In December 2001, Argentina, a country in South America, had five presidents in just 12 days.
In this article, we shall tell you the full story of what led to a successive change of government that occurred five times in Argentina during this short period of nearly two weeks in 2001.
The South American country of Argentina was millions of dollars in debt and the International Monetary Fund, IMF, was no longer willing to provide financial support. People were no longer allowed to withdraw above a certain limit from the banks and businesses were grinding to a halt. With increasing political and economic instability, the citizens of Argentina took to the streets to protest.
The riots began in December of 2001 and were at their peak on the 19th and 20th of the month. These riots were held in the capital city of Argentina, Buenos Aires, and other large cities within the country. The dramatic handover from one president to another president leading to five different presidents in just 12 days did not help stop the violent riots that rocked the country.
Argentinazo was the name coined for the December 2001 crisis that took place in Argentina. The protests were initiated by revolting groups against the incumbent government; their request was clearly stated in their mantra, “all of them must go”. This led to the resignation of the president at the time, President Fernando De La Rua. His resignation further aggravated the crisis and ushered in a period of great political unrest in the country. This had a ripple effect on the country leading to an economic and social downturn.
The downturn lasted for about four years, from 1998 to 2002 and was termed The Argentine Great Depression.
The riots intensified just after the country, in a bid to salvage its dicey economic situation, had just implemented an economic law known as “corral policies”. This meant that people were not able to access their money, and withdrawals were not allowed in the banks. By December 19, 2001, riots were at their peak and the president was led to declare a state of emergency. The day after, he resigned and without a president, the situation worsened.
How did the Argentine December 2001 Crisis begin?
Two years before the crisis began, Fernando de la Rua, under the party Alliance for Work, Justice and Education, had emerged as the president in the 1999 elections. This was right in the midst of an economic recession which had begun as a result of a policy issued in 1991. The policy had tried to place the Argentine peso in commensurate value to the US dollar. The policy tagged the Convertibility Plan had been initiated by the previous president, Carlos Menem. The plan had seemed to work at first with the government successfully reducing the inflation rate but within the six years after the policy, the economy continued to experience a downturn.
To keep the Convertibility Plan going, the Argentine government would need a considerable amount of US dollars to successfully convert to pesos and keep the economy running. The supply of dollars was made possible by privatising almost all of the country’s industries and pension funds. However, after the privatisation, the country’s economy could not keep up with the demands and eventually began to depend on loans from the International Monetary Fund to service its debts and run its economy.
Amid this looming debt crisis, the 1999 elections came up with Fernando De La Rua emerging as the winner. He had won largely due to his campaign promises of maintaining the Convertibility Plan. A popular phrase during his campaigns was, “With me, one peso, one dollar”. The people believed and they voted.
After the elections, the uneven distribution of the Alliance Party members across the provinces made it difficult for the ruling party. The preceding ruling party, The Peronists were still in control over a larger number of notable districts including the country’s capital, Buenos Aires.
Conflicts and corruption allegations ladened the first year of the new administration. At the height of these allegations was that the country’s intelligence service, Secretaría de Inteligencia (SIDE), had paid off senators to approve a certain Labour Reform Act. What made it even messier was that the head of the service, Fernando de Santibañes, was a close friend of President De La Rua. To crown it all, vice president Carlos Álvarez sent in his resignation in October 2000 accusing President La Rua of supporting corrupt practices.
A few months later, the Convertibility Plan suffered a great setback when the country’s economic minister resigned. Shortly after, the defence minister Ricardo López Murphy stepped in to take his place but he served for only two weeks before he was also forced to resign. Murphy was then replaced by one-time economic minister Domingo Cavallo, who had been the initiator of the Convertibility Plan.
What Triggered Argentina’s Economic Crisis in 2001?
In an attempt to salvage the country’s economy, the government decided to launch two different campaigns on debt expansion and refinancing. These campaigns, “the armouring” and “the mega exchange” were to be carried out under the supervision of the International Monetary Fund. But no sooner had it started before speculations of corrupt practices marred the economic campaigns plunging the country further into enormous debts.
The unrest was growing among citizens as the economic and political instability worsened. In the corridors of power, the Peronists had appointed one of its senators as President Pro-Tempore of the Argentine Senate. This position was for someone next in line for the presidency after the vice president.
President De La Rua had no vice president and this meant that a senator from the opposing party was next in line for his position. Without adequate members of his party in key positions, his political strength dwindled. The situation drastically degenerated in March 2001, with the unemployed setting up blockades on the highways and demanding financial support and welfare services. The unrest lasted for several months until it reached its tipping point on November 29, 2001.
Amidst fears of a total economic meltdown, investors began withdrawing their funds and capital from the banks. The International Monetary Fund also refused to stop financing the country’s debt. These culminated in a complete breakdown of the Argentine banking system and the country’s economy. By December, the government was desperately trying to salvage the critical situation and the finance minister announced that citizens were only allowed to take out cash withdrawals of a maximum of $250 per week.
This received a negative public response as banks were overwhelmed causing delays and long queues. Businesses were also affected by this arrangement which contributed to the growing unrest. This stirred up the most violent riots that rocked the country and claimed the lives of over 30 people including children while it lasted.
De La Rua’s administration was grossly under fire as the country’s major labour unions, the General Confederation of Labour and the Argentine Workers’ Central Union embarked on a strike to protest De La Rua’s economic policies. The strike took its toll on the country as different sectors joined in. It also led to riots in different cities. Lootings and truck robberies were carried out by thousands during which people were killed. The country was literally in chaos.
The Peak of Argentina’s December 2001 Crisis
On December 19, 2001, the riots reached their heights with looting carried on for hours. The lootings were believed to have been instigated by the government’s major opposing party, the Peronists. This was because they were more pronounced in areas and districts controlled by opponents. Nearing a state of anarchy, the government had to devise means of restoring order and calm.
The first strategy was to involve the military but this plan quickly fell flat on its face when it was discovered that the military would not be involved in domestic matters except for the police and other civil forces who could no longer handle it. The military’s involvement also had to be voted on by the congress and that was clearly an impossible feat with the opposing party constituting a major part of the congress.
The next strategy which President De La Rua deployed was to declare a national state of emergency after which the police force and other security agents such as the border and coast guards were deployed to restore order. He also offered the Peronists party an option to join the government to restore peace to the country and to become a “government of national unity”. The long day ended with the resignation of the country’s finance minister Domingo Cavallo.
The riots continued until the next day, December 20, 2001. By this time, the government had devised yet another strategy for distributing food to the populace. This also fell through as the ministry of social development refused to conduct the exercise.
Meanwhile, the police had already been mobilised to contain the mayhem but were finding it very hard to do with the protests spreading wider and faster. The government tried to place sanctions on the media and other news outlets broadcasting the events to prevent the spread but this turned futile as even the president’s media personnel refused to obey. The protests got more violent with growing clashes between the police and protesters across the country.
How Argentina had Five Presidents in 12 Days
Almost at a dead end, President De La Rua reiterated his offer to the Peronists to join his government in an address to the nation. After hours of deliberation, the opposing party rejected his offer. It was the last straw that broke the camel’s back and President Fernando De La Rua proceeded to resign from office on December 21, 2001.
The government house, the Plaza de Mayo, was a major site of the protests and would eventually become a place of a massacre as hundreds were injured and about 27 people were killed. With the violent state of the surrounding environments, De La Rua could not leave by road. Thus, an air force helicopter was dispatched to airlift him from the building. His departure was broadcast on national television and became a popular spectacle for ridicule. However, the president’s resignation eventually slowed down the protests.
According to the constitution, the incumbent President Pro-Tempore, Senator Ramón Puerta assumed office on December 21, 2001, until another president was to be elected. The race for who would become the next president commenced immediately. The three top contenders were governors of large provinces within the country. But with a surprising turn of events, the congress agreed to install the governor of a smaller province, Adolfo Rodríguez Saá, as president on December 23, 2001. Howbeit, it was also a temporary arrangement.
But the drama was far from being over. Rodriguez Saá was not content with the temporary arrangement and attempted to wrestle power off the Peronist governors. His inaugural speech contained bogus claims and promises. His announcement of his cabinet members, most of which were known as corrupt figures set off another negative turn of events. Insurrectionists resumed riot activities not sparing the Congress Palace. President Rodriguez resigned from the office, seven days after, on December 30, 2001. The Presidency once again fell back to the President Pro-Tempore, Ramon Puerta, who refused and resigned from his position.
With no other person to take up the vacant seat of the country’s number one citizen, the next in line to take over, Speaker of the House of Deputies, Eduardo Camaño, was appointed as president on December 31, 2001. His appointment was also temporary as the legislative assembly later appointed Senator Eduardo Duhalde as president on January 2, 2002.
Ironically, Duhalde had come in second after De La Rua in the last elections and would complete his term until the next elections were held in 2003. Duhalde became the fifth president of Argentina to emerge in 12 days from a long trail of presidential resignations and appointments.
All’s Well That Ends Well
The unprecedented successive change of government that occurred in Argentina, five times in 12 days, was kickstarted on December 21, 2001, by the resignation of President Fernando De La Rua, who had served for two years. He was succeeded by Senator Ramon Puerta who served for two days and then Adolfo Rodríguez Saá who was in office for seven days. Eduardo Camaño succeeded Rodriguez Saá and served for two days before Eduardo Duhalde was elected as president and served for one year, four months and 23 days.
De La Rua, Puerta, Rodriguez Saá, Camaño and Duhalde. That makes five presidents between December 21, 2001, and January 2, 2002. An incredible 12 days.
The poor economic situation of Argentina would last for some years through failed economic policies and an increase in inflation and unemployment rate. Duhalde was somewhat able to temporarily stabilise the country’s economy before handing it over to the next president, Néstor Kirchner.
With the help of the country’s Minister of Economy, Roberto Lavagna, the country was able to manage the economic crisis. The stringent measures that had to be taken to restore the country’s economy would never be forgotten, but so also would the strange story of how Argentina had five presidents in just 12 days.
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