The National Catholic Review
Ernest W. Sweeney

The central issues of Argentina’s national life revolve around political power, charismatic leadership, economic development and effective democracy. These four elements have determined the course of events in Argentina’s struggle for social justice and economic stability since the beginning of the 20th century. Juan Perón was the principal figure at the center of his country’s turbulent history from his spectacular rise to power in World War II until his death in 1974. He set the course and character of Argentine politics from the overthrow of the conservative ascendancy in the coup he led in 1943 down to Eduardo Duhalde’s Peronist Party regime installed by Congress in January 2002.

Contradictory myths and representations of the Perón years came to divide and preoccupy Argentines in their political loyalties and economic policies. His legacy of personalizing government and its institutions resulted in a mentality of dependence and unquestioning obedience on the part of the laboring masses. In return for their unconditional loyalty to Juan Perón and his wife Eva, they received benefits in the form of jobs and salaries as well as other substantive rewards in health, education and welfare. Evita’s mission was to provide a loving heart and large-scale welfare through handouts in food, clothing, toys and other items of daily use for the poor and dispossessed. A master of the politics of passion, she deepened the affective ties of the masses to Perón’s personalist, paternalistic regime. All this had the powerful psychological impact of effectively bonding the working classes to their glamorous and charismatic leaders in the presidential palace on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. Juan Perón was unquestionably highly intelligent, politically astute and full of noble sentiments, charm and good intentions. At the same time, he was deceitful, opportunistic, amoral, compulsively ambitious and Machiavellian to the core. He took praise for all that went well and blamed his enemies for all that went wrong. Eva’s death from cancer in 1952 at age 33 transformed her into Santa Evita, never to be forgotten as the loving protector of the poor and of her descamisados, the shirtless workers.

Perón brought enduring, fundamental changes that were overdue and needed in modern Argentina. He championed the redistribution of wealth and power across all sectors of society and the incorporation of the masses into the nation as citizens equal before the law. He promoted labor unions with rights and privileges to protect them against abuses and exploitation by factory owners, landed oligarchs and capitalists of every kind. He founded the Peronist Party to broaden and control the vote and to assure his hold on political power. He was not a revolutionary but a charismatic social reformer, a truly great leader in many ways. There was, however, a very dark side to Perón. A military man from youth, he would brook no opposition to his will. He and Evita split the nation irreconcilably into Peronists and anti-Peronists, with each side hating and incorrigibly demonizing the other. A spirit of compromise, collaboration and reconciliation with opponents was seen, if not as a betrayal of the Justicialist cause, at least as weakness, lack of will and an invitation to failure. Perón was a caudillo through and through, the strong man on horseback whom one crosses only at grave riskthe archetype of Latin American leadership.

Perón delivered on his promises of prosperity, for a time. He paid his bills in large part from the reserves and war profits accumulated by the conservative oligarchy he had driven from power. In the long run, however, the money ran out, and the Argentine fiesta of the 1940’s proved to be a grand illusion. Still, that illusion would live on in the hearts of the working people despite the swing of Perón from populist democrat to authoritarian demagogue, who bankrupted the country, unnecessarily clashed with the clergy and the military and brought the nation to the brink of civil war. The long slide into ruin began in 1949 with a new constitution concentrating power even more in Perón. There followed a precipitous rush to get money by state control of agriculture, commerce, industries, services and utilities. Frenzied economic nationalism squandered savings and resources on a colossal scale.

The day of reckoning was long postponed, but inevitably it arrived, in 1955, when finally Perón was overthrown by the army and driven into exile. Astonishingly, he would return in 1973, ailing, almost 80 years of age, to be re-elected by a landslide, only to die the next year of heart failure, leaving his third wife, Isabel, a cabaret dancer with a sixth grade education, to rule the nation. She and her scandalously incompetent advisers soon led it into economic and political chaos. The people, always looking for a savior, a redeemer, turned to the military for deliverance once more, and once more the armed forces pulled off a coup. They assumed dictatorial powers to wipe out Marxist-inspired guerrilla movements and restore order. They did that, but at a terrible price. They plunged the nation into a dirty war with the torture, slaughter and disappearance of thousands of their own people. The mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, wearing white handkerchiefs as their symbol of solidarity and protest, paraded week after week in front of the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, demanding disclosure about the fate of their children counted among the desaparecidos. The military, as in all past coups, sank more and more into the quagmire of failure and frustration. Then in April 1982, hoping to bolster their eroding popular support with what they thought would be an easy victory, they launched a disastrous war with England over the Malvinas (Falkland Islands) in the South Atlantic. Defeated, disgraced, dispirited and despised, the generals turned over power to civilians in 1983, and Raúl Alfonsín, a Radical (really centrist) won the presidential election over the Peronist (also called Justicialist, for social justice) Party.

Inflation, a chronic problem since Perón’s first presidency, overwhelmed Alfonsín in 1989, and months before his term was up he caved in politically and turned power over to the president-elect, Carlos Menem, a Peronist. This charismatic, flamboyant and extremely energetic politician of Arab blood proved decisive, confident and brilliantly manipulative, just what the nation seemed to need and clearly wanted at the time. He was the political and spiritual heir of Juan Perón. He professed Perón’s social justice ideology and paid lip service to the demands of the working masses and the labor unions. In practice, however, he abandoned all of that in favor of a free market, capitalist model presided over by Domingo Cavallo, his spectacularly successful finance minister, who almost overnight halted inflation, stabilized the economy and ushered in 10 years of relative peace and prosperity.

It looked like an Argentine miracle worked by the Harvard-trained finance minister. It proved to be more manipulation than miracle, because it came at the price of selling off national industries, services and resources, including airlines, telephones, railroads, subways, roads and much moreeven control of the petroleum industry, once emblematic of national sovereignty. Pegging the peso to a fixed one-to-one parity with the U.S. dollar stabilized the currency but eventually undermined export trade by artificially shoring up the peso, which lost real value in a slow but steady inflationary cycle. Eventually Argentina’s beef, grains and industrial goods simply cost too much to attract foreign buyers. Industries fled to Brazil, where labor was cheaper and prices more competitive on the international markets. Menem meanwhile, despite his vaulting ambition to perpetuate himself in power, failed in an attempt to get yet another constitutional amendment passed that would have allowed his election to a third term. Ironically, he was lucky enough to finish his second term just before the economy went bust.

Fernando de la Rúa, a Radical, won out over the Peronist Eduardo Duhalde in the presidential race of 1999. He was an honest, hard working, intelligent fellow, but he was completely without charisma, was indecisive and suffered from heart disease. He was to be the poor dolt who had to pay for the misdeeds, corruption and fraud rampant in the Menem years. (The sitting president is always blamed for the problems that explode on his watch, however innocent he personally may be.) When Carlitos Menem was placed under house arrest by the judiciary on charges of corruption, de la Rúa ended up in the hospital for heart surgery. Menem eventually went free, thanks to political pressure by the Peronists, and de la Rúa lost control of the economy and political power. In a land filled with rich pampas and mineral wealth, a 20-percent unemployment rate in a total population of 37 million people provoked implacable protest and growing violence. Rioters took to the streets and looters to the supermarkets. The country soon became ungovernable, and de la Rúa not unexpectedly resigned on December 21. In less than two weeks Argentina had five presidents. The peso collapsed, the $141 billion national debt went into default, the country was excluded from the world financial system, and millions of Argentines faced economic ruin. Menem now, like Perón before him, waits in the wings to return to power, banking on his hope that the people will soon remember only the good times of his early years in power, when Argentina looked like Tangolandia on holiday.

Many serious analysts of national life, like the highly respected and enormously popular writer Marcos Aguinis, believe the basic problem of the country is not the economy but the culture and values of the people. Traditionally, public office is widely perceived not as a responsibility of service but as an opportunity for personal gain and enrichment. Politics in Argentina is like musical chairs. The party leaders hop from one position to another, like Duhalde himself, who had been vice president under Menem, ran for the presidency in 1999, was twice governor of Buenos Aires Province and now has been named president by the congressional majority Peronist Party. The term ñoquis is applied to the legions of state bureaucrats who show up at their sinecure jobs only at the end of each month to collect their unearned salaries. Justice, say many, is bought at least as often as it is impartially administered.

Blaming others for problems of one’s own making is a general practice raised almost to an art form in the Southern Cone. Yet there are those who assume their fair share of blame without groveling in it. Aguinis and many others blast as utter nonsense the once celebrated dependency theory, which blames Argentina’s economic plight on foreign bankers who supposedly exploit the nation and force loans on it to get rid of excess capital at usurious interest rates. The blame, they say, rests on Argentina because of its irresponsible borrowing, lavish spending by the upper class and appalling corruption, which siphons off vast sums of public funds into private pockets. What is needed, they insist, is not only fiscal solutions and industrial, agricultural and commercial development but also a cultural renaissance of merit, meaning and purpose. They are calling for moral reform on a national scale, a focus on values, a resurrection of long-neglected attitudes and practices of personal integrity, civic pride, hard work and social solidarity expressed in respect for oneself and fellow citizens. Those values once made Argentina great, the envy of the world and a utopia that opened its arms to generations of immigrants who flooded in with the firm hope of a better tomorrow. To millions of Argentines, long since made cynical by bankrupt ideologies, betrayals of trust and the almost universal impunity of corrupt politicians and their associates in crime in that land of broken dreams, such calls to renewal sound like pipe dreams, vain aspirations spun out of empty rhetoric. Still, the Aguinis-minded hold on to their indomitable conviction that Argentina is worth betting on. They are not alone in their belief that, given a chance, a way to a bright future can be found if first Argentina can find itself.

As early as April 2001, during a visit of the Argentine president, Pope John Paul II made clear his concern for the people of Argentina in the coming economic crisis. He reiterated this concern in his prayer on Dec. 20, 2001, that all, with magnanimity and generosity, will find in these moments of difficulty ways of reconciliation and mutual understanding in order to build a future of peace and prosperity.

The Argentine bishops, led by the president of their episcopal conference, Archbishop Estanislao Karlic of Parana, early in January called for a national dialogue on the country’s economic crisis. Their offer was welcomed by the government, and the church has moved forward to organize this national unity dialogue. Optimism is in short supply in a country that has lost its way. One bishop who said that the church would monitor the credibility of the participants and offer views about solutions, also said he doubted that the church’s voice would be heard, even though about 89 percent of Argentina’s 36 million people profess Catholicism.

Ernest W. Sweeney, S.J., is a professor of Latin American history at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Calif., and a former academic vice president of the Universidad Católica de Salta in Argentina.