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The Crisis of Argentine Capitalism

By Paul H. Lewis | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
The Roots of Charisma

In June 1943, Juan Domingo Perón suddenly burst onto the Argentine political scene as the new "strongman" behind the military junta that took power. Previously unknown, save among a clique of army nationalists, he was to become thereafter the pivot around which Argentina's power struggles would revolve for the next three decades. He polarized the society as no man--neither Rosas, Mitre, nor Yrigoyen--had ever done. Even today, more than a decade after his death, a powerful political party backed by the trade union movement bears his name. His speeches and writings are still quoted as gospel by many thousands of Argentines, who nevertheless cannot agree on whether he was a revolutionary of the Left, a champion of the patriotic Right, or a pragmatic reformer who instinctively avoided extremes. By contrast, those who hated Perón during his lifetime agree that he was a demagogue and a tyrant who ruined the country's economy, wasted its resources, and stirred up class hatred.

Whatever view one takes of Perón, there is no denying that, for good or evil, he left his imprint on Argentina. The essential facts about his political career are fairly well known. As head of a secret army lodge called the Group of United Officers (GOU), he helped to mastermind the June 1943 coup and occupied a prominent place in the resulting military government. As under secretary of war, he was in charge of military promotions and assignments, and he used the post to consolidate his power. As secretary of labor and social welfare, he employed all the power of a dictatorial state to overcome opposition to long-overdue labor legislation and to build up powerful unions personally attached to him in every economic field. These became the mass base for the Peronist movement. In 1946 he was elected president of Argentina and was reelected in 1952. Those years constituted a watershed in the country's history in terms of the expansion of government power over the economy, social reform legislation, and the strengthening of the labor movement. The changes that Perón brought about created such opposition, however,

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