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The Nature of Change in Peronism

2012/05/19

This was for my modern Latin America class. I was supposed to write about Peronism.

There’s an old saying that no man can be all things to all people. However, a man and a woman together can come much closer. Thus in the dual-leadership era, Juan and Eva Perón were able to take two complementary approaches to create a united political front. They both represented themselves as champions of the common people and emphasized the triumph of their constituency over the oligarchy, but portrayed this new Argentina not so much as a fundamental change in the structure of society but as steps in service of traditional social values.

This is not to say Peronism did not provide real, concrete changes. Perón presided over substantial gains for many sectors of society. In the 1930s, Argentina’s poor and working class were not doing well. Public services were a bureaucratic mess.[1] Real wages had declined.[2] The Department of Labor served mainly to prevent labor from organizing.[3] Most workers in the rapidly expanding industrial sector were inexperienced and from rural areas and ripe for exploitation without union protection. Widespread corruption and police abuse prevented political participation to improve their lot.[4]

When Perón became Secretary of Labor in 1943, all this changed rapidly as he began promoting worker’s rights. He supported unionization laws that obligated employers to negotiate with unions and a number of reforms that cumulatively raised the living standards of laborers.[5] Obviously, this did not go well with factory owners and the other entrenched interests responsible for the earlier policies. In 1945, he gave an impassioned speech to his labor supporters where he addressed them as the descamisados, or shirtless ones, reflecting an anti-elitism that would long be the hallmark of his rhetoric. The name stuck as did his position as their leader. Shortly thereafter, Perón was forced to resign and was jailed, but numerous labor unions went on strike and marched on Buenos Aires to demand his release. It worked.[6] Perón’s political gamble paid off very well. He was then a free man with a very dedicated and substantial political base. The fact that he had gone to jail only reinforced his apparent dedication to the cause of laborers and the fact they had to take action to support him only solidified their loyalty to him. Jailing Perón had backfired. A few months after his release, he announced he was running for the presidency, which he won by a substantial margin.[7]

While Perón’s rise to power seems revolutionary, the worker’s rights he promoted were in some ways relatively conservative changes. His principle opponents were not just the wealthy elites who saw increased wages as a threat to their profit margins, but communists, socialists and other radicals who saw Perón as a fascist who was buying workers’ loyalty with pittances.[8] To them, the Argentinean populace just wasn’t sophisticated enough to see it was being used. While Peronism did have some benefits for workers, it primarily benefited the Peróns. Everything they did to help the poor or working class was also designed to maximize their political benefit, such as setting up a loyalty day to commemorate Perón’s loyalty to the descamisados and their loyalty to him.[9] Through Evita, children were propagandized not to support not so much worker’s rights, civic involvement and other principles of a good state, but Perón himself. His social improvements included free education, but this education served to teach the

Despite worker’s various gains, they were still working for wealthy oligarchs. Perón’s 1947 Declaration of Worker’s rights contained ten guarantees: the rights to work, a fair wage, training, proper working conditions, preservation of health, well-being, social security, protection of the family, a better economic situation and defense of professional interests.[10] Unless we take the right to work as a guarantee of employment, which I don’t think is reasonable, all of these were already common-place in many other countries by 1947 under minimum wage laws, workplace safety laws and laws protecting unions. Also, the project was portrayed as vital because it protected the traditional patriarchal family. While an improvement over the previous situation, they were hardly the sort of drastic reforms for which the radicals were hoping.

Even the more progressive aspects of the Perón presidency were couched in traditionalist terms. Evita’s unprecedented role in her husband’s presidency is the most obvious example of this. Charismatic leadership is traditionally reserved for men and heavily rooted in patriarchal notions, yet Evita was at least as popular as her husband and inspired just as much devotion. However, she disclaimed any leadership role for herself and portrayed her political involvement as a natural extension of her traditional female duties. In her speeches, she consistently proclaimed Perón’s superiority. She was his “shadow” who implemented his policies, not a policy-setter.[11] She characterized herself as a “bridge of love” between Perón and the descamisadas.[12] She did not take credit for anything herself, but credited any influence she had to Perón’s love and guidance.[13] She was the public face of the presidency. She interceded with Perón for the public much as a saint would intercede with God.

Charismatic leadership implies an almost super-human mystique, but Perón and Evita were also both populists, meaning they portrayed themselves as common people and not members of an elite group. [14] They managed this apparent paradox through several techniques. When Perón declared himself a descamisado, even though he was a military officer and a fairly highly placed government official, he was symbolically declaring that his status did not make him superior to the common laborers. Spending several days in jail gave this credibility. As labor secretary, he made himself accessible to labor leaders and addressed his audiences as if he were himself a labor leader rather than a government official.[15] Evita emphasized that she had humble rural beginnings. When she succeeded, it was her duty to bring everyone else up with her.[16] By crediting Perón, she could appear humble while saying things he could never get away with saying about himself. Meanwhile, he could portray her as a saint, who not only showed compassion to the sick and downtrodden, but was protected from becoming ill herself by her purity.[17] These approaches were complementary. For instance, Perón would make rational speeches to promote an agenda, whereas Evita would make a passionate plea for the same policy, thus both playing to stereotypical sex roles.[18] Typically, a charismatic leader will portray himself as a father figure to the country. This dual approach essentially gave the country a mother and a father figure, meaning they had an unusually comprehensive method of leadership. She was a key component of Peronism. In fact, after her untimely death, Perón could not hold his government together without Evita to insulate him and soon found himself ousted from office.[19]

Like male workers, women had many substantial gains during Perón’s presidency, but their basic social structure remained unchanged. Evita promoted something she called feminism, but repudiated ideas from other feminist movements such as women moving into men’s jobs. Her feminism was a social movement, not a political one. She said she wanted to free women, not from their homes, but from inaction.[20] Essentially, she wanted to glorify women not by giving them access to prestigious roles that had been closed to them, but by giving prestige to what she saw as women’s traditional role of social service. Her Eva Perón Foundation reorganized social services to make them more accessible to the public and greatly expanded them, building numerous impressive projects, such as the Ciudad Infantil, to socialize children into traditional roles and to teach them Peronist thought and created employment programs. Most importantly, Evita herself was always on the forefront of these activities, creating the impression she personally was responsible for the actions of her foundation.[21] This assured Perón had massive support among the impoverished to match his support among laborers.

Evita also supported suffrage for women, and again portrayed this as completely non-subversive. To her, voting was an extension of women’s responsibility not only in civic matters, but to ensure the Christian virtues of their homes. It was a way of showing support for their male leaders, not overthrowing them.[22] Women got the vote in 1947, probably thanks in no small part to Evita’s public support. The PPF, a feminine branch of the Peronist party was nevertheless portrayed as apolitical.[23] Thus women had real gains without any appearance of disruption of the social order.

Most progressive things the Peróns did were rhetorically tied to conservative and even anti-political values. Social justice was framed as a way of ensuring the stability of the family. Democracy and civic participation were patriotic duties.[24] Workers could influence the state by interacting directly with its leaders rather having to work through a political party, which was more personable and also minimized organized opposition. Social injustice wasn’t a failure of society, but a failure of leadership. Evita said her great pride was deserving “the love of the humble and the hatred of the oligarchs.”[25] To put it more cynically, social ills were due to people less wise and benevolent than Perón being in charge and he personally, not some abstract philosophy of government was the solution. Thus, Perón, together with Evita, portrayed his leadership as a defense of the common, traditional people. While his reforms were in many ways moderate, they portrayed them as barely reforms at all, but continuation of traditions.


[1] Mariano Ben Plotkin, trans. Keith Zaniser, Mañana es San Perón: A Cultural History of Perón’s Argentina (Wilmington: SR Books, 2003) 138.

[2] Daniel James, “Perón and the People,” in The Argentina Reader: History, Culture Politics, ed. Gabriela Nouzeilles and Graciela Montaldo (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002) 274.

[3] Marysa Navarro, “Evita’s Charismatic Leadership,” in Latin American Populism in Comparative Perspective, ed. Michael Confitt (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982) 50, 52.

[4] James 274, 279-281, 295.

[5] Navarro, 50.

[6] Ibid, 51.

[7] Ibid, 53.

[8] James, 278.

[9] Navarro, 52.

[10] Juan Perón, “Declaration of Worker’s Rights,” in Problems in Latin American History: Sources and Interpretations, ed. John Charles Chasteen and James A. Wood (Scholarly Resources, 2004) 234-236.

[11] Navarro, 60.

[12] John Charles Chasteen, Born in Blood & Fire: A Concise History of Latin America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006) 254.

[13] Eva Perón, “Women and Social Change,” in Problems in Moder Latin American History: Sources and Interpretations, ed. John Charles Chasteen and James A. Wood (Scholarly Resources, 2004) 220.

[14] Navarro, 47-48.

[15] Ibid, 50.

[16] Eva Perón, “Women and Social Change,” 220-221.

[17] Plotkin, 159-160, 162.

[18] Navarro, 58.

[19] Ibid, 63-64.

[20] Eva Perón, “Women and Social Change,” 220-221

[21] Plotkin, 156-158.

[22] Eva Perón, “Women and Social Change,” in Keen’s Latin American Civilization, ed. R. Buffington & L. Caimari (Westview, 2009) 411-413.

[23] Plotkin, 174.

[24] James, 281-282.

[25] Chasteen, 254.

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