Peron, Juan Domingo
Juan Domingo Perón: "Fenómeno"
By Lindon Ratliff
Juan Domingo Perón was what Latin Americans often like to call a
Fenómeno. We might translate that best in English as a "paradox." He was a
soldier who became the boss and idol of a trade union movement that had a long history of
opposition to the armed forces and to militarism in general. He divided public opinion
of his country more deeply and more bitterly than anyone in a hundred years, but when he
returned to power after almost a generation he came as a symbol of unity and
reconciliation. He was forced to live eighteen years in exile, having little personal
contact with his rank and file followers but nonetheless he was able to maintain the
strongest hold on their loyalty. He saw himself as a leader of major significance, but so
successfully destroyed any subordinate figure who might possibly challenge his position
that he left an inheritance of an almost leaderless political movement, the survival of
which was highly problematical. He carried out economic and social policies that were long
overdue, but he left his country in the grip of perhaps the worse economic crisis of its
Juan Domingo Perón was born on October 8, 1895, in the provincial
town of Lobo in the province of Buenos Aires, about sixty miles south of the national
capital. He is said to be the great grandson of an Italian senator named Peróni, who
migrated to Argentina from the island of Sardinia. However, it must
also be stated there has been great historical debate over whether he was illegitimate or
not. This controversy is due to the fact he is noted in Wallechinsky and Wallace's The
Book of Lists, as one of the twenty most famous illegitimate children.
Assuming he was not illegitimate, Juan was the second son of Mario
and Juana Perón. His father was an employee of the local court. When Juan was five years
old, his father abandoned the family. To make ends meet, Juana married a man who was a
farm hand on the family estancia. When Juan was ten he went to live with his uncle in
Buenos Aires so that he could begin his formal education. Perón was not an outstanding
scholar, but it is clear that he did well enough to be regularly, if not socially
At the age of sixteen, Juan decided to follow the footsteps of many
of the middle class men; he went to learn at the national military academy. Many scholars
attempt to find out why he chose the military. Some have speculated he needed discipline
in his life. Others have stated he saw this as an opportunity to gain power, which he
ultimately would. Even with this said, many believe young Perón's decision to join the
military was due to his economic situation.
I would like to now explain the atmosphere the military academy
presented to the young Perón. The military academy had been established several decades
earlier by a German military mission, and its faculty still contained a number of German
members when Perón was a student there. Even though he graduated in 1915 with a rank of
second lieutenant, he probably carried with him several pro German sentiments. Many
historians are quick to point this out especially when they draw comparisons between
Perónism and fascism, as we will see later.
Perón's early military career can be summed up with the words
uneventful and apolitical. Throughout the 1920's Perón saw little if any action. The only
event was the Semana Trágica (Tragic Week) in which he commanded a unit to curb a section
of rioting in Buenos Aires. He spent the majority of the decade
bouncing from one duty to another. He did write five books, as well as spending a small
amount of time teaching at the military school. With this extra time on his hands,
Perón concentrated on sports. He found enjoyment in boxing, archery, as well as horseback
riding. Many researchers state he truly excelled in skiing but others point to his army
championship in fencing. No matter which sport it was, what needs to be understood is the
fact Perón was building up his physical image. In a military where power was attributed to physical appearance,
Perón was six feet tall, dark hair and very muscular.
With this great deal of free time, Perón found time to meet, court,
and marry, in 1928, a young school teacher named Aurelia Tizón, also known as Potota. In his
later life, Perón seldom mentioned this marriage. Many have speculated he truly loved
young Potota and always carried a memory of her. What we do know about her is that she was
a woman of varied talents. She could draw and paint, read English, and reportedly
translated a few English military textbooks for him. Even though the details are sketchy,
it is apparent the young couple decided to adopt a female daughter. This complete family
came to a sudden and sad end when Aurelia Tizón died in 1938 from cancer.
If the 1920's were a stagnate time for Perón's political career,
the 1930's truly gave him the opportunity to rise. The first thing that occurred was the
overthrow of the government of Hipólito Irigoyen by the military led by
General José F. Uriburu. This revolution was of immense significance for the future of
Argentina, and Juan Perón had an active, although minor, part in it. It was rumored Perón
seized control of the presidential palace and the streets around it on September 6th. Even
with this said, the revolution primarily strengthened his military power by making his
name recognizable to his superiors.
Throughout the rest of the 1930's, Perón continued to rise through
the military hierarchy. By 1936, he had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. That same
year he was sent to Chile to serve as Argentine military attaché. From this assignment
arises Perón's first controversy. Many newspapers of the time began reporting Perón was
caught up in an espionage attempt while in Chile. Even though later in his life, Perón
feverishly denied this story by blaming Eduardo Lonardi, the fact remains he was recalled
back to Argentine and never received another assignment within Chile's border.
As soon as Perón arrived back from Chile he was sent, in 1938, with
several other officers on a tour of duty to study the military organizations of Italy and
Germany. Many researchers point out this visit along with the previous German-based
training he had received in the military academy further sealed his favoritism towards a
fascist dictatorship. In fact, it is true during his visit he was completely
convinced the Axis were going to win World War II. While in Germany he saw some of the
first victories of the Third Reich but Italy really fascinated him. In his later life
Perón stressed he learned from Mussolini's mistake of trying to impose a corporative
state structure on Italian society. Even so, Perón returned to Argentina in
early 1941 with an overwhelming belief in the Axis cause as well as a need for
"Mussolini" type power.
Juan Perón returned to Argentina from Italy with the new rank of
Colonel and immediately
joined the Group of United Officers. The GOU was a kind of organization which is by no
means rare in Latin American armies. The group consisted of officers with the rank of
Colonel or below. The ultimate goal of the GOU was to create a "lodge" or
"brotherhood" of officers with the same ideals. The reason this organization is
of such importance is the fact Juan Perón was one of the high ranking officers and it was
so close to the 1943 revolution which would propel him to the top.
The world wind events of June 3, 1943 can be traced back to the
forced resignation of Minister of War General Pedro Ramírez, by then President Castillo.
Even though the revolution was brewing for several years, this was the trigger used by
many groups. President Castillo was going to appoint Patrón Costas, a large landowner and
pro-British aristocrat, to the newly-vacant position. This angered many pro-German
military personal and thus launched the rebellion.
Within this situation arose the GOU. This group of military leaders
met on the night of June 2, 1943 to discuss the planned military movement and substantial
march on the presidential palace. Oddly enough, Perón was not present at this meeting but
he did send his plan for troop movement to the meeting and it was well-received. The
following day the GOU, along with many other groups, marched on the capital and on June 4th
Castillo resigned and fled out of the country by boat. Even though the GOU were not solely
responsible for the coup, this did allow them visible recognition especially among the
generals who were now in charge of the country.
The three-year long military regime saw many opportunities for
officers to be promoted, however, it was Perón who gained the most. The key Minister of
War post went to General Edeliro Farrel, who before the coup had been Perón's immediate
superior. In return for Perón's loyalty during the revolt, he was given the second
position in the ministry, making him its secretary. Then in January and February 1944,
allied pressure convinced President Ramírez to break diplomatic relations with the Axis
power. What followed next was a struggle for power between people who supported the axis,
supporters of the allies, and Perón's closes associates. The result of the crisis was an
almost total reorganization of the military government. General Farrell became President
and Perón was Vice President, Minister of War, Secretary of Labor and Social Reform, as
well as, Head of the Post War Council. In other words, even though he was not president he
was the most powerful man in the government.
Even though he commanded the army, Perón's ultimate power came from
his position of Secretary of Labor and Social Reform. Perón and the GOU knew the military
regime which controlled the country, had alienated the lower classes of people. The oligarchy and the Radical
Party had never cared for the masses. Perón immediately made contact with the labor unions, no matter their political affiliations.
Perón also reached to the common man by enacting laws for social security and paid
vacations. However, Perón's major contribution came in his encouragement of all workers
to unionize. Whether he knew he could ride this group's influence to power or not, he was
creating a major following which lead him to the Presidency.
Before Perón could act on his rising power, an anti-Perón element
led by General Eduardo Avalos seized power of the country. They forced Perón to resign
all positions and, after being given a chance to make a radio address to his followers,
was placed on the prison island, Martín Garcia, which was the traditional place of
sequestration of the country's most important political prisoners.
Generally, the behavior of the anti-Perón forces in this period
played into the hands of Perón and his supporters. They went far to confirm, in the eyes
of many if not most of the workers, the claim of Perón that he was their only defender
and that without him in power they would suffer severe attacks. For example, they canceled
scheduled vacations as well as, went against the constitution by struggling for power with
the Supreme Court.
At this time it is important to dissolve the myth that Eva Duarte
was the sole rescuer of Juan Perón. It is true that she was his mistress while he was in
prison and she did lobby to have him released. The former actress also made speeches to
the labor unions but her primary job was to keep Perón informed of what was going on. She
did this by including details in her love letters to him. The true organizer of the
October 17 march on Buenos Aires were the heads of the labor unions with whom Perón had allied
while he was Vice President.
After the massive march on the capital, Perón was released from
exile. Instead of resuming his role as Vice President, Perón immediately recognized where
his power lied and began his campaign for the 1946 presidential election. At this time he
also married his long time mistress, radio star, and movie actress Eva Duarte. The
election process was very difficult but Perón won the presidency by about 54 percent of
the vote on February 24, 1946.
When Perón became president he had two choices for his government.
He could continue to lean toward social reform and possibly a democratic government, after
all he had been elected by a fair election, or he could become a dictator. Perón chose
the second option. By installing an increasingly oppressive dictatorship but which had the trappings of democracy, Perón polarized
the Argentine body politic irretrievably between his supporters and his opponents. He also
removed all but one of the Supreme Court members. He went after the labor unions and
attempted to take away their power. He also exiled two Catholic priest, a move that would
lead to his excommunication. With all of these moves Perón ultimately created distrust
between the people. He attempted to make a government where only pro-Perón could hold
power. Even though he attempted harsh reforms in the field of economics he went too far.
The process of transferring resources from agriculture to other uses went so far as to
undermine the rural sector. This would ultimately mark defeat for his administration.
The beginning of Perón's fall from power can be set at the date of
July 26, 1952, the day Evita died. Throughout the administration she had tried to garner
the power of the people, which she successfully did. After her death, Perón fell into a
deep depression. It is not known if this was for the love he had lost or because she had
always been there to help him with the power struggles. What is known is that after her
death, Perón went on what could only be called a "binge" of alcohol and young
women. After his ouster, the military publicized his affair with a thirteen-year-old girl.
Also at this time a great economic crisis hit the country which was
caused by Perón's original reforms. To solve this Perón attempted to reverse his
original reforms but this was unsuccessful. All of this culminated with the first coup
attempt in 1955. Even though this failed, it frightened Perón and hampered him
politically as well as physically. To solve this problem on August 31th, Perón made a
horrific speech from his balcony. He called for the all traitors to be found and jailed.
Then on September 3rd he issued a decree establishing a state of siege. This was the last
straw and on September 16th the second and this time successful coup took place. After
several days of uncertainty Perón was allowed to escape by gunboat to Paraguay. He then went to Spain with millions
of Argentine public money. He would be in exile for 18 years.
For the next 18 years his supporters continued to portray the image of his triumph
return to power. Many times his supporters wanted to create a political organization back
in Argentina. Perón vetoed this idea except that he told his followers in Argentina how to vote.
Many researchers have stated his 18
years in exile were self-defeating and this was true. However, by just staying in contact
with members in Argentina he kept his name alive and prepared the people for his return.
During his exile, Argentina saw tough economic times as well as
suppressions against the labor unions. This aided the pro-Perón movement. No government could succeed unless it made deal with peronismo.
Finally on June 20, 1973, Perón returned to his home country and a million people went out
to receive him. His man, President Héctor José Campora, resigned shortly after Perón's arrival.
Perón was now set up for a run for political office. He first chose
Ricardo Balbín to be his vice president but this was met with public outcry. Finally,
Juan decided to choose his third wife Isabel Martínez de Perón which many people said
evoked the memory of Evita. The Perón/Perón ticket won overwhelmingly by receiving 62
percent of the vote.
Instead of taking up a harsh line against opposition like he did
before, Perón tried to make friends out of enemies. In fact, most of his term dealt with
allying with conservatives, the very people who had hated him. His leftist supporters
were stunned. Argentina suffered major economic problems. All of this was accelerated by
Perón's bad health. In retrospect, it seems likely that Perón knew that he was a dying
man when he took the office. He began to cancel appointments and many people saw the end
was coming. Even with this said, it came as a shock when on July 1, 1974 it was announced
Juan Domingo Perón had died. He was succeeded by his widow, Isabel.
Thus ends the life of such a controversial man. His first
administration will always be remembered by the images of his second wife, Eva. However, it will
also be marked by his decision to become a dictator. His second administration will be
known as a economic catastrophe but it did see him attempting to remove the dictator
image. Juan Perón was a power-hungry man who knew what he wanted but never really knew
how to keep it.
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Alexander, Robert, Juan Domingo Perón: A History. Boulder: Westview Press,
Alexander, Robert, The Perón Era. New York: Columbia University Press, 1951.
Blanksten, George, Perón's Argentina. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Cowles, Fleur, Bloody Precedent. New York: Random House, 1952.
Falcoff, Mark, Prologue to Perón, Los Angeles: University of California
Ortiz, Alicia, Eva Perón, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Taylor, James, Eva Perón: The Myths of a Woman, Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1979.
Whitaker, Arthur, Perón's Fall, New York: Praeger Press, 1956.