- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA (AP) - Thousands of people lined up for hours on Wednesday to pay final honors to former President Raul Alfonsin, who guided Argentina’s return to democracy following a military dictatorship that left thousands missing.

Alfonsin, president from 1983-1989, died Tuesday night of lung cancer. He was 82.

Dozens of political figures from numerous parties joined crowds of ordinary citizens to file past the open casket of Alfonsin at a ceremony in the Congress building. Flags throughout Buenos Aires were flown at half mast.

Many older visitors told journalists they voted for Alfonsin to usher in an era of democracy and bring to an end more than seven years of a repressive military regime that left at least 13,000 killed or disappeared.

Younger visitors, who have only lived under democratic rule in a country that was wracked by six coups in the 20th century, said they came to honor Argentina’s “father of democracy.”

Alfonsin’s presidency was marked by two milestones: his daring decision to try leaders of the dictatorship for human rights violations, and an economic collapse that prompted him hand power to his successor, Carlos Menem, six month early. Annual inflation had surpassed 3,000 percent.

The trials, unprecedented in Latin America, ended in December 1985 with the conviction and imprisonment of five former military rulers, including two ex-presidents. Four others were acquitted.

Jose Ignacio Lopez, spokesman for Alfonsin during his presidency, told journalists that Alfonsin died “lucid, serene and in peace, but distressed by the state of the country.”

“He was a man of peace. He died working to recover a sense of building politics based on dialogue, not on confrontation,” said Lopez.

A conflict between the government of President Cristina Fernandez and thousands of farmers over soy export taxes has dragged on for a year and a string of recent laws proposed by Fernandez has heightened tensions with opposition leaders ahead of June congressional elections.

Fernandez has called Alfonsin “a symbol of democracy.”

Alfonsin said before he died, however, there is much to be done.

“Our democracy is limp and incomplete,” he said as the nation marked its 25th anniversary of civilian rule.

Ricardo Lagos, president of Chile from 2000-2006 and a key figure in that South American country’s return to democracy in the 1990s, told Chile’s La Tercera newspaper that “Latin America is in mourning today.”

“A great democrat has died,” Lagos said. “Alfonsin embodied dialogue and peace on our continent. The recovery of democracy in a better part of the Southern Cone began with him,” he added.

Jose Sarney, president of Brazil from 1985-1990, called Alfonsin “a patriot who fought for human rights and for a democratic state in his country and also on our continent.”

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva referred to Alfonsin as “a great builder of democracy.”

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Associated Press writer Mayra Pertossi contributed to this report.

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