Letters to the President: participation beyond the public sphere in Argentina, 1989–1999

03 Oct 2017

President Carlos Menem received thousands of letters from citizens during his two consecutive administrations (1989–1999). Most often Peronist and working class, they wrote to him to seek financial or material aid, praise, criticize, advise, communicate political opinions and invite correspondence. They injected their letters with intimate details of everyday life, their understandings of democracy, and their sense of the successes and failures of the state at meeting those criteria and forging a democratic identity for the Republic. This article provides contextualized readings of a sample of those letters in an effort to elucidate why their writers looked beyond the public sphere to express themselves, and chose the letter to the president as method. It argues that discursive participation in the public sphere remained elite-dominated, and mass mobilization did not provide the individualized results or political bonds that the letter writers sought. Furthermore, as an activity that Juan Perón had actively encouraged, writing to the president appeared an object lesson in good Peronist citizenship. The “mythical basis of the legitimacy” of Perón and his version of Justicialism had been his “direct contact with the people” (Plotkin). The letters reveal how citizens in the 1990s sought to reconstitute this imagined proximity with a Peronist president in a newly democratic context.