Peronism in Argentina is a phenomenon like no other. There is no other country that subscribes to this undefinable political ideology, and also it is the most important idea in Argentine politics. Without Peronism, there is no modern day Argentina politics. Three out of the seven candidates for the previous presidential election called themselves Peronists, but with distinct political opinions. So to understand this, it is necessary to look at the historical roots of the most important political movement of 20th century in Argentina whose influence can not be understated. So how did it start? Where did this idea come from? And as most people are familiar with, it all started with one man, Juan Domingo Perón.
The man the movement is named after, Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974) was a general and diplomat who was elected to the presidency three times, 1946, 1951 and 1973. He was an incredibly skilled politician who garnered millions of supporters, from differing political views and had the ability to bring in large sectors of the Argentine population.
His policies were generally about greater inclusiveness between all the classes and the modes of production. It was a social bargain struck between labor unions, corporations, workers and the state to develop industries with inputs from all sides.
Argentina Before Perón
Before the rise of Perón, Argentina was allied internationally with the west, most strongly Great Britain. It was a country of immigrants whose economy was based in agricultural exports, especially after the boom in meat and wool during and after World War One. The country was dominated by a small, very wealthy landowning oligarchy who was essentially in control of the government who ruled in favor of their interests, excluding large swathes of the population.
After the first World War, the “Infamous Decade”, actually 13 years between 1930 and 1943 Argentina was under the rule of a conservative and pro-aristocratic coalition known as the Concordancia. Technically, democratic institutions were in place, but in practice, the lower classes were excluded from politics and the labor movement which had been traditionally strong, was weakened.
A military junta took over in 1943, and a young general Juan Perón was put in charge of the National Labor Department. Perón noted the plight of the working class Argentines, and although most other political leaders were uninterested in the lower classes, Perón recognized and capitalized upon this. In his role he introduced a series of reforms, including national insurance, paid holidays and a pension scheme.
Meanwhile, the main trade union federation, the CGT had split in 1942 between one faction, lead by the Communists and some Socialists, and another lead by Anarcho-sindicalists, the latter including the railway workers. Both sections were frustrated and disillusioned with the previous conservative government, which had ignored them completely, and they were flattered by the attention paid them by Perón. By playing one off against the other, he succeeded in marginalizing the Communists and subordinating their opponents while simultaneously appealing to the mass of the workers over the heads of the trade union bureaucracy. At the same time he argued within the military for a strong state to resist social disorder and addressed big business with the need to incorporate the working class.
In March 1945, the leaders of the nation joined the United Nations and declared war on Germany, going back on why they made the coup in the first place. In September there was a massive, overwhelmingly middle class "March for Freedom and the Constitution". The Army tried to accommodate this opposition and sacked, then arrested, Perón on October the 8th.
The working class and the major unions saw this as attack on their political influence and their living standards, and a wave of strikes swept the country and an enormous, largely working class demonstration in the Plaza de Mayo in central Buenos Aires gave sufficient strength and confidence to Perón's supporters in the Army to force his release. This was the real emergence of the working class onto the Argentine political scene rather than an independent force under the control of Perón.
Supported by the Army, the Church and the CGT, Perón became the official candidate in the presidential election. He was duly elected president, with a 10 percent majority, and 56 percent of the vote on February 24th 1946.
Perón's First Presidency
The period 1946-1955 marked a turning point in the economic development of the country. Before this, the country was dominated by large landowners and agricultural exports, strongly influenced by foreign capital. But this model had started to weaken during the 1930’s, but it was not until the mid-1940s that it was replaced by what became known as “import substitution industrialization” (ISI).
Peron's new economic paradigm was based around the development of labor-intensive, light industry to create jobs and produce domestic goods for the internal market. The State played an important role in channeling income from agricultural exports to industry, raising import tariffs, and nationalizing foreign-owned companies such as the railways, gas, phone and electricity.
This model would be based around class alliances and also alliances between the Armed Forces and the Catholic Church under Peron's own form of “third way”, neither left or right. However, this alliance excluded the old landowners -“the oligarchy”- who would become the number one enemy of the new government.
The new role of the State and the rights acquired during this period were articulated in a new Constitution, adopted in 1949, which put social justice and the “general interest” at the center of all political and economic activities. The new constitutional text included a range of “social rights” (the so-called second generation rights), related to workers, families, the elderly, education and culture.
During his first presidency, Perón’s charismatic wife, Eva Perón (or “Evita” as her followers called her) played a prominent role, and it is widely acknowledged that she was the main link between the president and the workers’ movement. Evita also had an active role in the development of women's rights, such as the right to vote (1947) and the equality of men and women in marriage and in the care of children -even fighting internal opposition to achieve these goals.
Second Government (1951-1955)
Perón was re-elected in 1951, obtaining a massive 62% of the vote (which, for the first time, included the female voters). But this term was much more problematic for the president. His wife, Evita, died of cancer a month after his reelection, and the economic situation worsened after a drop in the international price of agricultural products and severe droughts.
Perón was forced to introduce some austerity measures and improve poor relations with foreign companies. All these measures contradicted the model that Perón himself had implemented, and divided opinion among his followers.
This was in addition to Perón beginning to lose support with some unions, and his relationship with the Church was essentially an open conflict in 1954.
On June 16th, 1955, the political opposition (conservative, radicals and socialists) together with the Navy and with the support of the Church, carried out a botched coup d’etat against Perón. Navy planes bombed the Plaza de Mayo, where a rally was taking place, killing more than 300 people. Perón's attempt to appease the crowd failed and that very night groups of Peronist activists took to the streets of Buenos Aires and burnt several churches.
After the failed coup, Perón tried to keep the situation under control and called for a truce with the opposition. However on 31st August, after talks with the opposition failed, the president hardened his position when, during a public speech, he pronounced the now famous phrase: “for each one of us who fall, five of them will follow”. Seventeen days later, on the 16th September, a new military uprising -led again by the Navy- succeeded in deposing Perón, who asked for political refuge in Paraguay and left the country on the 20th of September. It would be 17 years until he stepped on Argentine soil again.
While Perón was in exile, the disparate groups that made up the Peronist movement fractured without his leadership. The new government also dissolved the Peronist party, and banned all of its members from running for office. Even mentioning the names of Perón or Evita was prohibited. The subsequent weakening of the Peronist unions left many workers once again unprotected and exposed to the abuses of some employers.
Perón's Brief Return
In 1972 Perón was finally able to return to Argentina, where he chose Héctor Cámpora to be the presidential candidate. The plan was for Campora to win the election, and lift the ban on Perón running so he could run the following year, the plan worked.
On June 20, 1973 Perón made his final return to Argentina, where a huge welcome was planned at the airport. But as he was due to land, the contradictions within his movement were exposed.
At the airport, the right wing groups, including the CGT union and the left including the militant Montoneros groups showed up, but a battle soon developed and the unionist right opened fire on the leftist tendencies killing at least 13 and wounding hundreds.
The next month, in July Cámpora resigned from the presidency and Perón, who was now 78 years old won the election with 62 percent of the vote. He called for both the right and left wing factions to unite in his speech, but after the killing of the CGT leader Jose Igancio Rucci, Perón gave more support to the right wing factions.
Perón died on the 1st of July 1974, and his second wife and vice-president Isabel Martínez de Perón (photo below) took office. In March 1976, she was deposed in an air-force-led coup, and a right-wing military junta took power and brutally ruled Argentina until 1982.
Peron's legacy is the most important in ArgentinaPeronism is still Argentina's most potent political force, and survives as a legitimate political philosophy which among others incorporates nationalism, political independence and a strong government supporting the working classes. The current president of Argentina Cristina Fernandez is a member of the Justicialist Party, a Peronist party and considers herself following in the footsteps of Peron and Evita.
The Peronist movement has managed to survive the twists and turns of Argentine history, much of it owed to the fact that from its very origin under Peron it had broad support, not just from the social sectors that benefited from Peron's pro-working class policies. This support continued to expand as the benefited sectors lost much of their original political and social clout.
Peron had established a brand of labor orientated populism that became a model for many politicians and followers of him. He was the first to attack the once powerful agricultural sector, and prioritize the industrial sector in Argentina. Although his personal brand of politics eventually broke down, the policies and institutions he created have paved the way for the economic boom Argentina has experienced since the early years of the 21st century.