Former Argentine President Raul Alfonsin, who was given credit for restoring democracy to his country after years of coups, dictators and "dirty war," died of lung cancer Tuesday at his home in Buenos Aires. He was 82.
A human rights attorney before entering politics, Alfonsin took a courageous stand by criticizing the junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. In the so-called dirty war against dissidents, military officers ordered the torture and murder of thousands.
After the junta fell in the wake of Argentina's defeat in the Falklands War, Alfonsin won the 1983 presidential election with 52% of the vote. Standard bearer of the Radical Civic Union Party, he remained in office until 1989.
Alfonsin's cultured approach, oratorical skills and embrace of democratic values were a marked contrast from the thuggish behavior of the junta. Analysts say he restored some international respectability to a nation that had done much to earn its pariah status.
As president, he faced an almost impossible task of managing a huge foreign debt and rebuilding democratic institutions that lay in ruins after 50 years of successive coups and dictatorships. He also assumed the daunting task of satisfying the demands of dirty war victims and their families.
He won widespread acclaim for putting military officers on trial for alleged dirty war crimes. The high point came in November 1985, when a civil tribunal convicted five high-ranking military officers of repression, including former Presidents Jorge Rafael Videla and Roberto Viola.
Some human rights groups estimated the number of dead and missing junta victims at 11,000. Alfonsin's administration survived several coup attempts.
In addition to human rights, Alfonsin also was a strong advocate of Mercosur, the Latin American trade bloc, and backed a law legalizing divorce.
His presidency ended with the country mired in financial crisis and hyperinflation. The problems paved the way for the election of the Peronist Party's Carlos Menem in 1989. Alfonsin returned to public office only briefly as a senator from 2001 to 2002.
Alfonsin was born March 13, 1927, in Chascomus, south of Buenos Aires. He gained a public profile as co-founder of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights in 1975, just as reports of torture and disappearances were beginning to circulate. He also defended suspected leftist guerrillas.
He was one of the few Argentine leaders to criticize the military's occupation of the Falklands -- the disputed Atlantic archipelago known in Argentina as the Malvinas. The ensuing war and defeat by British forces in 1982 brought down the junta.
In October, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez paid homage on the 25th anniversary of Alfonsin's electoral victory, with the unveiling of his bust in the presidential palace, praising him for his key role in Argentina's democracy. In his remarks, Alfonsin urged reconciliation, saying that "politics is not only conflict."
Alfonsin is survived by six children.
D'Alessandro is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick McDonnell in Los Angeles contributed to this report.