President of Argentina, Juan D. Perón, giving a speech on LRA Radio Nacional. Source: Archivo General de la Nación Argentina - Inventario 123768.
Cheers were heard, tears were wept, and celebratory music blared from loudspeakers in the Plaza de Mayo as the Argentine Senate voted to legalise abortion up to 14 weeks. Since then, the Fernández administration has presided over a myriad of progressive reforms, including a one-off tax on the wealthiest dubbed a ‘millionaires’ tax’ and being the first Latin American country to recognise a third gender.
So how did this bastion of progressivism take its ideology’s namesake from a man who once called Mussolini: “the greatest man” of the last century? To answer this, we must take a look back at the life of President Juan Perón.
Perón began life as the son of one of the many gauchos1 that inhabited the rural landscape of 19th century Argentina. Born in Buenos Aires, the Perón family moved to distant Patagonia. From here, young Juan opted to enlist in the military at the Colegio Militar de la Nación2, the institution that would nurture his political star.
Perón’s position would now go from strength to strength. He found himself in important diplomatic roles in both Chile and Italy. Incidentally, his time in Italy, throughout 1939, was where he first became confronted with the European fascism of Mussolini, which he would subsequently incorporate into his own ideology of Peronism.
After a coup, that brought down the fraudulently elected president Ramón Castillo, in which Juan Perón was intimately involved, the young Colonel rose to the newly created post of Secretary of Labour. In this post, he would begin earning the favour of the otherwise forgotten working class through his cooperation with the agglomerated trade union, the Confederación General del Trabajo3, as well as ambitious social legislation that established the first social insurance system in Argentina.
His courting of groups outside the traditional ruling elite of Buenos Aires drew ire in many quarters. By 1945, his opponents within the military had him put under house arrest. Through the mobilisation of the labouring classes, his military rivals were forced to release him after a general strike swept the capital. The day has gone down in Peronist folklore as Loyalty day. It confirmed the coming of a new political maelstrom across the nation.
Perón ruled for two consecutive terms after he won the democratically held elections in 1946 by a landslide. From 1946-55, the country changed dramatically. In four years, wages rose by 35%, and Argentina became the most unionised nation in Latin America. 70% of the working population was now covered by social security. Many Argentines saw President Perón as the first leader who wanted to help them and dignify labour. Alongside this came the even grander influence of The First Lady, affectionately termed Evita by her mass of adorers. Her day job at the Eva Perón foundation saw 500,000 sewing machines, 400,000 pairs of shoes and 200,000 cooking pots donated annually, among other philanthropic deeds.
Perón’s biographer, Professor Joseph Page, even refers to her as the soul of Peronism as she gave voice to the anger felt by the masses with her vociferous oratory. While Juan played the peacemaker and the consensus builder in his speeches, people felt a strong link with the woman whose portrait continues to feature at Peronist rallies today. Born out of wedlock, and having lived in abject poverty, she was viewed as one of the people herself.
Juan Perón’s star, however, eventually faded. Anger boiled over at his repressive regime, and by 1955 another military coup forced him into exile. Even his brief return to the presidency in 1973 achieved little, as the political violence ravaging the country could no longer be solved by the ageing statesman.
Fascist militias like the Argentine Anti-communist Alliance (or AAA) fought anarchists like the Montoneros openly. Judges and prosecutors were killed at an alarming rate, while imprisoned radicals died under mysterious circumstances. As Argentina collapsed, the new military junta reared its ugly head. The repressive government left 30,000 Desaparecidos4in its wake, many of whom were innocent.
This period of Argentina’s history finally ended after a fresh disaster in the Falklands. The force of Peronism that had been so heavily repressed in the previous decades showed its durability as President Carlos Menem became the first Peronist president since the return to democracy in 1989.
Taking a leaf out of the Conductor’s book, a term used affectionately for Perón, Menem brought good looks and a certain charm to the role. Even growing sideburns in the footsteps of the continent's revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar. However, his policies reflected those of the Washington consensus in the 1990s as the Cold War wrapped up. Utilities were privatised, and high levels of foreign investment in the country went against all of Perón’s policies.
Menem’s approach with the West may have seemed anathema to General Perón’s tenure, but according to Paulo Alonso, a History professor at George Washington University, it was actually in line with Perón’s attitude to politics. Alonso draws attention to Perón’s pragmatic approach to politics where: “he changed his mind and policies several times” as an indication that Menem still fell within the remit of Peronism.
By 2001, the pendulum swung once again. While the rest of the world was reeling from events in New York, Argentina had just defaulted on its loans. 55% of the country entered poverty, and unemployment skyrocketed as it plummeted into the third world.
In the wake of this, Peronism adapted once more. The Kirchner’s brought their own brand of populism to the movement. After Nestor’s tenure expired in 2007, it was the turn of his wife, Cristina. A fiery lady in a political scene dominated by men, she again showed the flexibility of Peronism as she sided with pariah states like Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela in a seeming lurch to the left.
As with many of her forebears, scandal does not lurk far from the Vice President. The self-styled, modern day Evita, like her predecessor President Menem, has been accused of obstructing the investigation into the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association bombing (known as the AMIA bombing).
Her populist economic policy has even brought her to loggerheads with her boss, President Alberto Fernández - who was elected in 2019. Alberto had earlier called Cristina’s brand of Peronism: “patético5” before his election.
No matter the disagreements, the movement continues to prove hard to beat, according to political scientist Maria Esperanza Casullo. Polling consistently at 32-40% of the electorate, it has forced even the opposition under Macri to pick a Peronist on his ticket.
Peronism today appeals to many different elements in society. Casullo explains how the current leadership and those of the past: “integrate with a variety of social movements”, including trade unions, business leaders, and student activists. What becomes clear is that the terminology for politics that defines left and right do not apply here. General Perón’s call for a: “comunidad organizada6” brought together different factions in the interests of national unity. This very tenet has allowed a broad appeal to emerge. Indeed, the vagueness of Peronism’s policies has allowed it to be shaped around the personality of whoever is in power. It should therefore be considered less of an ideology and more of a political movement. Asked about his movement’s success in 1972, Perón remarked that while equal parts of his country were radical, conservative and socialists. In the end: “todos somos Peronistas7”.
Even so, given all the scandals from the AMIA bombing to the alleged killing of Menem’s son, how can a viable opposition not consistently defeat it? Mauricio Macri’s election in 2015 was said to have heralded a ‘post-Perón’ era. Nonetheless, the Argentine people opted for a return to the populism of his predecessor after only four years. Macri ultimately failed to live up to his promises of getting Argentina out of its economic quagmire. At the end of his term, Argentina had a staggering inflation rate of 53.8%. Yet, the country has again chosen the high-cost programmes of the “Frente de Todos” as Argentina teeters on the brink of economic default.
Maybe Peronism is best defined today, not as a case of good versus bad but a case of the best of the worst.
2 National Military College.
3 General Confederation of Labour. Also abbreviated as the CGT.
4 Disappeared. An ominous name for the many people who vanished out of thin air for opposing the government. Most have never been found and are presumed dead.
6 Organised community.
7 We are all Peronists.
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