Biography of Juan Peron

Juan Domingo Peron Was a Giant of Argentine Politics

Juan Domingo Peron
Juan Domingo Peron. Getty Images/Archive

Juan Domingo Peron (1895-1974) was an Argentine General and diplomat who was elected to serve as President of Argentina on three occasions (1946, 1951, and 1973). An extraordinarily skilled politician, he had millions of supporters even during his years of exile (1955-1973).

His policies were mostly populist and tended to favor the working classes, who embraced him and made him without question the most influential Argentine politician of the 20th Century.

Eva "Evita" Duarte de Peron, his second wife, was an important factor in his success and influence.

Early Life

Although he was born near Buenos Aires, Juan spent much of his youth in the harsh region of Patagonia with his family as his father tried his hand at various activities including ranching. At the age of 16, he entered the military academy and joined the army afterward, deciding on the path of a career soldier. He served in the infantry branch of the services, 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, Lieutenant Colonel Perón was an influential officer in the Argentine Army. Argentina did not go to war during Perón's lifetime. All of his promotions were during times of peace, 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 and visited Italy, Spain, France, and Germany in addition to a few other nations. During his time in Italy, he became a fan of the style and rhetoric of Benito Mussolini, whom he greatly admired. He got out of Europe just ahead of World War II and returned to a nation in chaos.

Rise to Power, 1941-1946

Political chaos in the 1940s afforded the ambitious, charismatic Peron the opportunity to advance. As a Colonel in 1943, he was among the plotters who supported General Edelmiro Farrell’s coup against President Ramón Castillo and was rewarded with the posts of Secretary of War and then Secretary of Labor.

As Secretary of Labor, he made liberal reforms that endeared him to the Argentine working class. By 1944-1945 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 his office.

Juan Domingo and Evita

Juan had met Eva Duarte, a singer and actress, while both were doing relief for a 1944 earthquake. They married in October 1945, after Evita led protests among Argentina’s working classes to free Perón from prison. During his time in office, Evita became an invaluable asset. Her empathy for and connection with Argentina’s poor and down trodden was unprecedented. On her death in 1952 the Pope received thousands of letters demanding her elevation to saint. She started important social programs for the poorest Argentines, promoted women's suffrage and personally handed out cash in the streets to the needy.

First Term, 1946-1951

Perón proved to be 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 works such as 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

Peron’s problems began in his second term. Evita passed away in 1952. The economy stagnated, and the working class began to lose faith in Peron.

His opposition, mostly conservatives who disapproved of his economic and social policies, began to get bolder. After attempting to legalize prostitution and divorce, he was excommunicated. When he held a rally in protest, opponents in the military launched a coup which included the Argentine Air Force and Navy bombing the Plaza de Mayo during the protest, killing almost 400. On September 16, 1955, military leaders seized power in Cordoba  and were able to drive Peron out on the 19th.

Peron in Exile, 1955-1973

Peron spent the next 18 years in exile, mainly in Venezuela and Spain. Despite the fact that the new government made any support of Perón illegal (including even saying his name in public) Perón maintained great influence over Argentine politics from exile, and candidates he supported frequently won elections. Many politicians came to see him, and he welcomed them all. A skillful politician, 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 three million people turned up at Ezeiza 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. 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 about a year back in power.

Juan Domingo Perón’s Legacy

It's impossible to overstate Perón's legacy in Argentina. In terms of impact, he's right up there with names like 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 which incorporates nationalism, international political independence and a strong government.

Cristina Kirchner, current President of Argentina, is a member of the Justicialist party, which is an offshoot of Peronism.

Like every 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 who was on good terms with both the east and the west during the Cold War.

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

He also 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 would crack down on opposition from the left or the right if it suited him. During his time in exile, his promises to liberals and conservatives alike created hopes for his return that he could not deliver. His selection of his inept third wife as his Vice-President 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 Dirty War.

Sources:

Alvarez, Garcia, Marcos. Líderes políticos del siglo XX en América Latina. Santiago: LOM Ediciones, 2007.

Rock, David. Argentina 1516-1987: From Spanish Colonization to Alfonsín. Berkeley: the University of California Press, 1987