The Lesson of Juan Perón
Most of you are probably more familiar with the Broadway musical Evita than you are with the record of Juan Perón, Evita’s husband. Perón was president of Argentina three times in the nineteen forties and fifties and again in the seventies. He had been a general in the Argentine military during World War Two, but Argentina was neutral during most of the war, joining the Allied Powers only a month before the end of the war. In his official capacity, Perón visited the Axis Powers prior to the war and was a great admirer of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and also Hitler.
Perón rose to prominence as one of the instigators of a military coup d’état against a civilian government and was named the Minister of Labor in the military government. Perón developed the Ministry of Labor as a platform for increasing his popularity by implementing labor reforms favored by the country’s left-leaning unions. His increasing popularity among the working masses angered conservative elements in the military government and he was arrested. His arrest was brief, however, as huge rallies of workers in the main square demanded his release. He was released after a few days and soon married Eva Duarte (Evita), who had helped rally support for Perón during his arrest. With his (and her) fervent support from the masses, he was elected president six months later.
It is hard to define Perón’s political philosophy. He implemented many social justice reforms but admired the efficiency of fascist governments. He appealed to both left-wing unions and right-wing conservatives. He implemented many pro-worker policies favored by the unions but also granted favors to wealthy industrialists. He appointed many military men to important offices and helped fugitives Nazis find refuge in his country. He put his wife, Evita, in charge of charitable works through the Eva Perón Foundation which continued to operate after her tragic death from cancer. Although popularly elected, he ran the country like a dictatorship. He controlled the media through ownership by friends and supporters as well as through intimidation as over a hundred periodicals closed down during his administration. He arrested opponents and drove others into exile.
Perón himself was overthrown by a revolt of army and navy officers in 1955 and fled into exile aboard a gunboat supplied by fellow dictator and neighbor, Alfredo Stroessner. He eventually ended up in Spain under the protection of Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. But despite his fascist links, he plotted with representatives of the left-wing unions and even met with Che Guevara. During his exile, Argentina alternated between dictatorship and democracy several times while the remaining Peronists plotted his return. In a democratic election in 1973, a Peronist candidate won the election and ended Perón’s exile. He returned triumphantly to a crowd estimated at over three million people at Ezeiza airport only to have warring Peronist factions kill 13 and wound 365. The Peronist president resigned, and Juan Perón and his third wife Isabel were elected president and vice president. Perón was in poor health at age 78 and died within a year and was succeeded by Isabel Perón who served out the rest of his term.
Juan Perón bequeathed to the Argentine people a political system called Peronism. Peronism survives today as both the president and vice president of Argentina, Alberto Fernandez and Christina Fernandez de Kirchner (no relation) are Peronists. But Peronism has destroyed Argentina. Early in the twentieth century, Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world with a GDP per capita greater than Germany and France and twice that of Spain. In 1913, Argentina had the tenth highest GDP in the world. Now it is 69th. Initially Peronism delivered good economic performance as Perón decreed salary increases and instituted social security programs. But eventually interventionism, nationalization, crony capitalism and corruption led to a decline as Perón shifted toward the left-wing factions of his movement. In Argentina there is no rule of law, there is only the rule of the gut, Perón’s gut instinct and those of his successors. And Argentina has been a serial defaulter on its debts. The Peronist government of Christina Kirchner in 2008 confiscated the private savings of Argentine citizens to provide needed cash to the government. Peronist governments reel from crisis to crisis with great regularity.
Sound familiar? We in America have just spent four years going by a leader’s gut instead of the rule of law. Argentina has been the butt of jokes from other Latin Americans for years. The prestige of America and the esteem with which it has been held is at an all time low. Are we going to become the butt of jokes around the world?
America rejected Donald Trump’s gut instincts in the 2020 elections, even though as I am writing he has not yet accepted this verdict. But Americans took a close look at the gut instincts and egalitarian feelings of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as well, before opting toward the centrism of Joe Biden. But the populists of the left and right are not going to give up. Is America fated to become the Argentina of the 21st Century?
Just because the Biden transition team will eventually get a long enough lever to pry Donald Trump out of the Oval Office, that does not mean that Donald Trump is going away. His narcissism will demand that he be in the spotlight continually. I wouldn’t be surprised if ex-President Trump gets more media coverage in 2021 than newly elected President Biden.
Already right-wing commentators such as Victor Davis Hanson are pushing for a sequel to our recent traumatic experience. And ex-President Trump will not retire quietly to his Mar-a-Lago resort or to one of his towers or hotels. He will immediately begin to hatch his plans for his comeback reelection in 2024 and for the continuation of Trumpism long after he is gone just like Juan Perón.
This will create a dilemma for Republicans. They can either allow Trump and his supporters to take over the Republican Party completely and throw any of America’s founding principles they may still have out the window, or they can reject Trumpism and re-embrace our American founding principles, in which case Trump is likely to try and form a third party – a true Trumpist party. But the primary beneficiary of these struggles will be the Democrats because neither of these Republican scenarios will be able to win the White House back.
There will be a call in the new Biden administration to prosecute President Trump for crimes he did while in the White House or for crimes he did prior to running for President since they will now have better access to his records. Their hate of Trump is so toxic that many will want to pursue this course even though it would be a very dumb strategy for them to do so. If ex-President Trump was in prison, he would not have access to cell phones or computers - no access to media – no Twitter storms in the middle of the night. By putting Trump in jail, the Democrats would have solved the Republican’s dilemma. But they hate Trump so much that they might just do it any way.
But the 2020 election has left us with a glimmer of hope. While the pundits exclaim that we Americans are as divided as ever, I believe that the 2020 election showed that there is still a broad section of the country that wants centrist pragmatic policies and bi-partisan cooperation in the governance of this country. I don’t know who out there across our land would be willing to make the sacrifice necessary to try and represent these people. I just hope to God that there is someone willing to step forward.