40 years later, a look back at the day Argentina recovered democracy

Raúl Alfonsín’s presidential inauguration on December 10, 1983, ended the dictatorship, enshrining the date in the country’s collective memory forever

It’s 7:45 a.m., and Raúl Alfonsín is riding down on the elevator of the Hotel Panamericano. Alongside him are presidential photographer Víctor Bugge and the head of his security team. All three are silent. The day is December 10, 1983, a few hours before Alfonsín is set to become Argentina’s president following a brutal 8-year-long dictatorship.

They reach the ground floor and go to the parking space. As Alfonsín opens the car that will take him to Congress for his inauguration ceremony, Bugge turns to him and utters the only words he would speak to him that day.

“To the pitch, president.”

Bugge was only 27 when he was assigned to shadow Alfonsín that day. He had been working as part of the Casa Rosada official photography team since 1978, a few years after the coup that put the Military Junta in power — he would later become head of the team, a position he currently still holds. That day, however, was radically different from anything he had done up to that point.

“It was funny. One minute I was taking [Reynaldo] Bignone’s picture — the last de facto president of the dictatorship — and the next I’m covering [the inauguration] of a president chosen by the Argentine people,” he tells the Herald now.

Things were changing, not only for Bugge or Alfonsín, but for the entire country. Democratic spring was coming.

A period of violence comes to an end

Democracy returned to Argentina in 1983 after eight years of a bloody and violent military dictatorship that kidnapped, tortured, and disappeared 30,000 people. In addition to this, the country was still reeling from the failed Malvinas war and in the midst of an economic meltdown.

Alfonsín won the constitutional elections on October 30, 1983. The military dictatorship wanted to stretch its time in power until January or May of the following year, but Alfonsín demanded Bignone hand over the presidency before.

The chosen date was not accidental: December 10 is International Human Rights Day. Forty years later, it’s still a tradition that Argentine presidents are inaugurated on that day.

Attorney and former lawmaker Federico Storani also has a vivid memory of that day. At age 32, in October 1983, he was elected national deputy for the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR), the same party as Alfonsín.

“It was all very new to us,” he tells the Herald. “Even though we were over 30, we had no legislative experience since we had been living under a military dictatorship for so many years.”

Storani says the newly elected members of Congress from the UCR and other parties felt “joy, hope, and expectation mixed with anxiety regarding the future.”

“We knew we had hard times ahead of us.”

A day to remember

The car taking Alfonsín traveled the short distance from Hotel Panamericano, the location of his campaign headquarters, to Congress. He got his first welcome from a crowd waiting for him in the square across Entre Ríos Avenue.

Inside the building, Alfonsín was welcomed by the newly appointed senators and deputies that would take part in the traditional joint assembly for an incoming president. The balconies surrounding the Chamber of Deputies were full of people. Euphoria was in the air.

At around 8:30 a.m., Alfonsín gave a categorical speech in Congress. He condemned the dictatorship’s crimes against humanity and vowed to pursue justice and truth for the disappeared.

“Democracy is a value, more than just a form to legitimize power. Democracy allows us to not only vote but also to feed, educate, and heal people,” he said.

All the steps of protocol finish a little after 9 a.m. It was time to go to Casa Rosada, where Bignone would hand over the government. Alfonsín made the short trip from Congress together with his wife, María Lorenza Barreneche, aboard a 1955 convertible known as “Perón’s Cadillac.” Legend has it that Juan Domingo Perón bought it but was never able to use it because he was overthrown by a military coup that same year.

As they made their way through Avenida de Mayo, the presidential couple was showered by thousands of pieces of paper. Countless people occupied the street — it was like a huge party. Bugge was riding in the same car with them but soon realized he needed to find a better angle. He hopped off and jumped into the open trunk of the car ahead of the convertible. He wiggled in as best as he could and shot.

Raúl Alfonsín on Decemeber 10, 1983. Credit: Víctor Bugge

Alfonsín just watched the people around him cheer.

“He looked emotional at times,” Bugge says. “[I could tell] from his face, his hand movement, and how he smiled and greeted people. I saw him as having the key to democracy in his hands.”

Minutes later, Bignone put the presidential sash across Alfonsín’s chest and handed over the ruling staff inside Casa Rosada. “Alfonsín looked very serious,” Bugge and Storani both recall. It wasn’t something pleasant for the UCR leader, but he knew that sharing the stage with the last dictator was a necessary step to ensure institutionalism. Alfonsín thanks Bignone and offers him a polite smile. He wasn’t nervous, Storani assures.

“He was very conscious of the responsibility he was taking. It was the passage from authoritarianism to democracy.”

It was very hot outside. Firemen sprayed water over the thousands of people waiting for Alfonsín to speak at Plaza de Mayo. He had chosen to speak not from the Casa Rosada balcony, as presidents usually do, but from the Cabildo, one of the first public buildings of the nascent Argentine Republic built during the 19th century, when the country was still under Spanish rule.

In 1983, Roberto Villarruel was a 23-year-old history student who was part of a student organization at the University of Buenos Aires. On December 10, he got up very early. He met his friends and fellow organization members at a previously arranged safe point a few blocks away from Plaza de Mayo around 8 a.m. A dictatorship habit they still couldn’t shake. They wanted to make sure they got a good spot in the square to listen to Alfonsín’s speech.

“December 10 was one of the happiest days of our lives,” Villarruel recalls. Although they were still wary after years of feeling threatened or scared of being kidnapped while walking down the street, people finally felt free.

“There was a sense of freedom that we could go anywhere we wanted; we could walk in parks; we could scream whatever we wanted.”

Political parties, human rights organizations, unions, and thousands of non-affiliated people erupted in screams when Alfonsín appeared on the Cabildo balcony at noon. He gave a seven-minute speech full of emotion. “We will move forward; we will make [Argentina] the country we deserve,” he promised. “And we won’t do it by the grace and work of illuminated politicians, but through what people here are singing about, because ‘united people will never be defeated.’”

While Alfonsín spoke to the people, Bugge took what he believes is one of the most important pictures in his career. “It was the first picture I took of the encounter between a constitutionally elected president and the people.”

Raúl Alfonsín speaks on December 10, 1983. Credit: Víctor Bugge

Different chants could be heard around the square. Some were more favorable to Alfonsín than others. But there was one that everyone sang: “Look how crazy, look how emotional, the dictatorship is over, fucking goddammit.”

“Even those who hadn’t voted for Alfonsín got emotional over his speech. We couldn’t believe the milicos were gone,” Villarruel says.

During the afternoon, people enjoyed music festivals in parks organized by the newly appointed government. Families had picnics at the public squares. People sang, danced, and cried. They kept celebrating in the streets until late at night. They occupied public spaces they weren’t allowed to before.

“We were just kids,” Villarruel says. “We felt everything was possible.”


All Right Reserved.  Buenos Aires Herald