Biography of Juan Perón, Argentina's Populist President

Juan Peron
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Juan Domingo Perón (Oct. 8, 1895—July 1, 1974) was an Argentine general who was elected president of Argentina three times: 1946, 1951, and 1973. An extraordinarily skilled politician, he had millions of supporters even during his years of exile, 1955 to 1973. His policies were mostly populist and tended to favor the working classes, who embraced him and made him the most influential Argentine politician of the 20th century. Eva "Evita" Duarte de Perón, his second wife, was an important factor in his success and influence.

Fast Facts: Juan Perón

Known For: Argentine general and president

Born: Oct. 8, 1895, in Lobos, Buenos Aires Province

Parents: Juana Sosa Toledo, Mario Tomás Perón

Died: July 1, 1974, in Buenos Aires

Education: Graduated from Argentina's National Military College

Spouses: Aurelia Tizón, Eva (Evita) Duarte, Isabel Martínez

Early Life

Although he was born near Buenos Aires, he spent much of his youth in the harsh region of Patagonia with his family as his father tried his hand at various occupations including ranching. At 16, he entered the National Military College and joined the army afterward, deciding to be a career soldier.

He served in the infantry as opposed to the cavalry, which was for children of wealthy families. He married his first wife, Aurelia Tizón, in 1929, but she died in 1937 of uterine cancer.

Tour of Europe

By the late 1930s, Lt. Col. Perón was an influential officer in the Argentine army. Argentina didn't go to war during Perón's lifetime; all his promotions came during peacetime, and he owed his rise to his political skills as much as his military abilities.

In 1938 he went to Europe as a military observer, visiting Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and other nations. While in Italy, he became a fan of the style and rhetoric of Italy's prime minister, Benito Mussolini, whom he greatly admired. He left Europe just before World War II and returned to a nation in chaos.

Rise to Power: 1941-1946

Political chaos in the 1940s afforded the ambitious, charismatic Perón the opportunity to advance. As a colonel in 1943, he was among the plotters who supported Gen. Edelmiro Farrell’s coup against President Ramón Castillo and was awarded the posts of secretary of war and then secretary of labor.

As labor secretary, he made liberal reforms that endeared him to the Argentine working class. From 1944 to 1945 he was vice president of Argentina under Farrell. In October 1945, conservative foes tried to muscle him out, but mass protests led by his new wife, Evita, forced the military to restore him to office.

Evita

Perón had met Eva Duarte, a singer and actress known as Evita, while both were doing relief work for a 1944 earthquake. They married in October 1945, after Evita led protests among Argentina’s working classes to free Perón from prison.

Evita became an invaluable asset during his first two terms in office. Her empathy for and connection with Argentina’s poor and downtrodden were unprecedented. She started important social programs for the poorest Argentines, promoted women's suffrage, and personally handed out cash in the streets to the needy. On her death in 1952, the pope received thousands of letters demanding her elevation to sainthood.

First Term as President: 1946-1951

Perón was elected president in February 1946 and was an able administrator during his first term. His goals were increased employment and economic growth, international sovereignty, and social justice. He nationalized banks and railways, centralized the grain industry and raised worker wages. He put a time limit on daily hours worked and instituted a mandatory Sundays-off policy for most jobs. He paid off foreign debts and built many public buildings, including schools and hospitals.

Internationally, he declared a “third way” between the Cold War powers and managed to have good diplomatic relations with both the United States and the Soviet Union.

Second Term: 1951-1955

Perón’s problems began in his second term. Evita passed away in 1952. The economy stagnated, and the working class began to lose faith in him. His opposition, mostly conservatives who disapproved of his economic and social policies, became bolder. After attempting to legalize prostitution and divorce, he was excommunicated.

When he held a rally to protest the movement against him, opponents in the military launched a coup that included the Argentine air force and navy bombing the Plaza de Mayo, the central square in Buenos Aires, killing almost 400. On Sept. 16, 1955, military leaders seized power in Cordoba and drove Perón out on Sept. 19.

Exile: 1955-1973

Perón spent the next 18 years in exile, mainly in Venezuela and Spain. Although the new government made any support of Perón illegal (including even saying his name in public), he maintained great influence over Argentine politics, and candidates he supported frequently won elections. Many politicians came to see him, and he welcomed them all.

He managed to convince both liberals and conservatives that he was their best choice, and by 1973, millions were clamoring for him to return.

Return to Power and Death: 1973-1974

In 1973, Héctor Cámpora, a stand-in for Perón, was elected president. When Perón flew in from Spain on June 20, more than 3 million people thronged the airport to welcome him back. It turned to tragedy, however, when right-wing Peronists opened fire on left-wing Peronists known as Montoneros, killing at least 13. Perón was easily elected when Cámpora stepped down, but right- and left-wing Peronist organizations fought openly for power.

Ever the slick politician, he managed to keep a lid on the violence for a time, but he died of a heart attack on July 1, 1974, after only a year back in power.

Legacy

It's impossible to overstate Perón's legacy in Argentina. In terms of impact, he ranks with leaders such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. His brand of politics even has its own name: Peronism. Peronism survives today in Argentina as a legitimate political philosophy, incorporating nationalism, international political independence, and a strong government. Cristina Kirchner, who served as president from 2007 to 2015, was a member of the Justicialist party, an offshoot of Peronism.

Like every other political leader, Perón had his ups and downs and left a mixed legacy. On the plus side, some of his accomplishments were impressive: He increased basic rights for workers, vastly improved the infrastructure (particularly in terms of electrical power), and modernized the economy. He was a skillful politician on good terms with both the East and the West during the Cold War.

One example of Perón's political skills was his relations with the Jews in Argentina. Perón closed the doors to Jewish immigration during and after World War II. Every now and then, however, he would make a magnanimous public gesture, such as allowing a boatload of Holocaust survivors to enter Argentina. He got good press for these gestures but never changed his policies. He also allowed hundreds of Nazi war criminals to find safe haven in Argentina after World War II, making him one of the only people in the world who managed to stay on good terms with Jews and Nazis at the same time.

He had his critics, however. The economy eventually stagnated under his rule, particularly in terms of agriculture. He doubled the size of the state bureaucracy, placing further strain on the national economy. He had autocratic tendencies and cracked down on opposition from the left or the right if it suited him. During his time in exile, his promises to liberals and conservatives created hopes for his return that he couldn't deliver.

He married for the third time in 1961 and made his wife, Isabel Martínez de Perón, his vice president to start his final term, which had disastrous consequences after she assumed the presidency upon his death. Her incompetence encouraged Argentine generals to seize power and kick off the bloodshed and repression of the so-called Dirty War.

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