Populism and Its Legacies in Argentina Joel Horowitz

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Menem drastically opened up the economy to global competition and sold off most of the numerous state enterprises. Inflation was tamed through the introduction in 1991 of the convertibility plan, in which the peso was tied to the value of the dollar and pesos could be issued only when they had backing. The changes in economic policy necessitated a major shift in governing style. The old populist measures were no longer possible. The sale of state companies and the shrinkage of the bureaucracy made government employment much less important, and the general shortage of government funds meant that wages in the public sphere were much lower than in the private sector. Other ways of helping the poor also were limited severely by fiscal constraints. The continual expansion of the state sector of the economy that began under Yrigoyen and under Perón had been reversed. Clearly, traditional populism ceases to be possible under this type of economy.41

Other vestiges of populism in Argentina had been deeply altered. The union movement weakened greatly because it could not effectively resist compression of real wages and higher unemployment. In part this was due to a shrinking industrial base and the challenges produced by an economy opened to world competition, but it was also due to Menem's ability to divide and conquer a movement that was paralyzed by its own blind loyalty to Peronism. It did not know how to oppose a Peronist leader who continued to enjoy considerable support from the rank and file.

Still, legacies of populism remained. Like Yrigoyen and Perón before him, in what can be called populist style, Menem amassed power, stretching the constitution. He frequently bypassed Congress and issued decrees, issuing more of the latter than all his predecessors combined. Also, Menem packed the Supreme Court and limited the autonomy of the court system. Again like his populist forebear, he made himself the center of all attention, appearing frequently on television. He cavorted with sports teams and with super models. While he used less rhetoric about hegemony over other political sectors than Alfonsín did, the hegemonic overtones to the regime were stronger. Menem had the constitution rewritten so that he could win reelection to a second term, which he did with slightly less than half the votes cast. Despite Menem's dismal showing in later polls, some Peronists called for a further amendment to the constitution so that Menem could run for a third term. Ultimately, Menem had to reject these attempts. The policies of Menem are clearly not traditionally populist, but the political style has left its mark.

The lack of flexibility produced by the convertibility plan and economic crisis in other developing countries helped produce a recession and in 1999 Fernando De la Rúa led a center left coalition to victory over the Peronists. Populism seemed dead, but in-fighting in the governing coalition and more importantly the belief that the peso needed to remain tied to dollar led to economic, social and political collapse. With an ever deepening depression, De la Rúa was forced to resign amid mounting violence in December 2001. This led to breaking the tie to the dollar and a quick devaluation. After a brief period of chaos, Eduardo Duhalde, the leading Peronist in the crucial province of Buenos Aires, emerged as the interim-president.42 Previously he had governed the Province of Buenos Aires with populist gestures such as trying, without a great deal of success, to turn his wife Hilda into an Evita-like persona. He governed the country in a more sober fashion and with the help of his economic minister, Roberto Lavagna, stabilized an economy that had gone through its worst collapse ever. Numbers cannot do justice to the misery and loss of hope that occurred, but the poverty rate stood at 50 percent and unemployment at 20 percent in 2002.43
In order to block the re-election of Menem to the presidency, Duhalde backed a relatively obscure Peronist governor from the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, Néstor Kirchner, who won the election largely because of the president’s backing. Kirchner unexpectedly became the dominant figure in the Peronist party and a man who is undoubtedly a populist. Although some commentator’s have labeled Kirchner a left-wing populist, to this author he is a traditional Peronist populist. He concentrated power in the executive branch. He used nationalism. He ignored and criticized international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund; this criticism was immensely popular because of the role the IMF had played in encouraging the economic policies in the era before the collapse. Similarly he attacked US policies, especially those of George W. Bush, who was extraordinarily unpopular. Kirchner also encouraged the prosecution of military leaders for crimes committed during the most recent dictatorship.
Kirchner benefited as well from a rapidly expanding economy helped along by heterodox policies and high prices for agricultural exports. The economy grew 9 per cent per year between 2003 and 2007, while real wages rose and unemployment dropped sharply. He used clientelism, especially in the latter years of his term, to expand his base of support and provide employment. In 2007, the presidential election year, government expenditures rose 30 percent.44 He also pressured foreign corporations to sell out to local entrepreneurs with good political connections, and the scope of the government began to increase again. An alliance with unions was less important than in previous populist periods, but it was replaced by alliances with certain groups of piqueteros, groups of the unemployed who banded together to protest by blocking traffic and similar tactics. The Kirchner government was mostly tolerant of these disruptions and allied itself firmly with certain groups through giving jobs, housing and the like. These became militantly Kirchneristas.45
The constitution now allowed for two consecutive terms but Kirchner, perhaps afraid that during a second term his lame duck status would hurt him, supported the presidential candidacy of his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a politician in her own right, who won easily in 2007. Although frequently compared to Evita, during the campaign she compared herself to Hilary Clinton. Her presidency has been made more difficult by the world wide recession, drought and an inflation that began under her husband. The attempts to keep food prices low in order to appeal to the working class base and high taxes on agricultural exports have led to heated and continuous conflicts with the agrarian sector, the motor of the economy. Attempts to further centralize power in the presidency and the feeling that Néstor, not his wife, was running the country, has helped splinter the Peronist Party. The administration has become extremely confrontational with those that it perceives as its enemies. Still, the Kirchners remain extremely popular with many traditional Peronist constituencies.
Populism has returned to Argentina, though at times what its traits are and what are the political traditions of the country are difficult to ascertain. A tradition of the strong party leader—which may be a populist trait—lingers. There is a reluctance to accept other parties as legitimate political contenders. The populist faith that only their movement knows the truth remains. In addition, many sectors of society remain highly suspicious of Peronism in part because of lack of faith in its commitment to democratic beliefs and in part because of its class and cultural basis. There is also a fear that no other party will be allowed to govern. While much has changed in Argentine society in recent years, the divisions left by populism remain. Populism helped create a society where the opposition was viewed as lacking essential virtues. It helped create a large state and bureaucracy. Populism may have brought new groups into the society, but it also divided the nation and made it more unstable.


1. See Joel Horowitz, “Industrialists and the Rise of Perón, 1943–1946: Some Implications for the Conceptualization of Populism,” The Americas 47, no. 2 (October 1990): 199–217, especially 216.

2. For the Radical Party, Joel Horowitz, Argentina’s Radical Party and the Mobilization of Popular Support, 1916-1930 (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2008).

3. Félix Luna, ed., Los radicales (Buenos Aires: Todo es Historia, 1976).

4. The poem by Emilio Uttinger appeared in La Epoca, March 14, 1929.

5. Ricardo Sidcaro, La política mirada desde arriba: Las ideas del diario La Nación, 1909–1989 (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1993), 59.

6. David Rock, Politics in Argentina 1890–1930 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 143–52; Paul Goodwin, Los ferrocarriles británicos y la UCR (Buenos Aires: Ediciones La Bastilla, 1974), 69–148; Jeremy Adelman, “State and Labour in Argentina: The Portworkers of Buenos Aires, 1910–1921,” Journal of Latin American Studies 25, no. 1 (February 1993): 84–93; La Epoca, August 28, 1927, March 22, 1928.

7. Edgardo Bilsky, La semana trágica (Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1984).

8. See Joel Horowitz, “Argentina's Failed General Strike of 1921: A Critical Moment in the Radicals' Relations with the Unions,” HAHR 75, no. 1 (February 1995): 57–79.

9. Roberto P. Korzeniewicz, “Labor Politics of Radicalism: The Santa Fe Crisis of 1928,” HAHR 73, no. 1 (February 1993): 1–32. For a claim of senility, see for example, Ysabel F. Rennie, The Argentine Republic (New York: Macmillan, 1945), 221–22.

10. The best analysis of the regime's breakdown is Peter H. Smith, “The Breakdown of Democracy in Argentina, 1916–1930,” in The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Latin America, ed. by Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 3–27.

11. Dirección Nacional de Estadística y Censos, Cuarto censo general de la Nación, III (Buenos Aires: n.p., 1949), 26.

12. Joel Horowitz, Argentine Unions and the Rise of Perón, 1930–1945 (Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California, 1990), 3–4, 221. See also for an overview of the entire period between 1930 and 1943.

13. Departamento Nacional del Trabajo, División de Estadística, Organización sindical: Asociaciones obreras y patronales (Buenos Aires: n.p., 1941), 27; Carlos F. Díaz Alejandro, Essays on the Economic History of Argentina (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 428.

14. Enrique Santos Discépolo, “Cambalache” (1934) as translated by Nicolas Fraser and Marysa Navarro in Eva Perón (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1980), 19.

15. Federico Rahola, Sangre nueva: Impresiones de un viaje a la América del Sud (Barcelona: La Académica, 1905), 83; Christopher Towne Leland, The Last Happy Men: The Generation of 1922, Fiction and the Argentine Reality (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1986), 30; James R. Scobie, Buenos Aires: Plaza to Suburb (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 220.

16. The two best biographies of Perón are Joseph Page, Perón (New York: Random House, 1983) and Robert Crassweller, Perón and the Enigmas of Argentina (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1987).

17. This analysis is based on Horowitz, Argentine Unions.

18. Revista de Trabajo y Previsión (July–September 1944): 1016–67; (October–December 1944): 1546–660. For the importance of this, see Horowitz, “Industrialists and the Rise of Perón.”

19. Miguel Murmis and Juan Carlos Portantiero, Estudios sobre los orígenes del peronismo/1 (Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno Argentina, 1971), 106.

20. Federación, May 11, July 14, September 30, 1945.

21. Juan Perón, El pueblo ya sabe de qué se trata (no publication information), 46, 60.

22. Author's interview with Luis Gay, Buenos Aires, June 29, 1984.

23. See Juan Carlos Torre, ed., El 17 de Octubre de 1945 (Buenos Aires: Ariel, 1995).

24. Marysa Navarro, “Evita and the Crisis of 17 October 1945,” Journal of Latin American Studies 12, no. 1 (May 1980): 127–38.

25. See Horowitz, Argentine Unions, 190–91; Juan Carlos Torre, La vieja guardia sindical y Perón: Sobre los orígenes del peronismo (Editorial Sudamericana/Instituto Torcuato Di Tella), 148–86; Elena Susana Pont, Partido Laborista: Estado y sindicatos (Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1984).

26. See the essays in Manuel Mora y Araujo and Ignacio Llorente, eds., El voto peronista (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1980).

27. Juan Carlos Torre, La vieja guardia sindical, 205–50.

28. Thomas E. Skidmore and Peter H. Smith, Modern Latin America 3d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 88.

29. The best biography in English is Fraser and Navarro, Eva Perón. See also Marysa Navarro, Evita (Buenos Aires: Corregidor, 1981).

30. Eva Duarte de Perón, Evita by Evita (New York: Proteus, 1980), 41. She did not actually write this work and it is impossible, as it is with any married couple, to know the internal power dynamics of the relationship. She clearly was much more powerful than she portrays herself here.

31. Marysa Navarro, “Evita's Charismatic Leadership” in Latin American Populism in Comparative Perspective, ed. Michael L. Conniff (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), 47–66.

32. Mariano Plotkin has hypothesized that the foundation was created in part to fill a gap created by a failure to establish an all-encompassing social welfare system. The best discussion of the foundation is Plotkin, Mañana es San Perón (Buenos Aires: Ariel, 1994), 215–55. For the need to separate beliefs from propaganda, see J. M. Taylor, Eva Perón: The Myths of a Woman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

33. Navarro, Evita, 169–84, 207–24. The constitution had been rewritten so Perón could be reelected.

34. Plotkin, Mañana es San Perón.

35. See Daniel James, Resistance and Integration: Peronism and the Argentine Working Class, 1946–1976 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Oscar R. Anzorena, ed., JP: Historia de la Juventud Peronista (1955–1988) (Buenos Aires: Ediciones del Cordón, 1989); Juan Carlos Torre and Liana de Riz, “Argentina since 1946,” The Cambridge History of Latin America, vol. 8, ed. Leslie Bethell, 93–101 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

36. Guillermo O'Donnell, Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism: Studies in South American Politics (Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California, 1979), 167–201.

37. James Brennan, The Labor Wars in Córdoba, 1955–1976 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 136–69.

38. Perhaps the best picture of this period is given by a work of fiction, Tomás Eloy Martínez, The Perón Novel, trans. Asa Zatz (New York: Pantheon, 1988). See also Torre and de Riz, “Argentina since 1946,” 129–57.

39. Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, Nunca más (Buenos Aires: EUDEBA, 1984). For the haunted nature of the period, see Andrew Graham-Yooll, A State of Fear: Memories of Argentina's Nightmare (London: Eland, 1986).

40. For a discussion of the riots, see Sergio Serulnikov, “When Looting Becomes a Right: Urban Poverty and Food Riots in Argentina,” Latin American Perspectives 21, no. 3 (summer 1994): 69–89. For 1989 as a major break with the past, Tulio Halperín Donghi, La larga agonía de la Argentina peronista (Buenos Aires: Ariel, 1994).

41. For differing but interesting visions of this period, see Jeremy Adelman, “Post-Populist Argentina,” New Left Review 203 (1994): 65–91; Jos‚ Nun, “Populismo, representación, y menemismo,” Sociedad [Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad de Buenos Aires] 5 (October 1994): 93–121.

42. All the changes followed the form of the constitution and the army stayed in the barracks.

43. Steven Levitsky and María Victoria Murillo, “Argentina: From Kirchner to Kirchner,” Journal of Democracy 19,2 (Apr. 2008). http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?index=4&sid=3&srchmode+1&vinst=prode&fmt=3&statepage-1&clientid, 12/26/09.

44. Ibid.

45. Carlos Escudé, “Piqueteros al gobierno: Un experimento populista argentino, 2003-2007,” Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina y el Caribe 20:1 (Jan.-June 2009), http://www1.tau.ac.il/eial/index2.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=287&pop=1&page=0&itemid=1, 1/13/10.
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