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On This Day in… 1946: Argentina Elects President Juan Domingo Perón

“The day will be decisive. This thought, which dominates all spirits, predicts that the percentage of votes cast will be higher than under the Sáenz Peña law, put into practice by the great leading figure, convinced that the people, to return to the elections, only needed freedom.” – Excerpt from an editorial published by La Nación, 24th February 1946.

President Juan Domingo Perón

President Juan Domingo Perón

For those present in Buenos Aires on 24th February 1946, the previous four months of campaigning had culminated in the opportunity to vote either for or against political newcomer and leader of the Labour party, Juan Domingo Perón, in Argentina’s first free elections in 18 years.

The election became what was then the largest in Argentine history, with nearly 3m of 3.5m registered voters heading to the polls. The votes, when counted, indicated a landslide victory for Perón, who garnered a 52.8% majority government.

In a country with a very short history of free elections – the Sáenz Peña law being passed on 10th February 1912, bringing with it universal suffrage for all Argentine-born men of 18 years or older – the voting record was quickly tarnished. While five elections had taken place under the new voting law before February 1946 – beginning in 1916 with the election of Hipólito Yrigoyen – only three have since been recognised as fair elections, the Infamous Decade [1930-43] being riddled with electoral fraud.

Thus, according to La Nación, the February 1946 elections became the ultimate test in determining whether or not Argentina would need to “continue fighting to save democracy”.

Perón’s Rise to Power

De facto president Edelmiro Farrell and his cabinet, including Juan Domingo Perón (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

De facto president Edelmiro Farrell and his cabinet, including Juan Domingo Perón (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Virtually unknown before 1943, Perón’s popularity grew quickly under the military junta that took power that year, by enacting a series of social and labour reforms as well as welfare benefits for unionised workers in his role as Labour Secretary. In his own words, these reforms made “the Argentine people proud to live where they live, once again”. By 1944, he had became Vice-President and Minister of War, as well as keeping his post as Labour Secretary.

With three titles under his belt, an ever growing support from the working classes and unions, and associations with celebrities such as Eva Duarte (Evita) – who would later become his wife – through fundraising efforts like that following the devastating San Juan earthquake in 1944, Perón’s influence began threatening his colleagues.

In scathing articles and editorials, newspapers like La Nación spoke of Perón’s Labour Secretariat as a body which “grew too large, wrapping its tentacles in a huge budget throughout the national territory”. Others wrote that his role as Secretary over the past few years had begun “the demolition work of the economic and social structure by instilling in employees the idea that they have been exploited in favour of the capitalists”.

By 1945, Perón’s influence has grown too strong, and the military government forced him to resign from office on 9th October. His arrest four days later fuelled mass demonstrations, which eventually led President Edelmiro Farrell to release Perón on 17th October and call for elections to be held the following February.

The Campaign

In response to Perón’s popularity, the four-month campaign from October to February quickly turned into a matter of support for or against Perón himself. He held a platform largely based on social issues such as protecting the underprivileged against the abuses of capitalism and the oligarchy, as well as standing firm on the idea of Argentine sovereignty, rejecting foreign – notably US – influence in domestic policy.

Posters showing the campaign slogan 'Braden or Perón'

Posters showing the campaign slogan ‘Braden or Perón’

After US Ambassador to Argentina Spruille Braden published a paper, known as the ‘Blue Book’, accusing Perón of having ties with European Nazis – some of whom sought refuge in Argentina after the war – relations with the US became increasingly strained. “Braden or Perón” became the campaign slogan, establishing a dichotomy between Perón and US imperalism.

Opposing Perón in the campaign was the roughly formed Unión Democrática (UD), created between the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) and the Communist and Socialist parties, with little in common aside from a dislike of Perón. Led by José Tamborini, the platform spoke to capitalists and land-owners, threatened by Perón’s ideologies, who sought to restore Argentina’s democratic guarantees that had disappeared under the military rule.

Tamborini, however, lacked Perón’s qualities as an orator – “his nimble wit, his ready smile, his ingratiating ways, his demagogic manner, and his unscrupulousness,” according the New York Times – and Perón’s cult of personality took over the impassioned campaign.

Election Day

Amid the uproar caused by Perón’s arrest, and the vehemence of the campaign, the Sunday of the election was expected to be violent. Trucks full of soldiers cruised around the capital, cavalry were stationed at important corners, and pacing outside of polling stations with rifles and fixed bayonets, military personnel were positioned to ensure fair and safe voting in Buenos Aires and around the country, as promised by President Farrell and his government.

Tamborini and Perón cast their votes (photo: New York Times)

Tamborini and Perón cast their votes (photo: New York Times)

“Everyone, beginning with the democratic press, acknowledges that the military government under President Farrell fulfilled its promise to make it possible for all Argentine citizens to cast their votes with perfect freedom,” printed the New York Times following the election.

As the polls closed across the country at 6pm, both candidates believed themselves to have achieved landslide victories, each predicting four-to-one, six-to-one, or ten-to-one victories, depending on the media source.

Although much of the press favoured Perón’s rival, La Epoca, one of the few pro-Perón papers, published a letter from him addressing his supporters. “With the election over,” it read, “I wish to thank all the Peronists of the country for their effort in maintaining order. For a people like my dear descamisados [un-shirted], it is an honour and pleasure to serve; so whatever may be the result of the elections, I am intensely happy to be your chief and I pray God He will give you happiness and luck.”

As the votes were counted over the following months, the military remained in power out of fear that the losing side might take drastic action. However, as the counting continued quietly, and neither side challenged its fairness, the results finally ruled in Perón’s favour.

The Inauguration

Perón was sworn in as the 29th President of Argentina on 4th June 1946, three years to the day after the military junta has seized control of the State. His reception was overwhelmingly supportive, as police details were at times unable to keep crowds from surrounding the presidential party.

Perón receives the sash and baton from Edelmiro Farrell on 4th June 1946 (photo: Archivo General de la Nación)

Perón receives the sash and baton from Edelmiro Farrell on 4th June 1946 (photo: Archivo General de la Nación)

In his speech to Congress, interrupted at many points by cheering from the crowds, he said of his international policy that it would consist of “unshakeable maintenance – firm and intransigent – of our sovereignty”. And with regard to domestic policy, Perón vowed “respect for the country’s tradition and institutions and the economic betterment of all its people”.

Perón would go on to serve two terms as president until 1955, and again for a third term in 1973. He and his second wife, Evita, would become two of the most popular figures in Argentine history.

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‘Viva Perón, Viva Macri!’

The first statue of former Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón in Buenos Aires was presented yesterday. Curiously, a celebration of the iconic leader – 120 years after he was born on 8th October 1895 – turned into an election rally of non-Peronist presidential candidate, Mauricio Macri.

Macri led the unveiling of a new statue of Juan Domingo Perón yesterday, erected more than 40 years after the president, who was elected into office three times, died in 1974.


Photo by Reilly Ryan

“Some people use the title ‘Peronist’ to manipulate people, I am not one of those,” Macri told the crowd, before going on to say that he wanted to work against poverty and towards urbanising the villas (shantytowns) in Buenos Aires. “I want to encourage Peronists to come together, and work for the dream that is Argentina. So many people are suffering,” Macri said. He went on to explain that: “Peronism is not arrogance or pride. Peronism is social justice, fighting for equality, and against poverty in Argentina.”

Cristian Ritondo, vice president of the Buenos Aires legislative branch and member of Macri’s PRO party, initiated the project to erect the statue. Speaking at yesterday’s event, he referred to Macri as: “the future president of Argentina, the hope for change.”

Union leader Gerónimo Vanegas picked up on the rhetoric of change – the name of Macri’s political alliance, ‘Cambiemos’, translates as ‘Let’s Change – aiming his speech at the less fortunate Peronists. “Those of us who know what it´s like to be poor, we know how important it is to change this country.” He ended his speech linking arms with the presidential hopeful and proclaiming: “Viva Perón, viva Macri!


Macri and Perón (Photo by Reilly Ryan)

The Resurrection of Perón

After the speeches came the unveiling of the statue. Local sculptor Carlos Alberto Benavidez´s five metre-tall bronze monument depicts Perón holding up his arms triumphantly, as he was known to do when saluting the Argentine people during public appearances.

The location of the statue is loaded with symbolism. It stands in Plaza Agustín P. Justo, within eyesight of both Casa Rosada and the headquarters of the General Workers’ Confederation, representative of Perón’s link between politics and labour unions.

It is also a stone’s throw from the Plaza de Mayo, where in 1955 Perón was the target of an aerial bombardment carried out by Argentine naval air force, killing more than 300 people. Bullet holes from that day continue to scar the buildings across the road from the statue.

The aftermath of explosions on Av. Paseo Colón in the 1955 attempted coup against Perón

The aftermath of explosions on Av. Paseo Colón in the 1955 attempted coup against Perón

It’s not hard to imagine Perón turning in his grave at the sight of Macri – traditionally a vocal anti-Peronist – presenting his statue.

For decades, Peronism has been a dominant and divisive force in Argentine politics and society; for some, Perón is the father of Argentine politics, to others he’s a tyrant or fascist. This party explains the absence until now of a monument to such an important historical figure in the capital.

In fact, the monument has been a long time coming. In 1986, a motion was passed to begin the process. It took until 2005 to decide on a location, and after that there were more delays choosing a sculptor. The process then seemed to stagnate, as financials hurdles challenged the project again and again, despite Peronist governments being in power, and in 2014, the PRO-led legislature of Buenos Aires decided to erect a statue with the city´s own funds. Macri, still mayor of the city, is the relevant authority to preside over the occasion.

However, the timing of the ceremony, and it’s politically-charged nature, likely owes more to campaign strategy. According to political consultant Carlos Fara, this was was a tactical move by Macri to bridge the Peronist/anti-Peronist chasm barely two weeks before the presidential election. “It is a political move of Macri to send a message to Peronist voters of ideological plurality,” Fara says.

A particular target are the anti-Kirchnerist or ‘dissident’ Peronists, a group from which Macri needs support to have a chance of being the next president.

Not everyone will be easy to convince. “Macri is not a Peronist,” ex-president and staunch ‘dissident’ Peronist Eduardo Duhalde told Radio América immediately after the ceremony. “It’s a pity. I have nothing to do with PRO and wouldn’t vote for Macri, but today is a special day and I have to thank the city legislature and Macri.”

Photo by Reilly Ryan

Photo by Reilly Ryan

Photos by Reilly Ryan.

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On This Day in… 1955: The Bombardment of Plaza de Mayo

“Compatriots: at this moment the forces of economic, democratic and republican liberation have ended with the tyrant. In the name of liberty, the nation’s aviators have destroyed his refuge and the tyrant is dead.” – Message broadcast on Radio Mitre after being taken over by anti-peronist rebels, 16th June 1955.

Destruction outside the Casa Rosada on 16th June 1955

Destruction outside the Casa Rosada on 16th June 1955

On 16th June, 1955, a cold and cloudy mid-winter’s day, Buenos Aires suffered its first and only aerial bombardment, an unprecedented assault on the presidential palace and surrounding areas at a time of peace. The target was none other than President Juan Domingo Perón, but the biggest shock for those who witnessed the attack was that the planes did not bear the flag of an enemy nation, but the blue and white of Argentina.

It was the inaugural operation of Argentina’s naval air force, and remains one of the deadliest days in the country’s modern history, with a death toll estimated at 300-400 and many more injured. Though the mission failed in its primary objective of killing Perón, it did sow the seeds of his downfall and exile three months later, marking the start of a new chapter in Argentine politics, dominated by the question of how to deal with ‘Peronism without Perón’.

It was also a day that exposed just how deep the divide between Peronists and anti-Peronists had become in society, a dichotomy that would be at the crux of nearly three decades of political violence that followed.

Forming a Conspiracy

Critics of Perón’s government became increasingly outspoken and combative during his second term, riled by his challenge to the country’s traditional political parties and economic powers, and confrontational attitude to opposition voices. Unable to compete with Perón in the polls – the president was re-elected with a record 63.4% of the vote in 1951 – hardliners in the opposition began to plot ways to bring a premature end to his rule. Already, during the campaign for the 1951 election, General Benjamin Menendez launched a failed attempt to remove the “tyrant”, as Perón’s opponents called him, and this was followed with further assassination attempts, including bombing Plaza de Mayo as the president addressed a large union rally in 1953.

Above all, it was the deteriorating relationship with the Catholic Church, which turned into a full-blown confrontation in 1954 when the government pushed to legalise divorce, end compulsory religious education, and secure the formal separation of Church and State, that caused outrage among the conservative elements in society. It was the staunchly catholic Navy that emerged as one of the leading anti-Peronist institutions prepared to lead a coup attempt.

This action received support at home from opposition parties from across the political spectrum and the liberal oligarchy, united for various reason against the advance of Peronism. By the start of 1955, a plot was being formed: an air assault would destroy the Casa Rosada in minutes, killing Perón and his senior Cabinet members, while a unit of navy marines, supported by armed civil ‘commandos’, would take over what was left of the palace and put down any remaining resistance. By that point, the conspirators hoped to have convinced loyal army troops to join the uprising and quickly diffuse any attempts at a counter-strike by Perón’s supporters.

According to the plan, once Perón was removed, a temporary government led by three figures representing the opposition Conservative (Adolfo Vicchi), Socialist (Américo Ghioldi), and Radical (Miguel Ángel Zavala Ortiz) parties, and supported by military leaders, would be installed. Unions and Peronist activist groups would be dismantled and dissidents suppressed, with violence if necessary.

The details of the plan were known by few, and the date of its execution chosen in a hurry after the conspirators realised that intelligence services were close to discovering the plot. Another catalyst was the catholic celebration of Corpus Christi on 11th June, which brought the anti-Peronist opposition – labelled ‘gorilas‘ by government supporters – out on the streets in huge numbers. The procession arrived at Congress, where a Vatican flag was hoisted and, in confusing circumstances that have never been fully clarified, an Argentine flag burned.

The plotters saw an opportunity: on 16th June an aerial demonstration over the Metropolitan Cathedral had been scheduled by the air force, providing the perfect cover for their operation. Perhaps more importantly, they had found an institution behind which all anti-Peronist groups were willing to unite, offering religious support and moral justification for what they were about to do. Five days later, many of the planes that bombed and strafed Buenos Aires were marked with the symbol ‘Cristo Vence‘ (Christ Wins).

The cross and V symbol  meaning 'Cristo Vence' painted on the planes that bombed Buenos Aires

The cross and V symbol meaning ‘Cristo Vence’ painted on the planes that bombed Buenos Aires

Gorilas‘ in the Mist

The strike was scheduled for 10am, but low cloud and fog caused a delay of more than two hours to the start of the operation. It was the first key setback for the conspirators, as the civil commandos that were positioned around Plaza de Mayo began to disperse, assuming the mission had been aborted.

It was 12.40pm when Captain Néstor Noriega dropped the first bombs on the Casa Rosada, destroying part of the press room. The rest of his squadron followed, releasing tonnes of heavy explosives on the presidential palace and surrounding areas. One of these first bombs landed on a ‘troleybus‘ that was circulating on Paseo Colon – dozens of people inside, including some 40 children that were visiting Buenos Aires on a school trip, were killed instantly.

Upon seeing the first detonations, the navy marines launched their ground assault, engaging with the granaderos (presidential guards) outside the Casa Rosada. The mission to take over the presidential palace in the aftermath of the aerial bombardment was supposed to be straightforward, but without the support of the civil commandos or the complete destruction of the palace defences, their advance was stalled long enough for loyal reinforcements to arrive.

The aftermath of explosions on Paseo Colon

The aftermath of explosions on Paseo Colon

At this point, Perón was sheltered in the Army Ministry building, across the road from the Casa Rosada. He had been taken there as a precaution earlier in the morning after being informed of the uprising by army chief Franklin Lucero, though, curiously, did not order the evacuation of hundreds that worked in the palace. From there, he ordered the mobilisation of the army – which, crucially, had not joined the rebellion – to put down the uprising. At the same time, the secretary of the General Labour Confederation (CGT), Hugo di Pietro, put a call out to union leaders and workers to come to Plaza de Mayo and defend Perón.

These workers, armed with sticks, knives, and pistols, were hit heavily in the second round of air strikes, a combination of bombs and machine-gun fire that peppered the area around the Casa Rosada where the ground combat was taking place. Despite air support, the rebel marines were pushed back to the Navy Ministry, where they were surrounded by loyal army troops and a growing number of civilians.

Soon after 3pm, a white flag was unfurled from the Navy Ministry. Army generals approached to finalise the surrender, while civilians that had joined the fight also moved closer. It was at this point that another devastating wave of bombs and bullets came from above, with the rebels joining in with another bout of gunfire. Admiral Aníbal Olivieri, then head of the Navy, would later write that he ordered the shooting at civilians who he claimed looked “clearly like guerrillas” because the ministry was “surrounded by a mob of mercenaries that were closing in to burn it down along with everyone inside.”

A local newspaper identifies the bombers

A local newspaper identifies the bombers

It wasn’t long after, however, that Olivieri called to negotiate a surrender directly with Lucero, on the condition that the mob of civilian fighters was pushed back and brought under control. At the same time, the pilots and insurgents at the captured air bases in Moron and Ezeiza departed – strafing the presidential palace one more time en route to Uruguay, where over 100 of the rebels were granted exile and warmly received by President Luis Batlle Berres.

On this side of the Rio de la Plata, more than 300 lifeless bodies, mainly civilians, told the story of devastation. That night, Peronist groups took their anger out on the Church, setting fire to the Metropolitan Cathedral and other churches.

The Aftermath

Perón’s initial response to the attack was to call for calm during a radio address: “We, as civilised people, cannot take measures driven by passion but by reflection … We could not forgive ourselves if we add our own infamy to that of our enemies.” He later distanced himself from the ransacking of churches, sought to smooth relations with the corporate sector, and opened up space for opposition parties on state radio.

This policy of reconciliation failed: unable to rebuild bridges with his opponents, Perón’s rhetoric turned violent in a famous speech on 31st August. “The slogan of every Peronist, whether in an organisation or not, is to respond to violence with more violence. When one of ours falls, five of them will fall!” It was a battle cry that would resonate as one of Perón’s last: on 16th September, another uprising brought about his withdrawal from power and departure to Paraguay, the first stop in an 18-year exile.

The official death toll from the uprising was never announced.

The official death toll from the uprising was never announced.

The magnitude of the 16th June bombardment had already been played down as part of Perón’s conciliatory tactics, and with the installment of a military government (known as ‘The Liberating Revolution’), the perpetrators were honoured as heroes. Even more moderate democrats archived the astonishing events of that day as a necessary and inevitable response to the ‘tyranny’ of Peronism.

As a result, an official public investigation and report into the incident was not published until more than half a century later, followed soon after by the first monument to the victims. The final death toll remains an estimate that varies wildly depending on the source.

In the meantime, the names of those that participated in the bloody 1955 revolt would appear again and again in subsequent military coups and several would emerge as leading players in the 1976-1983 dictatorship. Though that dark chapter in Argentine history today overshadows all others in the minds of society, it was, in fact, the climax of a cycle of violence – and impunity – that began a long time before.

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Footballers’ Day: 60 Years of Argentina v England Rivalry

There are few matches on the international football calendar that generate as much passion and interest as Argentina v England, the ultimate sporting clash between the New World and the Old. Yet while most will remember the ‘Hand of God’ in 1986, few know that today Argentina celebrates the 60th anniversary of beating England for the first time, a triumph that was not recognised in England but led to 14th May being labelled ‘Footballers’ Day’ in Argentina ever since.

Grudge Matches

Over the past six decades passions have been inflamed on both sides as much by contentious events on the pitch as by the disputed sovereignty of the Falklands/Malvinas and the conflict over them which took place in 1982. The rivalry took on a bitter edge at the 1966 World Cup, where the Argentine side – later labelled ‘animals’ by England coach Alf Ramsey – complained that they were victim of an Anglo-German conspiracy when their captain Antonio Rattin was sent off for hounding the referee in the closely fought quarter-final. The match, known in Buenos Aires as ‘the robbery of the century’, turned in England’s favour, and Geoff Hurst’s solitary goal took the host nation through.

Diego Maradona Terry Butcher and Kenny Sansom during Argentina s 2 1 win over England at the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico 1986

Diego Maradona, Terry Butcher and Kenny Sansom during Argentina’s 2-1 win over England at the 1986 World Cup quarter finals in Mexico 1986

It was 20 years later that the Argentines gained revenge in the 1986 World Cup quarter final in México, the first game played between the two sides after the Falklands/Malvinas War, when Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ set his side on the road to ultimate tournament victory.

The next two World Cup meetings in 1998 and 2002 were also mired in controversy: David Beckham’s petulant flick at Diego Simeone – who went down theatrically – earned him a red card which turned the tide Argentina’s way in 1998, while four years later, a dive worthy of Tom Daley by Michael Owen gained England the decisive penalty to decide matters.

The Birth of Footballers’ Day

The clásico between Argentina and England was born in 1951 when Argentina were invited to play England at Wembley as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations, the first non-European side to do so. After taking the lead with Mario Boyé’s goal, the hosts came back to win 2-1, but the defining performance came from Argentina’s goalkeeper, Miguel Ángel Rugilo, whose all-action, acrobatic display earned him a standing ovation from the Wembley crowd as well as the soubriquet, ‘The Lion of Wembley’. England made a reciprocal visit to Argentina two years later, playing two games as part of a wider tour of the Americas. It was the first match of this tour that would enter Argentine football legend.

The games were keenly anticipated in Argentina as the national team had played only a handful of internationals since winning the 1947 South American Championship. The team had been pulled out of international competition – most notably the 1950 World Cup held in neighbouring Brazil – at the behest of President Juan Domingo Perón’s government, who feared that defeat on the international stage would jeopardise his nationalist project based on Argentine excellence and self-reliance. A players’ strike in 1948-49 had seen many of Argentina’s best talent, including Adolfo Pedenera and Alfredo di Stéfano, depart for Colombia in search of better money, and so Perón felt that it was wiser not to risk defeat and loss of stature on the international stage with a team of lesser players.

The visit of England, on the other hand, offered the Argentines a no-risk gamble: if they won then the prestige would be enormous, but if they lost it was only to be expected against the ‘Masters of the Game’ as Clarín described the visitors who had brought the game to Argentina in the 1860s and proceeded to show their superiority in a number of club tours between 1904 and 1914.

The first of the two games was played on 14th May 1953 in River Plate’s massive horseshoe-shaped Estadio Monumental in front of 120,000 people. As far as the English were concerned it was billed as an FA XI match, not a full international. It was an opportunity to play some of their reserves and get jet lag out of their system before the official international three days later. The Argentines, however, took it seriously, wearing the official national team kit and playing the same team in both games, and including both the matches in its official international record.

Argentina’s selectors decided that with the national team not having played together regularly for some time it would be more cohesive to pick players en bloc from the same clubs. The entire defence came from Boca Juniors, the midfield from Racing Club de Avellaneda, and crucially, the famed forward line from Independiente (who would cement their reputation later that year by thrashing the Real Madrid side of Di Stéfano et al 6-0 at the Estadio Bernabéu), containing Carlos Lacasia, Carlos Cecconato, Rodolfo Micheli, Ernesto Grillo and Osvaldo Cruz.

England went ahead against the run of play through Tommy Taylor’s header, before Grillo equalised a minute later with a quite brilliant goal from a seemingly unfeasible angle that has lived long in Argentine football folklore as ‘The Impossible Goal’. As Grillo later recalled: “Lacasia passed me the ball close to the penalty area. I started to dribble and I believe that there were three or four English ahead of me. As I ran out of room on the pitch, I saw the keeper off his line and shot between him and the near post.”

Argentina then pressed home their superiority with another goal from Grillo and one from Micheli to run out worthy 3-1 winners and send the crowd into raptures. The president of the Argentine Football Association, Valentín Suárez, lavished praise on his team, saying: “We’ve beaten one of the most powerful sides in the world. I’m full of pride. Our young lads played with great heart and deserved the tremendous ovation they received when leaving the field.” Even the English press were forced to acknowledge that Argentina were the better team, with the Daily Mail’s Roy Peskett claiming that England’s players were like “carthorses chasing ballet dancers.”

The watching President Juan Domingo Perón was also so impressed by the performance that he declared that henceforth 14th May would be known as ‘Footballers’ Day’ in honour of the team, to be commemorated annually.

For the second match on the following Sunday, 91,397 spectators crammed into the Monumental to see whether England’s first choice 11 could do any better, only to go home disappointed when one of Buenos Aires’ notorious thunderstorms swept in from the River Plate estuary, flooding the pitch and forcing the game to be abandoned after just 23 minutes with the score at 0-0.

England left the country with a series defeat the blue touch-paper for the footballing rivalry between the two countries had been lit and the fireworks have not stopped since. Fans of both teams surely await the next installment with some relish.

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Arturo Illia and the Argentina That Might Have Been

“Dr. Illia, in the name of the Armed Forces, I’ve come to inform you that you have been dismissed” – Colonel Luis Perlinger, 28th June 1966.

President Illia and his supporters are evicted from the Casa Rosada (source: Wikimedia)

Arturo Umberto Illia does not feature prominently on a list of former Argentine presidents. After being elected with just 25.15% of the vote, his term was cut short by a military coup just under three years after taking office, and news of his removal barely caused a murmur in a society then accustomed to breaks in constitutional order.

Yet when remembered today, 30 years after his death, it is for human qualities rarely afforded to the country’s 20th century political leaders: integrity, humility, and above all, honesty. His government was built around a firm belief in democratic values and institutions, even when these ultimately failed to protect him.

For the weeks and months before it happened, rumours of military action, fomented in the media, had been circulating the streets and squares of Buenos Aires. Before dawn on the wintry morning of 28th June 1966, army squadrons surrounded the Casa Rosada, where President Illia remained with a group of his closest supporters.

Soon after 5am, General Julio Alsogaray entered the palace to demand Illia’s resignation, on the orders of the army commander in chief. “I am the commander in chief,” replied an indignant Illia. “My authority emanates from the Constitution, which we have followed and you swore to follow […] You don’t represent the armed forces but a group of insurgents.”

Alsogaray left, but barely an hour later, Colonel Luis Perlinger returned to the Casa Rosada, this time delivering the message that the military had taken control of the country. President Illia remained firm and refused to leave his post. A little later, Perlinger returned, this time with a squadron of armed riot police and a warning that among those that remained in the presidential office, only Illia’s safety was guaranteed.

Facing the prospect of a massacre, Illia relented. “Your conscience will condemn you for what you are doing,” he repeated, as he and his allies were jostled out of the Casa Rosada. The time was 7.45am and Illia, the elected leader of Argentina, refused the presidential car offered to him. He stopped a passing taxi and headed to his brother’s house, in Martinez.

Post-Perón Trauma

Illia’s journey to the Casa Rosada took place against a backdrop of intense volatility, with domestic politics trapped in the void left by Juan Domingo Perón’s forced departure in 1955.

The question of how to deal with the Peronist movement, represented most explicitly by the now mobilised working class and still heavily influenced by its exiled leader, caused ruptures among those groups left competing for control. The Unión Cívica Radical, which had dominated Argentina’s political landscape before Peronism, split into the UCRP and the UCRI in 1956, diluting the power of both. Even the military that had driven out Perón was divided over how to deal with his followers, and after ousting elected UCRI president Arturo Frondizi in 1962, two opposing factions – the ‘blues’ and the ‘reds’ – engaged in skirmishes in the streets of Buenos Aires. The Peronism dilemma at home was complicated further by the international context: after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 the US increased pressure on governments and military forces throughout Latin America to suppress any revolutionary undercurrents.

During this period, Illia, a well respected doctor, established a stronghold for the UCRP in Córdoba Province, where he grew up as a staunch Radical in the tradition of the party’s first ever president, Hipolito Yrigoyen. In March 1962, he triumphed in the vote for governor in Córdoba, in provincial elections that were dominated by Peronist candidates around the country.

The show of support for Peronism was too much for the military, which quickly acted to end Frondizi’s presidency, annul the election results, and proscribe Peronism for presidential elections scheduled for July 1963. It was here that Illia would claim the presidency with the support of just a quarter of the electorate; almost 20% of voters, most obeying instructions from Perón, cast a null vote.

President Illia at his inauguration parade in 1963. General Juan Carlos Onganía (right) is wearing the presidential sash. (source: Wikimedia)

Progressive Reforms

Despite a weak mandate, Illia’s minority government immediately embarked on an agenda of bold reforms – policies that would generate strong resistance among the liberal and corporate sectors.

Soon after taking office, the president fulfilled his campaign promise to annul oil contracts signed by state company YPF with foreign enterprises under Frondizi. When criticised by US officials, who asked Illia to reconsider the decision on the basis that it would hurt confidence in the rule of law in Argentina and threaten US assistance to the country, Illia remained resolute, answering that the decision was political, “because [the contracts] interfered with the economic sovereignty of Argentina.”

The government then turned its attention to public health, with the 1964 ‘Medicine Law’ tightening regulations for the pharmaceutical industry, and granting the Health Ministry the authority to control prices of basic medicines. The move was heavily criticised by private laboratories, many of them based in Europe, where their powerful lobby sought to impede negotiations over debt between Argentina and the Paris Club.

State intervention in the economy was amplified by via the ‘Law of Supply’, which gave the government control over the prices of “goods and services that affect the life conditions of the public”, and the creation of a government body to periodically determine and establish a dignified minimum wage. This created tensions with the domestic private sector, whose vocal opposition was echoed repeatedly in the mainstream media.

Illia was frequently depicted as a 'turtle' in the media.

United in Opposition

Despite a period of rapid economic growth and industrialisation (the economy expanded almost 20% over 1964-65), which translated into falling unemployment and a significant rise in average wages, Illia was unable to win the support of the heavily-unionised and staunchly-Peronist working classes. At the start of 1964, the General Labour Confederation (CGT) launched a “Plan of Action” designed to destabilise the government via a series of national strikes and factory occupations.

The massive show of force drew unlikely backing – albeit implicit – from the anti-Peronist opposition, which saw an opportunity to capitalise on the image of a weak government. Despite the series of reforms introduced, Illia was chastised for being inefficient and hesitant, frequently caricatured as a turtle in political cartoons. Meanwhile, the conservative right slammed the government for not taking more severe action to end the disruption caused by the unions.

While Illia stuck rigidly to a belief that the solution lay in dialogue via the country’s democratic institutions rather than a confrontational executive, factions of the opposition were once again eyeing a faster, alternative solution that had become the norm since 1930 – military intervention.

Hardliners in the armed forces were already uneasy at the government’s relatively conciliatory approach to Peronist forces, especially after Perón’s audacious, though ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to return to Argentina in December 1964. Legislative elections in March 1965 confirmed once again the enduring popularity of Peronism, as its newly-formed Unión Popular party achieved more votes than Illia’s UCRP.

The official acceptance of the Peronist victory for the first time since 1955, far from creating a space for bi-partisan debate, reaffirmed for many the idea that the Peronist question could not be addressed via constitutional channels. While the media continued its unrelenting assault on Illia’s style of governing and the ‘national paralysis’ is was causing, public expectation, and acceptance, of a military intervention rose.

A circle of high-ranking officers began planning a coup, barely disguising their intentions at home and actively seeking support in the region, particularly the US, which had failed to garner support from Illia for its invasion of the Dominican Republic in April 1965. A declassified CIA report written one month before the 1966 coup contained explicit details of the military’s plan, provided first-hand by the man who would lead the operation, General Julio Alsogaray.

As the heterogeneous opposition groups closed ranks behind a shared “coup consensus”, Illia remained stubbornly faithful to his Yrigoyenist ideology, committed to the constitution and unwilling to form alliances in order to preserve his position of power. It was a view that many at the time considered outdated and naïve, one that could not be applied to the country’s structural or social problems in the post-Perón – and Cold War – era. And it left the president unable, or unwilling, to see the fate that was awaiting.

The Benefit of Hindsight

The day after Dr. Illia’s taxi left the Casa Rosada, ex general Juan Carlos Onganía was sworn in as de facto leader of the so-called ‘Argentine Revolution’. Though Onganía had previously led the ‘blue’ faction of the armed forces in 1962, which did not support a military role in politics, his plan as leader differed dramatically from the other military juntas that had intermittently ruled Argentina since 1930. Rather than oversee a return to order before calling for fresh elections, Onganía set about installing a new political, social, and even moral, order in the country, banning everything from political parties to miniskirts and responding to dissent with brutal repression.

A month after the 1966 coup and in a sign of things to come, Onganía ordered the repression of university protests known as the 'Night of the Long Police Batons'

What followed – the radicalisation of society (especially the middle class), the emergence of leftist guerrilla movements, and the increasingly extreme measures to quell them – led Argentina down a dark path of escalating violence that culminated in the catastrophic 1976-83 military dictatorship and 30,000 disappeared.

Illia, who returned to his small town in Córdoba to continue practising medicine died on 18th January, 1983, just months before seeing Argentina finally recover its democracy. By that stage, the words of his inauguration speech 20 years earlier had become ever more pertinent: “Argentina’s democracy needs improving; but let it be made clear: totalitarianism is not a substitute for improvement.”

With time, the realisation of the significance of the 1966 coup for Argentina would come to many, but arguably the most striking testimony to Illia’s lasting image is that of Colonel Perlinger ten years after personally removing him from office. Perlinger publicly condemned his role in the coup and later wrote directly to Illia: “That night you taught me an unforgettable lesson in civism. Though the public acknowledgement that I made in 1976 of my error will not repair the damage caused, it gives you, one of out country’s greatest democrats, the satisfaction that your last act in government was to create a true democrat out of the man who was removing you with force from your constitutional role.”

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VIDEO: Republica de los Niños

In 1951, President Juan Domingo Perón inaugurated a special park for children in the city of La Plata, called ‘Republica de los Niños’ (The Children’s Republic). Not a regular children’s attraction, the goal of ‘Republica’ was to teach youngsters about history, government and democracy and encourage them to actively participate in politics. Aigul Safiullina reports.

Camera & Editing: Kristian Andersen

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Perón Perón: Paying Tribute to Politics with Homemade Beer

Politics is everywhere in Argentina. It might be because everyone is legally obliged to vote, but everybody – from bankers to builders and florists to (rarely found) fishmongers – has an opinion.

It comes as no surprise then, that along the bourgeois streets of Palermo Hollywood, you’ll find a bar dedicated to the most emblematic of political movements – Peronism. On Angel Carranza, a few blocks up from Av. Santa Fé, you’ll find Perón Perón.

The place lives up to its name: It’s an all-guns-blazing tribute to political heavyweight Juan Domingo Perón, and everything that has come in his wake. As is to be expected, Juan Domingo isn’t the only one that dominates the show. His wife, the iconic Eva Perón (who inspires musicals and is still evoked in today’s political posters) takes centre stage with him.

Evita shrine (Photo: Robin Minchom)

In the middle of the room, a quasi-religious shrine to Evita is complete with old photos, flowers and candles. People leave money in the dish before her to garnish the mock-ceremony.

Cast your eyes to either side and you’ll find yourself swamped with Peronist memorabilia. Old photos of the couple are positioned next to dated newspaper cuttings, labourers’ outfits hang alongside communist-style paintings on the wall and antique objects are strategically placed across the room – an old television set at the entrance and a couple of sewing machines on the bar.

Don’t expect the onslaught to let off when you open the menu either – it’s littered with quotes and references to both the couple and the movement. “Cuando hay hambre, no hay pan duro” it announces – which translates, more or less, into “when the going is tough, don’t be so bloody picky”. There are ‘Saint Evita’ empanadas with a price tag of $18 for two and a sandwich called ‘El Capitalista (de cerdo)’, perhaps not coincidentally made with pork.

Everything here is a reference or a little in-joke. It’s slightly disconcerting having the recently deceased ex-president, Néstor Kirchner, staring out from the menu into the distance, but it goes with the territory.

Graffiti in the Perón Perón (Photo: Robin Minchom)

The walls are filled with the graffiti of previous customers; “My cause is the people’s cause and my flag is the country’s flag” one reads, “Perón is from Racing [football club]” reads another, slightly less serious. Little of the wall is left unadorned.

The bar also makes its own beer and wine – Peronist beer and wine of course– at a brewery in the Mataderos neighbourhood. The blond beer, called Lady Gaga (sorry Evita) is fruity and flavoursome. It might be Peronist but it’s not particularly populist at $26 a pint, but then, tasty beer never comes cheap. At $2 more than the price of a pint of Quilmes, it’s definitely worth it.

The bar itself is light and bright and there’s plenty of space. The tables are wooden and colourful seat covers liven-up the chairs. Did Juan Domingo Perón love psychedelic pink and yellow seat covers? Who knows – but the owners of the bar obviously do. And it works – the vibe in the bar is fun and unpretentious.

There’s more than enough to keep your senses occupied. A fragment of one of the ex-president’s speeches will likely make it onto the musical playlist but, importantly, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The tongue-in-cheek element to the bar makes the barrage of partisan political memorabilia much more palatable. The owners however are serious Peronists, so you shouldn’t be surprised to see political players rubbing shoulders with tourists on the hunt for all things Evita.

All in all, it’s a perfect place to go for a drink and soak up a bit of Argentine history. But watch out, after a few beers, you might leave staggering a little to your left, or maybe your right – it is a Peronist bar after all, you can never be too sure.

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The Social Mobility Paradox and the Educational Crisis in Argentina

Once a matter of national pride, the Argentine educational system today has become a microcosm of the challenges confronting the rest of the world, and as such is an unwitting heir to the West’s unresolved ideological legacy in education, the origins of which have been blurred by time and distance.

Teachers protest the closure of certain levels at an elementary school in San Telmo which would result in larger class sizes. (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

Despite the fact that Argentina has the 3rd highest literacy rate in Latin America (99.2% after Cuba and Uruguay), and spent 7.1% of GDP on education in 2010 (approximately US$21bn) the nation is experiencing “an educational tragedy” in the words of the former rector of the University of Buenos Aires, Guillermo Jaim Etcheverry.

There can be no doubt that the system faces problems. Teacher union strikes are common for a variety of reasons, including salary disputes, violence in the classroom, and a lack of respect in society. Schools are also crowded, despite an official average 13:1 student/teacher ratio, with morning and afternoon shifts, while the poor state of maintenance of many buildings is obvious.

In the year 2008, only 48% of Argentine teenagers would finish secondary school (UNICEF). And although registration for universities grew 33% over a ten-year period, out of every 100 new university students, only 10-12 will eventually receive their degree, a statistic that has remained stagnant since the turn of the century (CEPP). Employers express discontent at the level of preparation of the incoming workforce and according to a recent IBD report, 80% of businesses in all sectors believe that secondary education is key to changing this trend.

From these declarations and statistics, it is clear that something must be done, but there is no social consensus as to what. Education itself— what is education? Why do we educate? – has become the subject of discussion, and the conceptual framework on which this society bases the criteria for an ‘educated’ population.

The ‘Discovery’ of Childhood

Education, as we know it, is basically a derivative of the ‘discovery’ of childhood. The idea of a period set aside for the development of the immature human, evolved in Europe over a 200-year period starting near the end of the Middle Ages and culminating in the Enlightenment. Before that, children would learn through first-hand observation of the tasks, habits and responsibilities of adults.

Family working together at home.

But for the mechanistic world view developed and propagated between the 17th and 19th centuries by Descartes, Locke, and Newton, children suddenly became the focus of attention, and childhood was understood as “a function of adult expectations”. In response to this new awareness, the social concept of family took root, although the reality of the family, like that of childhood of course, had always existed. Families now took on greater social significance as the unit charged with child welfare, health and survival. Indeed, our modern concept of what a family should be is derived from this period.

According to historian Colin Heywood, society at this time typically promoted a utilitarian view of the child—taking the “economically useless but emotionally priceless” child and making something of him/her. There also was an economic incentive for taking especial notice of the child, as parents wanted to ensure their “capital”—home, business, savings—was safe. This shift in the way society viewed childhood and the family took place on many levels. As Norman Davies, Oxford historian, writes “It can be traced in the dress and iconography of the times, in the invention of toys, games, and pastimes specifically for children, in changing morals and manners; above all, in a radical new approach to education.”

Schools vs. Education

Though schools have existed since ancient Greece in one form or another, they were conceived as places to spend free time; the word ‘school’ originally meant ‘leisure’. The subject matter studied in medieval schools linked to the cathedrals was limited to such empirical knowledge fitting to the student’s station in life, such as monk or knight, and did not always include reading, writing, or arithmetic. What was novel during the period of the discovery of childhood was the systematic application of schools as instruments for ‘education’ or the ‘forming’ of the child, and the implications this had in the development of class hierarchies in the West.

Children at school.

Although those children who did not attend school could not be considered ignorant nor even illiterate, the relationship between literacy, wealth, and occupation that marks the economic emergence of a ruling elite in Western civilisation and the social inequalities which accompany that phenomena run “like a red thread” through the history of education. In other words, those who went to school belonged to the ruling class; those who didn’t, were ruled. Only when the economic realities of the Industrial Revolution transformed Western society was ‘education’ thought of as a possibility for the masses. Little by little, the lower classes were able to improve their social position and ensure that their children, in turn, would be educated.

Public education for the masses was originally financed by rich industrialists, as Heywood describes: “[the manufacturers] risked compromising the future quality of the industrial workforce…however reluctant the rich might have been to subsidise the children of the poor, they could hardly ignore the fact that the young embodied the future of their society. They would therefore have to devote some resources to what would now be called investment in human capital [emphasis added] to produce the next generation of workers and soldiers.”

Education became the principal activity of childhood, an activity taken for granted nowadays: “The ideals of the Enlightenment made huge claims for their policy of investing in schools. It would, they believed, reduce crime and disorder, make workers more productive, and…instil moral values in the ‘great unwashed’…even today most people admit to some residual faith in the more modern notion of education as an emancipatory force.”

Most thinkers or educators during this period were content “with the notion that schools should reinforce existing social hierarchies” rather than undermine them. In other words, children who attended school would be constantly reminded what their ‘estate’ was, the duties of said estate, and the “labour and craft appropriate for that estate”. Lawmakers ‘knew’ what was best for the masses, and although the working classes might let themselves be educated, it was thought that schools and teachers would have to help parents raise their children “in a responsible manner”, and avoid transmitting the idea of an “artificial equality”. In other words, schools were harnessed into helping lower and middle class families raise their children in a way that would perpetuate the awareness of their socio-economic reality.

It was at this moment in the evolution in education that Argentina as a nation came into being.

The Argentine Educational Crisis

After the yoke of Spanish colonialism had been thrown off, Argentina strove to define its constitutional mission and national identity, a process which was made more difficult by economic pressures created by the Industrial Revolution in the rest of the world. In short, Argentina struggled to invent itself while competing with existing world economic structures.

As a result, many social programmes that were part of the colonial Spanish regime carried over into the new national policies of different Latin American states. Education was no exception. The organisation was based on the cathedral schools developed during the Middle Ages—largely developed for forming the ruling class, clergy and lawyers, heavily steeped in the Roman Catholic world vision, and propagating a mainly Euro-centric version of history. Indeed, Argentine history was not included in the syllabus of schools until the turn of the 20th century.

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (that mean mug on the $50 note), the main proponent for public schooling in Argentina, was heavily influenced by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, especially Benjamin Franklin, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Horace Mann. Seeking to impose their ideas in Argentina (but without regard to Argentine reality), he opened public schools for basic education, made education available to women, and removed religious education from the public curriculum, declaring: “We need to make a school out of all the Republic.”

Although born and bred in Argentina, ‘the son of the Revolution’, Sarmiento could not overcome his horror of the country’s indigenous peoples. His legacy as the ‘Father of the classroom’ loses moral stature when his achievements in favour of Argentine ‘progress’ are considered alongside his lesser-known elitist and racist policies: “If you don’t want to educate them out of mercy, educate them out of fear.” Although he was willing to educate the masses regardless of race or class, he nonetheless was concerned about the possibility that Argentina, once inserted in the capitalist world, would fall into decay due to the influence of these ‘barbarians’: “Not only the Indians, but the gauchos and the immigrant population could all be carriers of this contagion.”

Eventually Sarmiento came to the conclusion that “an education directed towards those values compatible with work, production, and the order which guarantees them” would overcome the negative effects of these peoples. He erroneously envied Anglo-Saxon America, asking: “Why was it the Anglo-Saxon race that hit upon that bit of the world which fit its industrial instincts so well, and why did the Spanish have the misfortune to land in South America where…they found abject and meek Indians that perfectly matched their lazy masters in their backwardness and ineptitude. Where is Divine Providence in this?” There is no mention of the massacres of indigenous peoples carried out by the colonising forces of different nationalities in North America.

After Bartolome Mitre’s (the mug on the $2 note) presidency (1862-68), the social character of education had been determined, with schools for different groups reinforcing the duties and function of their respective social stratum just like the European model. Mitre founded the Colegios Nacionales, elitist secondary schools with a humanistic orientation, where graduates would eventually seek a university degree or political activity.

But by the beginning of the 20th century, the unidirectional purpose of the Colegios was deemed insufficient and reforms were enacted to allow for the creation of industrial schools, where the education of a burgeoning urban population, the result of increasing immigration and rural abandonment, could occur. An initiative to close these schools was made on the parliamentary floor, alerting representatives to “the dangers of an education that will create more expectations in all social sectors than what is recommendable for the oligarchical conservative order.” This initiative was called down as ‘anti-democratic’, but other similar acts were made and enforced; schools eventually incorporated vocational training, but those who undertook it would be directed away from pursuing university studies.

The Second World War reinforced Argentina’s role as an industrial nation and the boom in production of local products and the elaboration of raw materials gave the country the boost it needed to incorporate education at all levels and for all citizens. But it wasn’t until Juan Domingo Perón’s first term in power that education began to occupy a place in the Argentine identity. He wanted to create a specific type of man, a specific type of Argentine, where “social justice functioned as a condition for all educational intervention”.

According to Perón, the enemies of this intervention were obvious: “The oligarchy, the great adversary of the Argentine people, those who live off the efforts of the working population.” Though his educational programmes were more political than lasting, due to the social and political upheaval that followed his presidencies, nonetheless, his legacy can be felt today in the three tenets defining the national identity—literacy, citizenship, and job security.

War on Thinking

Argentina’s modern history is dominated by the military dictatorship of 1976-83, and nowhere can the devastating impact of this era more evident than the area of education. From the point of view of the fascist de facto government, a system of education should “serve the needs of the nation and consolidate the values and aspirations of the Argentine being.”

This basically meant that any previous educational order was suspect as a potential factor for subversion; in the words of then Minister of Education, Ricardo Bruera: “There is a public subversion known to all, which has penetrated very deeply in the educational system and we call it ‘institutional subversion’. Argentina has suffered from the institutionalisation of the perverting of our values, which is reflected in the mental make-up of our students.” (Clarín, 1976)

A schoolgirl in a gun-sight at Parque de la Memoria (Photo: Patricia Di Filippo)

The proposed values were “western, Christian, and capitalist”, a clear return to the oligarchical principles that traditionally marked Argentine education prior to WW2 and the Peronist reforms. The ‘Noche de los Lapices Rotos’ (The Night of the Broken Pencils), when military personnel kidnapped, tortured, and murdered ten secondary schoolchildren in 1976 at the outset of the dictatorship, can only be understood as an enforcement of official government education policy during this period. The imminent threat perceived by the military junta was not only a literate population, but a well-educated, thinking population, the result of generations of workers enjoying social mobility through different government programmes. Therefore, education, as the tool to socio-economic improvement for the masses had to be weakened because, as one monument in the Parque de la Memoria attests: “Thinking is revolutionary.”

If any broad educational opportunities were left after the military dictatorship was routed, the subsequent neo-liberal governments took care to destroy them, dismantling vocational and technological schools, switching funds earmarked for public projects and education to ‘private’ endeavours, privatising state industries, and in general leaving the lower and middle classes bereft of one of the best ways to improve their situation, while favouring the classes that could already afford to pay for education, a trend still in place today.

This tendency was reflected worldwide as state policies stripped societies of educational, health, and diverse welfare programmes, all in the name of the ‘free market’. There are few nations in the world that, having embraced neoliberalism, are not undergoing some degree of financial or social decay, including educational programs that are defunct, but which reinforce social and financial hierarchies.

Yet in Argentina there is still a great awareness of recent history; only one generation ago, ‘literacy’ and ‘job security’ had been considered practically a right to which all Argentines had access. The intensity with which the reforms were received from the mid-twentieth century and the ferocity with which they were subsequently overthrown is alive in the Argentine memory today. The current educational situation reflects the struggle to re-socialise schools; that is, to reinsert schools in the reality of Argentine society at all economic levels.

However, increasing investments in education and technology (government financed netbooks, for example), or social programmes (such as food allowances per child and salary hikes for teachers), while helpful, do not address the problem at its source. The present educational model is still based on obsolete ideologies dating from a period in Argentine history when the social and economic needs of the country had not yet been defined, and were established to favour the oligarchy. The foundations of the system are built on an ‘imported’ reality which has little to do with the national concerns, and embraces derogatory racist attitudes, little adapted to the plural nature of modern Argentine society.

The elitist, exclusive context in which the educational system in Argentina is played out is a reflection of a world where learning is still the province of the leisurely and privileged, a tool with which to distinguish the rich from the poor. The current educational crisis represents a world-wide paradox: on the one hand, the ever-increasing difficulties which the lower classes face in order to receive what society for more than 200 years has taught them to believe is necessary for their personal and professional growth; and on the other hand the factions in society which create those obstacles in order to maintain the lower classes in their place.

The relative brevity with which Argentina has experienced this paradox in recent years offers a unique opportunity to the rest of the world to recognise those tendencies which have led our educational system to falter, and fail our children—an opportunity to return to the classroom, as it were, and to learn from our common past, regardless of how distant and despicable.

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The History of Peronism (Part II)

Juan Domingo Perón's funeral - July 1974

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 Perón and José López Rega

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).

Raúl Alfonsín hands the presidential baton to Carlos Menem in 1989

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.

Riots in Buenos Aires - December 2001

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.

Kirchnerism (2003-2011)

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.

Néstor Kirchner and President Fernández in 2008 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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The History of Peronism (Part I)

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.

Citizens wait at Plaza de Mayo on 17th October, 1945 for Peron’s release

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.

President Perón at his 1946 inaugural parade.

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.

Evita and Juan Perón at the Plaza de Mayo, 1951.

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.

Scene in the Plaza de Mayo following a failed coup attempt against Perón.

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.

Arturo Frondizi, Argentina’s 33rd president from May 1, 1958 – March 28, 1962.

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.

Montoneros seal

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.

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