Three out of the seven candidates running for presidency in the coming 23rd October election call themselves “peronists”, yet represent distinct political options and are bitterly opposed to each other. Confusing? To shed some light on the matter, it is necessary to delve into the history-littered with controversy and contradictions—of the most important political movement of 20th-century Argentina.
17th October, 1945
Peronists remember and celebrate every 17th of October as “Loyalty Day”—the day that, in 1945, would change Argentine history forever.
The coup d’etat that brought the so-called “Década Infame” to an end in 1943, was headed by a group of Army officials known as GOU (Grupo de Oficiales Unidos). General Pedro Ramírez became president after the coup, but was removed in 1944 and replaced by General Edelmiro Farrell. During Farrell’s presidency, Colonel Juan Domingo Perón -who was a member of the GOU- became vicepresident, Minister for War and Labour Secretary (simultaneously).
The new regime sought to implement a change in the country’s social and economic structures, based on strong State intervention, where the long-term goals of the workers coincided with the nation’s need for economic development. Perón’s work from the Labour Secretariat helped organise the workers’ movement (until then divided into Communist, Socialist, and Revolutionary factions) into strong, centralised unions that cooperated with the government in solving labour disputes and establishing collective bargaining agreements, and whose leadership was under government influence.
It was during this time that Perón would establish a strong alliance with the unions, who would later become the backbone of peronism. Workers started seeing that many of their historic demands were finally being attended to, including severance pay, retirement benefits, and regulation for rural labour.
These measures earned him the loyalty and support of the working masses, but strong opposition from the local bourgeoisie and existing political parties, whose core voters were largely middle class. The political opposition organised itself around the figure of US Ambassador Spruille Braden and found enough support from dissident groups within the Armed Forces to pressure Farrell into removing Perón. Eventually, Perón lost Farrell’s support, resigned from all his positions on the 9th October 1945 and was jailed at the Martín García Island, then famous for hosting deposed politicians.
The Federal Workers Confederation (CGT) had called for a strike for the 18th October to support Perón. However hundreds of thousands of workers spontaneously decided to gather at Plaza de Mayo a day earlier. On a symbolic level, the images of the workers taking over the heart and soul of Argentine political life -Plaza de Mayo-, making it their own, washing their feet in the fountains, became the expression of a new era in the country’s social and political history. The relegated masses had made a triumphal entry into Argentina’s political life, leaving behind decades of political isolation.
The images of 17th October 1945 continue to depict the deeper historical meaning of peronism: the inclusion of the working class in the country’s social, political and economic life.
Due to popular pressure, Perón was released that same day and addressed the people from the balconies of the Casa Rosada in the evening, launching his presidential candidacy for the forthcoming elections.
Perón’s First Government (1946-1951)
Perón was elected president in February 1946, winning 56% of the vote. He had the support of the Labour Party (which was formed by the unions after the 17th October) and a faction of the Radical party called UCR Junta Renovadora (Perón’s eventual vicepresident, Hortensio Quijano, was from this breakaway). He’d run the presidential campaign around the slogan “Braden or Perón” —where Braden and the opposition parties centred around the Unión Democrática represented imperialism, while Perón maintained a nationalist stance.
The period 1946-1955 marked a turning point in the economic development of the country. Up until that point, the economy had been characterised by a model based around agricultural exports, dominated by large landowners and a strong intervention of foreign companies—British, and increasingly from the US. 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 industrialisation” (ISI).
This new economic paradigm was based around the development of labour-intensive, light industry to create jobs and produce domestic goods for the internal market. The State played an important role in channelling income from agricultural exports to industry, raising import tariffs, and nationalising foreign-owned companies such as the railways, gas, phone and electricity.
The political model that accompanied these economic changes was based on a class alliance between the workers, industrial employers, the Armed Forces and the Catholic Church. However, this alliance excluded the old landowners -“the oligarchy”- who would become the number one enemy of the new government.
During this period, 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 womens’ 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. The Eva Perón Foundation channelled the social policies of the government, emphasising the concept of social justice as opposed to charity. Evita was loved and admired by the people as much as she was derided by the opposition and by the more conservative factions within the peronist movement, whose power and influence in government were being diminished by her growing profile.
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 centre 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.
Perón’s 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). His second term, however, proved to be much more complicated than the first. The day he took office, 4th June 1952, was the last public appearance of Evita, who died of cancer the following month. The economic situation worsened, with a drop in the international price of agricultural products and severe droughts between 1949 and 1952 affecting domestic production.
This prompted Perón to embrace austerity measures, putting the brakes on consumption and wealth redistribution, and improving the relationship with foreign companies -such as the Standard Oil, which was awarded new contracts. All these measures contradicted the model that Perón himself had implemented, and divided opinion among his followers.
In political terms, the heterogeneous support base of peronism started to disintegrate. Without Evita, the more combative unionists and political leaders were ousted by the conservative, bureaucratic sectors of the movement. At the same time, the relationship with the Church became increasingly frosty, before turning into an open conflict in 1954. In addition, some members of the industrial bourgeoisie, less favoured by the new economic reality, also started to abandon this alliance and join the ranks of the opposition, which now included some hardline sectors in the military. All these groups united against what was perceived as the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the government, which had by this point closed down several media outlets and utilised public radio, television and print media for its own propaganda.
On the 16th June 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 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 same 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.
Contradictions and Resistance: Peronism Without Perón (1955 – 1960’s)
By this time, the peronist movement was made up of a mixture of factions from different backgrounds: socialists, catholic nationalists, anarchists, yrigoyenist radicals, and conservatives, among others. From the beginning they co-existed in constant tension -a tension that could only be overcome by the dominant and unifying figure of Perón.
With Perón in exile, the contradictions between all these factions bubbled to the surface. In a country now deeply divided by the peronism/anti-peronism dichotomy, new divisions started to emerge within the peronist side. These would not only mark the evolution of the peronist movement, but would also play a major role in Argentina’s political life to this day. Perón’s legendary pragmatism and political ability became very evident during these years, as even in exile he managed to mantain an important level of control over the situation, playing the different factions to his advantage.
Two months after the coup, the liberal faction of the self-proclaimed “Liberating Revolution” took over the government and started a process of “de-peronisation”. This involved dissolving the peronist party and banning any of its members from running for public office, banning the display of all the peronist symbols and any mention of the names of Perón or Evita, intervening in the CGT, and proscribing the unions’ old leadership. The persecution of the CGT leaders and the weakening of the peronist unions left many workers once again unprotected and exposed to the abuses of some employers.
It was in this context that the Peronist Resistance was born—an inorganic protest movement that carried out clandestine actions of sabotage (ranging from breaking machinery at the workplace to placing home-made bombs). The Resistance was an expression of the grassroots of the peronism: the workers who wanted their leader back and were fighting to protect the legacy of his government.
One of the main organisers of the Resistance was John William Cooke, a left-wing peronist deputy who had been named by Perón as his personal representative whilst in exile. In 1956, peronist General Juan José Valle led an unsuccessful uprising against the government, which ended up with 30 people -many of them civilians- executed. The violent suppression of the uprising caused Perón and the Resistance to abandon the idea of armed struggle and focus on reorganising the unions.
In 1957, the government started to plan the transition towards a restricted democracy. With this in mind, they abolished the 1949 constitution, called for the normalisation of the CGT, and announced elections for the following year, with the peronist party banned from participating.
In 1958, John W. Cooke brokered a secret pact with the UCR candidate Arturo Frondizi, promising him peronist support for his government in exchange for measures that would restore some of the rights lost by the workers during the dictatorship. During Frondizi’s government, a renewal of the union leadership started to take place, revealing two distinct positions: the hardline approach which resisted any collaboration with the government, and the conciliatory line, which sought to strengthen their position via negotiation.
Frondizi was under extreme pressure from the military throughout his government due to his agreement with Perón and was ousted in 1962, after allowing peronist candidates to run, and win, in provincial elections. During president Arturo Illia’s term (1963-1969) there was no such agreement and the unions had a central role in attacking and weakening the radical government, which was eventually deposed by a coup led by General Juan Carlos Onganía.
General Onganía’s ideology was ambiguous enough that when he first took office some peronists had an expectation that he might have a political position compatible with theirs. Soon enough it became clear that this was not the case, as his economic program opposed peronist nationalism and the repressive nature of his government -symbolised early on by the attack on students and professors at the University of Buenos Aires known as “The night of the long batons”- increased the opposition of workers and students.
There was, however, a faction of the CGT, led by metal worker Augusto Vandor that was willing to negotiate with the de facto government and carry out what was called “peronism without Perón”, in which he would be the main leader. The deepening of the divisions within the CGT led in 1968 to a split, and the CGT de los Argentinos (CGTA), which strongly opposed any negotiation with the government, was created.
Call to Arms: The Peronist Youth (late 1960s-early 1970s)
1969 was a crucial year in Argentine history. In May 1969, the city of Córdoba witnessed a massive popular uprising by students and workers (from CGTA and non-peronist, left-wing unions) in protest against Onganía’s government, that became known as “Cordobazo”. After many weeks of strikes and protests, a worker was killed by the police, sparking massive riots that were violently suppressed.
Similar protests spread in other parts of the country, all of which contributed to the weakening of Onganía’s government and his removal in 1970. Most importantly, the Cordobazo was the showcase of a whole new generation of activists -both peronist and leftist- which opposed the “union bureaucracy” that Vandor and his faction of the CGT represented. These young activists were radicalised and were not willing to negotiate. Instead, many of them opted for armed struggle as a means of liberating the country.
The late 60’s and early 70’s saw the development of guerrilla groups, many of which were influenced by the Cuban Revolution. They were the new generation that had appeared during the Cordobazo, made up mostly of young students from middle class backgrounds as opposed to the workers that had formed the Resistance in the 50’s. There were both marxist and peronist groups, which acted by organising bank robberies, kidnapping businessmen for ransom, taking over towns, and killing bureaucratic unionists.
In June 1969, in an operation called “Operation Judas”, Vandor was murdered by members of a small group that would later join the Montoneros, which would become the most active and violent peronist guerrilla group.
These peronist armed groups were part of the left-wing faction of the Peronist Youth, called La Tendencia Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Trend) or simply “La Tendencia”, which also included university, union, secondary students and other groups.
On the first anniversary of the Cordobazo, the Montoneros made a spectacular public debut by kidnapping and murdering ex-president (1955-58) General Eugenio Aramburu. They claimed it was a revenge for the execution of the 1956 insurgents. The Montoneros had been formed by a group of students originally from an ultra-right wing Catholic organisation, who became close to the Third World Priests movement and eventually moved to the left and fought for the “socialist revolution”. Originally, after Aramburu’s murder, they received Perón’s support, though their extreme stance would soon cause considerable tension with their ideological leader.
Triumph and Tragedy: The Return of Perón (1973)
In 1971, General Lanusse took control of the government and started the process of democratic transition: re-establishing the activity of political parties that Onganía had banned and promising free elections, to take place in March 1973. He also made some gestures towards Perón, such as restoring the body of Eva Perón, which had been stolen from the CGT headquarters in 1955, mutilated, and hidden in a cemetery in Rome.
In 1972, Perón finally returned to Argentina, where he remained for about a month. In this time, he chose loyal peronist politician Héctor Cámpora to be the presidential candidate, since he was still not allowed to run himself, thus giving a boost to the Peronist Youth which surrounded Cámpora. The plan was to have Cámpora win the election and lift the ban on Perón so that he could run for president the following year. It worked perfectly, and Cámpora was elected president in 1973 under the slogan “Government for Cámpora, power for Perón”.
On the 20th June 1973, Perón made his final return to the country. A massive welcome was prepared for him at Ezeiza airport, where his plane was due to land. But this triumph for peronism also brutally exposed the contradictions that had grown within the movement, which had splintered into wildly divergent and incompatible ideologies during the leader’s long exile.
Both the peronist right (CGT and some armed groups) and the left (La Tendencia) wanted to impress Perón and use the opportunity to showcase their strength. A fight soon developed to occupy the area around the box where Perón would pronounce a speech. The unionist right arrived there earlier, positioned snipers on trees and on the box and opened fire as soon as Montoneros and other Peronist Youth groups arrived, killing at least 13 people and wounding over 350. Perón’s plane was deviated and landed at the air force base in Morón.
In July 1973, Cámpora resigned and shortly afterwards Perón, at 78, won his third election with 62% of the vote. His vicepresident was his third wife, Estela Martínez, better known by her stage name, Isabel (she had been a cabaret dancer). The background to Perón’s third presidency was the violent struggle between the peronist right and left, which had been cruelly demonstrated at Ezeiza. Perón himself kept an ambiguous position, as he had encouraged both factions during his exile. On the speech the night he returned to the country, he had called for the different factions to unite. This position would not last long, as soon enough Perón would make his preference clear.
On the 25th September 1973 Montoneros killed CGT leader José Ignacio Rucci by shooting him 23 times. It is believed that the aim of this murder was a demonstration of strength as Rucci was very close to Perón. This backfired and it became the last straw for Perón, who would not forgive Montoneros for Rucci’s murder. After this incident, Perón became convinced he needed to control the left with the help of the right.
The final break-up came on the 1st May 1974, during a Worker’s Day rally at Plaza de Mayo. Throughout the rally, Montoneros and the Peronist Youth whistled and chanted against Isabel Perón and the Minister for Social Welfare López Rega, who represented the right wing of the movement within the government. Perón reacted angrily, attacking the “brats who expect to have more merits than those who have been fighting for the last twenty years”. In the middle of Perón’s speech, Montoneros and the Peronist Youth abandoned Plaza de Mayo, leaving it half empty. This marked a point of no return in the relationship between Perón and the peronist left.
Two months later, on the 1st July 1974, Perón died and his widow and vicepresident Isabel took office. Despite the fight between Perón and the peronist left, he was the glue that -barely- kept the movement together. His death left a void that would very quickly be filled up by the ultra-right wing of the peronist movement, with dramatic consequences.