April 2, 2009 / 8:47 PM / 10 years ago

Argentines mourn democracy hero Alfonsin

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Argentines lined the streets on Thursday to watch the funeral procession of former President Raul Alfonsin in a public display of gratitude for a leader who stood up to the military dictators of the 1970s.

Argentine ex-president Raul Alfonsin acknowledges the crowd in Buenos Aires in this picture taken May 18, 1989. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

Alfonsin, who led country from 1983 to 1989, the period right after the bloody “Dirty War” waged by the military, died on Tuesday at 82 of lung cancer. He was considered the father of Argentina’s current period of democracy.

More than 40,000 people waited for hours on Wednesday to file past Alfonsin’s open casket in Congress.

Thousands more attended an outdoor funeral mass on Thursday before his coffin was carried in an open vehicle to the historic Recoleta cemetery, where many important Argentines are buried, including iconic first lady Eva Peron.

Many of the mourners said they remembered Alfonsin as a clean politician who put his country first, even though his economic policies were a dismal failure and he had to leave office early amid hyper-inflation and high levels of poverty.

“I’ve been waiting four hours (for the funeral procession). This man is an example for all of us and demands our commitment,” said a woman mourner to Telefe television.

As president, Alfonsin lead a transition to democracy after the 1976-1983 dictatorship when military leaders killed thousands of dissidents and dragged the country into a disastrous war with Britain over the Falkland Islands.

During the dictatorship he had risked his life filing writs demanding officials reveal the whereabouts of missing leftists held in secret political prisons.

Political analysts and commentators said the intense reaction to Alfonsin’s death showed a disappointment in the country’s more recent leaders, such as Carlos Menem, two-term president in the 1990s, who is on trial for corruption.

“The key is ... the comparison between him and his principles with everything that followed in the leadership of the country,” wrote analyst and commentator Joaquin Morales Sola in La Nacion newspaper.

Alfonsin, a lawyer and center-leftist from the Radical Civic Union party, was the first democratically elected leader in decades who did not come from the Peronist party, and when he left office Argentina saw a rare peaceful transition between democratically elected leaders from different parties.

Argentines often criticize themselves as cynics who would rather complain about corruption than work for change, but they showed a wide idealistic streak in the mourning for Alfonsin.

“Alfonsin’s death lit a spark we had inside, I hope that spark continues to burn,” one mourner said on television.

Additional reporting by Nicolas Misculin, editing by Anthony Boadle

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