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Last Updated: Friday, 31 October, 2003, 10:01 GMT
Argentines see glimmer of hope
By Sue Branford
In Buenos Aires

"We finally have a president in power who believes, like us, that the military should be punished for their human rights crimes," says Maria Adela Antokoletz, a vivacious, middle-aged woman.

Maria Adela Antokoletz
Maria Adela wants justice for her brother
She's part of a group of women, many of them very old, who demonstrate every week in front of the Presidential Palace in Plaza de Mayo, the central square of Buenos Aires.

Wearing white headscarves and carrying banners, they are calling for justice for their sons and daughters, some of the thousands of people who "disappeared" during the military dictatorship in the 1970s.

"My mother began these weekly marches back in April 1977 to tell the world what was happening," says Maria Adela.

"Every Thursday afternoon, whatever the weather, she came with other mothers to this square. Sadly, she died a few years ago, before there was any real hope that the torturers and murderers would be punished. She'd be so excited if she saw what was happening today."

Maria Adela is carrying on the struggle, without her mother. She is calling for justice for her brother, Daniel, a young lawyer.

"We know he was captured alive in 1976 because he was seen being tortured at the Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada, the navy college."

During the 1970s about 5,000 people were kidnapped and taken to this college. Many were drugged and thrown, still alive, into the ocean. Those who died under torture were burned in funeral pyres within the college grounds. Only about 150 people, at most, survived.

Unearthing corruption

Since he came to office in May, President Nestor Kirchner has surprised the country with the speed and determination with which he has acted on the human rights front.

Rosendo Fraga
Some 5,000 or 6,000 members of the armed forces could end up in jail
Rosendo Fraga, political analyst
He has persuaded Congress to repeal two amnesty laws that were shielding hundred military officers from prosecution. He has received human rights organisations, including the Mothers of the Plaza, in the Presidential Palace.

These initiatives form part of a much broader strategy. The government has purged the army and the police forces in an attempt to root out corruption. It is opening up government finances to public inspection. It is insisting that some top officials publish details of their personal assets.

"President Kirchner is attempting to end impunity at all levels of society," says Horacio Verbitsky, one of the country's leading political commentators.

"He is pursuing something that I call 'institutional quality', that is, he is trying to root out inefficiency and corruption and make the institutions accountable to the people."

Not surprisingly, President Kirchner is facing resistance to his human rights agenda.

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner
The Argentine president has got amnesty laws repealed
"Some 5,000 or 6,000 members of the armed forces could end up in jail," warns Rosendo Fraga, a political analyst who has close links with the military.

"This could create a military crisis, perhaps not immediately, but in two or three years time."

Others disagree. "I don't expect thousands to be jailed, just a few hundred," says Elizabeth Jelin, an academic who has published several books on human rights.

"And I don't expect widespread unrest. There may be one or two military officers who don't like what is happening and make a public declaration. But the military are too weak to carry out collective action."

Economic prospects

So far, most Argentines have welcomed President Kirchner's initiatives.

Opinion polls give him an approval rating of 70% or 80%.

People in Argentina talk about the country's past, and prospects for the future.

"Kirchner is the most popular president in Argentina's history," says Horacio Verbitsky. "The level of support he has is quite astonishing."

Many Argentines hope that, along with his political initiatives, President Kirchner will put the economy back on its feet.

The economy took a real battering after the spectacular collapse of the currency and the debt default at the end of 2001. Economic output fell by a record 11 % in 2002.

So far, the signs are good. The economy is set to grow by over 6% this year. But the authorities know that this is largely a rebound, after the collapse. It will take much more to regain strong, sustained economic growth.

President Kirchner has a strategy. He has negotiated an usually flexible agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and has bluntly told private holders of government bonds that they can expect to lose 75% of their investment.

Even so, the government will find it very difficult to rebuild the industrial sector, once the mainstay of the Argentine economy. It is today in total disarray.

Hundreds of factories went bankrupt during the 1990s when national manufacturers, wrestling with a hugely overvalued currency, were unable to compete with far cheaper imported goods.

President Kirchner faces real problems. Even so, it is easy to understand why, for the first time for many months, Argentines feel they have something to smile about.

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