Populism and Its Legacies in Argentina Joel Horowitz

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Perón's ties to unions provided him with entrée to the working class and with a legitimacy he could not have obtained otherwise. This was especially important, because traditionally workers harbored a deep suspicion of the military. Also, as we will see, unions could provide crucial assistance with mobilization.

Unions and their members did not blindly support Perón; in many cases they did so reluctantly. For decades they had struggled to secure a place in the society and for material gains but had usually failed. They saw this moment as a chance to achieve their long-standing dreams, because Perón needed the union leaders as much as they needed him.

Just as important as concrete rewards was the sense workers had that they now formed a legitimate part of the larger society. For the first time, union leaders were assigned to important posts, both political and bureaucratic. A former secretary general of the largest labor confederation, Luis Cerutti, held a conspicuous job in the secretariat. A Socialist and longtime lawyer for the largest railroad union, Juan Bramuglia, received an appointment as acting governor of the Province of Buenos Aires.

Perón made intense personal appeals to unions. His charisma gave his actions a decided impact. In speaking to unions, he stressed their importance to him. “I come to the house of the railroaders as if it were my own. I profess a profound gratitude to them, because I am convinced that many of the successes of the Secretariat . . . are due precisely to the railroad workers.” He also suggested that he was almost one of them, since he was an honorary president of the largest rail union. Perón attempted to show that he cared about the workers.21 This appeal was especially effective because workers had been socially and politically isolated prior to 1943. At some point in 1945 psychological links were forged between Perón and many workers that proved powerful and long lasting.

The relationship between many workers and Perón was sealed by the dramatic events of October 1945, which became a founding myth of Peronism. While Perón had built a following within the working class, he had become extremely unpopular with some sectors of the society. In the minds of many, the military regime was identified with Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. (The regime contained many who sympathized with the Axis.) The opposition saw themselves as resembling the citizens of occupied France. The end of World War II made the situation of the regime difficult and obliged military leaders to reduce censorship and repression. Students and the middle class responded with frequent antiregime demonstrations. Many military officers disliked Perón's policies and removed him from all of his positions on October 9.

Perón's dismissal created a vacuum. His enemies hesitated, unsure of what to do next. Workers and their union leaders, however, responded rapidly, afraid that they would lose the gains of the previous two years. Employers canceled recently won concessions, and the newly created Columbus Day holiday was ignored. Some union leaders went to the government seeking reassurances, which they received. Others met secretly outside of Buenos Aires to plan a general strike.22 On October 16, the national labor confederation (CGT) voted to hold a general strike in two days.

On October 17, a hot spring morning, thousands of workers surged into downtown Buenos Aires, especially from working-class suburbs to the south. Later, when the bridge across the Riachuelo River was raised, they crossed on improvised rafts. The crowd congregated in the plaza in front of the presidential palace and called for Perón's return. The crowd was remarkably well behaved and (legend notwithstanding) well dressed: photographs show most men in ties and jackets despite the heat. Some did take off their jackets and shirts, and a few waded in the fountains. This led to the scornful use of the term descamisados (shirtless ones) for Perón's supporters. Soon it became a proud symbol of Peronism, and rallies often saw the doffing of jackets as a sign of solidarity and pride in being working class (though many were not). The elite and middle class became uneasy, not so much because of the actual behavior of the crowd, but because the city was no longer totally theirs. Only in a society so middle class in mores could this symbolic rejection of bourgeois values appear threatening. This kind of social tension was extremely important in understanding both the attraction and the repulsion that was felt for populist measures.

Faced with the prospect of having to clear a plaza filled with perhaps a quarter of a million Perón supporters, the military relented and released Perón. This opened the way for his participation in presidential elections.23

What had happened? Legend has it that Perón's friend and soon-to-be wife, Eva Duarte (better known as Evita), rallied the workers on his behalf. Marysa Navarro has demonstrated that Evita lacked the contacts and the public persona to do so.24 The demonstration was planned, because simultaneous protests occurred in working-class suburbs and in various places around the country. It could not have been the direct result of the CGT's strike call, which was issued too late and for the following day.

The fact is that some union leaders had been pushing for a strike since October 9 and the workers were primed for action. During the 1930s the union movement had developed legitimacy and connections that stretched across all the worker barrios of greater Buenos Aires. Workers did not need much encouragement and poured out into the streets. Although the participants and many others were extremely proud, some felt distress and even distaste for the events of the day. For the first time the working class had reshaped the history of Argentina. The October 17 experience created a bond between workers and Perón that still exists. By returning Perón to power, workers had changed the course of politics and given themselves a greater sense of pride, a realization of their power, and a new identification as Peronists.

Presidential elections were called for February 1946, and although Perón was a candidate, he was not expected to win. Virtually all the traditional parties supported the candidate of the Radical Party, José Tamborini. The United States openly opposed Perón. People thought that workers would follow the wishes of the parties that had traditionally claimed their support, the Socialists and the Communists. Perón's principal backing came from the Partido Laborista, founded in the wake of the October 17 demonstrations. Modeled on the British Labour Party and based on some labor leaders' dreams of an independent organization that could push for social reform, the party relied on unions.25 Perón also received support from dissident Radicals, some conservatives, and the Catholic Church.

With the Partido Laborista doing much of the organizational legwork in urban areas and with heavy union support, Perón won a solid 52.4 percent of the vote. Moreover, candidates allied with him swept into both houses of Congress in overwhelming numbers. Even in provinces in which modern working classes had not yet developed, Perón won handily.26 There dissident politicians, with material help from the state, had used traditional methods to obtain votes. As in many populist regimes, traditional politics combined with new forms of mobilization.


Perón had the option of ruling democratically. His majority in Congress allowed him to do almost anything he desired. In the fashion of Argentine populists, Perón pulled power to himself and refused to share it, even in symbolic terms, with those who did not support him. The regime gradually became more authoritarian, especially after 1950, when the economy began to deteriorate. The process began very early. In May 1946, under considerable pressure from Perón, the Partido Laborista was dissolved. The CGT was soon obligated to shed its independent secretary general, Luis Gay, and submit to a Perón appointee.27 Perón never had room for people who were not totally devoted to him. With the 1951 seizure of La Prensa, a serious and traditional newspaper that catered to the elite, only one important daily, La Nación, remained independent of the government. Opposition to the regime became increasingly dangerous. Jailings and generalized repression became extensive.

Still, Perón was never content to be a dictator. He was a populist and as such always anxious to expand his bases of support, and he was highly successful. An important reason for Perón's growing popularity was the rapid economic growth that occurred during the first years of his presidency. Real hourly wages went up 25 percent in 1947 and increased almost as much the following year. The percentage of national income going to workers increased 25 percent between 1946 and 1950. While not all sectors benefited—agriculture was being squeezed for the advantage of the urban sectors—the economy grew at high rates in both 1946 and 1947 and only slowed down somewhat the following year.28

Prosperity allowed Perón to expand his political base. Many businessmen began to support him, partly because he was in power but also due to the new opportunities he offered. Perón also moved to consolidate his support with workers through enactment of better pension plans, health care, and vacation resorts. These were provided through the unions.

Symbolic gains were often as important as material ones. During the 1930s resentment had spread against foreign ownership of key public utilities. (In addition to nationalist sentiments, many believed that the state could provide better and more efficient service.) With the money Argentina had earned during World War II, Perón set about buying many of them, including the telephone and railroad companies. This was extraordinarily popular with wide sectors of the population.

Eva Duarte de Perón (Evita) played a crucial role in the development of the symbolic side of Peronism. An actress when she met Perón in 1944, she rapidly developed an interest in politics. Her influence on Perón and their open relationship was so unconventional that it helped spur the military coup against Perón in October 1945. In a society where women did not have the vote and where their public role remained traditional, Perón and Evita stood out as people willing to defy social norms. She not only displayed an interest in politics and played an active part, but Perón accepted and perhaps encouraged it. Moreover, he defied convention by marrying a woman with “a past,” shortly after October 17, 1945.29

Once Perón became president, Evita rapidly emerged as a political force. While she never held an official post within the newly created Ministry of Labor, she became the power broker. She played much the same role as Juan had during the period when he built support in 1944 and 1945. It was Evita who obtained for a union whatever improvement it sought. She was increasingly loved by large sectors of the poorer classes. Evita could not be perceived as a threat by Perón, however, as she could not be separated from him. This she expressed in her autobiography: “In different ways we both wanted to do the same thing: he with intelligence; I with the heart; he, prepared for the fray; I ready for everything without knowing anything; he cultured and I simple; he great and I small; he master and I pupil. He the figure and I the shadow. He sure of himself, and I sure only of him!”30

Although not a particularly good actress, Evita, like Ronald Reagan, found her perfect role in the public arena. Her speeches were very effective, touching the hearts of many (and raising the ire of others). While Perón gradually became more presidential and less strident, Evita, on the other hand, was frequently vituperative. Her denunciations of the oligarchy seemed heartfelt. She too had charisma and Marysa Navarro has argued that the special interaction between the Peróns prevented his charisma from being routinized by the exercise of power.31

In 1947 Evita opened the Eva Perón Foundation (it was formally established the following year). The foundation was supported mostly by tax revenues, but it also received donations, some given freely and some not so freely. The foundation took over social welfare institutions from an already discredited organization that had been poorly run by women from the elite.

Evita's foundation did everything from managing orphanages and building hospitals to organizing boys' soccer tournaments. It became a bridge between people and Evita. She became the personal intercessor to whom one went when in need. She would regularly hold court and give petitioners what they wanted. Access to her was relatively simple. She was pictured as quasi-saintly in this largely Catholic nation. She was described as kissing on the mouth, for example, a woman with syphilis or leprosy and not worrying about catching it. She became the subject of widespread propaganda and popular beliefs.32 The foundation was unique, since it combined the resources of a large state institution with the personal leadership of Evita. The sewing machine given to a needy woman came not from the institution but from Evita herself.

Argentine women received the vote for the first time in 1947. Evita was very influential in the last stages of the campaign for women's suffrage. She was given more credit than she deserved by both supporters and enemies. After the vote was obtained, Evita insisted on creating and leading a separate Peronist woman's party. Women's branches soon stretched across the country. When Perón ran for reelection in 1951, he received a much higher percentage of votes from women than from men.33 Evita's role in this feat was enormous.

Perón also attempted to establish a cultural hegemony to revise Argentina's vision of itself. This was particularly difficult since Peronism, like other populist movements, had no consistent ideology. The movement did, however, spawn a subculture that thrived long afterward. Rituals such as the celebration of May Day were reformed and “Peronized” to stress the benefits that workers had received and the harmony that existed under Perón. School curricula stressed Catholic values and glorified the Peróns.34 Cities and even provinces were named after the Peróns. Monuments were erected.

The Peronists' efforts to redefine the culture produced tremendous tensions in the society. The Catholic Church, an early ally, felt that the Peronist culture impinged on its arena and began to distance itself from the regime. The opposition of much of the middle and upper classes also intensified as they saw their vision of the country challenged. This lay atop the repression, the symbolic and real challenge to upper- and middle-class dominance of Argentine society, and the resentment at the enlarged role of the working class.

After 1948 the economy began to deteriorate, in part due to shifts in Argentina's international terms of trade. Many economic gains were reversed. Those earlier drawn to the regime by prosperity withdrew their support. After Evita's death in 1952, there remained no one close to Perón strong enough to give sound advice, and he seemed intoxicated by power. Repression intensified. By 1954–55 tensions in the society were extremely high. There were no neutrals. Military officers with considerable civilian assistance overthrew Perón in September 1955.

Like the Radicals before them, the Peronists saw themselves as the only viable option for the nation. This exclusivity and lack of tolerance intensified resistance by excluded sectors, helping to cause the regime's downfall.


The lines etched into the society by Perón's populist regime were not erased by the leader's fall from power. Society became even more divided between those who believed that Peronism needed to be expunged from Argentina and those who supported it. Other legacies of Peronism were numerous. The unions had emerged as crucial political actors; regimes defied them at their own risk. The state's role in the economy had become extremely large with many sectors dominated by government corporations. The bureaucracy had grown even more bloated and inefficient.

After a brief interlude in which the military attempted a policy of “neither victors nor vanquished,” harsh repression began against those who sided with Perón. The mere public mention of his name was forbidden. Symbols and images of Peronism were banned. The government aided efforts to take unions away from the Peronists and barred old leaders from office.35

The results were not at all what those in power hoped, as commitment to Peronism increased. A resistance movement emerged, which for a number of years organized sabotage and terrorist activities. New militant leaders fiercely loyal to Perón took power in the unions. Later, restrictions were eased but Argentina remained divided. Approximately one-third of the population—mostly working class and poor—remained deeply Peronist and were loyal to a culture very different from that of the majority. Meanwhile, middle-class supporters of Peronism had largely fallen away. A large portion of the citizenry viewed Peronism as anathema.

The military did not wish to continue to rule and advocated a return to democracy. Yet democracy became, in Guillermo O'Donnell's words, “an impossible game.”36 The military, backed by a considerable segment of the civilian population, refused to permit the Peronists to take part in elections or, when they did, to hold office. Since the Peronists were the largest party in the country, their exclusion rendered electoral politics a sham. From 1958 to 1966 the ground trembled under the feet of the elected governments, with the military constantly intervening to block the Peronists. Periodic waves of labor unrest and a disappointing economic performance added to the uncertainties and prevented the formation of wider coalitions. No political force was capable of challenging the legacies of populism and winning. In addition, Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution spurred the growth of the left, which produced tremendous anxiety among the elites.

From exile Perón continued to wield his influence, first backing one faction within his movement and then another, but not allowing any person to garner enough prestige to supplant him as leader. He blocked the emergence of a Peronism without Perón. In the same fashion, he maneuvered to regain power while simultaneously trying to prevent other forces from achieving stability and legitimacy.

When the military seized power in 1966, it attempted to clean out what it saw as a putrid economic and political system. It began to restructure and “rationalize” the economy. The regime also banned politics and tried to curb union power. A combination of economic and political frustrations and the worldwide rebelliousness of the late 1960s led to a series of violent urban riots. The most famous, the Cordobazo of 1969, lasted two days, left as many as sixty dead and seriously undermined the regime.37

Several guerrilla groups also challenged the military. Guerrillas avowed loyalty to various left-wing ideologies as well as to a curious fusion of left-wing ideology and Peronism. Perón gave the latter guerrillas his blessing. Revolution became chic. Mannequins in boutiques were dressed as revolutionaries. Primarily based in the universities, a leftist-leaning Peronist youth movement sprouted overnight. Again, Perón became the man of the hour. Those hoping for a Socialist and Peronist Argentina supported him, as did those who yearned for stability, including many of his traditional enemies. His traditional supporters, especially the unions—his principal allies since 1955—still eagerly backed him despite increasingly bloody clashes with the Peronist left.

In hope of stanching the violence, the military turned to elections. Ultimately, Perón was reelected to the presidency in 1973, and he offered many of the same solutions as before. He was stymied, however, by the swirling conflicts of ideology. His movement's right and left wings could not possibly be reconciled, and he repudiated his left wing. Then after little more than eight months in office, he died.38 He was succeeded by his third wife and vice president, María Estela, nicknamed Isabelita, who lacked his prestige and savvy. Her time in office was marked by runaway inflation, as well as violence by the right, the left, and the security forces.

In March 1976 the military took over and inaugurated a period of terror unmatched in the country's history. The military made the word disappear into a transitive verb, and documented evidence exists of almost ten thousand disappeared people. The real death toll was much higher, probably in the neighborhood of thirty thousand.39

Democracy returned in 1983, brought on by the military's total loss of legitimacy. The ruling junta had decided to invade the Malvinas Islands (The Falklands), in a desperate attempt to salvage a rapidly deteriorating economic situation and their loss of authority. The islands had been a British colony since the early nineteenth century, but Argentina had always claimed them. A British counterattack retook the islands, and military prestige disintegrated.

The Radical Party government of Raúl Alfonsín, which won the presidential elections of 1983, cannot be called populist. It did, however, retain elements of populist appeal. All parties used folkloric motifs, such as large drums, in their demonstrations. In addition, the Radicals had the hegemonic vision of populism: during the heady moments of their greatest popularity they talked of the third historic movement (the first two were those of Yrigoyen and Perón). Power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of Alfonsín, and the Radicals spoke of changing the constitution so he could be reelected.

These dreams faded quickly. Alfonsín had come to office promising to open the political system and make it conform to the rules of law. To a surprising extent he succeeded. The key military commanders during the preceding dictatorship were tried and convicted. A series of military revolts, however, sharply limited the government's power in this area. Still, it was the poor performance of the economy that destroyed Alfonsín's popularity. During the first exciting months of the return to democracy, the staggering economic problems created by an unpayable foreign debt, high inflation, and the expectation of further high inflation were largely ignored. Argentina was going to grow its way out. By the time the danger of the situation was realized, much political capital had been expended, and the government lacked the popularity to overcome vested interests and an increasingly hostile labor movement. Despite valiant efforts, it failed to overcome either inflation or the debt.

Peronist Carlos Menem won the 1989 presidential election with a populist campaign that garnered him slightly under half the votes. A provincial governor with a colorful lifestyle, he promised the redistributive policies that characterized populism, especially Peronism. Once in office, Menem reversed direction and instituted policies firmly rooted in neoliberalism. His models were Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who believed that government involvement in the economy should be sharply limited.

Populism had left a legacy of a large state role in the economy, and a bloated bureaucracy. Even repressive military regimes failed in attempts to change this situation. What permitted the reversal of this tradition was an outbreak of hyperinflation (during 1989 the cost of living rose some 5,000 percent) while Alfonsín was a lame duck. Food riots and waves of fear swept over urban areas, and Alfonsín felt obliged to turn over power to Menem before the end of his term. (Nonetheless, it still marked the first time since the 1920s that a democratically elected president turned over the sash of office to his legitimately elected successor.) Still, the country was gripped by fear, and this permitted or perhaps pushed Menem to change course.40 People wanted to believe that that type of inflation could not happen again.

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