Perón, Juan Domingo (1895–1974)

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Perón, Juan Domingo (1895–1974)

Juan Perón, president of Argentina (1946–1955, 1973–1974), was born in Lobos, Buenos Aires provincia, on October 8, 1895. He entered the Argentine political stage in June 1943, when, as an infantry colonel, he masterminded a successful military coup. Elected by popular vote in 1946, Perón held the Argentine presidency until 1955, when a military coup forced him to leave the country. After living in exile for more than seventeen years, Perón returned to Argentina in 1973, when voters elected him to a third presidential term that was cut short by his death on July 1, 1974. In office Perón espoused a diverse populist ideology that supported the working class and attacked the elite but also undercut civil liberties.

Perón's political base was primarily in the urban lower and working classes, known as the "shirtless ones" (descamisados). Perón's populist rhetoric resonated especially well with organized workers. Furthermore, Perón promoted pro-labor policies, such as higher wages and work-rule enforcement. Labor unions had been important political actors since the early twentieth century, but Perón's actions spurred rapid growth in membership. At the same time, Perón eliminated independent union leadership. Under Perón, the General Labor Confederation (Confederación General de Trabajadores; CGT), which was founded in 1930, became the only official union and grew to be 2 million strong. Eventually the GCT became the backbone of the Peronist Party, later known as the Justicialist Party. Conflicts between the Justicialist Party, opposition parties, and the military created political and economic instability in the second half of the twentieth century. More than three decades after Perón's death, his party continues to be a major political factor. The CGT and the party therefore constitute a major part of Perón's legacy to his nation.

Perón's political genius lay in the fact that he was the first important Argentine leader to perceive labor's potential power and to make it his personal political vehicle. He succeeded so thoroughly in capturing the labor movement that he used its mass voting strength to win three presidential elections. Even while he was living in exile, labor's continuing loyalty to him allowed Perón to undermine every Argentine administration and force his opponents to agree to his return to power.

EARLY LIFE AND RISE TO POWER

Despite his appeal to the lower classes, Perón himself came from a bourgeois background. His paternal grandfather had been a prominent Buenos Aires physician, professor, and public servant. His father, Mario, however, failed to maintain the family's fortune and social position and was forced to accept a position as the manager of a Patagonian sheep ranch. Perón and his older brother, Mario, were born out of wedlock to a young Indian girl, Juana Sosa Toledo, barely past puberty. Although their parents later married, this branch of the family was socially ostracized.

The young Perón's quick intelligence won the sympathy of his widowed grandmother, whose social connections brought him acceptance into an elite polytechnical boarding school and then into the national military academy. He graduated as an infantry second lieutenant in December 1913, at the age of eighteen. Until 1930 he rose slowly through the ranks. Neither as a cadet nor as a young officer did Perón display any exceptional ability. Sports were his one outstanding area, especially boxing and fencing. An appointment as instructor at a noncommissioned officers' training school finally won Perón some recognition. Growing up on a sheep ranch had made him more at home with the lower classes and given him more of a popular touch than was the case with most army officers. That and his ability at sports made him extremely popular with the sergeants. Glowing reports about his success finally earned him, in 1926, a crucial appointment to the Superior War School. He applied himself to his studies and graduated near the top of his class. His reward was an appointment to General Staff Headquarters in 1929.

In 1930, soon after Perón arrived at his new post, he became deeply involved in a plot led by General José F. Uriburu to overthrow the civilian government headed by President Hipólito Irigoyen, but at the last minute he became convinced it would fail and switched his allegiance to a more broadly based movement led by General José Agustín P. Justo. Uriburu struck first, however, and succeeded. Perón was punished with a stint on the Bolivian frontier, but when Justo's faction got the upper hand in 1931 and began edging out Uriburu, Perón was made an instructor at the Superior War School in Buenos Aires. There he developed into a military intellectual, advocating in a number of books, including Apuntes de historia militar (1932) and Las operaciones en 1870 (2 vols., 1935), the need for national military power, a state-regulated economy, and strong leadership.

From 1936 to 1938 Perón served as military attaché in Chile, where he is reputed to have acted as a spy. Shortly after his return to the Superior War School in 1938, his superiors posted him as military attaché to Rome. For the next two years Perón studied Mussolini's Fascist experiment closely and found that it conformed to his own ideas of good government. He also visited Nazi Germany and described it afterward in glowing terms. Upon his return to Argentina, in January 1941, he involved himself in right-wing nationalist plots to prevent the pro-British conservative government from bringing Argentina into World War II on the Allies' side. He formed the United Officers Group (Grupo de Oficiales Unidos; GOU), composed mostly of colonels and majors, which pulled off the successful coup of June 4, 1943, and helped him become the real power within the government.

Working through figurehead presidents, first General Pedro Ramírez and then General Edelmiro Farrell, Perón concentrated power in his own hands. As undersecretary of war he put his own followers into key army positions. As secretary of labor and social welfare he built up the labor union movement, winning higher pay and better benefits for workers. While working in this position, he met Eva Duarte in 1944 and they married a year later. (His first wife, Aurelia Tizón, whom he had married in 1929, died of cancer in 1938.) Duarte, generally called "Evita" by Argentines, worked in film and radio in the 1930s and 1940s. Through her career and her charitable work, Evita, who had grown up in a poor neighborhood of Junín, became extremely popular with the working class and quickly turned into an important political asset for Perón. During this time Perón moved up to become vice president of the republic. In early October 1945, however, envious army rivals joined together to strip him of his office and place him under arrest. But just as Perón's career seemed at an end, his supporters in the labor movement held a huge rally in downtown Buenos Aires, on October 17, that forced the military men to reverse themselves. A triumphant Perón appeared that evening on the balcony of the Presidential Palace to proclaim himself a candidate for the presidency. Free elections held in February 1946 resulted in a smashing victory for him and his supporters. Peronists controlled both houses of Congress, all provincial governorships, and all the provincial legislatures save one.

THE PRESIDENCY, 1946–1955

Though he had been democratically elected, Perón's rule was increasingly authoritarian. The Supreme Court was purged, as were the lower courts. Congressional opponents faced loss of immunity or arrest if they criticized the government or its policies too vigorously. All radio stations were government owned, and opposition newspapers were closed down. It was necessary to belong to the Peronist Party to get a government job or contract. Opposition parties often saw their rallies broken up by storm troopers from the Peronist "National Liberating Alliance." Peron also supported right-wing dictatorships, especially Francisco Franco's regime in Spain. During the 1940s Perón formed a strong relationship with Franco by providing his regime crucial agricultural products when his government was under a UN diplomatic boycott. When Perón later went into exile, he lived in one of Franco's houses in Spain. In 1949 Perón rewrote the Constitution to permit his election to a second consecutive term. Two years later he won a second term in elections that were marred by widespread fraud and intimidation.

Perón's aim was a corporate state like Mussolini's, and to this end he sought to force every important social and economic group into a state-controlled organization. All workers had to join the CGT; all businessmen and farmers were in the CGE (General Economic Confederation); all professionals, schoolteachers, and intellectuals were forced into the CGP (General Confederation of Professionals); and all university students and professors had to belong to the CGU (General University Confederation).

Economic policy was aimed at self-sufficiency and the redistribution of wealth in labor's favor. Foreign capital was discouraged, and wages rose faster than productivity. An industrialization program was to be financed by a state monopoly over the export of agricultural products. All went well for the first two years, because Argentina emerged from World War II with large currency reserves, but from 1949 on, the economy rapidly deteriorated. Farmers refused to produce at the government's fixed prices, the currency reserves were squandered on buying obsolete foreign properties such as railroads, trade and budget deficits got out of hand, and inflation negated wage increases. The vast network of bureaucratic regulations and restrictions encouraged widespread corruption.

Growing discontent eventually reached even the military, the labor movement, and the Catholic Church, previously supporters of Perón. Revolts in September 1951 and June 1955 reflected unease among officers at attempts to "Peronize" the military, especially the sergeants. Although Perón initially supported labor, as the economic crisis in the 1950s progressed, he increasingly opposed union demands. Consequently even the working class began to question Perón's leadership. Further, rank-and-file workers, who had always had a strong attachment to Evita, were no longer inclined to support him after her death from cancer in 1952 at the age of thirty-three. The church, alarmed at the personality cult growing up around Perón and Evita, fell out of favor in 1954 when it tried to organize Christian Democratic trade unions independent of the CGT. Perón's escalating war with the Catholic hierarchy, climaxing in the burning of several historic churches in June 1955, hurt him further with the military and gave all of his opponents an issue around which to rally. In September 1955 he was ousted by a military coup.

EXILE AND RETURN TO THE PRESIDENCY

For the next seventeen years Perón was an exile, the guest of right-wing governments in Paraguay, Panama, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Spain. Refusing to admit defeat, he gradually built up a network of contacts, set up an underground operation in Argentina, regained control of the labor movement, and was able to influence the votes of more than a million Argentines. When terrorist movements appeared in the late 1960s, the most important of them, the Montoneros, placed itself under his orders. Prevented from ruling himself, Perón was able to frustrate every government that tried to succeed him, whether civilian or military. While Perón remained the official leader of the party, his coalition was ideologically diverse, reflecting Perón's mixture of both right-wing and left-wing politics. Groups from all over the political spectrum constructed their own idealized versions of Perón in accordance with their particular political philosophy. Consequently, fractious right-wing, left-wing, and moderate factions of Peronism developed during his exile and each recognized Perón as its leader despite drastically different goals. Nevertheless, the Justicialist Party held together and kept pressure on the state. Finally, in 1972, the military agreed to allow Perón to return from exile and to let his party field candidates in elections the following year. In May 1973 the Justicialist candidate, Héctor Campora, became president, but he soon stepped aside for Perón. New elections in September made Perón president for the third time. Initially Perón had widespread support and popularity, but he died ten months later in 1974, just as mounting social and economic problems deeply divided Argentine society.

During his brief third presidency Perón had to deal with the forces of anarchy he had helped to unleash. He reimposed the same corporate state scheme as before, but failed to reverse the runaway inflation and falling production that had already made a shambles of the economy. The young terrorists who helped him to power were disenchanted by his failure to embrace radical socialism, and resumed their violence. Indeed, Perón firmly sided with the right wing of his movement. Perón, for instance, officially expelled the Montoneros in 1974 from the Justicialist Party. Argentines who had waited so long for their leader's return as a panacea realized that the idealistic image of Perón that had developed during his exile did not meet the reality. Following his death, his third wife, Isabel Martínez de Perón (whom he married in 1961), took over as president, but she also could not contain the growing discontent in Argentina. With violent activity on the rise, the military in 1976 stepped in and took over. Military rule lasted until 1983, yet Peron's party returned to power in 1989 and controlled the presidency until 1999. Despite internal policy disagreements, the Justicialist Party regained the office in 2003 under the leadership of Néstor Kirchner. In 2007, Christina Fernández De Kirchner, the wife of Néstor, won the presidency representing the Peronists, but also reached out to former members of the radical party as well. Consequently, the Peronist Party remains a powerful force in Argentine politics but also a diverse and divided coalition, reflecting Perón's complicated legacy.

See alsoArgentina: The Twentieth Century; Argentina, Organizations: General Labor Confederation (CGT); Argentina, Organizations: United Officers Group (GOU); Perón, María Estela Martínez de; Perón, María Eva Duarte de.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Robert J. Alexander, The Perón Era (1951).

George Blanksten, Perón's Argentina (1953).

Juan D. Perón, with Torcuato Luca De Tena, Luis Calvo, and Esteban Peicovich, Yo, Juan Domingo Perón: Relato autobiográfico (1976).

Joseph A. Page, Perón, a Biography (1983).

Guido DiTella, Argentina Under Perón, 1973–76 (1983).

Christian Buchrucker, Nacionalismo y peronismo (1987).

Robert Crassweller, Perón and the Enigmas of Argentina (1987).

Paul H. Lewis, The Crisis of Argentine Capitalism (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Altamirano, Carlos. Peronismo y cultura de izquierda. Buenos Aires: Temas Grupo Editorial, 2001.

Brennan, James P. Peronism and Argentina. Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1998.

DiTella, Torcuato S. Perón y los sindicatos: El inicio de una relación conflictiva. Buenos Aires: Ariel, 2003.

García Sebastiani, Marcela. Fascismo y antifascismo, peronismo y antiperonismo: Conflictos políticos e ideológicos en la Argentina (1930–1955). Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2006.

James, Daniel. Resistance and Integration: Peronism and the Argentine Working Class, 1946–1976. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

                                        Paul H. Lewis