Isabel Martinez de Perón (born 1931) became the first female president in Latin America when she assumed the Argentine presidency upon the death of her husband, Juan Perón. Her term in office was characterized by political violence and economic instability until she was finally overthrown by the military.
Isabel Perón was born María Estela Martinez Cartas on February 4, 1931, in La Rioja, a provincial capital in the impoverished mountainous region of northwestern Argentina. Her father, a local bank manager, died when she was still a young child. By the time of her father's death, the family had moved to Buenos Aires, where she studied piano, dance, and French, although she was not able to finish her formal education.
After leaving school she became a dancer, performing in folk music groups, night clubs, and finally the ballet corps of two leading theaters in Buenos Aires. She acquired the name Isabel on her confirmation in the Catholic Church and later adopted it as her professional name when she began her dancing career.
In 1956, while on tour with a dance troupe through Latin America, she met Juan Perón, who had recently been ousted from the Argentine presidency after roughly ten years in power. Giving up her career as a dancer, she became Perón's personal secretary and accompanied him into exile in Madrid, where the two were married in 1961.
Although Juan Perón was not allowed to return to Argentina, he retained control of the Peronist movement. It remained a strong political force in the country despite being suppressed under the provisional military government of General Pedro Aramburu. With a return to civilian rule following the election of Arturo Frondizi in 1958, the Peronists were again permitted to participate in politics, and they showed surprising strength in the 1962 election. The military intervened, however, to annul the results and depose Frondizi.
During the new military regime of President José María Guido a conflict over control of the government took place between two factions within the military: the Reds, who favored a hard line against the Peronists, and the Blues, who favored a more moderate constitutional line. The Blues gained ascendancy, and in July 1963 new elections were held in which Arturo Illia won the presidency. Illia took a conciliatory approach toward the Peronists, permitting them to put up candidates in the congressional elections scheduled for March 1965.
It was during this period that Isabel Perón received her political baptism, travelling to Argentina as Perón's emissary to promote those candidates endorsed by him and to try to build support among the new generation of Peronist leaders who favored Peronism without Perón.
The Peronists not only made significant gains in the congressional elections, but won two important by-elections in April and May of the following year, which foreshadowed a possible Peronist victory in the crucial presidential election in 1969. In June, alarmed by the success of the Peronists, the military ousted President Illia and installed General Juan Carlos Onganía as president.
Rejecting the transitional role of the prior military regimes, the Onganía government suppressed not only Peronism, but all conventional political activity and announced its intention to remain in power for an indefinite period of time. By 1969, however, Argentina's growing economic distress had contributed to the outbreak of political violence, which culminated in the kidnaping and murder of former president Aramburu, by a group of left-wing Peronists called the Montoneros. Increasing concern among top military leaders about the ability of Onganía to control the growing wave of guerrilla attacks led to his replacement by General Roberto Levinston. Political unrest continued to grow, however, and in March 1971 General Alejandro Lanusse, who was known to favor a return to democracy, assumed the presidency.
Upon taking office Lanusse proclaimed his intention to hold democratic elections and permitted the reestablishment of political parties, including the Peronists. Lanusse's decision to open negotiations with the now aged Juan Perón and to end his 16 years of exile occasioned Isabel Perón's next mission to Argentina. She remained there from December 1971 to March 1972, engaging in talks with the Lanusse government and attempting without success to unify the Peronist movement, which by now had become deeply divided between militant right-wing and left-wing factions. Although Perón was prohibited from running for the presidency in the elections scheduled for March 1973, his own hand-picked candidate, Héctor Cámpora, won the election, polling almost 50 percent of the vote. In a well-orchestrated plan to bring Juan Perón back to power, Cámpora resigned from office, setting the stage for new elections in which Juan Perón automatically became the leading candidate.
At the insistence of Juan Perón, his wife was named his vice-presidential running-mate. Despite strong opposition to her candidacy, she played a significant role in the new presidential race, campaigning vigorously in behalf of Juan Perón who, because of his health, made few personal appearances.
On September 23, 1973, the team of Juan and Isabel Perón won a landslide victory. A month after taking office, Juan Perón suffered a mild heart attack, and Isabel began to take over many of his duties as head of state. With the death of her husband on July 1, 1974, Isabel Perón officially assumed the presidency, becoming the first woman in Latin American history to hold the office. She inherited a number of intractable political and economic difficulties: a badly divided Peronist movement, a growing wave of terrorism, and a rapidly worsening economic situation.
The deep divisions within the Peronist movement emerged full blown after she took power. Her policy of favoring the right-wing Peronists over the left-wing groups served to exacerbate the struggle between the two factions and contributed to the increase in political violence and terrorist activity. In addition to the bombings, kidnappings, and killings by left-wing urban guerrillas, a right-wing death squad, the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance (AAA) began a campaign to eradicate leftist terrorists, including members of Peronist groups. With the country on the verge of total anarchy, Isabel Perón declared a state of siege in November 1974, but the terrorist conflict continued unabated.
On the economic front, she was confronted with soaring inflation, mounting foreign debts, and growing unemployment. Her efforts to restrict wages and introduce other austerity measures to combat inflation, which had climbed to well over 300 percent by mid-1975, met with stiff resistance from the leaders of the labor unions, who called a series of costly and destructive strikes that increased political unrest.
Within the government Isabel Perón was hampered by repeated cabinet crises. A serious political liability was her minister of social welfare and personal secretary, José López Rega, an old-line Peronist and the guiding force behind her conservative policies. Revelations concerning his illicit financial activities and his involvement with the operations of the AAA led to his resignation and flight into exile, much to the discredit of the president.
Facing severe criticism from all sides for her inability to control the violence or stabilize the economy, Isabel Perón took a leave of absence in September and October 1975, ostensibly to recover from exhaustion. Adding to her difficulties were charges by the opposition that she had misappropriated governmental funds.
In December a group of dissident Air Force officers staged an abortive coup. The more moderate military officers, led by General Jorge Rafaél Videla, urged that she resign. Perón insisted that she would serve out the remainder of her term, scheduled to end in May 1977. As the political and economic situation continued to deteriorate, she sought to counter the demands for her resignation by finally offering to hold new elections before her term expired. But the offer came too late, and on March 24, 1976, she was deposed in a bloodless coup. After seizing power and placing her under house arrest, a three-man military junta named General Videla president of a new military regime.
Isabel Perón remained in protective custody for five years. In 1981 she was convicted of corruption, but released and allowed to go into exile. She remained in Spain until pardoned by the Argentine government in 1983.
After two years of exile, Isabel Perón was invited to return by President Raúl Alfonsín, who won Argentina's 1983 election, ending a fifty-three year succession of the brutal military regimes marked by the reign of General Videla. Alfonsín reportedly cultivated his relationship with Perón in an attempt to improve his standing with the Peronist party. She also appeared to be in better standing in her former country, as the Senate passed a bill restoring her extensive real estate holdings and her reputation.
Issues began to surface which called into question Isabel Perón s knowledge of Argentina's "dirty war" practices after the military overthrew her in 1976. Argentinians representing victims of the former dictatorship gathered outside a National Court hearing held in Madrid in February 1997. Perón was questioned on her knowledge of the campaign of torture, kidnappings and murder under the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. As stated in El Universal, a Mexican newspaper, Perón denied learning of the human rights abuses during the "dirty war, " despite the claims of those who hold her responsible for the beginning of the repression in 1976 and consider her to be an accomplice in those crimes. Perón may be called again to give testimony along with relatives of victims and diplomats.
There is no adequate study of Isabel Perón in either English or Spanish. Guido Di Tella, Argentina under Perón, 1973-1976: The Nation's Experience with a Labor-Based Government (1983) deals with Perón's second presidency and Isabel's period in power after his death. Also of value, especially for activities of the revolutionary left during this period, is Donald C. Hodges, Argentina, 1943-1976: The National Revolution and Resistance (1976).