Perón, Juan: 1895-1974: Former Argentine President
Juan Perón: 1895-1974: Former Argentine president
Juan Domingo Perón was indisputably the most influential politician modern Argentina has known. Though he served as president of the beleaguered Latin American country for less than a decade—with a brief reelection a year before his death—his influence has colored Argentine politics for more than half a century. His power was rivaled only by that of the military, which for most of his tenure he controlled. His social programs reformed the country, bringing newfound wealth to the country's poor working classes—the descamisados (shirtless ones). However, he was also an iron-willed ruler more akin to a dictator than an elected president. According to Latin American historian Ernest W. Sweeney writing in America, "Juan Peron was unquestionably highly intelligent, politically astute and full of noble sentiments, charm and good intentions. At the same time, he was deceitful, opportunistic, amoral, compulsively ambitious and Machiavellian to the core." Still his legacy, and that of his widely adored wife, Evita, continues to inspire both legend and politics in Argentina.
Juan Domingo Perón was born on October 8, 1895, in the small town of Lobos sixty miles south of the capital city of Buenos Aires. His father, Mario Tomás Perón, was of Italian descent and his mother, Juana Sosa Toledo, was thought to be of American Indian descent. Because no birth records exist, rumors surfaced that Perón's parents were not married. In a country as concerned with paternity and social status as Argentina, this would have been an unfortunate fact in the life of the nation's president. However, no evidence exists to prove or disprove his legitimacy.
In 1900 Perón and his older brother, Mario, moved with their family to Patagonia, a barren and cold region of Southern Argentina. There his father became a land owner and his family built a ranch. Soon after moving to Patagonia, Perón's father abandoned the family and Juana remarried a ranch hand. In 1904 Perón and his brother were sent to Buenos Aires for schooling. In Perón: A Biography, Joseph Page quoted Perón as saying of this move: "At ten, my way of thinking was not as a child, but almost as a man. In Buenos Aires I managed alone, and the skirts of my mother or grandmother did not attract me as they did other kids my age."
Began Military Training
Though he had toyed with the idea of pursuing medicine, he decided at fifteen to join the military and enrolled in the Argentine Military College in 1911. Academically he was average, but Perón soon proved himself in sports, particularly fencing and for a while was the army's fencing champion. Upon graduation from the Academy in 1913 Perón was appointed second lieutenant in the army's infantry division. According to Robert J. Alexander in his book Juan Domingo Perón: A History, "it was in this early part of his military career that [Perón] first took an interest in social problems. He claimed that he had been impressed frequently by the poor state of many of the conscripts who came into the army each year. He said that he talked with many of them to find out about the conditions under which they had been brought up."
At a Glance . . .
Born on October 8, 1895, in Lobos, Buenos Aires, Argentina; son of Mario Tomás Perón and Juana Sosa Toledo; died on July 1, 1974, in Buenos Aires; married Aurelia Tizon, 1928, (died 1938); married Eva María Ibarguren Duarte, 1944, (died 1951); married Isabel. Education: Argentine Military College, 1911-13; Superior College of War, 1926-29. Politics: Perónist.
Career: Ascended military ranks from second lieutenant to colonel, 1913-43; Vice-President of Argentina, Labor Secretary, and Minister of War, 1943-45; President of Argentina, 1945-54, 1973-74.
Memberships: Founded Perónist political party, 1945.
From 1926 until 1929 he continued his military training at the Superior College of War and by 1928 had become a Captain. During this time he met a young schoolteacher named Aurelia Tizon. They were married in 1928 and, though he rarely spoke of their liaison in his later years, by all accounts the marriage was a happy union until her death in 1938 of cancer. In 1930 Perón had his first taste of political machinations when the military rose in revolt against then-president Hipolito Irigoyen. Perón is said to have been one of the captains involved in seizing the presidential palace, Casa Rosada. In later years he downplayed his role as Irigoyen was revered by the labor groups that would eventually form the bulk of Perón's constituency.
In 1931 Perón was promoted to Major and in subsequent years held a teaching position at the College of War, published several books on military history, and spent a year in Chile as a military attaché. Though he was respected as a soldier, dutifully ascending the ranks, his career was not outstanding and there was nothing about him that foreshadowed the leader he was to become. In 1936 he made lieutenant colonel and soon after the death of Tizon was sent to Italy to observe alpine military method. At this time Adolf Hitler's Nazi party was rapidly ascending to power and Perón became convinced that the Nazis would win the ensuing World War. Perón was also impressed by fascism as practiced by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. According to Alexander, Perón's Italian foray "gave him a chance to study in some detail and at first hand the way in which the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini had reorganized, or tried to reorganize, Italian society." Perón's later fascist leanings were attributed to this experience.
When Perón returned to Argentina in 1941 he was assigned to a mountaineering outfit. The following year he became a full colonel. At this time the military regime was beginning to schism. Political corruption was rampant, the then-president Ramon Castillo was considered to have achieved his post fraudulently, and World War II had caused a rift among those who felt Argentina should support the German powers and those who wished to remain neutral. In this atmosphere Perón formed the Group of United Officers or GOU, a secret organization whose main goal was to prevent the upcoming presidential election of Castillo's handpicked successor. On June 4, 1943, GOU executed a military coup that ousted Castillo and his cronies and installed General Pedro Pablo Ramirez as president.
Courted Argentine Workers
Perón emerged from the coup, first as the Labor Secretary, then Minister of War, and Vice President. He held these roles consecutively. At this time he actively—and very successfully—began to build a constituency among the working classes through his support of labor unions. However, there was still no indication of the powerful leader Perón was to become. According to Alexander, at the time "Perón appeared to be an early middle-aged army officer of no great distinction. He appeared to be brighter than some, but perhaps not as bright as others. He was completely untried in the civilian arena, and there did not seem to be any reason to believe that he would be especially successful in it."
The latter half of the 1940s would profoundly change the course of Perón's life and subsequently that of Argentina. In 1944 Perón met Eva María Ibarguren Duarte—a stunning actress and the woman who would become Argentina's beloved Evita. They soon began a much-discussed affair. Meanwhile Perón was becoming very powerful. He already held important offices in the new government and his support of the trade unions—including the establishment of health insurance, retirement benefits, and paid vacations for workers—brought him widespread popularity among the laboring classes. The descamisados had never had it so good. However, as his acclaim grew among the workers, it began to frighten the military government.
On October 9, 1945, another coup took place—this time against Perón. He was forced to resign from the government and then sent to a secluded prison isle. Meanwhile, October 12th, which had been established as a paid holiday by Perón during his tenure as Secretary of Labor, was quickly declared by factory owners to no longer be a valid holiday. The workers, in the face of this palpable threat to the advances they had gained under Perón, were outraged. The union leaders called for a march on Buenos Aires. On October 17th, hundreds of thousands of workers descended on the capital calling for the release of Perón. He was released that night and later stood on the balcony of the Casa Rosada and declared to the adoring crowds, "I have returned!" Four days later he wed Eva Duarte. The next month his campaign for presidency was announced and in February of 1946, Perón won the election with 54 percent of the vote. More importantly, his follow-ers—members of the newly christened Perónist political party—took more than two-thirds of the congressional votes, ensuring Perón unchallenged political power.
"When Juan Perón became President of Argentina on June 4, 1946," wrote Alexander, "he had full opportunity to make his regime either democratic or dictatorial." The fact that he chose the latter would not only carve generation-long divisions in Argentine society, but also color his reign throughout history, obscuring the great things he did for his country while highlighting the bad. Upon his ascension to the presidency Perón implemented a five-year economic plan designed to eliminate national debt, revitalize the Argentine economy, and increase industrialization. Continuing to support the working classes on whom his rule depended, Perón instituted a number of actions, including: universal social security; free education; low-income housing; free medical care; ample pregnancy leave with pay; and the creation of resorts throughout the country complete with swimming pools, movie theaters, and cabins, available to all workers for a nominal fee. Perón further cemented public support with a massive propaganda campaign built around himself and the beautiful Evita. Everything from school books to postage stamps, billboards to building placards, heralded some beneficial act bestowed by the Perón's upon their people. After women were granted the vote, Evita organized the Women's Perónist Party which encouraged total faith in Perón.
Ascension of Saint Evita
Evita began to take on a cult status through the Eva Perón Foundation. Its stated mission was to help the needy and with over $200 million in assets and a staff of 14,000 the foundation made a major impact on the psyche of the Argentine public. It built hospitals, schools, old age homes, and low cost housing. At Christmas it sent out millions of gift packages for the poor. According to an article in History Today, "these gifts reached directly to the heart of the people and made an indelible impression. Forty years later, people were still speaking with deep feeling of the gifts they or their families had received from the Foundation." Evita was also always willing to publicly greet her subjects, embracing even the dirtiest of them. The sight of this beautiful blonde leader hugging a humble peasant served to make the people worship her. She was compared to a living saint and after her death there was an unsuccessful push for her canonization.
However, as the presidential couple was courting public approval, Perón was also ensuring absolute power through his increasingly dictatorial behavior. Within weeks of his election the Supreme Court was dismantled. Press crackdowns were next and within a year of Peron's election no anti-government media was in operation. Evita participated as well, using her influence to buy the shut down newspapers and spawn her own Perónist media empire. Using secret police forces, he slowly corrupted the free election process, rigging some elections in favor of his party members and outright arresting non-Perónist candidates in other elections. Though he encouraged the trade and labor unions, he also made sure they were under the govern-ment's wing.
For nearly a decade Perón ruled Argentina, both helping and hurting the country, becoming revered and reviled. But by the late 1940s opposition to his government was hard to ignore. The economy had started to sour and the military was increasingly at odds with Perón's rule. In 1949, desperate to maintain control, Perón nullified the country's 1853 Constitution and rewrote his own, which, among other things allowed him to run for a second six-year term in office. In 1951 he easily won reelection. However disaster was about to fall. His beloved wife Evita—considered to be the compassion behind the Perónist movement—suddenly died. The country was plunged into mourning. Perón had lost not only a wife, but his most powerful political ally. Popular support for his government began to wane. Then in 1954, perhaps threatened by the church's power, Perón began an ill-advised attack against the Catholic church. Catholicism was deeply rooted in Argentina and the public did not approve. Perón legalized abortion and prostitution, and placed the Catholic school system under control of the government. The Vatican responded by excommunicating Perón and his cabinet. This opened the way for Perón's enemies to stage a coup, and on September 19, 1955 Perón found himself on a Paraguayan boat headed for exile in Spain. He would remain there until 1973.
Even from exile Perón continued to wield power in Argentina and the Perónist party remained active in Argentine politics. In 1971 the military government decided to allow free elections to be held once again and in 1973 a Perónist candidate became president and the party once more assumed control of the congress. Perón was immediately invited home, at which point the newly-elected president resigned and a special election was held allowing Perón to take on a third term as President of Argentina. It was a shallow victory. He was nearly eighty and suffering from ill health. Adding to the ignominy of the election, he chose his third wife, Isabel, an ex-dancer with a grade-school education, to be his vice-president. The following year, on July 1, 1974 Perón died of a heart attack. His wife feebly ruled for a little over a year before being ousted by the military. Yet the Perón legacy did not die. On the contrary, the party continues to be active in Argentina and still stirs political passions. In 1987 grave robbers cut off the hands of Perón's corpse, demanding ransom from loyal Perónists. In 1989 a Perónist candidate was elected president and subsequently held two terms in office. Finally, in the political and economical chaos that marked Argentina's entry into the 21st Century, the Perónists are deeply entrenched. As the country struggles to ascend from this quagmire, Perón's namesake party will be there.
Alexander, Robert J., Juan Domingo Perón: A History, 1979.
Page, Joseph A., Peron, a Biography, 1983.
America, February 11, 2002.
History Today, March 2000.
Time, July 20, 1987.
Time International, November 9, 1998.
U.S. News & World Report, November 14, 1988.
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