Saturday, November 19, 2016

The opposition to Perón and Peronism in Argentine politics, 1943-1951

Marcia García Sebastiani in her book Los antiperonistas en la Argentina peronista (2005) looks at the formation of the opposition to Juan Perón and Peronism in the years 1943-1951. A consolidation of the opposition to Peronism congealed behind the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR). And that two-party alignment largely prevails in Argentine politics today. Of course, with many changes along the way.

The landmarks of the the period in which this oppositional alignment emerged include the following:
  • 1943: the military coup which made Gen. Pedro Ramírez head of government. From 1941, Col. Juan Perón had led the secret GOU group (Grupo de Oficiales Unidos) of military officers who were responsible for the 1943 coup.
  • 1945: October 17 and Perón's dramatic release from detention as the result of dramatic and massive popular demand
  • February 1946: a few days before the national elections, the US releases its Blue Book against Perón as part of a scarcely concealed US regime-change effort spearheaded by Spruille Braden, US Ambassador to Argentina and later a member of the National Council of the early John Birch Society, the longtime mother ship of far-right conspiracy theories. (Braden Discloses He Quit Birch Post New York Times 03/19/2016)

  • The US interference in Argentine politics had been so blatant that Perón made his central campaign theme "Perón o Braden" ("Perón or Braden"). After his election victory, Perón told a Brazilian paper, "I'm grateful to Braden for the votes he has given me... If I win two thirds of the electorate, a third would be due to the propaganda Braden made against me."
  • The national elections of February 1946 were marred by violence and some dubious actions by the military government that interfered with the campaign activities of the opposition. But it was a free and competitive election and far cleaner than any since before the coup of September 1930, which had removed the elected President Hipólito Yrigoyen (UCR) and installed José Félix Uriburu as head of a provisional government.
  • 1947: Women's suffrage approved by Congress. The UCR had long advocated it but opposed the law that actually enacted it when it was up for a vote in Congress.
  • 1948: The police claim in September they have uncovered a plot to assassinate Perón
  • 1949 - Constitution of 1949 approved, replacing that of 1853. The new Constitution allows Perón to run for re-election and reduces some of the features of Congress that the UCR had used to impede Peronist legislation
  • 1951-As the parties prepare for a new Presidential election for 1952, Gen. Benjamin Menéndez leads a new coup attempt, which fails. Filipe Pigna writes that the intent of Menéndez in the coup was that he "wanted to disarm the Peronist state completely and take away from the worker all their social conquests, returning them to the regime of semi-slavery that rules before 1943." (Los mitos de la historia argentina 4. La Argentina peronista (1943-1955); translations from Pigna here are mine)
1951 ends the period on which Sebastiani's book concentrates.

In 1955, Gen. Eduardo Lonardi mounted a successful coup attempt in September that styled itself the Revolución Libertadora. Perón fled the country to asylum in Paraguay. In March 1956, the military government banned the Peronist Party and all explicitly Peronist political activity. The coup and the new military government and the ban on Peronism was supported by the UCR and the Socialists. Perón himself was unable to return to Argentina and stand for election again until 1973, when he was elected by a 62% majority.

Sebastiani provides a table (p. 90) showing the vote percentages of the various parties in the elections of 1946, 1948 (non-Presidential) and 1952. For the UCR and the Peronists, it shows the following.

1946: Peronista 50%, UCR 28%
1948: Peronista 61%, UCR 27%
1952: Peronista 62%, UCR 32%

The broad opposition front formed by the opposition leading up to the 1946 elections, bringing together the Radicals (UCR), the Socialists, the Communists, conservatives (Partido Demócrata Nacional/PDN) and center-right (Partido Demócrata Progresista/PDP), was called the Unión Democrática. They constructed their political identity are the rhetoric of democracy and political liberalism. They opposition under the military regime characterized the government as "fascist" and "Nazi." That characterization was encouraged by the United Nations powers in the Second World War because Argentina remained neutral in the Second World War until 1945, when the outcome of the war was all but certain. And when Perón had become Vice President and Minister of War.

There is an ongoing discussion on whether Perón's government should be classified as "fascist." I won't try to recapitulate it here. But I find that case unsustainable. Whatever authoritarian aspects his governments may have had, his goal from 1945 to his death in 1974 as President for a second time, his goal was to democratize the Argentine government. I would argue that the question of authoritarianism is more relevant to his brief 1973-4 government than to that of 1945-55. It was under his government that Argentine women won the vote. His policies strengthened the labor unions, mobilized a large number of people into an active involvement in politics and pursued economic policies that greatly increased the well-being of millions.

During the 1946-51 period, Peronist government and political movement took measures that restricted the opposition's freedom in various ways. It restricted the publication of opposition newspapers by limiting the amount of paper deliver to them for the publications and shutting some of the down or taking over publication. A few opposition leaders wer expelled from Congress. Ricardo Balbín, a key UCR leader, was jailed in 1950 for a five-year term. But the Perón government pardoned and released him in 1951 and he became the UCR's Presidential candidate that year. Pigna notes dryly of the expulsions and Balbín's imprisonment, "The governmental response to the Radicals' chicanery wasn't exactly democratic." (Los mitos de la historia argentina 4. La Argentina peronista (1943-1955))

Still, this was neither a dictatorship nor were the elections shams. Comparing the votes above in the Presidential and congressional elections of 1946, 1948 and 1952 don't give any obvious indication that the opposition was being suppressed. And, in fact, despite the restrictions mentioned, those elections were competitive and both sides were able to make their positions to the public. For better or worse, Perón understood his movement as revolutionary. And always would. But it was a revolutionary movement that was more committed to democratic processes than the governments of 1930-1943 had been.

The opposition was also willing to support the self-described Revolución Libertadora in 1955,aka, Lonardi's military coup. During Perón's elected governments, there was nothing approaching the complete ban of the Peronist party and even the use of Peronist slogans like the Revolución Libertadora initiated in 1956. Even tango dancing was discouraged because the new rulers identified it with the common people who supported Perón. As the election results above show, Peronism was a kind of politics with which a majority identified. So from 1955-1973, Argentina suffered a chronic crisis of governance because the party and movement speaking for the majority was suppressed. And no government in Argentine history was so brutal a dictatorship as the military government that was in power 1973-83.

Pigna mentions the following senior oppsotion politicians who had not only guilty knowledge and at least passively collaborated in the coup attempt of 1951 led by Menéndez: Arturo Frondizi (UCR), Américo Ghioldi (Socialists), Reynaldo Pastor (conservatives) and Horacio Thedy (center-right). Basically the entire opposition spectrum, in other words, except the Communist Party, which would join in with the opposition in supporting the 1955 coup.

Perón had very legitimate reason to fear violent, anti-democracy conspiracies against him. That is not a justification for bad acts. It's a description of a central political fact of that period. Sebastiani provides a useful account of the development of the anti-Peronist opposition and the ideological narratives they shaped for themselves. But that process and those ideologies are difficult to evaluate meaningfully if not understood in the context of the interests at work and the actors supporting them.

The narrative of Perón as a Nazi obscured much more than it clarified. Framing your opponent as Hitler can result in drastic threat.inflation. Or, rather, it almost always is threat inflation. (Which is why it's such a bad thing in US foreign policy that we try to make every adversary from Ho Chi Minh to Muammar Qaddafi the New Hitler.) Ironically, the cover features of photograph of a rally for the Unión Demócratica umbrella opposition group. I say it's ironic because it's from August 12, 1946 in the Plaza del Congreso in Buenos Aires. It features a sign saying "Contra el nazismo" (Against the Nazis).

That was three days after the bombing of Nagasaki. so the Second World War was still officially going on and Argentina was formally a belligerent on the United Nations' side. Germany had surrendered in May, so if the reference was meant to be a patriotic wartime one, the reference was already a bit anachronistic. It was actually directed at the military government, in which Perón as Vice President was the most popular leader at that point. But it was before the President, Gen. Edelmiro Farrell, ousted Perón and imprisoned him in early October. Popular pressure forced Perón's release and he returned in triumph to address the throng on October 17 in the famous Plaza de Mayo from the balcony of the Presidential palace, the Casa Rosada. October 17 is still celebrated today by the Peronist Partido Justicialista (PJ) as a major historical turning point they observe every year.

So under the military dictatorship, with no democratic elections scheduled, the umbrella opposition group Unión Demócratica was holding a rally in the federal capital in front of a major governmental building. In the actual Nazi regime of the Hitler government, such demonstrations in front of the Reichstag in Berlin were, it's safe to say, extremely rare. As in, non-existent after the imposition the Enabling Law in 1933 that established the dictatorship.

But the central opposition narrative was that they were standing for democracy against Perón's "Nazi-fascist" rule, even during his democratically elected governments. That same narrative continued to be used, including to justify the military coup of 1955. The UCR continued to describe their victory via military coup as having overthrown "Nazis."

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