General Juan Peron was twice President of Argentina (1946-55 and 1973-74) and his legacy, through the Peronist movement, remains strong in Argentina to this day. Here, Frank Beyer considers the importance of President Peron’s terms as President of Argentina, and how he lost power in 1955.
General Perón waited eighteen years to become president of Argentina again after being deposed by a coup d’étatin 1955. That’s an incredible length of time between mandates for an elected leader. Alan Garcia of Peru came close to this with sixteen years between presidencies and Mahathir Bin Mohamad, the ninety-three year old Prime Minister of Malaysia, had fourteen years out before resuming office in May 2018.
On September 19, 1955 destroyers off the coast of Mar del Plata, the second biggest port city in Argentina, aimed their guns at petrol storage tanks in the port. After firing sixty-eight shells and destroying nine out of the eleven tanks, they bombarded other strategic targets held by troops loyal to Perón’s government, such as the anti-aircraft artillery school. The citizens of Mar del Plata had been warned before this attack, so there were no civilian casualties. With the navy in full rebellion and some sections of the army wavering in their support, President Juan Domingo Perón resigned - probably with the intention of resuming office when things calmed down.
Perón’s decision to step down was a wise one; he still had a lot of the army on his side and may have been able to win the fight but it would have caused grievous loses. In a failed coup attempt earlier in the year, planes had bombed Plaza de Mayo in the middle of the capital, Buenos Aires, and killed more than three hundred civilians.
Argentina had been prone to coups since the overthrow of democratically elected President Yrigoyen in 1930. Already there’d been several attempts against Perón since he became president. There would be many coups after his fall, military toppling civilians governments and generals toppling generals, the last one in 1981.
When Perón came to power in 1946, Argentina was rich from exporting foodstuffs throughout World War II. Perón, first as Secretary of Labor and then President, shared some of this wealth with the workers, putting up wages, providing healthcare and introducing paid vacations. The oligarchy of landowning families had traditionally monopolized wealth in Argentina. Would free market policies have led to higher wages for workers in this time of surplus or just greater profits for the oligarchs and merchants? By 1955, however, the surplus was long gone and the economy was in turmoil.
The worst thing Perón did according to the international community was to suppress freedom of expression. He shut down the major newspaper La Prensa relatively early in his tenure when this kind of censorship seemed unnecessary because he was still very popular.
One of the many reasons for the coup of September 1955 was the deal Perón had done with Standard Oil of California. Perón was an economic nationalist: he wanted to Argentina to industrialize and be economically self-sufficient and so he was against foreign investment. This stance came from Argentina having been exploited since its inception as a sovereign nation by the British and the local oligarchy. However, Argentina’s own oil company, YPF (Yacimientos Petrolíferos Federales) did not have the capability to increase oil production significantly and Argentina was importing more and more oil as demand grew. So, in early 1955, Perón made a deal with Standard Oil, allowing it to start extracting and producing oil in Patagonia and then selling it to YPF at an agreed upon price. Once YPF’s (i.e. Argentina’s) demands were met Standard Oil could export the oil and share the profits with YPF.
This deal showed the pragmatic side of Perón, the one not too hung up on ideology. Extreme elements in the army and navy were against this move though, sighting article forty of the (Peronist) constitution of 1949, which said oil reserves were an inalienable part of public property.
Jesus, to this point, has been smart enough not to attempt a second coming. He knows things are so out of control that he wouldn't be able to solve them - and that his YouTube channel would have too much competition. Perón was not so humble and came back from exile to be elected President in 1973 - but his movement had split into too many different factions. Peronism had become something different - many of his followers were now from leftist revolutionary youth groups. Perón was never really a leftist and now he was an old man looking for reform not revolution. To paraphrase Perón view of things:
Theliberal capitalist system of the 19th and 20th century has advanced us through science and technology more than in the ten centuries previous. But this has been done through the effort of the people and now a guy in the middle of the forest has a radio - he knows about his own sacrifice and can't accept it. We need a new system and one that compensates the people...
This comes from one of Peron’s sit downs with journalists on his return from exile in 1973 that were much better, for me, than his emotional speeches to the masses gathered in Plaza de Mayo pre 1955. Listening to him talk is a pleasure, the ultimate Argentine leader or caudillo, although old he is strong of voice and gesture, verbally dexterous and also somehow lonely and distant. He had the right idea - reform not revolution, but implementing a new system? Nigh on impossible. Peron died in 1974, his second wife Isabella took over as President, and Argentina entered into a period of ever increasing turmoil.
What do you think of General Juan Peron? Let us know below.
Robert Crasweller: Perón and the Enigmas of Argentina, New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1987