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Juan Perón’s Many Heirs

Ahead of Sunday's elections, the Argentine left is operating in a political landscape still dominated by Peronism.

Argentine presidential candidate Daniel Scioli preparing to give a speech in Ciudad de Plata, Argentina in 2013. Ignacio Amiconi / Flickr

The Workers’ Left Front (FIT) won a surprise 3.3 percent of the vote in Argentina’s August primary elections, but that didn’t do much to change a political landscape that continues to be dominated by the party of populist Juan Perón.

Opinion polls indicate that Daniel Scioli, the handpicked successor of sitting Peronist President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, will come in first in the October 25 national elections, after taking 38 percent of the vote in the primaries.

Sitting atop the Front for Victory, an electoral coalition headed by the Justicialist Party, as the Peronists are called, Scioli will most likely not reach the 45 percent necessary to win the presidency outright, a significant setback for a party that won 54 percent of the vote in the first round in 2011 under Kirchner. Instead, Scioli is likely to be forced into a November runoff with the center-right mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, who won 30 percent in August on the Cambiemos (Let’s Make a Change) ticket.

But if further proof were needed of Peronism’s persistence as a political force, ex-Kirchner cabinet member and dissident Justicialist regional boss Sergio Massa took 20 percent in the primaries.

But barring an unforeseen scandal — and this can’t be discounted, as a good many have already come to light — or the extremely unlikely event of Macri taking all of Massa’s votes, Scioli will become the next president of Argentina, extending the Justicialist Party’s long domination of the federal government — twenty-four out of the thirty-two years since the end of the military dictatorship in 1983.

Why has Peronism experienced continuing success in the face of a series of crippling economic crises under its reign? If rumors of Peronism’s impending demise have been greatly exaggerated, there are signs that the party’s old tricks have been less effective this time around. Nevertheless, Perón’s political heirs have proven adept at reinvention, and they will not be easily uprooted and replaced by forces on the Left.

Here, then, are answers to some basic questions about the history of Peronism in order to understand the party’s resilience and the context for next week’s election.

Who was Juan Perón?

Juan Perón was born in 1895 in the province of Buenos Aires to downwardly mobile petty-bourgeois parents of Sardinian descent. Escaping his father’s business failures, Perón entered the National Military Academy in 1911 and slowly rose through the ranks, serving in a variety of non-combat positions, including as an instructor at the National War College, a two-year stint in fascist Italy as a liaison officer in the late 1930s, and a ski instructor in the Andes.

In 1930, as the Great Depression crashed Argentina’s economy, a relatively bloodless military coup swept aside several decades of civilian rule. By 1943, a group of young officers grew restless with the mashup of conservative politicians and corrupt generals in charge and launched their own coup.

Serving as both vice president and minister of labor, Perón placed himself at the head of an increasingly mobilized working-class movement, emboldened by a booming wartime economy. Vaguely sympathetic to Mussolini’s brand of corporatist fascism, Perón aimed to tame the unions and bring them under state tutelage — with himself, naturally enough, in command. He bargained for the political loyalty of union leaders in exchange for a national minimum wage and support for (often very militant) strike action.

In 1944, a devastating earthquake killed thousands, and Perón rose to national fame by heading up relief efforts. At his side was a charismatic young radio star, twenty years his junior, named Eva Duarte.

By the middle of 1945, Perón’s popularity and ambition made him a target for conservative officers and politicians, who pushed him out of the government and placed him under arrest. But the General Confederation of Workers (CGT) responded by organizing a march of hundreds of thousands, with Eva Duarte at its head, forcing the military to release Perón and agree to elections. Five days later, the two political allies would be married.

What did Perón do in power?

Perón’s radical rhetoric frightened the Argentine establishment, leading big business, fragments of the old conservative party, the misnamed centrists in the Radical Civic Union (UCR), and most of the military to band together against him.

Pathetically, both the Socialist Party and Communist Party joined in this anti-Perón alliance. Of course, Perón’s authoritarian tendencies and fascist sympathies ought to have been opposed from the Left, but Communist opposition had less to do with fighting for a democratic workers’ movement than with obeying Joseph Stalin’s orders to subordinate working-class demands to Allied war production.

Thus, precisely at the moment when workers began to organize and strike on a mass scale in Argentina, the Communists opposed strikes and defended domestic capitalists.

Perón easily won the 1945 presidential election, and his supporters took almost two-thirds of seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Workers celebrated in the streets as Perón promised to deliver social justice (hence, justicialismo), while charting a path independent of US and British imperial power and raising Argentina economically into the ranks of industrially developed nations.

Government backing and the introduction of labor courts opened the floodgates as strikes grew from 500,000 days lost in 1945 to 3 million in 1947. CGT membership rose from 500,000 in 1945 to some 2 million by 1950, and real wages increased by one-third during Perón’s first term in office. Access to health insurance, public education, and housing improved working-class living standards.

Perón developed a five-year plan that funneled state resources into an overheating post-war economy, and he nationalized the Central Bank, the railways, and other industrial sectors. It all added up to what seemed like a dramatic lurch to the left.

On top of this, the newly created Eva Perón Foundation grew into a powerful machine for shaking down the rich for funds to build schools and distribute food to the poor. It simultaneously served as a vast patronage machine, with more than 10,000 employees directly loyal to “Evita,” as she became known to friend and foe alike.

Perón’s actions didn’t endear him to big business, even if profits grew rapidly in most sectors of the economy. But Perón seemed to have little need for their support, winning over 62 percent of the vote in his campaign for re-election in 1951.

Was Perón an anticapitalist?

Despite how it looked to some of his detractors, Perón had no intention of abolishing capitalism. If he rode to power on the back of workers’ hatred of the rich, his intention all along was to bring that anger under control.

Once in office, Perón pushed aside labor leaders whose loyalty he doubted, promoting pliant bureaucrats in their places. Like his counterparts in the Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Perón wanted unions that acted as instruments of state policy and would only move when ordered to do so from above.

Perón built up the state bureaucracy, creating a powerful political class that developed its own interests. But eventually, the sheer size of this machine led to tensions and splits within the ruling Justicialist Party. Meanwhile, in order to assuage opposition in the military, Perón showered the officer class with cash and arms purchases. So long as the economy boomed, Perón appeared to be all things to all people.

The radical phase of Peronism died symbolically with Evita in 1952 as she succumbed to cervical cancer at the age of thirty-three. While Perón benefited from an outpouring of sympathy, Evita’s death removed a powerful populist figure from the scene.

Making matters worse for Perón, the Argentine economy pitched into recession. In response, Perón turned on his working-class base, imposing harsh measures that cut wages and laid off tens of thousands of workers. Nonetheless, inflation rose sharply and discontent among the upper and middle classes coalesced in series of anti-Perón protests as his second term came to a close.

In June 1955, an attempted coup put the country on notice that the military had no intention of allowing Perón to stand in another election. However, rather than appeal to his working-class base to prepare for a fight, Perón resigned peacefully in the face of a second coup in September — he departed for a comfortable exile in Venezuela and then as a guest of fascist dictator Francisco Franco in Spain.

Why did Perón slink away? Part of the explanation lay just to the north. Between 1952 and 1953, workers and peasants in Bolivia (which has a 200-mile long border with Argentina) built a revolutionary movement that came close to overturning the whole capitalist system. Perón may well have worried that if workers rose up to defeat the coup against him, they may not have been willing to respect the limits he imposed during a potential third term in office.

What were the divides within Peronism?

Unlike Perón himself, sections of the unions and many young party members who mistook their leader’s opportunistic rhetoric for radical principles fought the military coup — especially in Córdoba, where radicals briefly seized the city center before being put down by force.

This uprising symbolizes what might be called the two divergent souls of Peronism.

On the hand, Perón himself and many of his closest political and military acolytes never extended their vision of justicialismo beyond a series of maneuvers from above designed to create a strong state and national economy with themselves in power. At times, this meant delivering social reforms — at other times, it meant austerity and repression.

While hardly radicals, this group of party leaders, union bureaucrats, and state and military officials (as well as some sectors of business) saw its success as bound up with the Peronist brand — and defense of its mass organizations and party apparatus as necessary mechanisms to maintaining their influence. Gaining access to political power was, and is, their principle aim.

On the other hand, many workers and poor people, who made up the mass base of Peronism, took Perón’s on-again, off-again support for unions and social reforms to be a real fight to improve their lives. Over the years, this camp has represented hundreds of thousands of members of community organizations, student groups, rank-and-file trade unionists, and activists in the Justicialist Party (or one of its factions).

These two wings can be hard to distinguish, and there are, of course, many gradations, since Peronism is a mass phenomenon. And the issue became more difficult still because between 1955 and 1983 the military ruled Argentina with an iron fist, making itself the deadly enemy of working-class and popular movements — sometimes staging managed civilian elections, at other times ruling directly.

During this long dark period, both tendencies within Peronism were, to one degree or another, popularly perceived as opponents of the dictatorship of the rich and the generals.

At the same time, various trends within Peronism have come into conflict. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, student radicals in the monteneros movement followed Che Guevara’s example, taking up arms against the regime. Meanwhile, CGT union leaders were willing to lead mass strikes to demand both wage increases and Perón’s return.

In 1973, their combined forces — along with the rise of working-class struggle amid economic crisis — forced the generals to end Perón’s exile. In an impressive demonstration of his enduring popularity, Perón promptly swept to power in elections. Yet rather than reconciling the Peronist factions, bitter conflict erupted.

If Perón’s first presidency ended in tragedy with Evita’s death and his own exile, his second go-round descended into farce with his death in 1974 and the arrest and exile of his third wife Isabel in 1976.

The pressure of class struggle and military repression once again broke Peronism into competing factions. Isabel’s wing aligned itself with the military against the monteneros and imposed austerity, while the radical Peronists took up arms and launched a strike wave.

The generals had hoped to harness Perón, just as he had dreamed of harnessing the working class. Yet Perón’s chameleon-like populism once again inspired a rebellion from below.

Terrified by the people’s revolt, General Jorge Rafael Videla followed the example of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, launching one of the bloodiest crackdowns in Latin American history. Not content to massacre the living, he ordered Evita’s corpse excavated and banished it to an unknown site.

Between 1976 and 1983, Videla’s death squads murdered 30,000 leftists, with hundreds of thousands more tortured, imprisoned or forced into exile. Trotskyists and other political opponents suffered unimaginable cruelty, but rank-and-file shop floor leaders of the main Peronist unions (mainly the CGT) suffered the largest losses. One estimate calculates that the regime killed 10,000 shop stewards.

But incredibly, Peronism in Argentina survived the generals’ bloody reign.

Who was Carlos Menem?

Seeking a means to rally the nation behind it, the military invaded the British-held Malvinas (or Falkland) Islands in 1982. Instead of martial glory, the generals’ quick defeat and surrender hastened their downfall.

Once again, a wave of mass protests and strikes forced the generals to call elections for 1983. The old centrist UCR party, which had suffered far less repression than its Peronist rivals, nominated Raul Alfonsín and easily took first place in the presidential vote later that year. However, the UCR in power pardoned the military butchers and pursued a heterodox economic policy that sent the economy into a tailspin, with inflation reaching an annual rate of 3,000 percent by 1989.

Amid this chaos, the Peronists rebuilt their strength as the main opposition party, and despite taking a beating from the military, the CGT proved its capacity for mobilization, launching dozes of mass strikes. In 1989, Justicialist Carlos Menem rolled to victory in the presidential elections, and the party has held power almost continuously since then.

If workers hoped for relief from the economic devastation they had suffered under the military and the UCR alike, Menen’s campaign pledge to restore wages was quickly replaced with what the International Monetary Fund likes to call “shock therapy.” Menem’s Economics Minister Domingo Cavallo sold off billions in state property at bargain rates to international investors and pegged the Argentine peso to the US dollar, effectively driving down wages and cutting working-class purchasing power.

This austerity on steroids linked up for a time with a global boom in the mid-1990s, and Argentine GDP growth ranged from 4 to 10 percent a year for most of Menem’s two terms (except for a short, sharp recession in 1995).

This expansion came largely at the expense of the working class and poor, but Menem promised that growth would eventually trickle down. While anger and disappointment began to undercut the Justicialist Party, the traditional Peronist CGT leadership worked to keep union members in line, even as unemployment hovered near 20 percent and almost 50 percent of Argentines fell into poverty.

Fortunately for the Justicialist Party, the UCR’s candidate Fernando de la Rúa won the 1999 presidential elections just in time to be blamed for the total collapse of the Menemist project amid a worldwide economic slowdown.

With few state assets left to sell off and the peso pegged to the rising dollar, international investors fled Argentina as there was no way to pay skyrocketing debt loads. GDP fell by more than 8 percent between 1999 and 2001, before a full-scale depression hit in 2002, with the Argentine economy shrinking by 10.9 percent in a single year.

The UCR suffered the brunt of the ensuing popular anger and political crisis, which came to be known as the Argentinazo. In December 2001, de la Rúa resigned in the face of mass middle-class protests sparked by the government’s decision to freeze bank accounts; militant street blockades by the poor and unemployed; and strikes by public- and private-sector unions. Several interim presidents from the UCR resigned in quick succession, as police killed dozens of people during the protests.

On January 2, 2002, Peronist leader Eduardo Duhalde, defeated in the 1999 election, was appointed president by the Chamber of Deputies. With popular resistance still growing, Duhalde ended the dollar-peso peg, which helped end the lack of liquidity strangling the economy. He stopped payments and defaulted on Argentina’s foreign debt, and relied on union leaders to wind down strike action, while taking the first steps toward providing relief for the poorest sections of the population.

How much more radical were the Kirchners?

Rising from the ashes of 2001, Nestor Kirchner and Christina Fernandez de Kirchner restored much of Perón’s justicialista rhetoric, and a good deal of the original Juan and Evita power couple image, even as they presided over the splintering of the party machine and trade union apparatus.

Winning just 22.5 percent in the first round vote in 2003, Nestor Kirchner assumed the presidency when Carlos Menem, who came in a narrow first among competing Justicialist factions, pulled out of the runoff election, realizing he would lose in a landslide.

From this wobbly start, the Kirchners had the good fortune of taking office at a time when social conditions had nowhere to go but up. More importantly, by 2003, Argentina’s oil industry benefited from a sharp spike in prices fueled by US wars in the Middle East, while Chinese demand for soy beans grown in Argentina set the export-oriented economy on a nearly ten-year-long growth spurt — between 2002 and 2008, the price for Argentine soy increased by 400 percent.

This boom created prosperity for the middle class and the agricultural bosses, while the Kirchners imposed high taxes on soy exports, though not without opposition from the growers. This allowed the government to provide subsidies for the poor, such as a $42-a-month subsidy for unemployed heads of households in 2005.

The gross domestic product grew by around 8 percent each year between 2003 and 2008, before following the world into recession in 2009. The boom also provided the funds needed for patronage, back-scratching and corruption at all levels of government, the armed forces and, critically, the warring Peronist factions. Cash greased the wheels of government policy and tempered political hostility from the old UCR elite.

Adding to their popularity, the Kirchners hung tough in debt negotiations, forcing international lenders to take a substantial haircut on outstanding loans. This proved a winning formula. Christina Kirchner won decisively in the first round of the 2007 elections, and increased her margin to 54 percent in 2011. Nestor died unexpectedly in 2010, thus ending any potential plans for alternating Kirchner presidencies.

But as with Juan and Evita, the Kirchners’ left-wing image was more mirage than reality, and there are growing signs that Peronism’s grip on the popular mind may be in doubt.

First, the Kirchners’ willingness to share a portion of profits with workers and the poor relies entirely on the boom-bust cycle of the market economy — not unlike Perón. And it is precisely this reliance on the market that may spell trouble for Daniel Scioli, Christina Kirchner’s chosen successor.

With just two weeks to go before the elections, all sides know the government is spending its foreign reserves to slow a nevertheless rapid decline of the peso and to hold down inflation, which is already over 20 percent. With GDP growth coming in well below 1 percent so far in 2015, the odds are that the economy is on the brink of a sharp recession, dragged down by its reliance on slacking Chinese demand, among other factors.

Second, while the CGT remains loyal to the Justicialist Party, the labor leadership has fractured into competing confederations, some increasingly independent of and hostile to the old Peronist framework. Moreover, in the years since the Argentinazo, powerful dissident forces have gained ground in the unions and in social movements. For instance, the fight to legalize abortion and confront violence against women has created one of the most vibrant feminist movements in the world.

Third, if patronage and corruption permitted the Kirchners to discipline the fractious Justicialist party bosses and regional machines, scandals are now tearing that machine apart. And if the Kirchners leaned towards the populist elements in Peronism, they never fully marginalized those who favored Menem’s full embrace of neoliberalism, nor elements who look to rotten political deals with the military, the UCR, or other conservative forces to further their careers.

Thus, although Scioli will most likely win in the second round, he will take office amid a worsening economic crisis; a ruling party divided against itself; an increasingly hostile middle class that will vote in its overwhelming majority for the center-right candidate Mauricio Macri; an agricultural and financial bourgeoisie faced with declining profits; a weakened trade union apparatus with few sweetheart deals on offer; and the growth of forces to the left of Peronism.

In this situation, fragmentation within Scioli’s government and the Justicialists will likely intensify. His ruling Front for Victory will probably maintain a plurality in the Chamber of Deputies, but the center-right and his Peronist enemies in Sergio Massa’s faction will together hold more seats than Scioli, and will drag the government to the right, raising the specter of partisan paralysis.

Accounting for all the necessary differences, Scioli’s ability to portray himself as continuing the Kirchner’s “progressive” policy’s will be difficult, and he will be forced to rely more and more on a simple “lesser evil” designation, much like his counterparts in the Spanish or French Socialist Parties or the US Democratic Party.

How should the Left relate to Peronism today?

Peronism has long relied on its elastic political ideology and loyal party machine. Anyone who thinks another round of reinvention is impossible need only look to the PRI’s new lease on life in Mexico.

Marx once said that no social class leaves the stage of history until it has exhausted all potential mechanisms for its own rule. Marx was talking about social classes, but his point is useful in our discussion of Peronism. It is certainly the case that the Justicialist Party’s long lucky run from 1989 to this October may finally turn sour. But political legends, especially those with powerful bureaucracies, die hard.

Furthermore, as with the PRI, decaying ruling parties can be replaced by the Right as well as the Left. The Right will not win the presidency this fall, but it is gaining mass support among the middle class and will be well placed to come to the rescue should Scioli not prove up to the task of managing Argentine capitalism.

Peronism may fragment, but it will only be replaced when an alternative on the Left is capable of overcoming it. This means winning over millions of voters, and tens of thousands of union and social movement local leaders who still remain attached to Peronism, both in elections and the more important arena of grassroots struggle.

There are positive signs that this process may be underway, but there is a sharp debate within Argentine left over how to create such a mass, socialist, working-class alternative. Thankfully, as Argentina’s workers and popular movements prepare for the next round of struggle, they are stronger than they have been in some time, while their opponents are walking with a noticeable limp.