Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974) was one of modern Argentina's most important political figures. Although his government was removed from power in a military/civilian uprising, he continued to wield enormous influence on national affairs for many years and was eventually returned to the nation's highest office.
Juan Domingo Perón was born in Lobos in the province of Buenos Aires on October 8, 1895. There is no evidence that his parents were married at the time of his birth. In a status-conscience country, the fact of his illegitimate birth may have been, in later life, a source of resentment. In 1899 his father, Mario Thomás Perón, left the family to search for better economic opportunities in Patagonia. Once settled on a ranch near Rio Gallegos, the family was reunited. It was here that Perón came to appreciate the "terrible differences" between the middle-class existence of his own family and those of the ranch hands (peones), who slept "in the shed, without sheets, with only one or two blankets, sometimes even without a bed."
There were a lack of schools in southern Patagonia, so in 1904 Perón's parents sent him and his brother to elementary school in Buenos Aires, the capital city. Far from his family and home, Perón learned to live by his wits.
By the age of 15, Perón participated in sports while barely making passing grades in academics. It was at this age that he decided against a university education in medicine and passed the entrance exam for the Colegio Militar, the Argentine military academy. It was in the closeness of the military barracks that Perón found the camaraderie that he had not had a chance to enjoy as a child.
He entered the army upon graduation in 1913 as a second lieutenant in the infantry, but his career was not outstanding. He was a champion fencer, had a good reputation as an instructor in various military schools, and had experience abroad as military attaché in Chile. He was promoted to the more respected rank of lieutenant in 1915, but it was not until 1919 that he showed signs as a leader and teacher.
It was in that same year, when Perón was 24-years-old, that Eva (or Evita) Duarte was born near the village of Los Toldos in Buenos Aires province. Eva's unwed mother, Juana Ibarguren, was assisted in the birth by an Indian midwife. The baby was denied the surname of her father, a respected landowner. Eva was also plagued by the stigma of her illegitimate birth. In 1931 her family moved to the small town of Junin. Three years later they moved to Buenos Aires.
The hard working and charismatic Perón was promoted to captain in 1924 and in 1926 was assigned to the Escuela de Guerra (Superior War College) where he trained intensely for three years. In 1929 he married his girlfriend of three years, Aurelia Tizón.
Argentina suffered a coup in September of 1930 brought on by the spreading world depression. Perón was a minor participant in the coup, but it taught him a valuable lesson. He felt that the massive mobilization of civilians in favor of the coup had helped the military victory. This was a lesson he would use to his advantage in the future.
In 1931 Perón was assigned to teach at the Superior War College where he spent five years teaching, writing several books, and developing talents critical to his later political career.
Perón's wife died in 1938 from uterine cancer and he was extremely distraught. He was sent to Italy for 22 months, where he witnessed both the fascism of Benito Mussolini and the Nazism of Adolph Hitler. Some historians state that Perón's "fascist" inclinations can be traced to this period.
Perón returned to Buenos Aires and was assigned to mountain troops in the province of Mendoza. In 1942 he was promoted to the rank of a full colonel. Perón found the Argentine military to be divided and ill at ease. They were split between those who sympathized with the Axis powers, those who favored the Allied powers, and those who wanted to remain neutral during World War II. There were also worries concerning the United States sale of military hardware to Brazil, threatening to tip the balance of power in southern Latin America.
His career took an upswing after the military coup d'etat of June 4, 1943. The coup, which put General Pedro Pablo Ramirez in the presidency, was highly unpopular among the civilian population. As a result, Perón and other younger officers realized that the soldiers had to rally civilian support if they were to remain in power. After some hesitation, they turned to the organized labor movement for such support. Perón became secretary of labor and between 1943 and 1945 built up a wide constituency among the country's urban and rural working classes. He did so by supporting strongly those unions which would cooperate with him and by enacting by decree a large body of labor and social legislation.
It was in the Ramirez administration that Perón met Eva in January of 1944. It was as secretary of labor that she first gained his attention. She soon became his mistress, but Perón did not keep the 24-year-old hidden away. Instead he treated her as if she were his wife. The relationship produced volumes of gossip, but Perón did not seem to mind.
As a result of supporting the unions, the working classes, and his affair with Eva, Perón became very popular. When he was overthrown by rival military men on October 17, 1945, he was not concerned and married Eva four days later. He was returned to power largely by the influence of his labor supporters. Thereafter, he became a presidential candidate in the elections of February 1946, which he won by a 54 percent majority.
Perón remained president for more than nine years. During this time he continued to picture himself as the paladin of the workers and of the country's lower classes in general, while bringing the labor movement under iron government control. During much of the period, he followed a very nationalistic economic policy, nationalizing the railroads and some public utilities. He used the new Industrial Bank, as well as tariff protection, to sponsor industrialization. He also tried to expand Argentine international influence, not only in Latin America and the Western Hemisphere, but also is Europe and the Middle East. His intellectual advisors developed and propagated a supposed philosophy of justicialismo, which he pictured as being something between capitalism and communism.
During his years in power, Perón continually increased pressure on the opposition: seizing or closing its press, gerrymandering districts to reduce its representation in Congress, and persecuting its leaders by placing them in jail or forcing them into exile. In 1954 he sought to reduce the power of the Roman Catholic Church which, until a few years before, had been one of his important supporters.
At the same time, Perón took steps toward setting up a cooperative state. He sought to force virtually all interest groups into government-dominated organizations of workers, entrepreneurs, professionals, and students. In two provinces which adopted new constitutions, citizens were given direct representation in the legislatures.
The death of Eva from cancer in 1952 dealt a crushing blow to Perón. She was accorded cult status. There were even attempts to have her canonized as "Santa Evita."
In September 1955 Perón was overthrown by a military-civilian uprising. He went into exile, first in Paraguay and subsequently Venezuela, Panama, and the Dominican Republic, finally settling in Spain. He still maintained direct contact with his supporters, who represented about 25 percent of the electorate and continued to dominate the labor movement.
The new government tried to make the citizens forget Juan Perón. But giving in to public pressure, Perónists were gradually tolerated and eventually allowed to run for elected office.
In the election of 1973, labor, youth, and those disenchanted with military rule voted for the Perónistticket. That ticket won a victory, but the Perónist president, Hector Cámpora, proved to be a disaster. He resigned later that year, setting the stage for the return to power of Perón.
A new election was held in September of 1973 and Perón won, but he was plagued by age, illness, and fatigue. The country drifted as inflation increased and the economy went out of control. Perón died of a heart attack on July 1, 1974, passing control of the nation to his vice president and third wife, the politically inexperienced Maria Estela ("Isabel") Martinez de Perón. She ruled Argentina another year and a half, but the country was quickly coming apart. She was removed from power by a military coup in July of 1976.
The memory and popularity of the Peróns, (especially Eva), remained long after their deaths. In the presidential election of 1989, a Perónist candidate, Carlos Saul Menem, won. In January of 1997, Eva's life story was told in Evita, a motion picture featuring an international cast portraying the life of Eva and Juan Perón. Evita featured American actress, Madonna as Eva Perón and British actor, Jonathan Pryce as Juan Perón.
A good deal has been written about Perón and his regime. Two general studies are Robert J. Alexander The Perón Era (1951) and George I. Blanksten Perón's Argentina (1953). Also very useful is Arthur P. Whitaker The United States and Argentina (1954). Whitaker's Argentine Upheaval: Perón's Fall and the New Regime (1956) is a good description of the circumstances leading up to and surrounding Perón's overthrow. James Bruce Those Perplexing Argentines (1953), written by a former U.S. ambassador, contains insights into the early years of the Perón regime. A fine study of Perón's relations with labor during and after his period in power is Samuel L. Baily Labor, Nationalism and Politics in Argentina (1967). Joseph R. Barager, ed., Why Perón Came To Power: The Background to Perónism in Argentina (1967), provides interpretive essays by American and Argentine historians and statesmen.
Much has been written posthumously on Perón. Biographical information can be gleaned from Joseph A. Page Perón, A Biography (1983); Frederick C. Turner and José; Enrique Miguens Juan Perón and the Reshaping of Argentina (1983); and Joel Horowitz Argentine Unions: the State and the Rise of Perón, 1930-1945 (1990). A brief biography of Perón appears on-line at the A&E Network Biography site located at www.biography.com.