Is Peronism Finished?
On December 10, 1983, Raúl Alfonsín of the Radical Civic Union (UCR) began a six-year term as President of the Argentine Republic. His accession consummates one of the most dramatic political reversals of the 50th century, for it represents the first time since 1946 when Argentines—freely permitted to express their preferences—have turned their backs on Peronism. Alfonsín’s victory seems more impressive still when one considers its sheer dimensions (52 percent in the elections held on October 30), and the broad distribution of his mandate. It is notable as well for the fact that he clearly identifies himself as a “Left-of-Center Social Democrat” in a country which over the years has given ample proofs of a political culture decidedly to the Right of Center.
The sudden turn of Argentines away from authoritarian solutions after nearly two generations of a messianic leader-cult and seven years of military rule, combined with their apparent ideological aggiornamento, has provoked acute interest and sympathy throughout Latin America, Western Europe, and the United States. It has encouraged optimists and well-wishers to conclude that this magnificent country, so rich in promise (and in frustration), has finally turned the corner in its perennially troubled political life.
All this is especially remarkable in the light of Argentina’s former image as the last redoubt of European fascism—whether under military juntas or populist dictatorships. This view, one feels obligated to recall, was the current wisdom in the chanceries and the world press not quite eighteen months ago. To be sure, conditions have changed since then, but what of the Argentine character? The victory of Alfonsín raises all sorts of questions no one would have thought of asking before October 30. Since Peronism has been the most persistent feature on the political landscape for nearly four decades, how could this—its first electoral defeat—have happened? Is this the end of Peronism? If so, what will replace it? If not, what form will it assume in Argentina’s newly-pluralized political system? Have the Argentines—in their rapid and rather precipitous lurch toward democracy—finally found a way out?
The answer to those questions might well begin with a brief excursion into political history. Alfonsín’s party, the Radical Civic Union, is the oldest political movement in Argentina and one of the most venerable democratic forces in Latin America. Founded in the 1890’s, it long articulated the hopes and aspirations of Argentina’s large, immigrant-descended middle class, and between the two world wars it was the country’s undisputed majority party. Since then, however, it has represented a diminishing political force; today, for example, no more than one out of every four Argentine voters considers himself a Radical.
During their years of plenty the Radicals had no serious political or economic program—other than to win elections and distribute patronage to their followers. But there was really no need for them to represent much else. The country then enjoyed an advantage in the world economy as an exporter of foodstuffs which it has since lost, and, in any event, there was no other force which could rival the party’s appeal. All of that changed rather abruptly in 1946, when an unknown army officer, Colonel Juan Perón, took advantage of his position within the ruling military junta to introduce three new elements into Argentine politics. One was a large, well-organized militant trade-union movement loyal to him and him alone. Another was an expansionist economic policy, which provided thousands of new opportunities for industrialists and middle-level managers in both public and private sectors. And the third was a virulent “anti-imperialism” (directed largely, though not exclusively, against the United States), which provided the ideological glue to hold together an extremely broad coalition. With these elements, Perón could quicken the hopes and—for long periods of time, at any rate—hold the support of labor leaders, military officers, entrepreneurs, small businessmen, professionals, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
In the years that followed Perón’s first election in 1946, the Radicals attempted to meet his challenge by upholding democratic values and sturdily opposing the intermittently authoritarian features of his regime. But after Perón’s overthrow in 1955 and the proscription of his movement by the military, they shifted to a policy of attempting to coopt his disenfranchised followers. By the late 1950’s, the Radical program—and even, to some degree, its rhetoric—had become indistinguishable from that of its erstwhile rival, with the additional advantage that as a truly democratic party it could offer assurances to voters whom this new posture might normally have scared away. It was a brilliant ploy, and it might have worked—if Perón had died in 1955 instead of departing to a secure European exile. But as long as he lived, the Radicals had no hope of defeating his movement in an open contest—and in fact they never did.1
If the person of the exiled dictator constituted an impassable barrier for the Radicals, for the Peronist party it remained its one matchless asset. Its full value was demonstrated repeatedly over the long years of proscription by the fact that against the will of this one man, even while living on another continent, Argentina was quite simply ungovernable—by civilian politicians and military juntas alike.
This capacity to shape and determine Argentine events characterized Perón even to the last moments of his life. For example, in 1973, as the result of exhaustive negotiations with the military, the ban on his party was lifted, so that it could participate in new elections. However, the generals managed to devise a legal technicality which prevented Perón from becoming a candidate himself. Undaunted, he simply designated a surrogate with no following of his own, and that is how Héctor Cámpora, a dentist and small-time politician of whom many Argentines had never heard, came to be President of the Republic. Then, three months later, when Perón decided that the new government was falling into the hands of undesirable elements on the Left, he simply ordered Cámpora and his Vice President to resign. This cleared the way for Perón’s own return and subsequent reelection a few weeks later.
The most remarkable demonstration of all came in the critical weeks between Cámpora’s resignation and Perón’s reelection. Since the great man was already in his late seventies and evidently in failing health, the choice of a Vice President was of considerable moment, particularly because at the time Peronism was sharply divided into left and right wings, and it was expected that the tendency embodied in the vice-presidential choice would basically define once and for all the nature of the movement and therefore its future direction.
There were no obvious candidates for this honor, since over the years Perón had taken care never to groom any potential successor, and in fact had consistently purged his movement of anyone who showed promise of genuine leadership. Thus the field of speculation was extremely wide; it included military officers, labor leaders—even Ricardo Balbín, the equally venerable leader of the Radical party. In the end Perón simply sidestepped the question altogether: he imposed his third wife, Maria Estela (“Isabelita”) Martinez de Perón,2 upon the stunned convention delegates. Since she lacked political experience of any kind—her two previous occupations were nightclub dancer and housewife, respectively—skeptics were left to wonder whether Perón simply did not care what happened to his country after he was gone, or believed himself to be immortal. The Argentine electorate seemed not to care, for it gave the couple a thumping 60 percent of the vote.
Perón died in office in early July 1974, and his widow promptly became the first woman chief of state in Latin American history. By the time her term was truncated by a military coup in 1976, it was widely regarded as the most catastrophic in Argentine history. It might have proven the final discrediting of Peronism if not for the events that followed. These had the effect—miraculous to imagine, but impossible to deny—of casting her administration, with all its violence, corruption, and sheer incompetence, into a golden retrospective light.
The military government which took over in 1976 did resolve the most outstanding problem of the day—the restoration of civil peace, sundered by a host of competing urban guerrilla movements. The cost was very high, including the kidnapping and presumed execution of many innocent people still unaccounted for. But to a degree difficult to understand for those who did not experience the period first hand, this was accomplished with tacit public approval, at least at the time. In all other areas—economic development, welfare, education, civil liberties—the military’s performance was actually inferior to that of its predecessor. To which one must add the unsuccessful attempt to recover an archipelago of islands in the South Atlantic (known variously as the Malvinas and the Falklands) which were wrested from the Argentines by the British more than a century ago. For the failure of that expedition raised the humiliating question of whether the Argentine armed forces were even capable of fulfilling their professional mission.
Thus, when a timetable was established for elections last year, it was not unreasonable to assume that Peronism would return for a third period of power. The single stumbling block which remained, however, was utterly crucial—the need for a new leader. In any personalistic movement the problem of political succession is always a rather delicate affair, but especially so in this case, since Peronism—unlike Radicalism—possesses no internal tradition of democratic decision-making. In Perón’s absence, his heirs were frankly unsure of how to proceed.
From the beginning it was clear that Señora Perón, in her Spanish exile, expected to be offered the presidential nomination, although she left open the question of whether she would actually accept it. This was one risk the party leadership had no intention of running, and it took fullest advantage of her physical absence to eliminate her from effective participation in the proceedings. After months of deliberation—and by methods still unclear to outsiders—the party chiefs passed over several more obvious choices to designate Italo A. Luder, former President of the Argentine Senate, known more recently as Señora Perón’s defense attorney in the military courts which had been convened to investigate her stewardship.
For Peronism, Luder was a curious choice. A lawyer and academic, he had a prim, measured style totally at variance with the raucous, macho-populist flavor of the movement. Although late in the campaign his platform presence became a bit more electric—and his speeches harder-hitting—he never looked particularly comfortable when (following obligatory Peronist protocol) he removed his tie and jacket. Nor did he ever appear to be the effective leader of his party. At the final rally of the campaign, held in a great open square in downtown Buenos Aires, the television cameras vastly magnified the spectacle of a tiny, middle-aged professor rather incongruously folded into a phalanx of labor bosses and assorted mobsters. Their sinister aspect—dark glasses and all—was a sight few voters could have forgotten, as was the opening ritual of the ceremony itself—the burning of a coffin representing Alfonsín and the Radical party.
Far more evocative of historic Peronism was the party’s choice for governor of the province of Buenos Aires, a position in Argentina almost as important as the Vice Presidency. Although originally promised to former Economy Minister Antonio Cafiero, by means of strong-arm tactics on the convention floor, it was seized by Herminio Iglesias, a thirty-five-year-old trade-union leader. Iglesias is a genuine Argentine original: in addition to his primary profession, he has dabbled in prostitution and gambling, while nonetheless enjoying curiously close relations with both the provincial police and the local Roman Catholic curia. Far from being embarrassed by such associations, Iglesias repeatedly made light of them, as well as of his own police record. His unselfconscious proletarian style, his evident contempt for civilized conduct, and his slogan, “Herminio is the people,” chased away the middle-class votes that the respectable Luder was supposed to attract—and in droves.3
The Peronist campaign itself was remarkable largely for its lack of originality and inspiration. In contrast to previous contests, few promises were made. Instead, Argentine voters were invited to vote for Peronism because it represented the happier days gone by. This approach was the point of departure for an unprecedented exercise in political necrophilia. Campaign rallies began with recordings of speeches by Perón and Eva Perón; posters often featured their names and photographs more prominently than those of the actual candidates. Typical slogans included “perón always returns,” “even in heaven perón wins,” and under a huge poster of Herminio Iglesias, the banner “the triumph of perón.” All of this led Alfonsín to inquire dryly, “If they win, who is it precisely that will govern?”
The other Peronist ploy was to depict Alfonsín as the candidate of the State Department, the U. S. embassy, and the multinational corporations, making the most of the fact that he was at one time lawyer for the Argentine division of Coca-Cola. Here again, the Peronists were dwelling upon past triumphs, since their first electoral victory in 1946 was achieved partly by emphasizing the evident preference of U.S. Ambassador Spruille Braden for the Radical candidate of the day. Instead of “braden or perón,” this time it was “luder or coca-cola,” “another product of coca-cola—alfonsín,” or “who are the radicals really voting for?,” accompanied by a clever cartoon depicting President Reagan as Uncle Sam, holding in his palm an identically attired miniature of Alfonsín. Given the Radical candidate’s unquestionable personal integrity, combined with his rather well-known opinion of the Reagan administration, the accusation seemed hardly credible; in any event, foreign affairs was by no means the most important issue in the campaign.
If the Peronists hoped to draw upon the accumulated capital of past electoral victories, Alfonsín ran as if his life depended upon it. During the bleak years when all overt political activity was forbidden, he crisscrossed the country dozens of times, meeting privately with party leaders and potential supporters. Once the ban was lifted, he quickly established himself as a spellbinding platform orator. By a combination of patient work in committees and an endess string of public appearances, he soon became the most visible and attractive Radical candidate, and his convention victory in June came as no surprise.
In the midst of the campaign for the Radical nomination, Alfonsín disappeared for several weeks in Western Europe. There he met with the leaders of the Socialist parties of France, Spain, and Italy, where—it is generally believed—he received significant campaign contributions. (The Swedish Social Democrats are also thought to have contributed.) Since the Radical party has never been an affiliate of the Socialist International—indeed, has always taken a particular pride in its uniquely Argentine identity—this was a new departure. It was reflected in the sudden professionalism of the Radical campaign, which was able to utilize the services of the best advertising agency in the country, and in a strong emphasis on social justice and a radical redistribution of resources, themes which have not figured prominently in past Radical programs.
In his discussion of international issues, Alfonsín often seemed to be echoing the chants of Euroneutralism, although these blended easily into Argentine and Latin American notions of nonalignment and “anti-imperialism.” Thus on one occasion he accused the Pentagon of “exporting McCarthyism” through the training of Argentine military officers; on another, he held both Soviet and U.S. military expenditures to be completely unnecessary. (“What they both should do is to give the money to us [the Third World] for development.”) As if to respond to his Peronist critics in spades, Alfonsín established a galactic distance between himself and President Reagan. “Instead of calling us to defend democracy,” he told a correspondent of the New York Times, “the United States today is calling us to defend a capitalism that has been evil to our country.” On repeated occasions he attacked the United States for its “gunboat diplomacy” in Central America, and in his final campaign speech he included a gratuitous blast at Washington for the invasion of Grenada.
However, the single most distinguishing feature of Alfonsín’s campaign was the fashion in which he courageously and squarely took on the three powerhouses of Argentine politics—the military, the trade-union movement, and the Roman Catholic church. He called for the drastic reorganization of the armed services, elimination of conscription, and reduction of the military budget to 2 percent of gross national product. He also heatedly denounced an alleged “pact” between the military and the Peronist labor movment, whose purpose, he claimed, was to forestall inquiry into any corruption or wrongdoing which might have occurred over the past ten years. While no one could prove that such an agreement existed, the accusation was plausible enough; both parties had a vested interest in covering for each other, since some of the untoward events of the period overlapped administrations. Alfonsín also called for a reorganization of the labor movement along “genuinely democratic principles,” which, if accomplished, threatened to deprive the Peronists of their most powerful political arm.
As if this were not enough, Alfonsín offended the clergy with his views on education (“obligatory, secular, with the right of the state to supervise the content of private instruction”) and divorce (“a subject which must be studied and resolved”). This was a veiled way of signaling that not far behind would follow the lifting of film and television censorship, an end to the policing of private morals, and—if Socialist Spain was any precedent—eventually, legalized abortion.
For both Alfonsín and Luder, the campaign was a gamble based on their particular reading of the Argentine electorate. Although in retrospect it is possible to see how and why the Radicals were right and the Peronists wrong, at the time neither party was certain its strategy would work. In this the polls were of limited assistance, since almost to the end they showed the candidates within a percentage point or two of each other, with a large “undecided” vote which probably turned decisively toward Alfonsín in the final days. With the wisdom of hindsight, however, one can now reconstruct the elements of the Radical triumph.
First, there was a massive desertion of voters from the traditional parties of the Right to Alfonsin. In the past, this current of opinion, which fluctuates between 12 and 15 percent of the electorate, has divided among three or four small, and electorally insignificant, “conservative” parties. This time, the prospect of getting rid of the Peronists once and for all (and by indirection, to disarm the labor movement politically) was simply too strong a temptation to be resisted. Quite obviously, these people did not take Alfonsín’s socialist rhetoric or proposals very seriously; to them, he was a typical centrist politician who would be brought back in line by hard economic realities within ten minutes of assuming office.
Second, there was an equally impressive defection to Alfonsín from those voters who normally support parties of the Left. The sole exception was the Argentine Communist party, which for reasons of opportunism and bad judgment (both of which it has demonstrated time and again) supported the Peronists. For the rest, the entire cultural community—artists, writers, theater and film people, teachers, journalists, as well as what amounts (in Argentina) to a veritable army of psychoanalysts—supported Alfonsín. These people, who had very largely voted for Perón in 1973, were now taking revenge upon his party for having purged them from the positions of influence they briefly held during the Cámpora administration, and for subsequently reading them out of the movement altogether. Their definitive departure closes an entire cycle of Argentine intellectual history, in which left-wing intellectuals sought to force Peronism—in spite of its evident fascistic characteristics—into their taxonomy of “national-liberation” or quasi-Marxist movements.
Third, Alfonsín carried the vast majority of five million new electors. This was the missing generation in Argentine politics, nonexistent during the years when Perón was forging his legend, and mere children at the time of his final election in 1973. Its first political memories, therefore, were of cancelled classes, extended curfews, and “disappearances,” all of which could just as easily be associated with Peronism as with the military. Moreover, Alfonsín’s relative obscurity—he was only a Congressman at the time of the 1976 coup—made him something of a Jimmy Carter, untainted by any association with past events and therefore presumably able to make his choices independently. Alfonsín also benefited from the fact that the Peronists stood in actual horror of the younger generation, and actively discouraged young people from playing a significant role in the campaign. In the early 1970’s the entry of the young into politics had coincided with the infiltration into the party of Marxists and urban guerrillas, an experience its leaders were not anxious to repeat. At the Radical party, where panache and excitement have perennially been in short supply, younger voters were welcomed with open arms. Nor can one overlook the attraction of Alfonsín’s liberalism in cultural and personal matters, which greatly appealed to a generation that during the last decade had been forbidden from seeing hundreds of foreign films.
Fourth, a significant minority of the Peronist voters split their ticket and cast their presidential ballot for Alfonsín. Precisely how many it is still impossible to say, but the fact remains that the Radical candidate carried many historic Peronist areas, including the solidly working-class district of Avellaneda, just across the river from the federal capital. Even in some of the so-called “poor provinces” of the North and Northwest, regions that have always been Peronist bastions, Alfonsín did extremely well—in Catamarca (50.7 percent), Salta (47.7), Chaco (49.5), and Misiones (49.3). His coattails were long enough to carry many local candidates along with him, so that for the first time since the years prior to World War II, the Radicals will control the Chamber of Deputies.4
Future historians will have to determine whether this development was due primarily to Luder’s uninspired campaign, Alfonsín’s uninhibited tendency to promise everything to everybody, or the definitive exhaustion of Peronism as a political and ideological force. But the loss even for a moment of the near-totality of the working class in Argentina is something which will undoubtedly preoccupy the Peronist leadership for years to come.
Finally, the election results reflect some significant changes in Argentina’s electoral demography. During the campaign, the Peronists tried to discount the importance of the record crowds which Alfonsín drew everywhere he went by pointing out that they were almost exclusively composed of the “middle class.” This conveniently overlooked the fact that Argentina has always had a large middle class; that the Peronists themselves have never been able to win without the support of at least part of this class; and, most importantly, that the number of authentic proletarians within the workforce has long been declining as a proportion of the whole. In Argentina, as in most industrial countries, the percentage of office workers and persons in the service trades has risen dramatically in recent years, to which one should add skilled laborers in the most modern industries, where the work environment is very different from the meatpacking houses or the metallurgical plants which were the birthplace of Peronism. While Argentina is very imperfectly industrialized, and there are many distortions which prevent it from fully replicating the social structure of Western Europe or the United States, for the limited electoral purposes of Peronism, the change was sufficient to represent a serious political problem.
All of this points to some rather pregnant conclusions. Many Argentine voters—perhaps as many as half of all those who cast their ballot for Alfonsín—did so as a way of voting against Peronism rather than for the Radicals. From this follows a rather uncomfortable corollary: Alfonsín’s mandate, impressive as it appears on paper, derives from a constituency which is not merely complex in the extreme but downright contradictory. Before long the new President will have to make some hard decisions, which are bound to cost him the support of some of those who voted for him. As the most important opposition party, the Peronists will be excellently positioned to benefit from the disillusionment and dissatisfaction which engulf almost any government elected in difficult times.
Or will they? To an unpleasant degree, this is the question which must be answered to assess Alfonsín’s chances of success accurately. Peronism has been momentarily defeated at the ballot box, but as a social and political phenomenon it is still a power to contend with. It continues to control the trade-union movement, attracts a residual portion of the middle class, and enjoys a large and even fanatical following among the “darker” Argentines who reside in the provinces bordering Bolivia and Paraguay, and what is of even greater moment, their cousins who have emigrated to the cities of Buenos Aires, Rosario, and Santa Fe. These people, and the cause they represent, will not simply go away. The best one can hope for is the eventual transformation of Peronism into something resembling an “ordinary” political party, capable of representing at least four out of ten Argentines in the parliament and provincial assemblies.
But this will require a serious process of self-examination, some drastic shakeups in leadership, and, even more problematical, a perceptible transformation of the political culture of the movement, which has invariably been personalist, authoritariàn, and intolerant of differences with its opponents. It is frankly difficult to imagine how this transformation will take place, but if it does, the next Peronist government—elected either in 1989 or at the latest 1995—will be very different from its predecessors.
But suppose this does not happen—then what? Either Peronism will dissolve into two or three factions, no longer capable of winning national elections, but for that very reason utterly irresponsible in its public conduct. Or more somber still, having abandoned the hope of conquering power through the ballot, it will begin to explore the possibilities of joint action with the armed forces.
That, as everyone knows, has happened before. There is, of course, one final possibility: lacking a unifying personality to lead it, Peronism will simply dissolve as a political movement. But this is not a likelihood in the near term, for there are simply too many rocks upon which the ship of state can founder, and, therefore, too many opportunities for the opposition to seize—by fair means or foul.
For despite the current flush of optimism and even joy which pervades Argentine society, Alfonsín faces some rather formidable obstacles. One is a $40-billion foreign debt whose servicing in 1984—under present arrangements—would require more than 90 percent of the country’s foreign-exchange earnings. Another is the need to restructure civil-military relations, and to survive in office while doing it. Yet another is to investigate past peculation and wrongdoing, with particular attention to accounting for some thousands of “disappeared.” The government must meet a domestic economic crisis—hyperinflation and the collapse of purchasing power—utterly without precedent in the nation’s history.
Perhaps the most serious problem of all will be to meet the political challenge raised by Peronist control of the labor movement. During the campaign it was common to hear Peronist leaders obliquely suggest that if Alfonsín somehow managed to win the election, he would be unable to govern, for without support of the unions there could be no successful incomes policy. Obviously, the new President has already thought about this, to the point of proposing a new labor code which would reorganize the entire trade-union movement. In this, the Peronists will naturally have no particular reason to help him along. A minimum of labor peace would be difficult enought to maintain under present circumstances; now, however, more than ever, authentic social demands are bound to become entangled with the struggle for political power.
Since at least 1955 the pattern of Argentine politics has been disarmingly simple. Because of deep social and political divisions, no civilian government could effectively rule, and therefore none finished its elected term. Each was brought to an end by a military coup, which was supported at least passively by a substantial body of civilian opinion, in some cases an identifiable majority. Yet no military government could provide for sustained economic growth, or even—with all of the resorts of authoritarian rule—for social peace. Eventually the generals would find it in their interest to retreat to the barracks and allow the civilians a turn at undermining their prestige. And the cycle would begin anew.
Is Argentina about to break out of that vicious circle? It all depends upon how one views what sociologists call the “civil society”—broadly speaking, the elements which make up a political community and the values it represents. Here there are several cautionary notes. Argentina has returned to democracy as the result not of a revolution but of a military defeat; however, unlike Germany or Japan, there has been no extended foreign occupation, and with it, a thorough reshaping of institutions. Rather—to put it a bit inelegantly—many of the same people who today celebrate the return to democracy yesterday were cheering General Galtieri, and the day before that, General Perón.
And yet to some degree there is a “new Argentina.” It is made up first of all of the 20 to 25 percent of the electorate that has always voted Radical and whose democratic commitments have never been in doubt. To these must be added the younger voters untainted by experiences of the past, and, finally, those of their elders who have meditated upon their errors and insist that they have learned from them.
At least for a time, Argentina’s two political cultures—past and present—must live together side by side, but in the end one must prevail. The happiest outcome will require skill and wisdom from the politicians, discretion from the military, restraint and good sense from the citizenry, and the willingness of all to accept something less than total victory in the struggle for scarce resources. It is a theme familiar to Western democracies, but being played out here under circumstances far more fragile and dangerous. In effect, Argentina is about to resume the path it freely abandoned in 1946. It will need—and deserves—more than an ordinary measure of luck to complete its long and chartless journey.
1 In 1958 Arturo Frondizi was elected to the Presidency by a substantial majority, but this was only after he had struck a deal with Perón (then living in Spain) to relegalize Perón's party (after the election); Perón then instructed his followers to vote for Frondizi. When Frondizi kept his word, he was promptly removed from office by the military. In 1963 Arturo Illia, also a Radical but from a different branch of the party from Frondizi, was elected President, but the Peronists abstained from the contest and Illia limped into the Presidency with a “mandate” from 23 percent of the electorate.
2 Not to be confused with Eva Duarte de Perón, the general's second wife, who was frustrated in her attempt to be his running mate in 1951.
3 On election eve, when Alfonsín appeared on the balcony of Radical party headquarters to make his victory speech, he was accompanied by Oscar Armendériz, who had successfully run against Iglesias. When Alfonsín finished his own speech, he introduced Armendériz as “Governor of the Province of Buenos Aires,” and the cheers, if anything, exceeded those given the victorious presidential candidate.
4 I except from this analysis those periods since 1955 when Radicalism benefited electorally from the proscription of Peronist candidates or from Peronist abstention.