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My favourite read of 2021 – Perón’s journey to become populist tribune

Juan Perón, The life of the people’s Colonel – by Jill Hedges

Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021, 280 pp Paperback, ISBN 978-0-7556-0272-8

LET ME stick my neck out and say that if the military seized power in a floundering European democracy, the unfortunate citizenry would be lucky if the new ruler had some of the qualities displayed by Perón before and after coming to power. I hasten to add that I don’t mean the doddery Perón who was largely in the grip of unsavoury people during his brief return to power in the early 1970s but the one who largely controlled Argentina from 1945 to 1955.

This seems an outlandish claim to make. Even the Franco regime kept its distance from the Argentinian during his years of exile in Madrid. By the 1960s he was seen as an unscrupulous demagogue who had not hesitated to frolic with Nazism and who had ruled Argentina as if it was his own private fiefdom.

Yet Jill Hodges, in her crisp, balanced and well-documented biography offers evidence to suggest that Perón may have been the victim of a ‘dark legend’ which magnified some of his undoubtedly ignoble features and invented one such as anti-Semitism that lacked basis in fact.

This harsh portrayal of Perón was very much the work of US diplomats at the end of World War II and was taken up by the influential media in the Anglosphere. His de facto co-ruler Eva Duarte whom he married in 1945, got much the same treatment and it was bold of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to go ahead and base the soon-to-be smash hit 1976 musical ‘Evita’ around her tempestuous short life.

If Nicola Sturgeon was better read, and more deeply informed about world history, I suspect she might well add the Peróns to the list of world figures, ranging from Barack Obama to Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel whom she wishes to be placed alongside. The Argentinian duo were exponents of social justice and national self-reliance and with the help of an ironically London-financed propaganda machine in Edinburgh, the Scottish separatist wishes, in her turn, to be viewed as an example of a powerful person constantly engaged in good works.

What claims and facts emerge from this absorbing biographical study to reinforce the claim the Argentinian officer was among the more benign, of unconventional, populists to have emerged in modern times?

The first fifty years of his life before he tasted power suggest that he was a well-adjusted figure possessing broad interests and lacking complexes to do with inferiority or addiction to power. He was born in fairly modest circumstances and his early life alternated between the rolling pampas and the capital as well as an interlude in bleak Patagonia.

He therefore grew familiar with the appearance and character of his sprawling country. It was one that was slowly ceasing to be viewed as a land on the verge of greatness, due to political instability caused, in no small measure, by its reliance on the exportation of primary products subject to abrupt price fluctuations.

The military wanted to be the arbiter of national destiny from the 1930s onwards. Perón had been a teenage recruit before World War I and he very slowly ascended up the ranks. In the army he cultivated a lifelong interest in sports and hobbies as well as revealing a gregarious personality. (He seems to have been seen as a fair and accessible officer by subordinates). He was unusually studious for an officer in an institution perhaps too easily seen as a haven for men who enjoyed playing cards, chasing after women, and intriguing.

Perón married late when he was in his mid-30s. When his wife died of cancer of the uterus a dozen years later, he threw himself more deeply into his work as a military planner and educator. In 1939 he was sent to Italy as military attaché perhaps out of recognition that broadening his horizons would be beneficial especially after his bereavement. Detractors suggest that the two years spent in Italy at the apex of fascist power, strongly rubbed off on him. But Jill Hedges finds the evidence for such a claim sketchy.

On his return he gave a lecture to colleagues on the need for overdue reforms or else Argentina would eventually be confronted with tensions as severe as those seen in Europe. In July 1943, he became involved in a successful military coup. It was meant to foil the elevation to the presidency by someone viewed as a mouthpiece of the landed oligarchy, fully committed to Argentina’s non-industrial, meat-exporting role. After decades of making little impression, an energised and resourceful Perón stepped forth. He worked to fill the vacuum that had opened up as officers with contrasting outlooks and agendas jockeyed for power. Within a short time, he had become minister of labour, minister of war, and vice-president.

Fellow officers grew alarmed by his rise and especially his novel gambit of courting the long marginalised labour movement. The power struggle that raged in 1945 is well-described. Perón faced a period of detention and his life may have been placed at risk. Hedges charts the extraordinary scenes when hundreds of thousands of descamisados (shirtless ones), poor people from Buenos Aires and far beyond, poured onto the streets of the capital on 17 October and succeeded in springing him from his detention. She describes it as a turning-point in Argentinian history where a previously overlooked group bounded on to the political stage, never again to leave it for long.

Jill Hedges has already written on the life of Perón’s co-ruler in the late 1940s, his second wife Eva Peron. She describes here the formidable role this actress with radical instincts played in thwarting civil and military figures intent on upholding the status quo. She was part of a delegation of actors when they met in January 1944. A severe earthquake had just occurred and she persuaded Perón that radical measures were needed to alleviate the suffering.

The two were immediately smitten and it is clear that the dormant idea of him becoming a tribune of the workers grew from there. This passionate, determined, and fervently loyal woman was the vital catalyst in turning yet another military excursion into politics into a watershed event in the history of Argentina. The fact that he lasted in power only three years after her death (from the same cancer as his first wife), perhaps is an indication of how indispensable she was as a mobiliser. She had superb organizing abilities and Hedges writes that her Eva Perón Foundation ‘was a remarkably efficient at undertaking many useful projects’ and that allegations of systematic fraud appear to be unfounded.

She created a public role for women to participate in politics never seen before and it happened in proverbially macho Argentina. Understandably many in the military were deeply unhappy at watching their fellow officer make an outspoken and under-educated woman into his co-ruler. Perón is often portrayed as cynical and manipulative but Hodges argues that this was perhaps one of the greatest political love matches in history. This paragraph from her book shows how deep at least among her the commitment to aiding the poor was:

‘Evita’s method of attending to requests for assistance was famous. She would arrive at her office…to find long queues of supplicants…Visitors such as diplomats, journalists or politicians were often required to empty their wallets in order to ensure that there was enough cash to meet immediate demands. Requests might include anything from a set of dentures to a job, a house, a bicycle or, most famously, a sewing machine… All those attended would receive enough money to get home; on some occasions Evita would send visitors home in her own car and have to await its return. Her days went on far into the night, and she would sometimes arrive home at the presidential residence in the early morning, just in time to cross paths with Perón as he left for work.’ [p. 155]

Imagine a Scottish First Minster whose cabinet currently spends £7 million on chauffeur-driven cars, offering to use them instead to ferry unwell citizens to hospital due to the shortage of vehicles caused by a failing ambulance service. It is a bit of a stretch to do so.

Perón was dubbed ‘a degenerate’ for taking up with such a young woman and acquiring a far younger mistress upon her death in July 1952. Organs of American opinion promoted what would be a durable image of a pocket Mussolini. Sir David Kelly, an experienced Foreign Office figure who was British ambassador in the mid-1940s, described Perón as ‘a brilliant improviser, with a strong political sense and much personal charm, not in the least interested in Nazism or any other ideology.’

Eva had been the one who urged him to adopt a hardline towards those who wouldn’t toe the line. She pushed out competent allies whom Perón needed after her sparkle was gone. He lost much of his drive thereafter. The thousands of machine guns and pistols her foundation had bought to defend the revolution, instead of being distributed to loyal workers were given to the frontier police after her death. Without ‘his friend, sounding-board and enabler’, Perón began to lose control of events. A needless quarrel with the Catholic Church enabled his enemies in the oligarchy and the armed forces to regroup. His removal in 1955, though bloody by the standards of Latin American coups, was easily accomplished. But the Peronist movement remained the chief Argentinian political movement for the next seven decades. It rules today, although its governing achievements are increasingly hard to detect.

It is the stuff of nightmares to imagine the Scottish National Party remaining this strong for so long even after the misdeeds and failures of a contemporary leader which some may believe already eclipse those of the Peróns in their heyday.

The 1943 military coup in Argentina was yet another power-play in a constitutionally unsettled country which, but for the synergy between two unlikely individuals, would have very likely run into the sands.

By contrast, the slow-moving assault on British unity mounted by the SNP in Scotland was arguably something more substantial. However, its potential to open up a fresh chapter in the political history of north-west Europe was ruined – principally by the human factor. A talented but headstrong leader, Alex Salmond alienated his implacable successor Nicola Sturgeon who went to unusual lengths to obliterate his influence in a party which he had put on the political map. It led to a sensational series of court battles and a split in the movement.

Human synergy can electrify a cause with seemingly little going for it while human destructiveness can have the opposite effect. Arguably since Perón populist politics has become a shadow of its former self in Argentina. In Scotland it appears to have backfired, being replaced by a grim form of managerial leftism. In an age of strife when the war between the sexes has been joined by so many other conflicts over human identity, it would be refreshing if a male-female partnership emerged that wanted to give to society as well as to endlessly take.

Available from Yeadon’s of Elgin

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Photo of street posters in commemoration of General Juan Perón’s death, Buenos Aires, 30 June, 2019 by Alexandr Vorobev

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