December 2001 riots in Argentina

1998–2002 Argentine
great depression

Economy of Argentina
Peso (currency)
Convertibility plan
2001 riots
Debt restructuring

The December 2001 uprising was a period of civil unrest and rioting in Argentina, which took place during December 2001, with the most violent incidents taking place on December 19 and December 20 in the capital, Buenos Aires, Rosario and other large cities around the country.


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The uprising was a predominantly middle-class uprising against the government of President Fernando de la Rúa, who had failed to contain the economic crisis that was going through its third year of recession. Since 1991, the Argentine peso was at a fixed exchange rate with the US dollar. The dollarization had been instrumental to overcome the chronic hyperinflation bursts of the late 1980s, but almost entirely deprived Argentina of control over its monetary policy, and a sudden revaluation of the dollar in 1997 ended up harming exports, which were the only important source of foreign currency at the time.

De la Rúa's economic policies suffered a severe blow in March 2001 when Economy Minister José Luis Machinea resigned from office. He was briefly replaced by the then-Defense Minister Ricardo López Murphy, who himself was forced to resign following negative reception to his shock program. After only two weeks in office, López Murphy was replaced by Domingo Cavallo, who had previously served as Economy Minister between 1991 and 1996, and who was widely credited to be the man that took Argentina out of hyperinflation.

Cavallo took to administer the country's economy, establishing new taxes and special agreements with certain sectors of the Argentine industrial establishment. He also took to restructure Argentina's massive foreign debt in an operation known locally as the megacanje ("mega-exchange", i. e. an exchange of debt bonds for others at more advantageous conditions). From the first moment, there were allegations of corruption and money laundering about the megacanje.

De la Rúa's political situation was also precarious. His arrival to power in 1999 had been possible thanks to the Alliance for Work, Justice and Education, a coalition formed by the Radical Civic Union and the FrePaSo, which managed to defeat the incumbent Justicialist Party (the Peronists) in that year's presidential elections. However, the Alliance (as it was known) failed to achieve a majority in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, and lost the provincial elections to the Peronists, who then remained in charge of large and critical districts such as the Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Santa Fe provinces.

The government coalition was strained from the first moment; the FrePaSo leaders resented being "junior members" of the government (being forced to that position after losing their bid to the Governorship of Buenos Aires), while the Radicals were divided between their left- and right-leaning factions (De la Rúa was a leader of the party's conservatives), especially regarding economic policy. In late 2000 a political scandal broke out when it was reported that SIDE, Argentina's intelligence service, had paid massive bribes to a number of senators to approve a controversial Labor Reform Act. The head of SIDE, Fernando de Santibañes, was a personal friend of De la Rúa. The crisis came to a head on October 2000 when Vice President Carlos Álvarez resigned, citing De la Rúa's unwillingness to tackle corruption.

The March 2001 crisis (see above) also caused the resignation of all the FrePaSo Cabinet ministers, leaving de la Rúa without political support. The congressional elections of October 2001 were a disaster for the government, which lost many of its seats in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies to the Peronists. The election results marked also a growing unrest within Argentina's voters, who took to cast millions of null or blank votes. The Peronists seized the opportunity to appoint Senator Ramón Puerta to be President Pro-Tempore of the Argentine Senate, a situation which added to De la Rúa's political weakness since in the Argentine system the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate is next in line for the Presidency after the Vice President. With no Vice President of its own, Puerta's designation meant that De la Rúa had a virtual Peronist Vice President.

Social unrest was also growing. Since the late 1990s, protest movements had formed in Argentina, notably the piqueteros ("picketeers"), initially made up of unemployed workers. The piqueteros blockaded major roads and highways demanding government subsidies and other welfare measures. They featured prominently during the March 2001 crisis.

This entire crisis came to a head on November 29, 2001, when Argentines took to banks and financial institutions to withdraw millions of pesos and dollars from their accounts. Had the withdrawal continued, Argentina's entire banking system would have collapsed.


Main article: Corralito

The unrest started when Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo introduced restrictions to the withdrawal of cash from bank deposits, intending to stop the draining of deposits that had been taking place throughout 2001 and had reached the point where 25% of all the money in the banks had been withdrawn. These measures were aimed at controlling the banking crisis for a period of 90 days, until the exchange of Argentina's public debt could be completed.

Although people could still use their money via credit cards, checks and other forms of non-cash payments, the enforcement of these measures caused delays and problems for the general population and especially for businesses. Massive queues at every bank and growing reports of political crisis contributed to inflame Argentina's political scenario.

In this context, certain factions of the opposition, as well as interest groups who wanted a devaluation of the Argentine peso, seized the opportunity to fuel public anger and replace the government.

De la Rúa's position had become unsustainable. An attempt by the Catholic Church to mediate between the government and the opposition in mid-December failed. Between December 16 and December 19 there were several incidents involving unemployed activists and protesters which demanded the handing-out of food bags from supermarkets. These incidents ended up with outright looting of supermarkets and convenience stores on December 18, taking place on Rosario and the Greater Buenos Aires areas. This was of historical significance, as the previous Radical administration of Raúl Alfonsín had been forced to resign after a wave of looting in 1989.

December 19

December 19, 2001, President De la Rúa declares the state of siege throughout the country. Following the broadcast, a strong "cacerolazo" took place in Buenos Aires and other major cities of Argentina, and thousands took the streets and main plazas in protest. (Video in Spanish)

Throughout the day new lootings took place, and the Government believed that Peronist agitators were fueling the protests, especially in the province of Buenos Aires. This came after noting that the lootings often took place in Peronist-governed towns, and that the Buenos Aires Provincial Police (which ultimately answered to Buenos Aires Governor Carlos Ruckauf, a top Peronist) was strangely mild in restoring order. With violence mounting across Argentina's major cities, President De la Rúa began to consider alternative measures to restore order.

The first option considered was to deploy the military to contain the violence. However, Argentine legislation forbids military intervention in domestic security matters unless the police and security forces are overwhelmed, a situation quickly pointed out by the Chairman of the Joint General Staff and the Chiefs of Staff of the Army, Navy and Air Force. The military also pointed out that they would only intervene if their deployment was authorized by a law voted in Congress, something impossible given the Peronist majority in both Houses. The Argentine military was unwilling to take the blame if violence grew worse, learning from what had previously happened when President Isabel Perón issued an executive order commanding them to fight the subversive guerrilla movements of the 1970s (see Dirty War).

With military intervention no longer an option, De la Rúa resorted to declare a state of siege (essentially a state of emergency) throughout the country, deploying the Federal Police, the National Gendarmerie (border guard) and the Naval Prefecture (coast guard) to contain the growing violence.

Later that night, De la Rúa addressed the nation to announce the state of siege and to call the Peronists to negotiate a "government of national unity". Following the broadcast, spontaneous cacerolazos ("pot banging") took place throughout Buenos Aires and other major cities, signaling the middle-class' own unrest. December 19 concluded with the resignation of Domingo Cavallo, who had lost whatever support he had within the government. Groups of protesters mobilized throughout Buenos Aires, some of them arriving to Plaza de Mayo, where there were incidents with the Federal Police forces.

This day is documented on video by the group Gotan Project in the song Queremos Paz.

December 20

Police intervention in the conflict

What had begun as rioting by unemployed and leftist-leaning groups had turned into a middle-class protest with the cacerolazos, and the resignation of Cavallo did nothing to calm down the situation.[1] The De la Rúa administration had agreed with the military to participate in an emergency handing-out of food, however, the plan failed due to lack of cooperation from the Ministry of Social Development.

Throughout the morning, groups of protesters converged on Plaza de Mayo despite the state of siege.[2] The Federal Police, acting under orders from the government, proceeded to try to control the protests. An attempt by a federal judge to halt police operations was disregarded, and the situation worsened with the arrival of new groups of protesters.

As violence expanded, President De la Rúa tried to impose censorship on all news outlets from Buenos Aires. The idea was to use the state of siege to force the television networks to stop transmitting current events and broadcast emergency programming. This plan also failed because De la Rúa's own Media Secretary refused to carry out his instructions.

Meanwhile, there were violent incidents between the police and protesters throughout the country. The most notorious ones took place at the Plaza de Mayo, where five people were killed. Some claim that the deaths were provoked by covert elements of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police in an attempt to further destabilize De la Rúa.

With his options steadily being reduced, De la Rúa went onto national television at 4 p.m. to offer the Peronists to join the government and try to bring some peace to the country. At that time, a caucus of Peronist governors was taking place at a country villa in the province of San Luis. Three hours later, Humberto Roggero, head of the Peronist bloc of the House of Deputies, announced that the Peronist Party would not be a part of a "government of national unity".

When he heard the Peronists' response, De la Rúa decided to resign from office.[3] The situation on Plaza de Mayo (right in front of the Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace) was still too violent for De la Rúa to leave by car to his official residence at Olivos. Thus, the President's security detail decided to take him out of the Casa Rosada on board an Air Force helicopter. The images of De la Rúa's "escape" by helicopter were broadcast throughout the country. The violence slowly abated. By the end of the day, 26 people had died, five of them in Buenos Aires. The President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, Ramón Puerta, took over as Interim President, until Congress could appoint a successor to De la Rúa.

Rodríguez Saá Administration

According to the Acephaly Act, Puerta would only be President until the Legislative Assembly (a joint session of the Senate and the House of Deputies) convened and appointed a new President from either one member of Congress or a provincial governor to complete the resigning President's period.

The Peronist governors assembled at San Luis -arguably the most powerful men in Argentina at the period- were divided on who to nominate. There were three "natural candidates", who were the governors of the three largest provinces: Carlos Ruckauf of Buenos Aires, José Manuel de la Sota of Córdoba and Carlos Reutemann of Santa Fe. As a temporary arrangement, the governors decided to nominate Adolfo Rodríguez Saá, Governor of San Luis. The Peronists' easy majority in both houses of Congress ensured that Rodríguez Saá was elected on December 22.

Rodríguez Saá was to be President for only three months, until Presidential elections were held in March. De la Rúa's term expired in 2003, but some argued that only a President legitimated by popular vote would be able to bring Argentina out of the crisis. However, Rodríguez Saá didn't seem at all satisfied with being a caretaker President.

From the first moment, Rodríguez Saá embarked on ambitious projects aimed at giving him popularity. In his inaugural speech, he announced that Argentina would default on its foreign debt, an announcement received by rousing applause from the members of Congress. He then proceeded to announce the issuing of a "third currency" (alongside the peso and the dollar) to boost consumption. Later on, Rodríguez Saá announced that he would extradite every former military officer charged with human rights abuses during the Dirty War who was requested by foreign courts. Another measure was to stand down the state of siege.

There were also some unpopular designations to the Cabinet. The most notorious one was the appointment of former Mayor of Buenos Aires Carlos Grosso, arguably one of the most corrupt figures in Argentine politics. Rodríguez Saá also courted the powerful Peronist trade unions in a move that was recognized as an attempt to wrestle power from the other Peronist governors.

New riots and cacerolazos took place on Buenos Aires, with some protesters entering the Congress Palace and burning furniture. On December 30, Rodríguez Saá called for a summit of Peronist governors at the Presidential holiday retreat of Chapadmalal, 19 kilometres (12 miles) south of Mar del Plata. Of the fourteen Peronist governors, only five attended. Realizing that he lacked support from his own party, Rodríguez Saá returned to his home province to announce his own resignation to the Presidency after barely a week in office.

Designation of Eduardo Duhalde

Former President Eduardo Duhalde (2002–2003)

Ramón Puerta refused to take over as interim President again, resigning as President Pro-Tempore of the Senate. With no President, Vice President or President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, the Presidency of Argentina was placed in the hands of the next-in-line: Eduardo Camaño, who was the Speaker of the House of Deputies.

Camaño was to take over until a new Legislative Assembly was convened. The Assembly convened on 1 January 2002, and debated extensively before designating Senator Eduardo Duhalde as President almost at midnight.

Duhalde was one of the top leaders of the Peronist Party. However, many had thought that Duhalde's political career was ruined after his defeat in the 1999 presidential elections. In an ironic twist of events, Duhalde was called to complete the term of the man who beat him in the elections, Fernando de la Rúa. This was not to be a provisional presidency, as Duhalde was designated to complete the interrupted term of De la Rúa until the 2003 presidential elections.

With regard to the economy Duhalde and his Economy Minister Jorge Remes Lenicov decided on an even more extreme freezing of the bank deposits, which was then coupled with the so-called pesificación ("peso-ification", a forced transformation of all dollar-denominated accounts into pesos at an arbitrary fixed exchange rate), and a regulated devaluation. The fixed exchange rate system was abandoned soon afterwards, which was followed by a large depreciation (Further reading : Economy of Argentina )

See also


Sources and further reading

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