Monday, August 03, 2015

Ernesto Guevara and la Patria Grande (2 of 4): Che Guevera and Peronism

This is the second of four posts discussing Pacho O’Donnell’s Che: El argentino que quiso cambiar el mundo (Che: The Argentine Who Wanted to Change the World)(2003). All references are to the Sudamericana edition of 2012. All translations from the Spanish are mine unless otherwise indicated.

One Argentine political factor, whose influence on Che O’Donnell’s book emphasizes, is the most important political movement in Argentina during most of his life, Peronism.

During Juan Perón’s first Presidency (1946-1955), the young Ernesto was critical of Perón’s government, influenced in significant part by his mother’s traditional-left perspective. Peronism was and is a complicated movement. Despite the strong pro-labor and social justice emphasis of Juan and Eva Perón, the left parties in Argentina, both the Socialists and the Communists, joined the oligarchy consolidated around the UCR (Unión Cívica Radical) in opposing Perón’s government. And in supporting the self-described Revolución Libertadora that overthrew Perón in 1955. This “revolution” was actually a coup that by any reasonable standards was far more authoritarian and repressive than Perón’s first Presidency.

Juan Perón with “Evita” (Eva Perón) 1950

Ernesto took a position of critical opposition to Perón prior to 1955. But he recognized the fundamentally reactionary nature of the Revolución Libertadora. O’Donnell quotes from a letter of Ernesto’s to his mother just after the coup, in which he writes of the change, “Yo sé que tus amigos erstarán muy contentos, … pero sé también que para el pueblo argentine eso no significa una mejoría.” (“I know you and your friends will be very content, ... but I also know that for the people of Argentina this does not represent an improvement. “) (p.53) He also wrote to her, “La caída de Perón me amargó profundamente, no por él, sino por lo que significa para toda América.” (“The fall of Perón upsets me, not for his sake, but because of what it means for all of [Latin] America.”) (p. 318)

Although his party was outlawed for the better part of the following two decades, Perón remained the dominant figure in Argentine politics and worked incessantly from exile to legalize the Peronist party and return himself to the Presidency of Argentina, which he eventually achieved in 1973, the year before his death.

Often described as Machiavellian, Perón was a revolutionary pragmatist. He was not a Marxist and always expressed a kind of “third way” position between liberal capitalism of the American and European type, on the one hand, and Communism, on the other. And this had certain similarities with the position of the Non-Aligned Movement of developing nations that took shape in the 1950s and 1960s. As well as with the position of China, which also began in the late 1950s to take a position navigating between the US and the Soviet Union which eventually made possible the famous agreement with Nixon and Kissinger.

So it no surprise that Perón the master politician had connections with Guevara, who found himself in a position critical of the Soviet-line Communist Parties in Latin America and advocated a distinct perspective toward organizing revolution in the developing world. One of Perón’s key loyalist leaders, John William Cooke, was very much an admirer of the Cuban Revolution who lived in exile in Castro’s Cuba. O’Donnell writes that it was Cooke who convinced Che (p. 318):

... que ningún proyecto era viable sin el apoyo del general Perón, quien contaba con al idolatría de los sectores populares y de la mayoría de los poderosos dirigentes gremiales de su país, además de ser la indiscutida cabeza del partido political más numeroso.

[... that no project was viable without the support of General Perón, who could count on the idolatry of the popular sectors and on the majority of the powerful union leaders of his country, as well as being the indisputable head of the most numerous political party.]
O’Donnell cites the report of Julio Gallego Soto, another close collaborator of Perón’s, who claims that he saw Che in April 1964, when he was still part of the Cuban government, in Perón’s residence in Madrid. He was there to offer Perón millions of dollars from a Cuban “liberation fund.” Soto denied that he proceeded to administer the funds, but O’Donnell cites other indications that he may have done so. In any case, O’Donnell thinks that Perón’s contact with Guevara influenced his political rhetoric going forward. In any case, Perón both before and after this point considered political violence as a potential tool in his political arsenal. He eventually encouraged the Peronist guerrilla group known as the Monteneros, an alliance that proved both effective in assisting his return to power and deeply problematic for both him and them. O’Donnell also cites the former CIA officer Philip Agee as saying the CIA considered that there was an alliance between Perón and the Cubans.

O’Donnell also cites one of Perón’s secretaries, Enrique Pavón Pereyra, as saying that Guevara in 1966 had requested in person Perón’s support in his guerrilla project in Bolivia. According to Pavón, Perón didn’t support his plan. Not because he opposed the use of guerrilla warfare but because he thought the plan was unrealistic. Including because the dense jungle in the region Che was planning to operate would be particularly hard on his asthma. “Don’t commit suicide,” Perón told Pavón he had advised Guevara. Pavón saw Guevara there on this occasion, but was only present for the first part of his conversation with Gen. Perón. Perón told Pavón after the meeting, “Poor Guevara, they are going to leave him on his own.” Presumably referring to his judgment that Cuba would provide Guevara only limited support in Bolivia. Which turned out to be the case.


Part 1: Che the Argentine
Part 2: Che Guevera and Peronism
Part 3: Arbenz and Guevara’s politicization
Part 4: Two, three, many Vietnams

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