The politics of other countries is interesting to me. Who is held in high esteem? Who seems to have things named for him/her? Who is the person others claim to be disciples of in order to win elections? In Buenos Aires, I was surprised to find that Juan Peron’s name is all over the place. I’d thought him to be a dictator, someone people would want to distance themselves from. This was a disciple of Franco, and to call oneself a Francist would be the easiest way to lose an election in Spain. And yet, here in Argentina, Peronist political parties have won an overwhelming majority of elections they have entered.
So let’s talk about Juan Peron. Who was he, and was he really as bad as I had believed him to be? Is there something in him worth admiring and emulating? Was he even a dictator? And how has his legacy shaped Argentine politics?
In 1943, Juan Peron took part in a military coup against the elected government of Argentina. A colonel at the time, Peron was appointed both Labor Minister and then Vice President of the junta government. During this time, he became one of the central advocates in Argentina for labor rights, promoting unionization and helping to implement a minimum wage, among other reforms. This gained him incredible popularity among Argentina’s working class (along with his then-girlfriend and later wife Evita Peron – read her story here), though it fanned flames of mistrust among the junta leadership, who had him arrested in 1945. Released nine days later after mass protests organized by Evita, he officially ran for President.
Peron won the 1946 Argentine election by about 11 points, though his largely working-class unionist coalition was accused of voter intimidation. (It is worth noting that the same accusations existed against the other side as well.) Labor was again central to his political agenda, though his support of workers’ right to strike won him the enmity of large employers and many of Argentina’s social and political elite who, it should be noted, made up much of the military officer class. Peron’s term also saw the nationalization of the railroads, repayment of a large debt to England, national healthcare, and average real wages increasing by nearly 35% over four years. Efforts led by Evita would also grant women the right to vote in 1947.
On the other hand, Juan Peron’s foreign policies were not successful. His decision to allow wanted Nazi war criminals to take refuge in the country, along with his refusal to take the West’s side in the Cold War (he formed close ties with the Soviet Union, though also did not take that side in any official sense) hurt Argentine export activities, with some embargoes coming from the US. Despite wage growth, the GDP of the country was stagnant.
Anyone vocal in opposition to the Peron government was liable to be punished. More than 2,000 outspoken professors were fired from public institutions, as the working class platform was fairly vehemently anti-advanced education. Political adversaries were jailed, even those who agreed with Juan Peron on policy, such as union leader Cipriano Reyes. Press credentials were revoked over unflattering pieces, with more than 110 publications shut down.
Given the lack of ability of any true opposition to take root, Peron won re-election in 1951 in a landslide. But after Evita’s death in 1952, anti-Peronists became bolder. In 1953, a group detonated a bomb at a Peronist rally in the Plaza de Mayo. The president encouraged his supporters to retaliate, and ensuing riots saw multiple buildings burned to the ground.
In 1955, Juan Peron had two Catholic priests expelled from the country for speaking out extensively against him. The following day, at a rally he organized in the Plaza de Mayo, Argentina Navy planes bombed the crowd, killing close to 400 people. Three months later, the military overthrew the Peron government, and Peron himself went into exile in Spain. His political party was banned from taking part in future elections.
In 1973, with Peronist parties again allowed to run in elections, Peronist Hector Campora won the Presidency, and Juan Peron returned to Argentina. An estimated 3.5 million Argentines welcomed him back at the airport. Campora and his vice president then resigned, and Peron ran, winning 62% of the vote. He would die in office the following year.
Juan Peron’s time in office gets, shall we say, mixed reviews from this writer. On the one hand, labor rights were fought for, women were allowed to vote, and the country did not enter any major wars. On the other hand, democracy certainly wasn’t enhanced, and a purge of notable academics had a negative effect on Argentine advanced education for decades. Was Peron a dictator? Probably not per se, though he seemingly would have gone down that road if he hadn’t been overthrown in 1955.
Peronism, however, is alive and well in Argentina. Since 1946, Peronist candidates have won 10 of the 13 elections in which they have been allowed to run, including the current President, Alberto Fernandez. (Fernandez’ party, the Justicialist Party, is one of a handful of those in the Peronist camp.) Peronism combines, in American terms, the left-leaning ideals of strong organized labor and anti-capitalism with the right-leaning elements of anti-Communism, militarism, and political demagoguery that some would say gets close to the point of authoritarianism, though modern Peronists have not tried to out-serve their elected terms.
It is an interesting political movement, with a coalition of the working class and military establishment almost reminiscent of Trumpist Republicanism, although labor rights and social safety nets are of supreme importance to the Peronist doctrine, rather than just a railing against “the elite.” (I am not conflating Peronism with Trumpist Republicanism, just noting the overlap in some of their base supporters.) It is also fascinating to me that, unlike other would-be (or actual) Latin American dictators who espoused a fondness for fascism, Juan Peron is still personally associated with the movement, and that association is expressed with pride.
There is no question that Juan Peron (and Evita to an extent) shaped Argentine politics more than anyone in history, despite only serving a single full term as President, and two partials. His legacy is a nuanced one at the very least, but is one celebrated by a large enough portion of Argentina that parties claiming to be his scions continue to win elections at a huge rate. While I don’t think I’d be a Peronist based on what I’ve read, I don’t know that I’d be staunchly anti-modern Peronism either. It’s an interesting thing to think about.
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