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Reynaldo Bignone


In office
July 2, 1982 – December 9, 1983
Preceded by Leopoldo Galtieri
Succeeded by Raul Alfonsín

Born January 21, 1928 (1928-01-21) (age 82)
Morón, Buenos Aires
Nationality Argentine
Profession Military

Reynaldo Benito Bignone (born January 21, 1928) is a retired general who served as dictatorial President of Argentina from July 1, 1982 to December 10, 1983. As of 2009, he is under house arrest (due to his age) for crimes during the Dirty War.[1]

Contents

Life

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Early career

Reynaldo Benito Antonio Bignone Ramayón was born in the western Buenos Aires suburb of Morón in 1928. Enlisting in the Argentine Army in 1947, he enrolled at the prestigious National War College, and was stationed in Spain. Bignone returned to Argentina to be named head of the VI Infantry Regiment in 1964. An August 1975 reshuffling of the Armed Forces High Command by President Isabel Perón resulted in the appointment of General Jorge Videla to the post of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. A quiet career military officer, Videla brought with him a number of protégés, among them Brigadier General Bignone, whom Videla named Secretary of the Joint Chiefs.

Worsening economic and security conditions helped trigger a March 24, 1976 coup d'état against the hapless Mrs. Perón and, on March 28, Bignone led a regiment into the Alejandro Posadas Hospital in the western Buenos Aires suburb of Haedo. Converting a wing in the respected medical facility into the "Chalet" (one of 340 detention centers operated by Argentina's last dictatorship), among the disappeared there were a number of the hospital's own staff. His quiet administration of the facility earned him a promotion as head of "Area 480", a larger detention center in Argentina's most important military training base, the Campo de Mayo. Bignone was made Director of Military Institutes by de facto President Videla in 1980.[2]

Bignone retired from the Armed Forces following Videla's decision to transfer power to General Roberto Viola in March 1981. Presiding over the unraveling of dictatorship's economic policies, the ailing Viola was replaced in December by General Leopoldo Galtieri, the Army Chief of Staff and the junta leader closest to the Reagan Administration in the United States. Argentina's defeat by the United Kingdom in the Falklands War on June 16, 1982, however led not only to President Galtieri's resignation, but also to a power vacuum, wherein the Chiefs of Staff of all three services resigned. Bignone's association with Videla and his low profile before and after retirement helped secure him the Presidency on July 1, 1982.

Presidency

Damage control

Inheriting international isolation and an economy hobbled by speculative losses and foreign debt exceeding US$40 billion, Bignone replaced Galtieri's conservative economic team with a moderate academic, Dr. José María Dagnino Pastore, as Minister of the Economy and a young, relatively unknown former adviser, Dr. Domingo Cavallo, as head of the Argentine Central Bank. Dagnino Pastore canceled his predecessor's wage freeze (which had caused a 30% collapse in real wages) and attempted, with only partial success, to curb the growing wave of exports transacted outside official channels. This practice, designed to take full advantage of the rapidly plummeting peso, deprived national coffers of foreign exchange and tax revenue on around 90% of Argentina's soy harvest, for instance (the fourth-largest in the World at the time). Central Bank President Cavallo inherited external and internal financial crises: the first owing to foreign debt installments twice Argentina's trade surplus in 1982 and the second the result of Central Bank Circular 1050. The policy, instituted in 1980, tied adjustable loan installment to the value of the US dollar in Argentina, which rose over tenfold in the year after March 1981. Forcing Argentine banks to write off billions in domestic business and mortgage loans (shattering lenders' confidence for years) and thousands of homeowners out of their homes, the hated Circular 1050 was rescinded by Cavallo days into his tenure. Cavallo also inherited a foreign debt installment guarantee program that shielded billions of private debt from the collapse of the peso, costing the treasury billions. Instituting controls over the facility, such as the indexation of payments, this move and the rescission of the Circular 1050 threw the banking sector against him and he and Dagnino Pastore were replaced in August. Bignone's new President of the Central Bank, Julio González del Solar, undid many of these controls, transferring billions more in private foreign debt to the Central Bank, though he stopped short of reinstating the hated "1050."[3][4]

Uncomfortable with the media, Bignone's press statements were halting and laconic, leaving doubts as to the most pressing issue of the day: the imminent call for elections. His loosening of certain free speech restrictions also put his regime's unpopularity in evidence and the newsstands brimmed with satirical publications. Perhaps the most memorable, Humór, had its January 1983 issue confiscated after Navy Chief of Staff, Admiral Cristino Nicolaides, objected to caricaturist Andrés Cascioli's irreverent portrayals of the stodgy junta.[5]

Six years of intermittent wage freezes had also left real wages close to 40% lower than during Mrs. Perón's rocky tenure, leading to growing labor unrest. Bignone's decision to restore limited rights of speech and assembly, including the right to strike, inevitably led to increased strike activity, particularly by Saúl Ubaldini, the new leader of the reinstated CGT, Argentina's largest labor union. Bignone's new Economy Minister, Jorge Wehbe, a banking executive with previous experience in the post, reluctantly granted two large, mandatory wage increases in late 1982. Calls for immediate elections led, likewise, to frequent demonstrations at the President's executive offices, the Casa Rosada. One such protest, on December 16, led to the death of a demonstrator, making the return to democracy practically inevitable.[4]

Democratic way out

Sign of the times, a 1,000,000 peso note was worth about US$ 10 when it was replaced in June 1983.
Elected in 1983, Raúl Alfonsín receives the presidential attributes from General Bignone.

Supportive of this solution, which he termed a "democratic way out," Bignone was opposed by the Navy Chief, Admiral Nicolaides, and other conservatives. Partly in response, Bignone decreed a blanket amnesty on April 28, 1983 for those involved in human rights abuses (including himself). In statements made during his dour press statements, he conditioned the return to democracy by imposing limits to any future investigations of human rights violations that had taken place during the 1976-83 military dictatorship, as well as into allegations of insider trading, numerous extortion kidnappings and other corruption. Rejected by the majority of society, this proposal met with thunderous opposition from Raúl Alfonsín, the head of the centrist UCR's progressive wing. Drawing a contrast between his position and the lukewarm reproach by others in his own party and in other parties, Alfonsín, who had also opposed the Falklands War when few others in Argentina did, earned his party's nomination in July. The hastily organized convention was called only days after Bignone publicly announced the scheduling of elections (to be held on October 30, three months after the announcement). The UCR's only important opposition, the Justicialist (Peronist) Party, was hamstrung by voters' memories of President Isabel Perón's chaotic two years in office and by internal friction that dragged their nominating process on by nearly two months.[5]

The Argentine economy, which had recovered modestly following the July 1982 rescissions of prevailing wage freezes and the "Circular 1050," was saddled with foreign debt interest payments of over US$4 billion, capital flight, budget deficits around 10% of GDP and a resulting rise in inflation: rising to 200% in 1982, it approached 400% in 1983. The peso in tatters (trading at 90,000 per US dollar by mid-1983), Economy Minister Jorge Wehbe trotted out a new currency in June, the peso argentino, to replace the worthless peso ley at 10,000 to one. This move secured him concessions from international creditors, but did not slow inflation and the economy slipped back into recession during the second half of 1983.[6]

Careful to avoid the appearance of endorsement of any one candidate (a mistake made by a previous dictator, Gen. Pedro Aramburu, in 1958), Bignone concerned himself with the marathon shredding of documents and other face-saving measures, such as generous new wage guidelines. The economy, which had contracted by around 12% in the eighteen months before he took office, managed a recovery of around 4% during Bignone's eighteen month term.[7] Following a brief, though intense campaign and tight polls, election night resulted in a decisive 12-point margin for the UCR's Alfonsín over Justicialist nominee Ítalo Lúder, who, tied to repressive measures he signed in 1975, could not avoid suspicion of a gentlemen's agreement with Bignone for the sake of preventing future investigations.[5]

Epilogue

President Néstor Kirchner had Bignone's portrait at the National War College, which the latter had directed in the 1960s, removed in 2004

Presiding over a difficult six years, President Raúl Alfonsín advanced the Trial of the Juntas in 1985, proceedings which acquitted Bignone of responsibility, but left civil trials against him open. These, however, were precluded by decrees signed by Alfonsín himself in early 1987, the result of pressure from the Armed Forces.[8]

Bignone in 1993 authored a reflection on his brief tenure, El último de facto (The Last Dictator), to condemnation over the book's marginalization of Dirty War abuses. He was again placed at the disposal of the courts in January 1999, after the reopening of trials for misappropriation of children.[9] Under house arrest in October 2006, a consideration accorded him on account of his advanced age, in March 2007 he was arrested and taken into custody at a military base outside Buenos Aires as part of an investigation into past human rights abuses, including the atrocities at the Posadas Hospital and complicity in the trafficking of infants abducted from the roughly 500 pregnant women who were among the disappeared. These were ruled to have no statute of limitations owing their nature as crimes against humanity.[10][11]

References

Preceded by
Alfredo Saint-Jean
President of Argentina
1982–1983
Succeeded by
Raúl Alfonsín

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