Perón: A Biography
Juan Perón and the Reshaping of Argentina
Perón, Perón, how great you are.
My general, how much you’re worth!
As the chorus of the Peronist marching song “The Peronist Boys” suggests, there was never any moment in his career when Juan Domingo Perón had to say: “I am not a crook.” Of course the Argentines knew he was a crook. That was one of the reasons why he was so popular.
Perón, Perón, son of a bitch or thief,
We love Perón.
That was another chant popular at Peronist rallies when “El Lider” was living in exile between 1955 and 1973. It was a genuine expression of contempt for the charges of corruption made by the military leaders who had overthrown him and who had forbidden even the mention of his name. Referred to in the press only as “the deposed dictator” or “the fugitive tyrant,” Perón was transformed from a cult into a myth.
There is a difference between a living myth and a dead myth, however, as the first presidential election in their history that the Peronists have lost has just demonstrated. When Italo Argento Luder, the cold fish candidate selected by the trade union bosses, was perceived to be trailing behind Raúl Alfonsín, the leader of the Radical Civic Union (UCR), Peronist campaign tactics changed. It was as if Luder, a smart lawyer-politician from Buenos Aires, and his running mate, Deolindo Bittel, a provincial caudillo, were no longer running. The faithful were being urged to vote for Perón and Evita.
Although the cheering grew louder and the crowds swelled as Luder invoked the memory of “El General” and the immortal Evita, there was something missing. Alfonsín pointed out that both of the Peróns would make excellent candidates but that both, unfortunately for their followers, were dead. The contrast between the warmth and enthusiasm of Alfonsín and the cold-bloodedness of Luder had much to do with the election results. Millions of previously loyal Peronists voted for Alfonsín in preference to two dreary stand-ins for a pair of corpses.
Even though he is dead and lies in the family vault in Chacarita Cemetery under several tons of reinforced concrete poured on his tomb by the military when both he and Evita were reburied after the 1976 military coup, Perón might have won last week’s elections, with or without Evita. The military had the bodies of both Perón and Evita on its hands when Isabel Perón, his third wife, was deposed. Evita’s embalmed body lay, doll-like, on view next to the closed coffin of her husband, in a garish chapel built specifically for the purpose on the grounds of the presidential residence in the Buenos Aires suburb of Olivos. In an act of obvious symbolism the couple were buried apart—Evita behind an armored steel shutter, like the door of a bank safe, in fashionable Recoleta Cemetery among Argentina’s high society where her mother purchased an elegant mausoleum; Perón among the lumpen (and now the tango singers) in sleazy Chacarita.
It was the living candidates who proved to be the handicap. If he’d had more rigorous representatives, Perón might have risen above the handicap of being dead. In the eyes of his supporters he overcame all the other frailties of the flesh. Peronists tend to dismiss all moral charges made against Perón as mere “anecdotes.” It is only one step further to dismiss all criticism of Perón entirely. Or if criticism is unavoidable, to suggest that he was guilty of mere peccadilloes compared with the mortal sins of others.
The groveling sycophancy of the marchita captures the cult of Peronism. I remember hearing it sung in late May 1973 in the Palacio San Martin, the once-elegant but now unkempt mansion that houses the foreign ministry in Buenos Aires. That the members of the Argentine foreign service would hail the Peronist restoration with the humiliatingly imbecilic words of that groveling hymn to Perón brought home to me what Peronism is about.
The fifty-day presidency of Héctor Cámpora, who was elected in March 1973 as a kind of stand-in for Perón, was a good occasion to see the mindlessness of Perón-worship. Perón was still in Madrid, where he had spent the last of his eighteen years of exile. The old-timers in the foreign ministry called him “El Macho”; to a generation of young supporters who were not yet born when he fled Argentina, he was “El Viejo.”
It was a royal restoration. The slogan of the elections of March 1973 explained the situation: “Perón to power, Cámpora to the government.” Cámpora, who took pride in being, as he aptly put it himself, “an obsequious servant of Perón,” was merely the president who had been elected because Perón was banned from running. During his campaign, one could see recent converts to Peronism jumping up and down with their right arms raised and fists clenched to prove that they had joined the people. They would do that when someone shouted “Anyone who doesn’t jump is a reactionary.”
Perón had left Argentina in 1955 with sufficiently solid fascist credentials to be welcomed as a friend and granted asylum by such notorious right-wing dictators as Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguary, Marcos Pérez Jiménez of Venezuela, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, and Francisco Franco. He was expected by the fashionable left-wingers who had managed to land jobs in the Cámpora administration to return home as a criollo Chairman Mao.
When he finally came back to Argentina on June 20, 1973, his triumphant return was marred by a massacre of left-wing demonstrators among a crowd of one million people at Ezeiza Airport. More than 200 young people were killed in a shoot-out between left- and right-wing extremists. The slaughter was directed by one of Perón’s old fascist bodyguards. The affinities between the returning caudillo and the far right should have been clear. The Peronist new left fell into a trap.
Perón soon demonstrated that the years that had passed had merely made him eighteen years older. He dismayed the left by forcing “Uncle” Cámpora to resign. Once elected by a big majority (he and his wife Isabel got almost 62 percent of the vote), he purged the administration of everyone who believed in what, in those heady days, was called “Argentine socialism.” Anyone who wanted a job in the government had to show he believed in Perón and his greatness.
Despite all this, the leftists went on believing that Perón was really the intrepid revolutionary they created in their collective fantasies. The new Peronists found reasons to explain away everything that he did. His most heavy-handed moves against the left wing of the Peronist movement were actually justified by the would-be victims themselves. His repressive measures were viewed as “tactics” intended to con-found the opposition. Shadowy offstage murders and other varieties of skulduggery could be blamed on those surrounding him—the Peronist court formed by his wife Isabel, her private secretary José López Rega, and other hangers-on.
Not even the most blatant expression of Perón’s true feelings jarred their faith in him. They trusted him utterly as if he were a prince in a fairy tale. At his first nationally televised press conference after becoming president, Perón was asked by a young woman reporter for El Mundo, a newspaper financed by the Marxist-Leninist People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), when he was going to stop paramilitary and police groups from picking up left-wing militants and making them disappear. Her eyes widened with astonishment when he responded by turning to his aide-de-camp and ordering him to take her name. She was questioned by the police afterward and a little later kidnapped and beaten up. The Peronist left went on singing “Perón, Perón, how great you are.” Even Marxist journalists deferentially addressed him as “mi general.”
Perón himself occasionally expressed amazement over the faith he inspired. Once I heard him explain, quite genuinely—and truthfully as it happened—that it wasn’t because he had ruled Argentina so well from 1946 to 1955 that people wanted him back; it was just that all the subsequent governments had been so bad. Although he encouraged the cult, he seemed unaware of the power of the myth that sustained him.
Everything came together for Perón at the right time. The military had dominated Argentina since the overthrow in 1930 of Hipólito Yrigoyen’s UCR administration. In 1943, Perón, who had entered the army as a cadet in 1911, was an influential colonel and the power behind the scenes in a military government that was running into difficulty. The Argentine army officers were among the highest paid in the world in the 1940s; not only their uniforms but their personal establishments had a garish opulence. But they had little grasp of the changes in the rest of Argentine society during the prosperous years of World War II. An admiration for Mussolini had made Perón realize the possibilities of his backwater job as head of the National Labor Department. He became popular with the growing trade union movement by boosting labor and himself at the same time. Along came the dyed-blonde actress Evita, who drew more attention to him. His superiors began to envy him. Finally came the climax of the legend: in 1945 he was put in prison by military rivals and then rescued by workers marching on Buenos Aires, who massed outside Government House to demand his release. In 1946 he was elected president by a huge majority.
Yet even when the legend was still dazzling—before Evita Perón died in 1952 and before the money that had piled up during World War II ran out—there was a dark side to Peronist Argentina. The Peronist regime was unashamedly sympathetic to the defeated Axis powers. Perón rapidly transformed Argentina into a police state, with many informers and torturers. While he granted benefits to the working class he reconstructed the trade union movement as an instrument of the government. The unions degenerated from corporative toadying to the regime into gangsterism after Perón was deposed. Some of the trade union thugs joined the death squads set up by police and retired military officers. They formed right-wing terrorist groups and also battled against the left-wing Peronist guerrilla organization, the Montoneros. Perón claimed that he gave workers 61 percent of the national income by 1952, but this “redistribution” could more accurately be described as a sharing of the spoils.
Nevertheless, the Perón legend has been reborn every few years. One reason is that a natural law seemed to govern Argentine politics by which each successive government was worse than the one that went before. Since 1930, when the military staged the first coup in Argentine modern history, no civilian president has completed his term of office. A series of military coups, interspersed with palace revolutions, followed Perón’s overthrow in 1955. Each successive government, civilian and military alike, has added its own contribution to Argentina’s increasing load of troubles. Problems that have been solved by one regime have been undone by another. The only continuity has been the dead hand of military rule for almost nine years from 1966 to 1973 and again from 1976 to the present day. The past seven and a half years of what is called “The Argentine Process” have provided a continuity of accelerating catastrophe. Even the presidency of Isabel Perón between 1974 and 1976, which combined chaotic violence, hyper-inflation, and astonishing corruption looks good to many Argentines today—at least, in comparison. So it is not surprising that books by foreigners who have recently done research in Argentina will reflect the current myths.