Transition by collapse: the case of Argentina after the Malvinas War

Four decades ago, on April 2nd 1982, the Malvinas War between Argentina and the United Kingdom began. The Malvinas are an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean on the Patagonian Shelf that are currently under administration of the British Government. Argentina maintains claim over the islands, considering them as an occupied territory.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Argentina (n.d.), the Question of the Malvinas Islands arose on January 3rd 1833 as the United Kingdom, to the detriment of Argentina's territorial integrity, unlawfully occupied the islands and removed Argentine authorities. From that moment, the Argentinian Government claimed their sovereignty through diplomatic means, until 1982 when the Military Government decided to regain the Islands by force. What the Military Junta did not know was that the aftermath of the war would set the ground for a democratic transition with unique characteristics, a transition by collapse in which the Military Junta was judged and ended up in prison.

In March 1976, the authoritarian regime came into power through a civic-military coup. The self appointed "National Reorganization Process" sought to impose a new social order in the country through repression. During the period of 1976-1983, the Government overturned the

rule of law, engaging in Terrorism of State through a parallel illegal State that worked in the shadows kidnapping, torturing and disappearing 30.000 people.

In July 1981, the main political parties of Argentina joined forces in the "Multiparty" to pressure the Military Government to start a transition towards Democracy. By the end of March 1982, there was a massive mobilization where more than 100.000 people protested in the Capital City demanding Democracy. This was a severe blow to the Military Government, whose legitimacy was crumbling. But a few days later, the de facto President summoned a demonstration in front of the Government's House to announce the mission to recover the Islands, in search of legitimacy and popular support. To no surprise, the response was popular support, as the Question of Malvinas is deeply engraved in Argentinian national identity.

The war was a domestic policy decision that intended to recover the lost legitimacy of the Government, without success. The Military Government thought that the UK wouldn't respond considering the internal crisis it was going through, but this war was indeed used by Margaret Thatcher to improve her political image. With the big disparity among the British and the Argentinian military forces, the war only lasted for ten weeks. The defeat of Argentina was seen as a defeat of the Military Government, which entered into an organic crisis.

As conceptualized by Gramsci (1971), one of the triggers for an organic crisis is the failure of the ruling class in some great political undertaking for which it has solicited or forcefully imposed the consensus of the great masses. In this case, a war. As Carlos Nino (2015), advisor to the President on Human Rights after the restoration of Democracy pointed out, after the reckless irresponsibility of the war, the Armed Forces lost the social status they had managed to preserve throughout the century. Until then, various sectors of society saw the military as an alternative to legitimate leadership, but afterwards, even these sectors became aware of the risks of authoritarianism. This is what allowed Argentina to enter a Democratic Transition in 1983 that was not agreed upon but was driven by collapse, unlike other processes in the region. For instance, in Chile, after the dictator Pinochet stepped off from being head of the military government, he took office as Senator for Life.

On December 10th 1983, President Raúl Alfonsín took office after democratic elections with 85.6% turnout. His administration promised to not negotiate with the Military Junta and to bring them to trial for the human rights violations committed. Five days later, he created the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), to investigate the fate

of the victims of forced disappearance and other human rights violations between 1976 and 1983. Their report was delivered a year later, and was essential to conduct the Trial of the Juntas, which began in 1985. It was the first major trial held for war crimes since the Nüremberg Trials, and also the first conducted by a civilian court.

In order to be able to bring the dictators to trial, the President repealed the self-amnesty decree-law, sanctioned by the Military Junta before they left the government in an attempt to get away with their crimes against humanity. Important institutional reforms were also made, such as the civilian rule over military forces, essential to contain the authoritarian sectors.

The bloodiest dictatorship in Argentine History ended with its leaders imprisoned in common prisons. Transitional justice was key in the restoration and consolidation of our Democracy and the Argentinian case is a good example of how important processes for Memory, Justice and Truth are. As prosecutor Strassera concluded in his closing arguments: Never again!


Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Worship of Argentina (n.d.) The Question of the Malvinas Islands.

Gramsci, Antonio, 1891-1937. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers.

Nino, Carlos S. (2015), “Juicio al mal absoluto. ¿Hasta dónde debe llegar la justicia retroactiva en casos de violaciones masivas de los derechos humanos?”, Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno editores.

Inés Alberico

About the author

Inés Alberico is a first year MPP student at the Brandt School. She hails from Argentina where she gained experience working for NGOs. On top of being a student, Inés is also the President of the Brandt School's student government. 


~ The views represented in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Brandt School. ~