Celina Andreassi concludes the complex history of peronism in the second part of our series. To read Part I, click here.
Juan Domingo Perón died on 1st July 1974, just as the tension between the left wing of the peronist movement -embodied in La Tendencia, the left of the Peronist Youth- and its right wing -manifest certain factions of the CGT and Minister José López Rega- reached breaking point.
In his last term, Perón wife, María Estela Martínez (aka Isabel Perón), was vice president. But Isabel was no Evita, and the death of Perón left her in a position she was unable to fulfill.
Perón had met Isabel in Panama, where she worked as an exotic dancer, in 1955, and married her six years later in Spain. She was sent to Argentina in 1965 as Perón’s delegate and during this trip she met former policeman José López Rega (aka “the warlock”) and bonded with him thanks to a shared interest in astrology and religion. López Rega moved to Spain and became the couple’s private secretary, exercising a great deal of influence on them, especially Isabel.
After Perón’s return to Argentina and the presidency, López Rega was appointed welfare minister. From this position, he surrounded himself with extreme right-wing organisations and, after Perón’s split with the peronist left, he organised the paramilitary organisation Triple A (Argentine Anti-communist Alliance) to quash the “subversives”.
It is believed that the Triple A started its operations in 1973, just before Perón took office. There is some debate regarding the role of Perón himself in the actions of the Triple A: the most commonly accepted theory is that whilst he was not personally involved in the group’s operations, he was aware of its existence and did nothing to stop them.
Is it estimated that the Triple A committed over 2,000 murders in around two years of existence. Its main targets were key leftist figures—both peronist and non-peronist—including politicians, unionists, scientists and artists. The height of its activity ocurred during Isabel Perón’s government, between 1974 and 1975, when López Rega’s influence was at its peak.
In the midst of a situation dominated by violence and terror, the government was proving to be more succesful killing its enemies than in managing the country. The international oil crisis affected Argentina’s economy, causing high inflation, a decrease in capital investments, and external debt growth. In 1975, López Rega sponsored a new Economy Minister, Celestino Rodrigo, who implemented a 100%devaluation of the currency combined with a massive increase in the prices of fuel and services such as electricity.
The plan was a disaster and was met by strong opposition from the workers. This, which coincided with in-fighting between López Rega and some sectors of the CGT, brought about the first general strike against a peronist government in history, and both Rodrigo and López Rega were forced to resign. López Rega had to leave the country and returned to Spain.
Isabel was now alone, and subject to pressures from all sides, whilst the political violence did not wane. She turned to the Armed Forces, naming Jorge Videla as chief of the Army and giving them free reign to carry out the fight against “subversive elements”. In this way, the illegal actions of the Triple A were legitimised and handed to the military.
The conflicts did not cease, and to avoid a military coup, Isabel Perón called for early elections to be held in late 1976. This manoeuvre did not work and another coup—the last to this date—was carried out on 24th March 1976. By this time the left wing guerrilla groups were already very weak after years of illegal repression and neither the government or the opposition were able to stop it.
Despite the fact that Argentina had been suffering from coups and military governments since 1930, no one could foresee that what happened in 1976 would become the biggest tragedy in the country’s history. Not only because of the seven years of indescribable terror that followed, but also because of its deep and long-lasting political and economic consequences, which extended well beyond the return to democracy.
The Peronist Renewal (1983-1989)
Despite the massive amount of murders, kidnappings and forced exiles during the years of the dictatorship, the faces that re-emerged in the peronist movement after the return to democracy in 1983 were the sames ones as in the mid-70’s. Isabel Perón was still the president of the party’s National Council, despite living abroad and not wanting anything to do with Argentine politics. Both the party and the unions were still divided in factions.
It is not surprising then, than after losing the 1983 elections to the radical candidate Raúl Alfonsín -the first ever loss for the peronist party in a presidential election- the situation reached a crisis point.
After many years in which the trade unions had been the backbone of the peronist movement -years during which the peronist party had been banned- the renewal that took place in the 80’s was based around the need for the political wing to take control. After a conflictive power struggle, politicians triumphed over the unionists, and a new wave of peronist leaders—more liberal, more inclined to look at the middle classes for electoral support, and more concerned about the institutionalisation of the movement emerged—took control of the national peronist movement.
One of the main figures of this renewal was La Rioja governor Carlos Menem, whom, with the support of the unionists he had contributed to displace in the first place, won the internal election in 1988 and became the presidential candidate for the Partido Justicialista (PJ).
The Menem Era (1989-1999)
In 1989, the economic situation was so critical that then-president Alfonsín was forced to bring the election forward by a few months, and then, after Menem’s victory, to hand over the power six months before he was due. Alfonsín’s term had been difficult and the peronist opposition -notoriously hard to deal with, as had been demonstrated during other non-peronist governments- had been more part of the problem than the solution. The president had to endure a record fourteen general strikes led by the CGT and the blockage of important bills in Congress which the peronist would later on implement themselves whilst in government.
Menem’s image and discourse in 1989 were very different to what they would become in the 90’s. He presented himself as a populist caudillo from the countryside, who got to power by promising to carry out a “production revolution”, a “salariazo” (wage increase) and to reestablish the culture of labour. As he confessed in a interview a few years later, “had I said what I was going to do, no one would have voted for me”.
In a movement broad enough to accommodate the most extreme right and left wing factions, there were always certain underlying elements— a certain nationalist rhetoric or the importance of the worker’s movement—that could be found across the factions. Menem exploited this peronist identity during his presidential campaign, but very soon after coming to power he turned his back on the historical “three banners of peronism”: social justice, economic independence and political sovereignty.
During his ten years in government, Menem finished off—in economic terms—what the last dictatorship had started: the establishment of a neoliberal model to replace the peronist-era import substitution industrialisation, putting finance at the centre of the economy. The pillars of the new paradigm were the mass privatisation of public utilities—including strategic assets such as the energy network—, the pegging of the peso to the US dollar to curb inflation, a strong market liberalisation and a reform of the State which, in theory, would make it smaller and more efficient.
After a relatively prosperous period which lasted until about 1994 -supported by funds from selling public assets- all socio-economic indicators started to drop, and would continue to do so for almost a decade.
The overvalued peso made the Argentine industry non-competitive and unable to rival the flood of imported products To counter this, labour costs were lowered and labour laws loosened, making it easier for firms to lay-off workers. Industrial activity lost ground to financial activity, and went from representing 35% of the GDP in the early 70’s to 16% in 2001. Unemployment, a minor problem in Argentina for decades, began to rise rapidly. Foreign debt soared as the government struggled to maintain the value of the peso.
The unions were not there to protect their members. Whilst many of the more combative unionists and political activists had not survived the 70’s violence, those who did often fell victim to another major component of the model: corruption. The main CGT unionists—the so-called “fat cats”—were co-opted into defending their own economic interests and those of the employers, even as state companies were sold at bargain prices to foreign conglomerates.
At odds with the menemist faction of the movement, dissident groups abandoned the peronist party and formed new organisations, though without ever renouncing their peronist identity.
Of these new groups, the most important was the Frente Grande, led by Carlos “Chacho” Alvarez, which added a new dimension to the traditional Peronist-Radical dichotomy. The Frente Grande ended up joining the Alliance with the UCR between 1999 and 2001, when the economic troubles of the 90s came to a head.
Even within the peronist party, there was significant opposition to Menem, such as the group of Santa Cruz congress-people, led by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Likewise, within the union movement there was a dissident group led by Hugo Moyano, whose unions left the official CGT and organised themselves in a new dissident faction that was against the Menem government and “fat cats”. Meanwhile, in 1991, another workers’ confederation, the Central de Trabajadores Argentinos (CTA), was created. Unlike the more traditional CGT, the CTA become more involved with social movements and allowed the unemployed to become members. In the second half of the decade, these social and piquetero (picketer) movements positioned themselves at the fore-front of the opposition.
The Crisis (1999-2003)
After serving two terms, Menem left power in 1999. The economy was, by then, deep in recession and would erupt into crisis in two years. Radical Fernando De La Rúa was in power at the time, but the foundations of the crisis were laid by the military dictatorship and Menem’s government.
When De La Rúa resigned in December 2001, Argentina went through five presidents in a two-week period. One of them, peronist Adolfo Rodríguez Saa (whose brother Alberto is running for president in the current elections) lasted a week, which gave him enough time to default on the country’s debts but not to muster the party’s support to face the crisis.
After his resignation, peronist senator Eduardo Duhalde (who had been Menem’s vice-president and governor of Buenos Aires province in the 90’s) was appointed president by congress. It has been suggested by some journalists and politicians that Duhalde played an important role in the events that led to the resignation of both De La Rúa and Rodríguez Saa, motivated by a life-long ambition to become president.
Duhalde’s aim was to finish off De la Rúa’s term and call for elections in October 2003. He had the difficult task of ruling the country at one of its most desperate moments, with over half the population living in poverty, 25% in extreme poverty and with 20% unemployment. During his term, his economy minister Roberto Lavagna -who would remain in the job during Néstor Kirchner’s presidency, until late 2005- lay the foundations for the current economic model. Probably the most important single policy of Duhalde’s government was one of his first: the ending of the ten-year long pegging of the peso to the US dollar, which triggered a huge devaluation and opened up the possibility to reactivate industrial activity.
The 2001 crisis had an economic cause and a social reaction. After the protests that ended De La Rúa’s government, there was a state of permanent mobilisation. Social movements grew, as well as popular assemblies, and it was a time of intense social conflict. In June 2002, a piquetero protest that was blocking a bridge between the City of Buenos Aires and Avellaneda was violently suppressed by the Buenos Aires police, who killed protesters Maximiliano Kosteki and Darío Santillán. The so-called “Avellaneda massacre” had a strong political impact, forcing Duhalde to bring the election forward to April 2003 and to hand over government in May of that year.
The scandal over the death of Kosteki and Santillán also forced Duhalde to give up his hopes for a re-election, despite having control over the peronist party and a stronger position than his internal rivals Menem and the Rodríguez Saa brothers. Instead, Duhalde chose to support the relatively unknown governor of the southern province of Santa Cruz, Néstor Kirchner.
Just as in 2011, there were three peronist candidates in 2003: Kirchner, Menem and Adolfo Rodríguez Saa. The winner of the first round of the election was Carlos Menem, with 24% of the vote, followed by Néstor Kirchner with 22%. A run-off was scheduled to take place three weeks later, however Menem—aware of his weak support and probably in an attempt to weaken the next government—withdrew from the election, leaving Kirchner to take office on 25th May 2003.
A decade of neoliberalism produced profound changes, not only economic, but also social, political and cultural. The intense political activism that had dominated Argentine life for decades, and that received its hardest blow during the last dictatorship, gave way to years of apathy and individualism, exacerbated by the break-up of traditional community ties brought about by unemployment and social exclusion.
Though the kirchnerist governments have so far left many pillars of the neo-liberal economic model untouched, in the last eight years there has been an undeniable cultural and symbolic change, which seeks to restore the activist spirit of the 70’s. Politics and debate have once again become means to resolve social conflict. In this context, there has also been a revitalisation of the debate about peronism and its historical role, with certain long-forgotten words brought back to every-day conversation.
The good relationship between Néstor Kirchner and Eduardo Duhalde did not last long. As Kirchner started to act with more autonomy and their political differences became obvious, the struggle to control the party intensified. In the 2005 legislative election the split was official and each leader presented its own peronist ballot—Duhalde kept the official Partido Justicialista banner, whilst Kirchner ran under the Frente para la Victoria (FPV). The FPV won the election and with it the control of the party, especially in the crucial Buenos Aires province, the most populous district in the country and a traditional peronist stronghold. Duhalde was then forced to leave the “official” peronist party and join the ranks of the dissident Peronismo Federal, led by Alberto Rodríguez Saa.
After a crushing victory for the FPV and its allies (which included non-peronists, like Radical vicepresident Julio Cobos) in the presidential elections of 2007, when Cristina Fernández de Kirchner succeeded her husband, Néstor Kirchner strengthened his grip over the PJ.
This, however, was short-lived, as the campo crisis of 2008 caused a massive exodus of government supporters. The FPV performed very poorly in the 2009 legislative elections and even lost to dissident peronist Francisco de Narváez in Buenos Aires province.
2009 was a good year for the opposition, and especially for the dissident peronists, who can be considered the right wing of today’s peronist party. By 2010, with this year’s presidential elections on the public agenda, a struggle began between dissident peronists looking to position themselves as candidates.
In the end, there were two pre-candidates left: Eduardo Duhalde and Alberto Rodríguez Saa, the incumbent governor of San Luis. Internal elections were scheduled to decide on one candidate, but after voting in two provinces, these were cancelled amidst crossed accusations of fraud, and both candidates decided to run separately. Duhalde, who is supported by a dissident CGT group called CGT Celeste y Blanca—opposed to Hugo Moyano’s official, kirchnerist CGT and led by the “fat cats” associated with the Menem years—performed slightly better in the primary elections in August 2011, though current polls indicate that Rodríguez Saa could obtain more votes in the October elections.
Meanwhile, the government’s image had started to improve in 2010. The death of Néstor Kirchner in October 2010 only accelerated this process. The landslide victory of Cristina Kirchner in the August 2011 primaries and the weakening of the dissident groups has opened up a new chapter in the history of peronism. As Néstor Kirchner has already been placed by his followers next to Perón and Evita on the peronist pantheon, some see kirchnerism as the final evolution of the movement.
However, history has showed that peronism is an ever-changing, contradictory political movement whose very nature lies in its capacity to adapt to the political and social environment. Even after 66 years, any attempt to provide a neat definition of peronism is doomed to fail.