- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA (AP) - Mourners lined up for hours to pay homage to former President Raul Alfonsin and praise poured in from around South America on Wednesday for the man who helped guide the continent back to democracy after military dictatorships killed thousands.

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

Politicians joined the crowd of ordinary citizens filing past Alfonsin’s open casket in the Congress building, and flags flew at half-staff nationwide.

Older Argentines recalled how they voted for Alfonsin to usher in an era of democracy after more than seven years of a repressive military regime that left at least 13,000 killed or disappeared. Younger visitors, who have experienced only democratic rule in a country wracked by six coups in the 20th century, said they came to honor Argentina’s “father of democracy.”

Alfonsin’s legacy includes elements of heartbreak as well as pride. His daring decision to put the dictatorship’s leaders on trial for human rights violations was lauded worldwide. But his failure to prevent economic collapse forced him to hand power to his successor, Carlos Menem, six months early, at a time when annual inflation soared above 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. Alfonsin also established a National Commission on the Disappearance of People which produced “Nunca Mas,” or “Never Again,” a definitive report on the military’s ruthless campaign against political opponents.

But after three military uprisings between 1987 and 1988, Alfonsin reluctantly approved an amnesty that shielded lower ranking officers until it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2005. Only now are many of these alleged torturers and kidnappers being prosecuted.

“He was a man of peace. He died working to recover a sense of building politics based on dialogue, not on confrontation,” said Jose Ignacio Lopez, spokesman for Alfonsin during his presidency.

President Cristina Fernandez called Alfonsin “a symbol of democracy.”

But Alfonsin said before he died that much remains 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 called him “a great builder of democracy.”

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Associated Press writer Mayra Pertossi contributed to this report.

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