Perón, Isabel (1931—)

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Perón, Isabel (1931—)

President of Argentina (1974–76) and head of Argentina's largest political party, the Peronist Party (1974–85), who was the first woman chief executive of a Latin American nation. Name variations: María Estela Martínez de Perón; Isabelita. Pronunciation: Pay-rone. Born María Estela Martínez Cartas on February 4, 1931, in the province of La Rioja, Argentina; third of five siblings, two older sisters, two younger brothers, of Marcelo Martínez Rosales (a branch manager of the National Mortgage Bank) and María Josefa Cartas; left school after the sixth grade to study ballet, Spanish dancing, French and piano; became third wife of Juan Domingo Perón (president of Argentina, 1946–55, 1973–74), in Madrid, Spain, on November 15, 1961; no children.

Joined the Cervantes dance troupe (1955); while dancing with Joe Herald's ballet in Panama City, met Juan Perón during his exile from Argentina (1956); became Perón's private secretary; followed him in exile to Venezuela, Dominican Republic, and finally Spain; married him (1961); assumed role as Perón's political representative (after 1961); traveled to Argentina to promote Peronist candidates in provincial elections (1964); spent nine months in Argentina promoting Perón's cause (1965); returned to Argentina (December 1971–March 1972) when the military called for new elections; traveled to Argentina with Perón for four weeks (November 1972); visited Communist China and met with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong; was back in Argentina (June 1973); nominated vice-president at Peronist Party convention (August 1973); with Peronists' victory, became vice-president; appeared at state functions when Perón became ill (late 1973); spoke to the International Labor Organization and met with Pope Paul (June 1974); called home to Argentina to assume the presidency after Perón's death (July 1, 1974); declared state of siege to combat economic and political chaos (November 1974); took leave from presidency for health reasons (September 1975); despite increasing opposition, determined to complete her term; succumbed to a military coup and placed under house arrest (March 1976); returned to Spain (1981); was official head of Peronist Party (until 1985); lives in Madrid, Spain, but makes frequent visits to Argentina.

The world of women in Latin America, and in other parts of the globe, is generally circumscribed by family, home, and church. By tradition and practice, women are excluded from the public sphere. It is said that respectable women appear in public only three times: to be baptized, married, and buried. The defining terms for this system of gender relations in Latin America are machismo and marianismo. Machismo reinforces a system of male dominance over women. Women in this system adopt Mary the Virgin as their behavioral ideal. They are devout and self-sacrificing for the sake of their male relatives and children: marianismo. Public business such as politics is men's business. One consequence of these values is that Latin American women acquired the vote much later than their North American counterparts; in Argentina, women did not receive the franchise until 1947. Although this restrictive system of gender relations has been challenged in recent decades, its roots run deep in Latin American culture. Societies that embrace such a system would be hard pressed to tolerate a woman in their most public and powerful position—its chief executive. And yet, in Argentina (and since in Nicaragua), before the United States and other Western countries, a woman has worn the presidential sash. Ultimately, Isabel Perón's career reveals both the possibilities and limits of women's roles in Latin American culture.

How did María Estela Martínez de Perón become in 1974 the first woman to assume the presidency of a Latin American nation? At the turn of the century, Argentina was one of the richest trading nations of the world. It produced and marketed wheat and beef from the vast grasslands surrounding Buenos Aires, the capital. Buenos Aires rivaled European cities for its sophisticated society and elegant buildings, expansive parks, and broad avenues. Italians and Spaniards immigrated to Argentina by the thousands to find a better life. The pace of economic development, however, disrupted the traditional political structure. New groups, especially from the working class, demanded access to the halls of power. The ruling class, composed of large landowners, forestalled working-class ambitions by allying with the middle class.

Turmoil created by the Great Depression and World War II further disrupted the political structure. In 1943, the military intervened and deposed the civilian president. The military junta quickly fell under the influence of a group of officers committed to nationalism. One of them, Colonel Juan Domingo Perón, used his position as secretary of labor to organize support first for the military government, and then for himself. An ambitious radio and film star named Eva Duarte (Eva Péron , known popularly as Evita) assisted him after 1943. Eva showed Perón radio's effectiveness as a means to reach and organize workers. Perón's increasing popularity allowed him to assume the portfolios of minister of war and vice-president and to cultivate influence in the officer corps. By 1945, he was the center of a powerful coalition of workers and the military. Perón's enthusiasm for fascism and his consolidation of power worried democratic forces. The Allied victory over Germany and Japan gave the political parties hope that Argentina would soon return to civilian rule. They saw Perón as an obstacle. In October 1945, opposition to Perón peaked; the president dismissed Perón from his posts and imprisoned him. Perón's supporters in the labor movement and Eva immediately organized a protest on October 17, 1945, in front of the presidential palace and successfully demanded his release. Perón regained his freedom and ministry portfolios. He and Evita married; the next year he won the presidency.

I have not renounced nor have I thought of renouncing. I have not asked for leave nor will I do so; I exercise the full power of the presidency.

—Isabel Perón (1975)

In his first term, Perón, with the help of Evita, achieved fundamental changes in Argentina's economy and society. He shifted resources from agriculture to industry and raised workers' standards of living. Eva served as the unofficial minister of welfare, personally dispensing checks and cash, and sponsoring construction of hospitals and summer camps for needy families. In 1948, she organized the women's branch of the Peronist Party to prepare women to exercise the franchise nationally. As labor organized and grew more militant, apprehension among the economic and military elites over Peronism mounted.

While preparing for re-election in 1952, Perón capitalized on Evita's popularity. Her name was placed in nomination for the vice-presidency at the party convention. Strong opposition from military leaders, who refused to consider a woman vice-president, caused Eva to decline, falsely claiming her age constitutionally disqualified her. Shortly after the convention, doctors discovered her cancer. Gravely ill and disappointed at the denial of national office, she nevertheless campaigned for Perón. Her last public appearance came at his inauguration in June 1952. The following month she died.

The Peronist coalition dissolved after Evita's death. The party fractured along traditional lines. Perón remained the only unifying factor. His inability to control inflation, growing resistance to his government by large landowners, disputes with the Catholic Church, and, finally, the disaffection of the military undermined his regime. In September 1955, the military moved against Perón and he fled into exile.

María Estela Martínez came to her majority in the Perón years. The middle daughter of María Josefa Cartas and Marcelo Martínez Rosales, a successful banker, María Estela was born in 1931 in La Rioja in the interior of Argentina. The family moved to Buenos Aires when she was two. As a child, she was known as Estelita, but she adopted the name Isabel at confirmation. Her father died when she was six and, to reduce the burden on her widowed mother, Isabel moved in with family friends. She left school after the sixth grade to study ballet and dance. During the Perón years, she joined the Cervantes Dance troupe and then the Avenida Theater. In 1955, the same year as the coup, she joined Joe Herald and his dance troupe which was popularly known as "Joe and his Ballets." It was partially funded by the Eva Perón Foundation. They toured Central America but became stranded by lack of funds in Panama City. Juan Perón, in exile in Panama, frequented the Happyland Club where they performed. He invited the dancers to a party just before Christmas. There Isabel, then 24, met Juan. She moved into the Perón household in January, assuming the tasks of personal secretary and domestic manager. She accompanied Perón as his exile moved from Panama to Venezuela to the Dominican Republic and eventually Spain.

Social pressures in Spain persuaded Juan Perón to formalize his relationship with Isabel, but the intended marriage ran into problems as a result of the Vatican's threat to excommunicate Perón in 1955. To protect Isabel's reputation, the local bishop authorized a marriage of convenience until the excommunication problem was resolved. The couple married in a private ceremony in Madrid on November 15, 1961, and soon built a home there. They settled into a peaceful life of reading, gardening, and fencing.

Argentina's political situation made it impossible for Juan Perón to return before 1972; Isabel traveled there in his stead. On her first visit in 1964, she carried messages to Perón's lieutenant, Jorge Antonio, in Paraguay. She also urged General Stroessner, the Paraguayan dictator, to shelter Jorge Antonio. When Peronist supporters gathered in Paraguay to meet with her, she delivered Perón's message, bolstering the morale of the party faithful and her own leadership abilities. The trip established her place in the Peronist movement and revealed personal political ambitions. Returning to Argentina in 1965 for a nine-month stay, she supervised provincial election campaigns that the Peronists swept. The nine-month visit further enhanced her political experience and visibility.

On her second trip, Isabel acquired a controversial political advisor, José López Rega, who worked as her personal secretary but eventually served her husband as well. López Rega is best known for his affinity for the occult and his difficulties with other leaders of the movement, particularly Jorge Antonio. Even Juan Perón occasionally expressed displeasure with his wife's secretary, but she staunchly protected his position and eventually brought him into their Madrid home. Together, López Rega and Isabel monopolized access to Juan Perón.

Accompanied by López Rega, she traveled to Argentina in 1971 to prepare for national elections and head off challenges to Perón's leadership. Thousands of Peronists awaited her at the airport. By 1971, right- and left-wing factions were clearly defined within the party. Isabel aligned with the former during her three-month stay. She also purchased a home on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, anticipating the restoration of civilian government and her husband's return. The military government resisted, but pledged not to interfere with Perón's visit. After 17 years in exile, the 77-year-old leader landed on November 17, 1972, with his wife and López Rega by his side.

After a brief detention at the airport hotel, the Peróns settled into their new home. Crowds gathered daily to catch a glimpse of Juan Perón at his window. Occasionally, holding a photo enlargement of Evita, Isabel would accompany or replace Juan at the window. They worked to build an electoral coalition to support Perón's choice for president, Héctor Cámpora. Once the Cámpora campaign was underway, the Peróns again left the country, stopping in Paraguay and Peru where Juan Perón met with both heads of state before returning to Madrid. Although he had promised to return to Argentina for the

presidential campaign, his age and a strategy of distancing himself from Cámpora prevented it.

Juan Perón's resumption of the presidency involved several steps. First, the Perón name was reestablished internationally. Isabel traveled to China for meetings with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Second, after using Cámpora to reestablish civilian rule, Juan Perón planned to run in early national elections. In the meantime, he selected some of Cámpora's Cabinet members, including López Rega as minister of social welfare (a post Evita had held during Perón's first administration). The Eva Perón Beneficent Foundation was revived under Isabel's leadership.

The Peróns' June 1973 arrival in Buenos Aires signaled real trouble for the party. As thousands gathered along the route to the airport to welcome them, violence erupted between left- and right-wing party members. The fighting caused the Peróns' plane to be diverted and spoiled Juan's triumphant return, while a mild heart attack left him bedridden for several days. Despite these unfavorable omens, most Peronists depended on him to heal the party.

In August, the Peronists met to select a ticket for the September elections. The presidency belonged to Juan Perón; political speculation focused on the vice-presidency. The names bandied about included Isabel's. As the convention celebrated Juan's nomination, a delegate placed her name in nomination, and Peronists approved her by acclamation. Although Juan Perón avoided the convention, Isabel personally assured delegates of her willingness to serve and bestowed her husband's blessing on the slate.

Juan Perón's time in office was short but eventful. He increasingly relied on his wife to fulfill political obligations, and struggled unsuccessfully to control the Peronist youth and political violence. But deteriorating health weakened his efforts. Isabel assumed the presidency briefly in November when Juan suffered a pulmonary edema. His attempts to resume a normal schedule failed, and by 1974 Isabel was making all state appearances. She supervised construction of 10,000 homes in Ciudad Isabel—a project of the ministry of social welfare and reminiscent of Evita Perón's work. In June, she assumed the presidency during Juan's visit to Uruguay and Paraguay. Despite her husband's continuing poor health, Isabel and López Rega left for Europe where she addressed the International Labor Organization in Geneva and planned visits to Rome and Madrid. On June 19th, Juan Perón's doctors advised Isabel and López Rega to cut short their travels. On June 29, Juan transferred all presidential authority to Isabel. Two days later, he died.

The new president first convened a meeting of Cabinet ministers, military commanders, and political leaders at the presidential residence to address attacks on López Rega and doubts about her intentions. She reaffirmed his position as her personal advisor and as minister of social welfare, and her own plans to continue as president and party leader.

Isabel Perón faced enormous political and economic challenges. Terrorist activity from the left and the right accelerated. Inflation ate into workers' salaries and caused unrest in the party. Her association with López Rega became a focus for critics. His fondness for the occult and his presence at Isabel's side convinced many that he was the real power behind the presidency. His ties with the Triple A—a notorious right-wing assassination group that operated with impunity during her presidency—further tarnished her reputation.

The increase in political violence pushed Isabel Perón toward harsher measures, including nationalization and tight control of the three major television stations. In early September, the Montoneros, an armed wing of the Peronist Party, moved into open opposition. Perón responded by sending an anti-terrorist measure to Congress. When the action failed to staunch the bloodshed, she declared a state of siege. It remained in effect for a decade. As assassinations and kidnappings by right- and left-wing extremists continued, her government moved toward conservative Peronists and the military, who promised to deliver peace and stability.

Economic disorder accelerated with the political violence; inflationary pressures defeated wage and price controls established earlier by Juan Perón. Responding to workers' demands, Isabel increased wages, approved new labor legislation, and appealed to the memory of her husband to mobilize support. A September rally attracted 50,000 labor unionists. She also ordered the return of Evita's body to Argentina and led an emotional service laying Eva's body to rest next to Juan's in the Olivos chapel.

Her efforts to restore order and financial stability failed. The following spring, she took the first of several leaves from the presidency to recover from stress. A crisis in June 1975 caused her to lash out at labor leaders protesting austerity measures. Under pressure from a general strike and the urging of military leaders, she reorganized her Cabinet, eliminating the focal point of much criticism, López Rega. She raised the limit on workers' salaries to quiet union opposition, but inflation continued to erode workers' buying power.

The crisis and burdens of office took their toll on her health. In July, she retreated full-time to the official residence; reports spread that she was in a state of extreme fatigue and nervousness. Congressmen called for an official report on her health. Her physician prescribed rest and circulated photographs of a convalescent Isabel.

The economic and political crises gave her little respite. By late summer, as the government neared default on its foreign debt, she returned to her office. Reshuffling her Cabinet once more, she included a member of the armed forces for the first time. The national party convention in late August reconfirmed her leadership but could not protect her health. In early September, she asked Congress for another leave, traveling to Córdoba province with the wives of the leaders (and members of the future junta) of Argentina's Armed Forces. Many speculated that she would not return when she transferred power to an old-time Peronist and president of the Senate, Italo Luder. He reorganized the Cabinet again and smoothed relations with the left wing of the party, but failed to persuade her to extend her leave beyond October 17, Peronist Loyalty Day.

Despite increasing calls for her resignation from party leaders and the military, Isabel Perón resumed power as scheduled. At a Loyalty Day rally, she pledged to complete her term of office, also urging Argentines to support the military in its campaign against the subversives.

The professions of loyalty from party members that greeted her return did not stem attacks from her opponents. At the end of October, the Radical Party proposed a congressional investigation of her deposit of $700,000 in public charity funds into her personal bank account. Support from the Peronist majority in Congress wavered and an investigation started. Charges of corruption and malfeasance targeted people around Isabel, forcing her private physician to resign from the National Sports and Tourism office.

On November 3, 1975, she entered the hospital, but refused to relinquish power. The Radical Party pressed the attack with encouragement from some members of the military. While a congressional commission investigated the charges against her, one of the opposition parties brought a motion in the Chamber of Deputies for impeachment.

Isabel rallied one more time, calling on labor, the party, and the Roman Catholic Church to support her presidency. She denounced the investigation of the charitable funds as an unconstitutional infringement of her presidential power. She then rescheduled presidential elections from 1976 to 1977 to reduce pressures for her resignation and investigation into charges of corruption, but the strategy failed. Unwilling to wait another year, a party faction defected in early December, depriving the Peronists of their majority in the lower house where corruption hearings were proceeding. Military leaders warned Perón to resign and transfer power to a constitutional successor or face a military coup. Party loyalists in the Chamber of Deputies averted one more impeachment motion, but could not stem the rising tide of opposition.

Perón stubbornly, but futilely, resisted. On March 24, 1976, military officers commandeered her helicopter and arrested her. The military junta that assumed power held her under house arrest in the interior of the country. The coup, which ended Argentina's latest experiment in democracy, marked the beginning of seven years of military rule, and of what became known as the "Dirty War" against Argentine dissenters.

Despite her fall from power, Isabel Perón continued to represent Juan Perón for millions of loyalists. They blocked an attempt to indict her for malfeasance and secured her release from house arrest in 1981. She promptly left for Spain. In the succeeding years, she attempted to retire from the Argentine political scene, but could not reject its appeals. She retained her official title as head of the party until 1985 when Carlos Saúl Menem, a former governor of her home province, replaced her. Still in Spain, she remained an important player in national politics. When Menem secured the party's presidential nomination in 1989, he turned to Isabel for support, and when he won the presidency she returned to Argentina for his inauguration. With this victory, the Peronist Party reasserted its power in Argentine politics; the party continues to revere Isabel as its last link to Juan Perón. She still makes occasional appearances in Argentina, visiting family and commemorating important Peronist events.

While she is still active on the periphery of her nation's politics, Isabel Perón's position in history is firmly established. She will always be both the first woman president of a Latin American nation and the first female head of state in the Western Hemisphere. Although she clearly had political ambitions, she never openly challenged Argentina's gender structure nor articulated a feminist position. Her career embodies the contradictions of women's place in modern Latin American society and politics, demonstrating both the possibilities and the constraints of existing gender roles.


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Joan E. E. , Associate Professor of Latin American History, Baylor University, Waco, Texas