The Popular Dictator
Think of the stereotypical dictator. He censors the press, violates civil rights, and removes opponents from important government positions. Doesn't sound like he would be too popular, does it? Well, imagine that the very same dictator is immensely popular among large sections of the population. It sounds almost too good to be true.
This seemingly impossible contradiction of a popular dictator came to fruition in the form of Juan Domingo Peron. In fact, Juan Peron was so popular that he served as president of Argentina for 10 years, was removed in a military coup, and then called back 18 years later to be president again. During his tenure as president, Peron was extremely popular among workers, despite his dictatorial style of governing.
In this video, we will look at:
- Peron's rise to power
- The role of Peron's second wife, Eva Peron, in his rise to power
- The tenets of Peronism
- Peron's removal from power
- Peron's return to Argentina 20 years later
Peron's Rise to Power
Born in 1895, Juan Peron came from a modest but not poor family. He made a name for himself by rising up the ranks in the Argentine military. When domestic problems arose in Argentina in 1943, Juan Peron was part of an opportunistic group of military officers that overthrew the Argentine civilian government. Together, these officers, led by Pedro Ramirez, joined together to create a military-controlled government.
At first, Peron seemed to have a minor role in this government as he was named to be Secretary of Labor and Social Welfare. Peron, though, used this position to his advantage and built strong relationships with labor groups. For example, he helped settle labor disputes and introduce new benefits for workers. Peron's interaction with labor groups magnified his power, eventually allowing him to take charge of the Department of War and the vice presidency.
In 1945 he married Eva Duarte, a successful radio actress, magnifying even more his celebrity status in society, but the old adage is that too much fame is not always a good thing. Other members of the military grew jealous of Peron's new found popularity. As a result, in October of 1945, Peron was forced to resign and was arrested by the military.
The arrest of Peron was intended to limit his power, but it actually had the reverse effect. The workers union that Peron had developed such strong relationships with immediately took to the streets in massive protest demonstrations. Peron's wife, affectionately called 'Evita' by the Argentine public, added fuel to these protests with her own calls on the radio for civil disobedience. As a result of the protests, Peron was released from prison. The next year, in 1946, Peron was elected president of Argentina.
A prominent part of Juan Peron's rise to power was his second wife, Eva Peron. Eva Duarte was born in a poor suburb of Buenos Aires. Eva Peron became an actress in Buenos Aires where she began to gain fame in Argentina. Her romantic relationship with Juan Peron became a source of national gossip, and her marriage to Peron helped boost Peron's chances of being president.
During Peron's presidency, Eva Peron played a prominent role in politics that few women had previously enjoyed in Argentine history. She facilitated communication between Peron and labor unions and established a women's branch of Peron's political party. In 1951, Eva Peron even tried to become Peron's vice president, but male chauvinism inside the Argentine military prevented that from happening. In 1952, she died of cancer, causing Juan Peron to not only lose his wife but a major political asset.
What Was Peronism?
So what was Peronism, and what did Juan Peron believe in? The truth is we are not too sure because Peron never articulated his beliefs in a clear coherent way. As Peron stated, 'Peronism is not learned, nor just talked about: One feels it, or else disagrees. Peronism is a question of the heart rather than of the head…' Despite the vagueness of Peron's position, we will attempt here to outline some basic tenets.
Peronism is like a 'works' pizza that has all the toppings a pizza restaurant offers. I say this because Peronism wasn't so much a clear ideology, as an ideology that borrowed from all other ideologies. For example, Peronism drew inspiration from fascists (like Mussolini and Hitler), socialists, social democratism, and even the writing of former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
At the time of his rise, the dominant ideological debate worldwide was between communism and capitalism, but Peron, like Hitler and Mussolini, envisioned a third way of governing besides capitalism and communism. Peron called this political ideology, Justicialismo, or Justicialism.
Justicialism can be described as a populist dictatorship. It was a dictatorship in that anyone who disagreed with Peron was declared to be unpatriotic or a traitor. For example, Peron once fired 1,500 university professors who opposed him, including a Nobel laureate physiologist and writer Jorge Luis Borges, perhaps Argentina's premier writer. For this reason, opponents of Peron have labeled him as a fascist who maintained an iron grip on power.
But Peron's policies were populist in their appeal to the lower classes, particularly to workers. For example, Peron:
- Universalized social security
- Made education free to all
- Gave students one week of paid leave the week before an exam
- Created low-income housing
- Made paid vacation mandatory
- Required companies to pay some of a worker's vacation expenses
- Mandated paid maternity leave for three months
- Provided universal health care
Such measures gained him widespread support among the working poor. So while Peron maintained a tight grip on power, he created a lot of social programs designed to gain popular support among the masses. For this reason, he is known as the populist dictator.
Peron's Removal from Power
After the death of Eva Peron, things went downhill for Juan Peron. The biggest opposition to Peron came from his social reforms. First, in 1954, Peron legalized divorce and prostitution in Argentina. These moves irked the generally conservative and Catholic Argentine public. Furthermore, Peron began a relationship with an underage girl, rumored in Argentine tabloids to be as young as 13. For his actions, the Congregation of Catholic Bishops admonished Peron publicly.
On June 16, 1955, Peron called a rally to counteract these challenges in Argentina's famous Plaza de Mayo, but while making a speech, Argentine Navy fighter jets bombed the square, killing more than 300 Argentines. The event marked the beginning of a military coup led by Catholic members of the Argentine military. By September 19, 1955, the Catholic leaders of the Argentine military were successfully able to remove Peron, who barely made it out of Argentina.
After being ousted, Peron eventually took refuge in Spain, but the 10 prior years of Peron's rule continued to influence Argentina. Officially, Peron's political party, called the Justicialists, was outlawed in Argentina, but Peronists continued to be present in Argentina, although illegally.
In 1973, Peron returned to Argentina, greeted by a crowd of approximately 3.5 million cheering supporters. Recently pardoned, Peron ran at the end of 1973 as the Justicialist candidate and won the presidency. Eighteen years after being removed, Peron was now president of Argentina again.
His third term was marked by great levels of economic instability and high inflation that he inherited from the previous regime, but more importantly, his poor health made his third term the most difficult. In 1974, Peron was diagnosed with pneumonia and then suffered a series of major heart attacks. One final heart attack killed Peron on July 1, 1974.
In this video, we have learned:
- Juan Domingo Peron can be seen as the populist dictator.
- Peron rose to power in a military coup and built strong relationships with labor unions to magnify his power.
- His popular marriage to Eva Peron also brought him celebrity in Argentina.
- Peron's ideologies, which he called Justicialism, tried to borrow ideas from a variety of ideologies including fascism, social democratism, and socialism.
- As president, Peron used brute force to maintain control and censored anybody who disagreed with him, but he instituted many reforms that made him popular among the working classes of Argentina.
- After the death of Eva Peron, he instituted social reforms that offended the conservative Catholic population of Argentina.
- He was removed in 1955 by Catholic elements of the military and exiled to Spain.
- He eventually returned 18 years later to be elected president but died in office during his third term.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Recall how long Juan Peron served as president of Argentina
- Examine Juan Peron's life and career in Argentinian politics
- Explain how Peron became president the first time
- Describe the life of Eva Peron and her role in politics
- Summarize what Justicialism was
- Discuss some of Peron's policies that were implemented
- Understand how Peron was removed from power
- Recognize how Peron came back into power and what his third term was like