Perón Elected President

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Perón Elected President

Argentina 1946


Juan Domingo Perón ranks as the most important figure in the political life of twentieth-century Argentina. First elected to the Argentine presidency in 1946 as an economic populist, Perón retained his popularity with the majority of workers by inaugurating massive social spending schemes, many of which were sponsored in the name of his wife, Eva Perón. His years in office also entailed widespread political repression as he stifled his opponents and kept a firm grip on his trade union supporters. Eva Perón's death, coupled with deteriorating economic conditions, contributed to Perón's ouster in 1955, when he fled to Spain. Even after Perón went into exile, Perónism lived on with massive government outlays on public projects, even as the economy failed to keep pace with Argentina's Latin American neighbors. Perónism's political legacy included a series of military coups that prevented democracy from taking hold in the country, including reinstallation of Perón as president in 1973-1974. Perón died in office and was succeeded by his third wife, Isabel Perón, who was subsequently overthrown in a military coup in March 1976.


  • 1926: Britain paralyzed by a general strike.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1936: The election of a leftist Popular Front government in Spain in February precipitates an uprising by rightists under the leadership of Francisco Franco. Over the next three years, war will rage between the Loyalists and Franco's Nationalists. The Spanish Civil War will prove to be a lightning rod for the world's tensions, with the Nazis and fascists supporting the Nationalists, and the Soviets the Loyalists.
  • 1941: Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December brings the United States into the war against the Axis. Combined with the attack on the Soviet Union, which makes Stalin an unlikely ally of the Western democracies, the events of 1941 will ultimately turn the tide of the war.
  • 1946: Winston Churchill warns of an "Iron Curtain" spreading across Eastern Europe.
  • 1946: Three months after the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in London in January, the allbut-defunct League of Nations is officially dissolved.
  • 1946: At the Nuremberg trials, twelve Nazi leaders are sentenced to death, and seven others to prison.
  • 1946: Building of the first true electronic computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC).
  • 1951: Six western European nations form the European Coal and Steel Community, forerunner of the European Economic Community and the later European Union.
  • 1956: Elvis Presley appears on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town, where he performs "Hound Dog" and "Love ]e Tender" before a mostly female audience. Nationwide, 54 million people watch the performance, setting a new record.
  • 1961: President Eisenhower steps down, warning of a "military-industrial complex" in his farewell speech, and 43year-old John F. Kennedy becomes the youngest elected president in U.S. history. Three months later, he launches an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.

Event and Its Context

Juan Domingo Perón was born on 8 October 1895 in Lobos, about 60 miles southwest of Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires. His father was a rancher who relocated the family several times. The younger of two sons, Perón left home to study in Buenos Aires when he was nine years old and entered the Army's Military College in 1911. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1913, Perón rose steadily through the ranks. Perón kept himself relatively aloof from the characteristically turbulent realm of Argentine politics, and his career was unremarkable through the late 1930s.

After the death of his first wife, Aurelia, from cancer in 1938, Perón departed on a two-year fact-finding mission to Europe. He spent most of his tour in Italy, where he was greatly impressed by the public rallies held by President Benito Mussolini. He also took note of the Fascist Party's co-optation of Italy's trade unions as a power base, a tactic he also witnessed in Nazi Germany. After his return to Argentina in late 1940, Perón was promoted to colonel and started to consolidate his own power base through a secret cabal of military officers known only by its initials, "GOU," which was probably an acronym for Grupo de Oficiales Unidos, or Group of United Officers.

After playing a minor role in a military coup in June 1943, Perón used his political and propaganda skills and emerged as one of the leaders of the new government. In October 1943 he became secretary of labor and welfare at the country's National Labor Department. He immediately began courting the Confederación General del Trabajo (General Labor Confederation, or CGT) for its support. Founded in 1930, the association gradually had been drawn into politics by its Socialist leadership but had been largely shut out of the political process. Although he had rarely espoused any concrete views on labor in the years prior to his appointment, Perón recognized the CGT's value in serving as his power base. In his capacity as secretary of labor and welfare, Perón authorized government-paid pensions to unions in return for their political support. He also intervened through the newly created system of labor courts on behalf of friendly unions. With the GOU and CGT solidly behind him, Perón attained the position of minister of war in February 1944. The position was one of the most important offices in Argentina, as the country remained neutral in World War II until the final months of the war, when it finally sided with the Allies. Just prior to leading the Ministry of War, Perón made another political alliance that proved decisive to the development of Perónism when he met Eva Duarte, who would become his second wife.

Evita and Perónism

Born illegitimate in 1919 in the Argentine interior town of Los Toldos, María Eva Ibarguren Duarte pursued a career as a film and radio actress in Buenos Aires starting at the age of 15. By 1943 Eva Duarte was a radio celebrity who headed the Association of Argentine Radio and had close ties to several government officials. After meeting Colonel Perón at a benefit concert for earthquake victims on 22 January 1944, the couple began sharing adjoining apartments in Buenos Aires. In September 1945 Perón was forced out of office and briefly jailed in an abortive military coup. In the month after the attempted coup, Perón rallied enough support from the military establishment and organized labor to make a triumphant return to power. His appearance at Casa Rosada, the president's official residence, on 17 October 1945 before a crowd of 200,000 supporters marked the beginning of Perón's domination of Argentine politics for the next 10 years.

Juan Perón and Eva Duarte married in a civil ceremony on 22 October 1945 and set off together on the campaign trail for the presidential elections set for May 1946. Eva Perón's appearances marked the first time that a candidate's wife had taken an active role in the political arena in the country. Using her performing skills as a passionate orator and striking public figure, Eva Perón became the country's biggest celebrity. Perón won the May 1946 presidential election with over 52 percent of the vote and a commanding victory in the electoral college.

Although she never took an official title, Eva Perón chaired the Department of Labor and Welfare in her husband's administration. Her work demonstrated a commitment to improving the lives of the poorest segments of Argentine society and symbolized the idealism of Perónism. Fueled in part by memories of her own mistreatment during her youth and employing a political shrewdness that capitalized on her husband's support by the country's working classes, Perón championed the cause of thedescamisados (literally, the "shirtless ones"). She established the María Eva Duarte de Perón Foundation in 1948, which subsequently spent an estimated three billion pesos on new houses, hospitals, clinics, and household items for the poor. The fact that the foundation's funds came from other government programs and in some cases, outright extortion of businesses, fueled charges that the Perónist government was corrupt. To critics of Perónism, the couple's actions seemed calculated merely to increase the power of the regime at the expense of any sustainable long-term reforms or democratization.

Eva Perón was gravely ill with uterine cancer by the time her husband was sworn in to a second term as president in June of 1952. Although her illness had been reported in general terms in the media, her death on 16 July 1952 plunged Argentina into a period of unprecedented national mourning. It also initiated the gradual erosion of support for the Perón government. Whereas the Peróns' projects had been feasible during the economic boom of the postwar years—when Argentina's export products found ready buyers in war-ravaged countries—as Europe recovered, the country increasingly fell victim to Perón's shortsighted economic policies. Wage gains of 37 percent for industrial workers between 1943 and 1948 made Argentina's products more expensive than those of its Latin American rivals, and government-built housing and vacation resorts sapped the national treasury. Political liberties also were repressed during Perón's years in office; although the CGT became one of the most powerful institutions in the country, with 2.3 million members in 1954, it largely served to stifle dissent within labor's ranks to serve the goals of Perónism. Not long into its second term, Perón's administration was finally overwhelmed by economic problems, and he was overthrown by a military coup in September 1955.

The Legacy of Perónism

Even after Perón went into exile, Perónism lived on. Massive government outlays on hydroelectric plants; a national airline and shipping fleet; and newly nationalized railroad lines, telephone companies, and power plants continued to drain the federal coffers. In the 1950s Venezuela surpassed Argentina in per capita income, and Brazil became the leading export nation in South America. Although there were periodic upswings in the Argentine economy, growth in annual trade averaged just 1 percent per year through the 1950s and 1960s, in contrast to a global growth rate of 7.8 percent. The political arena also bore the legacy of Perónism, with 12 separate governments taking power in Argentina in the period from 1955 to 1976.

Perón's party, the Partido Justicialista (PJ), returned to power in 1988 with the election of Carlos Saul Menem to the presidency. Menem's two terms in office, from 1989 to 1999, represented a rare period of political stability in the country, but his critics accused him of continuing the failed political and economic policies that had plagued Argentina for years. As governor of La Rioja province, Menem had doubled the number of employees on the public payroll, even though the action meant that the province had to circulate state bonds in place of currency after the government ran out of money for its payroll. During his terms as president, Menem presided over a foreign debt that climbed to $142 billion. As Menem left office, Argentina's gross domestic product growth rate plunged into negative territory and a period of intense political upheaval ensued, leading to renewed calls to break with the country's legacy of Perónism and undertake fundamental economic and political reforms.

Key Players

Menem, Carlos Saul (1930-): President of Argentina from1989 to 1999, Menem became the most important political figure in Argentina since Juan Perón. A member of Perón's Partido Justicialista since his university days, Menem served as governor of La Rioja province from 1973 to 1989 before assuming the presidency. Although his two terms in office marked a period of relative political stability in Argentina, Menem's political career has been dogged by scandal, and many have blamed him for the economic crisis that plagued his country after he left office.

Perón, Juan Domingo (1895-1974): Perón began his military career in 1915 and rose to the rank of colonel at the end of 1941. After taking part in a military coup in June 1943, Perón became minister of war, and he was later elected to the presidency in May 1946. He ruled until 1955, when he was overthrown in a military coup; he returned to power in 1973, holding the office until his death in 1974.

Perón, María Eva Ibarguren Duarte de ("Evita,"1919-1952): Evita Perón worked as a film and radio actress before marrying General Juan Domingo Perón in 1945. She served as an unofficial representative of Argentina's Department of Labor and Welfare after her marriage and served as the chair of the María Eva Duarte de Perón Foundation from 1948 until her death in 1952.



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—Timothy G. Borden