Juan Domingo Perón (October 8, 1895 – July 1, 1974) was an Argentine soldier and politician, elected three times as president of Argentina. He served from 1946 to 1955 and again from 1973 to 1974.
Perón and his wife Eva were immensely popular among a portion of the Argentine people and are still iconic figures by followers of the Peronist Party. Perón followers lauded his efforts to eliminate poverty and to dignify labor, while his detractors considered him a demagogue and a dictator. He started the political movement known as Peronism, still popular in Argentina to this day, which professes to be a third way between capitalism and socialism. He is one of the most controversial presidents of Argentina, in part because of his direct involvement in harboring Nazi fugitives fleeing prosecution after World War II.
Childhood and youth
Perón was born to a lower-middle class family in a town near Lobos, Province of Buenos Aires in 1895. He received a strict Catholic upbringing. He entered military school at 16 and made somewhat better than average progress through the officer ranks. A strongly built six-foot-tall youth, Perón became the champion fencer of the army and a fine skier and boxer. He had a bent for history and political philosophy and published in those fields. Perón married Aurelia Tizón on January 5, 1929, but she died of uterine cancer nine years later.
In 1938 he was sent by the army to Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Hungary, Albania and Yugoslavia as a military observer, during which time he became familiar with the government of Benito Mussolini and other European governments of the time.
Military government of 1943-1946
In May 1943, as a colonel, Perón was a significant figure in the military coup by the United Officers' Group (GOU), a secret society, against a conservative civilian government. He eventually became the head of the then-insignificant Department of Labor.
His effective alliance with labor unions brought Perón growing influence in the military government. Perón won support from the labor movement by granting workers higher wages, more paid holidays, and other benefits. Under Perón's leadership, the Department of Labor became an important government office.
Perón became vice president and secretary of war under General Edelmiro Farrell (February 1944). However, opponents within the armed forces forced his resignation, and on October 9, 1945, Perón was arrested.
It was at this point that Perón's mistress, Eva Duarte (1919–1952), rallied the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) trade union to his defense, and Perón was released from custody on October 17, 1945. That night, from the balcony of the presidential palace, he addressed 300,000 people; and his address was also broadcast to the nation on radio. He promised to lead the people to victory in the pending presidential election and to build with them a strong and just nation. A few days later, he married "Evita," as she was popularly called. A stage and radio actress, she helped her husband develop support with labor and women's groups, and would eventually take a role with him in ruling Argentina in the years ahead.
Election and first term (1946-1952)
Perón leveraged his popular support into victory in the February 24, 1946 presidential elections.
Once in office, Perón pursued social policies aimed at empowering the working class. He greatly expanded the number of unionized workers and supported the increasingly powerful General Confederation of Labor (CGT), created in 1930. He called his movement the "third way," or justicialismo, a supposed path between capitalism and communism. Later populist/nationalist leaders in Latin America would adopt many elements of Peronism. Perón also pushed hard to industrialize the country. In 1947 he announced the first five-year plan to boost newly nationalized industries. His ideology would be dubbed Peronism and became a central influence in Argentine political parties.
However, among middle and upper class Argentines, Perón's pro-labor policies were considered far too socialistic. Negative feelings among the upper classes also abounded toward the industrial workers from rural areas. Perón also made enemies internationally because of his willingness to shelter fleeing Nazi war criminals, like Erich Priebke who arrived in Argentina in 1947, Josef Mengele who arrived in 1949 and Adolf Eichmann in 1950. Eichmann was eventually captured by Israeli agents in Argentina, indicted by an Israeli court on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, convicted and hanged. His last words were "long live Argentina."
The second term (1952-1955)
Perón won re-election in 1951. By then Evita had become a powerful political figure in her own right. She began to campaign for women's right to vote and developed social programs for the descamisados, or "shirtless ones," referring to Argentina's working class. In 1948 she established a women's branch of Peron's political party.
Her supporters say she was motivated by her love for the people. Her detractors say she was trying to garner support for her husband's government. However, when she tried to join her husband in the government by running for vice president, leading Argentine military officers, fearing that in time she might succeed to the presidency, blocked her candidacy.
Evita died in 1952 at the age of 33. After her death, her supporters lobbied the Vatican to canonize her. Peron decided to build a mausoleum in which to display her embalmed body. Instead, the military regime that toppled Peron in 1955 secretly buried her body in Milan, Italy, fearing her grave would become a symbol of opposition to the dictatorship. In 1976 her body was finally laid to rest in Recoleta, Buenos Aires' cemetery for the rich and powerful.
Perón's nationalization of large parts of the economy, together with stringent trade barriers, cut Argentina's links to the world economy—long the source of its great wealth. Built on the prewar legacy of fascist ideas, Perón turned Argentina into a corporatist country, with powerful organized interest groups—big business, labor unions, military, and farmers—that negotiated with the government for position and resources.
However, as inflation increased and trade became less profitable, it became more difficult to finance imports of vital raw materials. Perón's attempt to rapidly strengthen manufacturing industries at the expense of the rural economy exacerbated Argentina's economic problems, leading to large debts, high inflation, and little growth in productivity. Nevertheless, support for Peron's policies continued, especially among labor unions.
Seeking to reconcile with business leaders who felt his policies had brought the nation to the brink of disaster, Perón called employers and unions to a "Productivity Congress" with the aim of regulating social conflict through social dialogue. However, the congress failed after a deal between labor and management representatives proved impossible.
Around the same time, in May 1955, Perón signed a contract with an American oil company, Standard Oil of California, opening an economic policy of development with the help of foreign industrial investments. The Radical Civic Party (UCR) leader, Arturo Frondizi, criticized this as an anti-Argentinean decision. However, three years later he himself signed several contracts with foreign oil companies.
During Perón's second term, several terrorist acts were committed against civilian targets. On April 15, 1953, a terrorist group detonated two bombs in a public rally at the Plaza de Mayo, the center of downtown Buenos Aires, killing seven citizens and injuring 95. On June 15, 1955, a failed coup d'état by anti-Peronists used navy aircraft to bomb Peronists gathered at the same plaza, killing 364 citizens.
In 1954, the Roman Catholic Church, which had supported the government up to then, confronted Perón because of his efforts to eliminate the political influence of the church and the enactment of a law allowing divorce. On September 16, 1955, a Catholic nationalist group within both the army and the navy launched a coup that ended Peron’s second term. This group took power under the name of Revolución Libertadora or the “Liberating Revolution.” The coup effectively banned Peronist activities in Argentina, including public references to Perón or his late wife. Songs, writings, and pictures supporting Perón were also forbidden. The Peronist Party was banned until Perón's return in 1973.
After the military coup, Perón went into exile in Paraguay. His escape was facilitated by his friend, President Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay, who placed a gunboat at his disposal on the River Plate. Later he lived in Panama, where he met nightclub bolero singer María Estela Martínez. Eventually settling in Madrid, he married her there in 1961. She became better known as Isabel.
Back in Argentina, Peronism was still banned and active Peronists were sometimes persecuted. In the 1950s and 1960s Argentina was marked by frequent coups d'états. It experienced low economic growth in the 1950s but rebounded with some of the world's highest growth rates in the 1960s (Gerchunoff et al, 309-321). The nation also faced problems of continued social unrest and labor strikes. Yet during those years poverty almost disappeared, with poverty rates between between two percent and five percent in the first years of the 1960s (INDEC).
When the economy slumped again in the late 1960s the government faced a new crisis. It also failed to suppress escalating terrorism from groups such as the Catholic-pro-Perón Montoneros, the Marxist ERP (People's Revolutionary Army), and rightist militias, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. General Alejandro Lanusse took power in March 1971 and had declared his intention to restore constitutional democracy by 1973. The way was thus open for Perón's return. From exile, Perón supported centrists such as Radical Party leader Ricardo Balbín, as well as Catholic-left-wing Peronists, and pro-Peronist labor unions.
The third term (1973-1974)
On March 11, 1973, general elections were held. Perón was banned from running, but a stand-in candidate, Héctor Cámpora, was elected and took office on May 25. On June 20, 1973, Perón returned from an 18-year exile in Spain. A crowd of left-wing Peronists had gathered at the Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires to welcome and support him. The police counted 3.5 million people in attendance. Perón came accompanied by Cámpora, whose first measure had been to grant amnesty to all political prisoners and to reestablish relations with Cuba, helping Castro break the American embargo, an economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed on Cuba. This, and his social policies, had also earned him the opposition of right-wing Peronists.
From Perón's stand, camouflaged snipers, including members of the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance, opened fire on the crowd. The left-wing Peronist Youth and the Montoneros had been trapped. At least 13 people were killed, and 365 injured during this episode, which became known as the Ezeiza massacre.
Cámpora resigned in July 1973, paving the way for new elections, this time with Perón's participation. Argentina had by this time reached a peak of instability, and Perón was viewed by many as the country's only hope for prosperity and salvation. Balbín and Perón considered a Peronist-Radical joint government, but internal opposition in both parties made this impossible. Perón's overwhelming victory (62 percent of the vote), returned him to the presidency. In October 1973 he began his third term, with Isabel, his wife, as vice president.
Perón's third term was marked by an escalating conflict between the Peronist left- and right-wing factions. This turmoil was fueled primarily by Perón's growing ties with Balbín, who was considered right-wing by center-left radicals led by Raúl Alfonsín.
Neither the Montoneros nor the Marxist-Guevarist (ERP) was pleased by Perón's actions. The latter turned to terrorist activities. The Montoneros kidnapped and murdered former president Pedro Eugenio Aramburu. Meanwhile Peron's welfare minister, José López Rega, was accused by Peronist congressional deputies in July 1975 of being the instigator of the “Triple A” (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance), one of the first right-wing death squads to be formed in Argentina in the 1970s.
Death and succession
Perón died on July 1, 1974, recommending that his wife, Isabel, rely on Balbín for support. At the president's burial Balbín uttered a historic phrase, "This old adversary bids farewell to a friend."
Isabel Perón succeeded her husband to the presidency, but proved thoroughly incapable of managing the country's mounting political and economic problems, the violent left-wing insurgency and the reaction of the extreme right. Ignoring her late husband's advice, Isabel granted Balbín no role in her new government, instead granting broad powers to López Rega. An astrologist who reportedly exercised a Rasputin-like authority over Perón's widow, López Rega loaded the cabinet with his political allies in September 1974 and instituted an unpopular program of fiscal conservatism.
Isabel Perón's term was ended abruptly on March 24, 1976, by a military coup d'état. A military junta headed by General Jorge Videla took control of the country. The junta combined a widespread persecution of political dissidents with the use of state terrorism. The final death toll rose to thousands (no less than nine thousand, with some human rights organizations claiming it was closer to 30,000). Most of this number is accounted for by "the disappeared" (desaparecidos), people kidnapped and executed without trial and without record.
Perón was buried in La Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires. In 1987, his tomb was defaced and the hands (and some personal effects such as his sword) of his corpse were stolen. Those responsible have never been found. On October 17, 2006, his body was moved to a new mausoleum in the Buenos Aires suburb of San Vicente, his former summer residence, which was rebuilt as a museum.
- Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2004 DVD: “Juan Peron.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2003. ISBN 1593390637
- Gambini, Hugo. Historia del Peronismo. Editorial Planeta (Spanish), 1989. ISBN 9504907849
- Gerchunoff, Pablo and Lucas Llach. El ciclo de la ilusión y el desencanto: un siglo de políticas económicas argentinas. Buenos Aires: Ariel Sociedad Económica (Spanish), 1998. ISBN 9509122793
- Plotkin, Mariano Ben and Keith Zahniser (trans.). Mañana Es San Peron: A Cultural History of Peron's Argentina. Scholarly Resources Inc., 2003. ISBN 0842050299
- 'Twenty Truths' of the Peronist Movement. Argentine History Sourcebook. Retrieved March 18, 2007.
- Save Perón's 'Argentina'! Casahistoria.net. Retrieved March 18, 2007.
- Perón Speeches in Spanish. University of Texas. Retrieved March 18, 2007.
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First and Second Terms
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