Tag Archive | "Peronism"

On This Day in… 1970: The Kidnapping of General Aramburu

“The leadership of the Montoneros declare that today at 7am Pedro Eugenio Aramburu was executed. May God have mercy on his soul.”- Communique No 4 to ‘The Argentine people’, 1st June 1970.

The news broke in the early afternoon. General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu was missing, presumed kidnapped. It was hard to believe: Aramburu was a former de facto president and one of the most recognisable figures in the country, but at that moment, he was in the back of a van on the way to the tiny town of Timote, some 400km west of Buenos Aires. It is there that his body would be found six weeks later, blindfolded and hands tied, buried in a makeshift grave in the basement of a local farmhouse.

A wanted poster for the Montonero suspected of kidnapping General Aramburu

A wanted poster for the Montoneros suspected of kidnapping General Aramburu

The Aramburazo, as it later became known, sent shockwaves through Argentine politics and society. Barely a week after the kidnapping, de facto president General Juan Carlos Onganía, who had ruled since the 1966 military coup, was removed from office, while Aramburu himself was eliminated as a leading candidate to challenge for the leadership.

Yet the incident would become even more significant because of its protagonists, a group of young activist-militants who immediately claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and execution of Aramburu. It was the public birth of a new guerrilla organisation, self-appointed to lead the armed struggle on behalf of the mobilised Peronist movement, and which would become synonymous with the escalation of violence in 1970s Argentina: The Montoneros.

Operation Pindapoy

After almost a year of planning, ‘Operation Pindapoy’ was set in motion soon after 9am on 29th May, 1970. The date was itself symbolic for The Montoneros: celebrated since 1810 as ‘Army Day’, it was also the one-year anniversary of the Cordobazo, a major popular uprising in Argentina’s second city that united student and workers against Onganía’s dictatorship.

The mission was brassy from the start: dressed as military officers, group leader Fernando Abal Medina and Emilio Maza visited Aramburu at his flat in Recoleta claiming to have been assigned as protection for the retired general. Soon after they emerged from the building, escorting Aramburu in broad daylight to the car where other members of the ten-person ‘command group’ were waiting. After a strategic vehicle change, a party of five – Aramburu, Abal Medina, Mario Firmenich, Carlos Ramus and another, unnamed ‘comrade’ – took a well-rehearsed route via unpatrolled back roads to Timote.

The details of the subsequent four days in that remote, nondescript town were later described, and celebrated, by Firmenich in a sensational interview published in leftist magazine La Causa Peronista in September 1974. By that time, there were no other known witnesses to verify the story – Abal Medina and Ramus had been killed in a shootout with police three years earlier – and some remain unconvinced that it is a reliable testimony.

According to Firmenich, Aramburu was silent throughout the eight-hour journey, and remained calm and measured as he was subjected to ‘revolutionary trial’ by his captors, all of whom were less than half his age.

The Montoneros statement announcing the execution of Aramburu

The Montoneros statement announcing the execution of Aramburu

A statement released by the Montoneros, dated 31st May and addressed to ‘The Argentine people’, detailed some of the main charges brought against the former president. They included leading the proscription and brutal suppression of the Peronist movement after Peron’s exile in 1955, the unlawful execution of 27 civilians and military officers that had attempted an uprising against Aramburu’s ‘Liberating Revolution’ in June 1956, and overseeing the theft and disappearance of Eva Peron’s remains in 1957.

Finding the general guilty, the memo concluded that he would face a firing squad at a time and place to be determined. The next day, a one-line statement affirmed that the sentence had been carried out at 7am.

Montoneros and Perón

Although bringing Aramburu to ‘revolutionary justice’ was one of the key goals of Operation Pindapoy, its political impact was arguably more important for The Montoneros. It was a deliberately shocking way to announce to the nation that a new type of armed leftist resistance to conservative military rule had begun. By immediately targeting one of the figureheads of the ‘gorila‘ (anti-Peronist) movement that dominated the country for 15 years after 1955, the guerrilla group demonstrated that it was willing, and able, to strike at the heart of the establishment. Crucially, it also showed that the group was not afraid of violence, something that would become bloodily apparent to all in Buenos Aires in the years to come.

Beyond ideological motives, there was also a secondary, more practical, objective to the mission. By 1970, Aramburu, who had left the army and presidency 12 years earlier, was allegedly masterminding a plan to reincorporate Peronism – or at least a narrow version of it – into Argentine politics. There were even unconfirmed rumours that Aramburu was secretly negotiating with Perón himself, urging the famously pragmatic leader to embrace a more moderate ideology and adapt to a more orthodox, liberal economic model, in exchange for support in bringing down Ongania’s dictatorship and removing the ban on Peronism.

President Aramburu during the 'Liberating Revolution'

President Aramburu during the ‘Liberating Revolution’

Though The Montoneros also sought the return of Perón, they saw this concept of a ‘Suited Peronism’ as even more of a threat to their political cause than the more blunt repression of the military junta. That The Montoneros even considered it possible that Perón would accept such a proposal betrayed a certain tension between the young guerrillas and their old leader.

In a letter written to Perón in 1971, the Montoneros made explicit mention of their concerns over Perón’s rumoured involvement in Aramburu’s plotting, adding that “we believe it necessary that you clarify this hypothetical contradiction between your plans and our actions”. In a swift reply to his “cherished comrades”, Perón denied the allegations, saying he was in “complete agreement” with what had been done.

Though this provided reassurance, the relationship between the two remained complex, with the use of violence against security forces, business executives, and “traitor” union leaders clashing with Perón’s desire for prudence, especially after his return in 1973. It reached breaking point when the Montoneros famously deserted Plaza de Mayo during a traditional 1st May presidential speech in 1974 after Perón criticised the “immature ‘rookies’ who think they have earned more merit than those who have been fighting for over 20 years.”


Perón died soon after, and in the months that followed, the escalation of violence between the leftist guerrilla movement and far-right paramilitary squads made Buenos Aires unbearable – so much so that many people welcomed the military coup in March 1976. The Montoneros were quickly dismantled – its leaders killed, disappeared, or forced into exile – by the new regime, which then proceeded to advance its state terrorism to wipe out a generation of mostly young opponents.

Before this, in his 1974 account of Operation Pindapoy, Firmenich recalled that upon being read his sentence, Aramburu appealed to his captors to consider all of the young blood that would be spilled if they carried out this act. At the time it was a risk The Montoneros had decided was worth taking; something they considered a necessary vengeance for the blood that had been spilled so far.

Many years later, in a TV interview in which he spoke of the errors committed by the organisation he led in the 1970s, Firmenich reiterated that the trial and execution of Aramburu was a decision made by the public, carried out by The Montoneros. It remains unclear whether the public would agree.

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National Senator Demands Apology from Moyano

National Senator and ex-Cabinet Chief, Aníbal Fernández, today called for leader of the Labour Confederation (CGT), Hugo Moyano, to apologise for comments made yesterday in a radio interview.

Moyano criticised the current Kirchner administration, and named the senator a “fairground clown,” and a “lackey,” for serving the Duhalde, Menem and now the Kirchner governments.

Fernández emphasised: “I was never an employee of Menem. Yes, I was for Duhalde, but I have nothing to regret. I feel happy that I took the action I did.”

Today, Fernández responded to Moyano’s comments in a radio interview, stating “I believe Moyano is mistaken and should apologise.” He also commented that he was “personally fond of Moyano” and considered him a “friend.”

“He is a grown up man, and he should be a little more responsible, and I hope that at some point he will pick up the phone and realise he was mistaken,” said the senator.

He also stated that Moyano’s criticism of the government was a “stupidity,” and that his issue is not with the government, but with other union leaders.

In defence of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the senator claimed that Moyano’s words sought to “agrevate” the government, and that they hinted at “machismo and misogyny.”

“It seems like it bothers him that the national Peronist movement is being led by a woman.”

Relations between the union leader and the government continue to be tense, and have been gradually disintegrating after a previously close relationship.

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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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Moyano Resigns from Peronist Party

Hugo Moyano, Secretary General of the CGT, Argentina’s largest trade union, announced today that he is resigning as vice-president of the Peronist Party.

The move comes after remarks made by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner during her inauguration speech last Saturday, that trade union strikes will no longer be tolerated if their purpose is solely extortion.

Moyano, who spoke in front of 80,000 workers in Hurucán stadium today, said that in the province of Buenos Aires the Peronist Party lacks peronism, and that this was the reason for him stepping down as a party leader.

He also accused the national government of unfairly taking 12 billion pesos from health insurance companies since 2008 and of the rise of the non-taxable minimum income tax.

The resignation reflects a change in the relationship between Moyano and kirchnerism, which have historically been viewed as a centerpiece of Argentine political life.

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Argentina: A Modern History

Book Cover of "Argentina: A Modern History"

Many say Argentina is not the country it was supposed to be.  In the early 20th century it was well on its way to being the richest, most successful nation in the world. Today, it is suffering from a low economic status compared to some its Latin American neighbours, widespread distrust of government leadership, and a global reputation of instability. But what happened to it and why?

To put your questions to rest, Jill Hedges explains it all in her recently published book, “Argentina: A Modern History”. In a cohesive and readable summary, Hedges tells you what you need to know, in a way that makes sense to the casual reader and offers new insight for those more knowledgeable on the subjects.

Despite its scholastic and rather dull sounding title, Hedges presents the last 160 years of Argentine history in an entertaining narrative that reads more like an action thriller than an academic tome. At times even including cliffhangers: there are occasions where Hedges has the reader asking himself, “No way! What happened next?”

It’s true the recent history of Argentina has all the juicy components necessary for a page-turning suspense novel. The actual premise of Hedges’ book, however, is more serious. Through purposeful and straightforward writing, she explains why Argentina has fallen victim to a boom and bust economic cycle, constant political factionalism, and an undefined national identity. Much of its focus is on ex president Juan Domingo Perón, and how his image, as well as his policies, have shaped the country’s politics for the last 70 years.

The book begins in 1853, the year Argentina adopted its constitution and a logical starting point in understanding the country’s political development. From there, 13 well-written chapters, divided into clear sections, highlight important events and trends, over significant time periods.

Hedges’ history looks at the big picture first. By focusing on Argentina’s origins she examines the country’s make-up to identify its essential character. Suggesting that because rural Argentina was populated by immigrants, rather than through a gradual spread of previously-established settlers, the country developed into pockets of unique civilisations differing widely in their customs and beliefs. In an interesting hypothesis, Hedges ventures that these differences made it difficult for emerging political leaders to find common ground, and eventually led to an inherent inability to compromise.

What follows is a cast of characters, that together tell the story of Argentina’s past. Instead of presenting political figures solely in terms of their successes and failures, Hedges offers relevant details about their experiences, thus making their later actions more understandable.

Evita's Grave (Photo: Pek&Anoek)

The description of Eva Perón’s small-town upbringing in the vast Pampas is particularly telling. The youngest of five illegitimate children to a poor, but hard-working, single woman, ‘Evita’ was taught to be independent and resourceful, regardless of her low social class standing. Her mother refused to accept charity, not even food handouts from a local church kitchen. Had she done so, Hedge writes, she would have been subjected to the “humiliation of having her children inspected for dirty fingernails and lice”.

The book also lays out interesting ‘what-if’ scenarios, encouraging the reader to draw on his/her own imagination. For example, Hedges speculates that “Peronism” may never have evolved into a defining political position had Perón himself not given in to the overthrow in 1955 and instead, remained in office until the end of his term. Conversely, his exile from Argentina, which lasted 16 years, glorified his policies, forever endearing him to the working class, and granting future aspiring leaders a nostalgic tactic with which to influence populist emotion.

Indeed, for those who are not from Argentina, the concept of Peronism is difficult to explain. Hedges sheds some light on the matter by presenting it as an ideology, albeit not a very clear one, that has changed over time and has more to do with popular attitude than with concrete political policy. Even during Perón’s own presidency, his administration struggled to define the term, finally settling on this vague definition. “Simple, practical, popular; profoundly Christian and profoundly human.”

Neither does the book fail to present the side of anti-Peronists. After the military succeeded in driving out Peron in 1955, the successive government did everything in their power to erase his existence. Hedges describes the law passed which made it illegal to even mention his name and the meticulous work of removing embroidery threads from hospital linens belonging to the Eva Peron Foundation.

After Peron’s death in 1974, which occurred during his third term as president, the book somewhat skims over the next decade, especially the infamous military dictatorship of 1976-83. Likewise, not much is said about the Falklands/Malvinas War in 1982.

Alfonsín congratulating Menem in 1989

Things get interesting again when Hedges recounts Raúl Alfonsín’s victory, the first democratically elected president after the military dictatorship, and subsequently, Carlos Menem’s sensational turn in the Casa Rosada.

Argentina’s citizens in the 90s were finally enjoying some financial freedom and extra spending power owing to the convertibility plan that pegged the value of the peso to the US dollar. Happy to be living during crisis-free times, the country didn’t seem to care about its president’s very public divorce and questionable business dealings. They even turned a blind eye to the suspicious events surrounding his son’s death in a helicopter crash. Was it an accident or a murder? No one knows. In fact, parts of the aircraft, which supposedly had bullet holes, mysteriously disappeared during the official investigation.

Though skeptical about Argentina’s ability to turn things around in the near future, Hedges does give the country credit for not falling under military control during the 2001 economic crisis.  She maintains, however, that the same problems exist and that Argentina won’t mature as a nation state unless a basic, legal, economic and political framework is achieved.

Whether your interest in Argentina’s background is to help you with research on your Latin American doctoral thesis, or you just want to better understand Madonna’s film “Evita”, Hedges’ modern history of Argentina is both a useful resource and interesting read.

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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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Riding Juan Perón’s Coffin

Illustration by Nick Mahshie

The outpouring of grief and solidarity this April for Raúl Alfonsín, the president who brought Argentina back to democracy in the early 1980s, was an impressive event to see.

The ceremony brought to my mind a far more tumultuous state funeral the last time I was lived here – the reburial of Juan Domingo Perón on 17th October 2006. ‘Quilombo‘ is my favourite Argentine word, and in contrast to Alfonsín’s orderly sendoff, it is the word that best describes this other funeral.

As someone obsessed with all things Juan and Evita, from the musical to real history, the disorder called to mind a line in the musical about how with “chaos installed” there is opportunity to be grabbed. Indeed I did that day. How often does one get to claim that he rode the coffin of a dead president through the streets of city? I can, and it is one part of what makes my life as a travel writer so surreal. The last major presidential burial in my country was Ronald Reagan’s and I could never imagine being able to have done the same. But then, Argentina and the United States are two very different places.

I’ll owe the beginnings of my luck to attending a press conference the evening before. I was the only foreign journalist there, and those speaking – from Peronist politicians to labour leaders, to the men maintaining the condition of the body – welcomed me in an extraordinary way.

They told me that Peron was to be removed from Chacarita Cemetery and driven to the Confederacion General del Trabajo, or CGT, in Monserrat. Like Evita, the plan was to place him in a glass coffin so crowds could come by and give him a kiss off one more time.

The CGT was where Evita’s body was embalmed, and an eternal flame on the building above her portrait marks the place as a shrine. However, unlike Evita, a dead Perón was far from a kissable Sleeping Beauty. Instead of pucker-ready crowds, there was a mess of camera crews, photographers, workers, and people hanging outside the building, waiting for the parading of his coffin through Buenos Aires. Cavalry soldiers in colonial era garb waited to lead him away.

I was supposed to have building access, my name on a media list. This meant nothing to the thugs guarding the entrance. I bided my time with the crowd, photographing soldiers and police who festively posed, instead of putting on a grim display. It’s part of the national vanity in a country where half the population is of Italian blood, ready to be a spectacle.

Photo by Michael Luongo

But then the moment arrived. Suited men poured from the CGT with the casket, thugs beating down the crowds. I held my camera up in the air, easily passing through, shouting, “periodista, periodista” as I got closer to the coffin, strapped onto the back of a waiting jeep. Several of the men from the press conference surrounded the flag wrapped coffin, each nodding in recognition. I placed my body over, and as I snapped away, I realised no one had any intention of telling me to leave.

The high perch allowed me to see over the crowds.  When we emerged on to Paseo Alem, I was stirred by the sight of hundreds of thousands of people, insane devotion projecting from all points. People leaned over balconies waving flags, throwing flowers, cheering and screaming. One building burst into flame, fire rising above a sign with a smiling Juan and Evita. Someone must have tossed a cigarette down while they were throwing confetti.

The jeep moved on, the driver aware even a moment’s stop would mean that he would be trapped by the crowds. Tearful old women tried to rip me from the trailer, to get closer to a man they refused to give up loving more than 30 years after his death. Shirtless workers, descamisados of Peronist lure, pounded on the coffin, pulling themselves over the vehicle, their feet dragging against the pavement. Through it all, the men surrounding the coffin remained still, but then the horrific occurred. One of the clamoring young men slipped, and the wheels of the trailer rolled over him. Miraculously, he was not killed, and even if my photographer’s instinct meant when I jumped off, I photographed the man, I didn’t fight to get back. The jeep inched its way to a new burial ground, a mausoleum at San Vicente, the Peróns’ country home.

I convinced a cab driver to essentially, “follow that coffin”. We took off on the highway leading from town, past Ezeiza, built by Perón, past Ciudad Evita, whose streets form into Evita’s profile, and onto the dusty suburban fringes of Buenos Aires. Thousands of spectators lined the roads and hung from overpasses, cheering and holding signs for their god-like leader. School busses, vehicles, motorcycles, anything with wheels was part of the caravan. Each time the road bent, I could make out the jeep and the coffin, its caretakers holding on, a dusty streak we all followed for four hours.

Photo by Michael Luongo

The eerie calm upon arrival at San Vicente was broken by piercing screams and shattered bottles. Dozens of people, many covered in blood, began pouring from the grounds, police in riot gear behind. My immediate reaction was to rush in, my camera above my head when I wasn’t photographing. The police stopped me, thinking I was insane until I explained I was a journalist.

Inside, huge, hairy men climbed trees and broke them apart. They looked like cavemen, swinging clubs made from branches at anything that moved as political speeches projected from loudspeakers. At first, I thought they must have been coming from a radio, but I soon realised the political rally was here. Bleachers, surrounded by enormous billboards of Juan and Evita, had been set up, with politicians at a podium. The cavemen threw branches, bricks, and twisted pieces of metal while each speaker took his turn, ignoring the injuries raining on those just steps below.

I photographed the chaos in near disbelief, worried the crowd would turn on me, as I learned, they had on other journalists. One man was near me, his face cut, blood soaking his clothing, as he shouted “Perón, Perón” in the air above him, as if in a painful ecstatic trance. Juan’s coffin was paraded through the grounds, one man riding over it, continuing the chant of Perón, Perón. He riled the crowds, his hands in the air, but then he would use the same hands to beat people away. I followed the coffin as more brutes beat others back, and somehow, I made it into the crypt.

I was with the coffin inside of a serene white room, surrounded by women in lab coats making chit-chat with me. Calm reflection was not what the leaders in charge of the body wanted however, and the coffin was soon brought back the crowds. Politicians and union leaders hovered over the coffin, waving their hands over the wooden surface, as if holding a séance, perhaps to bring Perón back to life. In a way, they were, tricking people into believing they were heirs to his spirit.

Photo by Michael Luongo

The back and forth of the body started once again, on its way into the mausoleum. I followed the coffin, making the mistake of falling behind to photograph it from behind, but the crypt doors slammed in my face. No amount of begging, no name, no press ID would allow back in. Instead, I watched through a glass wall into the crypt’s interior, the coffin now on a slanted, polished black top of a platform inside. I thought this was where it would permanently rest, but after several minutes, it was slipped inside of an opening under the granite. The men inside of the glass room ignored the photographers, TV crews and the crowd peering in. They were like a zoo display, but the animals were those of us outside, the passionate crowds, staring, praying, crying, beating against the glass.

One by one, the men in suits and the women in lab coats left the glass room, until there was nothing but the solitary black polished granite crypt. Aware that the body would never be paraded around again, that there was no more reason to chant for Perón, or to bruise and bloody each other in a struggle to get closer to the body, the crowds filtered away.

My cab driver and talked about the exhausting day, making better time heading back to Buenos Aires than we did leaving. I asked him to drop me off at the Casa Rosada and Evita’s famous balcony, the place where the revolution she and Juan started on that very date in 1945 had begun.

We parted ways, but the legacy of that date was apparent in our meeting. Peronism created a worker’s revolution, bringing men like my cab driver into the middle class. But it also made a legend whose interpretation in stage and film would make Argentina a curiosity of tourists the world over. It was this image which first made me want to come to this country, one whose strange passions are hard to explain to the package tourists who come for Evita, wine and tango with just a week to explore. There is a passion here in Argentina we don’t have in the US, something you have to see and experience to understand what lies within this nation’s psyche. And this is what draws me back to Argentina time and again.


Michael Luongo is the author of Frommer’s Buenos Aires, the most popular US published guide to the Argentine capital. The third edition of the book is due to be released later this year. www.michaelluongo.com

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