, it took Argentina over two decades to do so. When Nestor Kirchner came to power in 2003, ‘he denounced the above laws ‘Punto Final’ and ‘Obediencia Debida’, listened to the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and knew the perpetrators should be put on trial’. Kirchner was the first to seek true justice for the victims of the dictatorship by repealing both the ‘Ley de Punto Final’ and the ‘Ley de Obediencia Debida’. He was the first president since Alfonsín to take legitimate steps towards amending the societal problems caused not only by the dictatorship but also by the later actions of both Alfonsín and Menem, in the pardoning of the perpetrators. Nestor Kirchner died in 2010, yet the search for justice did not die with him; by 2010, over 400 people were charged with human rights violations, relating to the dictatorship. By 2015, 600 people had been convicted and a further 1000 people had been indicted. This was a stark contrast to the five people who were convicted with the evidence found by CONADEP during the Junta Trials under Alfonsín. The convictions and indictments proved that the steps taken by Kirchner to mend the country - from a moral standpoint - were the driving force that Argentina needed to give justice and a sense of closure to those who had been suffering for decades since the end of the dictatorship. To this day, trials are still ongoing, and the government (now under Nestor Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner) is working in cooperation with non-governmental organizations such as ‘HIJOS’ and ‘las Madres (now, Abuelas) de la Plaza de Mayo’ to bring more war criminals to trial and to recompense for the wrongdoings of the previous governments. There are still those who argue that the transition to democracy in both Spain and Argentina has not been completed, even today. Although democratic in political nature, the memories of the dictatorship in these countries still live on.

In Spain, the ‘Valle de los caidos’ is still a point of contention for many Spanish citizens, as it was, up until very recently, the place where Franco was buried. Many will argue that even though the ‘Ley de la Memoria Historica’ states that the ‘Valle de los caidos’ should be treated as a public cemetery, it is a daily reminder of the dictatorship since it is still treated as a pilgrimage site for many nationalists. Therefore, the transition cannot be said to be fully completed, since there are still supporters of the dictatorship that are keeping it alive.

Likewise, in Argentina, there are still thousands of adults who were kidnapped as children and put with military families or with families who supported the Junta. Therefore, for them, the transition cannot be over until they are reunited with their real families,

The overall process of the transition to democracy in both countries is very similar. Both countries, at first, tried to cover up the brutalities that took place during the dictatorship, introducing legislation to try and erase the past. However, they quickly realized that an official cover-up could not hide the truth forever, with grassroots activists coming together to expose the past in ways of protests and demonstrations.

In Spain, Suárez’s government made no effort to help the victims, and unlike in Argentina, no truth commission was ever set up. Groups such as ARMH and FEFM forced Zapatero to address the problems of mass graves, which led to new laws being passed to overturn the Amnesty Laws of 1977.

In Argentina, although a truth commission was initially established, the end result meant that the findings were powerless. The demonstrations by HIJOS and las Madres/Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo showed that the memories of the dictatorship would not vanish with the introduction of the ‘Ley de Punto Final’ and the ‘Ley de Obediencia Debida’. Eventually, the government listened, and Kirchners reforms meant that prosecutions are still ongoing to this day. 

07 July 2022
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