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.
Joseph Page, Perón’s biographer, and Frederick C. Turner, coeditor of (and contributor to) Juan Perón and the Reshaping of Argentina, both complain that Perón has been misinterpreted and misunderstood. Mr. Turner, for example, warns us against “the malicious, one-sided, anti-Peronist musical that has been playing to packed houses in London and New York.” But all the anti-Peronists I know who have seen the show look on it as an apologia for the Peróns, glorifying and glamorizing both of them. Despite its historical inaccuracies, Evita captures the mood, spirit, and atmosphere of Peronist Argentina, something that cannot be said for the books of Mr. Page and Mr. Turner.
The absence of the man who made and was himself remade by the myth is the problem that Joseph Page faced when he set out to write his huge biography. Page gives readers a hint of his difficulties in his foreword when he writes:
Of the countless eyewitnesses to the events of Perón’s extraordinary career, a few refuse to talk, out of discretion, distrust or fear; some claim they will one day write memoirs of their own; others maintain an active political involvement that colors their testimony. All struggle, often in vain, with the overwhelming Perón mystique, which hopelessly confuses reality and illusion.
That is an understatement. When word spread through the village-metropolis of Buenos Aires in the late 1970s that a gringo professor (Mr. Page teaches at the Georgetown University Law Center) was working on a biography of Perón, there was the same kind of concern about his safety that was once expressed when missionaries ventured among cannibals or headhunters. A few Argentine writers were miffed because yet another foreigner was writing about a topic that they knew was forbidden to them. They assumed doors would have been thrown open for him that would remain tightly closed to them. They knew that he would be granted courtly interviews by generals and other dignitaries who would never submit to questions from a fellow Argentine. But most people feared for him. Although he would be writing in a foreign language and the book would be published abroad (and would only be published in Argentina if it proved to be so bland as to be inoffensive either to pro- or anti-Peronists), he might say something that would get him on someone’s death list.
As an example of the kind of literary criticism that went on during the 1970s, a decade of horror piled on horror, I will cite only one example among many. As editor of the Buenos Aires Herald I met V. S. Naipaul in Buenos Aires when he was working on an article for The New York Review, which appeared under the title “The Corpse at the Iron Gate.”1 The Herald was granted second serial rights for a fee that the newspaper could afford to pay. But there was a gentlemen’s agreement with Naipaul that the essay would not be cut. I thought that the piece was worth risking my neck for. I was principally worried about references to the use of torture by the army and security forces and I hoped that if the essay aroused serious official displeasure only my neck would be on the chopping block.
The essay gave a vivid and accurate picture of Argentina in 1972, which few Argentines, naturally, were prepared to recognize. It caused the uproar I expected but no material damage or bodily harm. Not until a year or so later did I learn that the main left-wing Peronist guerrilla group, the Montoneros, had held a war council to discuss what punishment should be meted out to the Herald for publishing the essay, which they considered disrespectful to the memory of Evita Perón. A plan to blow up the newspaper offices, with the staff inside, was not carried out because the risks were too high to justify attacking such a small newspaper. The Herald is only half a block from the Argentine army headquarters, two blocks from a police station, and four blocks from Government House.2
Mr. Page did his fieldwork in Argentina at a time when more than one hundred journalists and writers were liquidated. Some were assassinated but most of them “disappeared,” a euphemism that means they were kidnapped by security forces, tortured in clandestine prisons, and then murdered. Their bodies were disposed of by one of the various methods used by the military to hide the evidence that they had adopted a policy of mass murder to fight “subversion.” It took some courage for Mr. Page to tramp the sinister streets of Buenos Aires with notebook and tape recorder.
The result is a remarkable book Mr. Page has immersed himself in the minutiae of Argentine politics and compiled a detailed chronology of Perón’s career. But it is not a biography. He fails to bring Perón to life. Perón seems a corpse lying in state. With the flagging reader apparently in mind, Page gives breathless descriptions of the famous moments in Perón’s life in prose that sometimes resembles picturesque travel writing, sometimes Time-ese, and occasionally combines the two. But as a biography the book fails because Mr. Page was not knowledgeable enough to discriminate among his sources.
For example, he is scornful of Jorge Luis Borges although Borges has written with great insight about Peronism, and Borges, his mother, and his sister were victims of Peronist vindictiveness. Borges was fired from his job as a librarian and made a poultry inspector for the Buenos Aires municipal markets. His mother and sister were arrested for taking part in a street demonstration and held in a jail for prostitutes. Borges is not just another anti-Peronist oligarch, as two fleeting allusions in the notes imply. But Borges is dealt with early in the book, where Mr. Page’s tone is still enthusiastic and he writes as if he has many illusions about his subject. Later on, the author’s approach to Perón changes. By his closing chapter, Mr. Page, after seven years of research, writes,
There is much to dislike in Perón—the cynicism, the utter disdain for truth, the lack of principle, the selfishness, the irresponsibility. His willingness to condone violence, his distorting of truth beyond recognition and his rejection of accountability set sorry examples which the military rulers succeeding Isabel duplicated with tragic consequences.
Perhaps the dedication of the book provides a clue to the state of mind in which Mr. Page found himself when it was finished. It reads: “A los jóvenes argentinos, quienes merecen más…” (“To the young Argentines, who deserve more…”).
Since the dedication is not translated it is almost a private message to the young people of Argentina. What exactly do they deserve more of? Thousands of young people went to their deaths for the cause of Peronism—as guerrillas, on the torture tables in the military’s clandestine prisons, dispatched with an injection of curare and dumped in the sea, buried in unmarked graves or secretly cremated. Thousands were innocent of any violence whatever. But the dedication could also refer to the book itself. There is something more about the history of Peronism that has escaped Mr. Page I don’t mean simply his misleading judgments, as when he claims that the UCR party—which under Raúl Alfonsín emerged triumphant in the October 30 elections—is “moribund.” What he misses is deeper and is summed up in the Argentine Spanish word, “chanta.”
A chanta is a confidence trickster of genius, a person whose effrontery is almost beyond belief, whose life is pure theater. They abound in Argentina and Perón could surely lay claim to the title of “the first chanta” although—chanta that he was—he chose to call himself “the first worker.” Argentine chantas are to be found throughout the world. Some of the best of them are diplomats, men who survive coup after coup and regime after regime by conniving, cultivating acquaintances, and demonstrating that they can be relied upon because they have no loyalty except to their own image of themselves. Overdressed, with one or two buttons on the cuffs of their jackets left undone so that everyone may observe that the buttonholes have been hand-stitched and are real, chantas are a source of delight and amazement. It is hard not to admire, for example, the accomplishment of a chanta who wrote a book purporting to expose other chantas. But when it comes to chanteria Perón had no match. Typical was the campaign he launched upon his return to Argentina for the “moral revival of the Argentine man.” This slogan came easily to the man who took a fourteen-year-old girl as his mistress and whose three administrations were riddled with corruption.
What has happened, over the years, is that Perón has been replaced by a figure of myth and by cult worship. The myth is interesting, indeed fascinating, not the chanta behind the myth. The man inside the confidence trickster may, of course, also be interesting, but nobody seems to know who he was. People who literally fear for their lives prefer to keep their true feelings about Perón a secret. One leading Peronist I know secretly loathes Perón, and can give a long list of reasons why. But he dare not talk openly. The late Américo Barrios, an accomplished popular journalist who accompanied Perón into exile and served as his personal secretary, once confided to me that Perón “had no character.” There may not be much of a man behind the myth, after all.
Marysa Navarro’s essay in Juan Perón and the Reshaping of Argentina also explains a great deal about the power of the Peronist myth:
Evita transformed her personal relationship with Perón, her love for him and her gratitude, into political values that every Peronist had to uphold. Stating unequivocally her fanaticism toward Perón, she demanded—and obtained—that same commitment from his followers. In so doing, she was responsible for the creation of a cult of the leader that required absolute loyalty to him, complete trust in him, unconditional allegiance to him, and blind obedience to his word.
Repeated endlessly, her pleas and demands for unity, discipline, faith in Perón, and obedience to Perón created an atmosphere in which criticism and challenge were successfully eliminated and which transformed Peronism into a movement run by lackeys totally subjected to the leader’s will…. The cult of Perón shaped by Evita also survived…exile. When he returned to Argentina, it was given a new name, verticalismo, and it continued to be a major tenet of the Peronist movement.
It was this cult, now even more degenerate, that ran for election on October 30 and was soundly—astoundingly, in view of most predictions—defeated. In one respect the campaign was a farcical variation of the election of 1946, when the Soviet-line Communist party ran against Perón. This time the Party and other left-wing groups lined up with the Peronists in an alliance of black and red fascists. Alfonsín had the support of those conservatives who were untainted by association with the military government. The pro-Peronist reactionaries found themselves facing, for the first time, a considerable and well-organized group of progressive democrats.
From the start of the campaign Alfonsín displayed a talent for rousing oratory and he showed again and again that his rumpled charisma could attract more people to his rallies than the Peronists could to theirs. Few Argentines would allow themselves to believe that he could win, but Alfonsín insisted that he could swing to his side the votes of the Peronist workers, the backbone of the movement. He proved that he was correct by carrying Buenos Aires, the country’s largest and most populous province, with the votes of hitherto diehard Peronists from the industrial belt.
The Peronist candidate for governor of Buenos Aires province—the heartland of Argentina—was Herminio Iglesias, a metal workers’ union leader, who was linked to Lorenzo Miguel, the powerful but unpopular strong man of the Peronist labor movement. To many political commentators Herminio seemed invincible. When his criminal records mysteriously disappeared from the police files, his thuggish lieutenants thought it a huge joke. On television talk shows Herminio was the perfect padrino—smirking, making coarse gibes at his opponents, an Argentine Archie Bunker, without any redeeming features.
The campaign against Alfonsín became a battle of numbers. After he drew 800,000 people to the obelisk in central Buenos Aires for his final rally, Herminio had to beat that, just as the Peronists had repeatedly attempted to outmatch the size of his crowds throughout Argentina. Busing in workers straight from the factory gates, he managed to assemble a crowd of 900,000, maybe a million. But he overdid it. During that final Peronist rally on the broad 9 de Julio Avenue, Herminio arranged for an American flag to be burned. Then he had a ritual cremation of a coffin symbolizing the US Radical Party.
Voters had a day without electioneering between the rally and the voting to consider the antics of Herminio and his gang. During the final fortnight of the campaign, it had also become clear, as Alfonsín had warned early on in the campaign, that the military desperately wanted the Peronists to win. Alfonsín insisted that the health of Argentina required an investigation of the crimes of the military regime, particularly an accounting for the 6,000 to 30,000 people who have disappeared.3 This forced Luder to make a belated promise to repeal the amnesty the armed forces had granted to themselves. But many Peronists realized that their leaders were working closely with the men in uniform.
Perhaps the mystical bond between Peronism and militarism has been broken. When the first distraught relatives of young people who had been abducted during the first days after the 1976 coup came to ask for help at the Herald, they would invariably say: “We just cannot believe that our armed forces would do such a thing. After all, Perón was a general.” Some of them, the more Peronist, would speak of “our glorious armed forces.”
The past seven and a half years of terror, and the blundering invasion of the Falklands, may have opened the eyes of the people of Argentina to some of the realities they have scrupulously tried to ignore for so many years. Since the first military coup in 1930, a police state has been built, piece by piece. The apparatus of such a state was much strengthened during Perón’s rule between 1946 and 1955, and it became entrenched during the military governments that followed (with the exception of the brief administrations of Pedro Eugenio Aramburu and Alejandro Lanusse). Perón continued to rely on police-state methods when he returned in 1973, as did the shabby government of his widow, Isabel, between 1974 and 1976. The military regime that followed veered close to totalitarianism. Only inefficiency and a certain squeamishness on the part of so-called moderates, who nominally ruled through the junta formed by the three service commanders, saved Argentina from a Latin version of Stalinism.
The other factor that stayed the hands of generals, admirals, and brigadiers intent on slaughter to avenge the 800 deaths attributable to left-wing terrorists was Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy. To his credit, Alfonsín has repeatedly stressed his gratitude to the United States for this. During the campaign he made clear his view that the Carter administration had saved thousands of lives in Argentina, in contrast to the Reagan administration which he believes has backtracked, defending “cruel capitalism” rather than human rights. Whether the Reagan policy makers will now help a genuinely democratic Argentina to deal with the $40 billion international debt accumulated by the militarists backed by the US remains to be seen.
Alfonsín’s victory in Argentina is a victory for decency—a striking triumph in a country where decency had become so rare. He was the only political leader in Argentina to speak out—at a time when to do so was to risk one’s life—against state terrorism. He was the only political leader to demand not only that those responsible for atrocities be brought to justice but that militarism be ended. Whatever else it may be, Peronism, as Perón himself demonstrated when he put on his flashy lieutenant-general’s uniform to be sworn in as president on October 12, 1973, is an extension of militarism. Perhaps its day is over.
December 8, 1983
August 10, 1972. ↩
In Soldiers of Perón (Oxford University Press, 1983) Richard Gillespie paints a vivid picture of the Montonero urban guerrilla organization. Like Mr. Page, Mr. Gillespie relies too heavily on Montonero sources and unwittingly paints a distorted picture. Although both seek impartiality, they both give the impression of amorality. ↩
The estimate by human rights organizations that some 10,000 people “disappeared” can be taken as conservative. ↩