Peronism: The Dictatorial Populism of Argentina
Peronism occupies a curious position in the ideological history of Argentina — it is both celebrated and despised. Many Argentineans still wax nostalgic about the legacy of Juan Peron and his wife Evita for their anti-colonial, pro-populist stance. It is said that the Perons elevated the plight of the working poor of Argentina to national attention and empowered many formerly disenfranchised groups, most notably women. Yet Peron ruled in ways that were domineering, stifled opposition parties, and depleted the treasury. The title of Mariano Plotkin’s chronicle of the Peron regime, Maniana es San Per6n: Propaganda, rituales politicos y educaci6n en el regimen peronista (1946-1955) refers to the self-canonization of Juan Peron as a leader: Saint Peron. Peron styled himself as someone who was beyond reproach, who had no interest in personal power, a man who merely lived to serve the poor and unrepresented. Of course, the reality was far from the truth.
Although his legacy is frowned upon today, it must not be forgotten that Peron, despite his manipulative actions, was an elected candidate — twice — to the presidency. The regime seemed to make the masses drunk on its image, rallying the populace in ritualized displays of support that resembled religious festivals more than political marches. New holidays were introduced such as Labor Day, May 1, to promote the working man of Argentina. On “Loyalty Day,” a historical rally in support of Peron during his early political career was commended. These festivals were just as popular as they were self-serving for the regime.
Peron’s proclamations about his desire to better life for the poor did not ring entirely false. He did, for example, substantially increase access to education for the vast majority of Argentina’s poor. Yet education was used as a tool of state propaganda. School textbooks were rewritten to catalogue the greatness of the Peron regime. History was revised so that every event was shown to lead up to Peron assuming power. Another paradox in the status of Peron as an ardent populist and liberal is manifest in the career of his wife Eva. Eva Peron was a tireless activist in favor of female suffrage, but she defended this on Roman Catholic grounds in a way that would be popular with the people, citing women’s greater spirituality and sensitivity.
Advancing the cause of female suffrage was also an ideal way to defend her own role in politics, side-by-side her husband. Eva created a saintly image for herself as a charitable woman who had risen up from the lower classes herself. Her Eva Peron Foundation engaged in spectacular, public acts of charity and cleverly muted protests about the widespread neglect of the poor in many corners of the nation. It tempered calls for workers to wrest control of their unions away from the regime. Eva also strove to use what she viewed as women’s innate missionary capacity to disseminate Peron’s message throughout Argentina. Women were traditionally the keepers of the religious flame within the home — women were the most ardent church-goers. By mobilizing women in the name of Peron, Eva was able to use women to evangelize the greatness of Peron to their families, and to count upon their turn-out in the streets on prominent festival days. She also took special care to help downtrodden women through her Foundation.
Plotkin suggests that Peron’s rise to power was not merely based on charisma. The Peron regime created institutions that supported its quasi-religious cult of personality. The educational, bureaucratic, and social structures of the land all conspired to keep Peron in power. Textbooks, national holidays, myths disseminated through the media about the rise of Peron’s wife up from poverty, and gift-giving all created a system of interconnected symbols and rituals that made Peronism seem legitimate. Populism itself can be a manufactured entity.
A common question not just in regards to Peron, but about many populist figures that betray their constituencies is how people can be so credulous — are they duped due to their own stupidity and ignorance or manipulated by a clever leader? Plotkin shows how Peron created a system where it was almost impossible to question Peron’s legitimacy and supposed commitment to the people. Peron allowed the people just enough control and pleasures so they trusted his benevolence, although his regime did grow increasingly dictatorial in its later years. And even while Peron’s popularity began to ebb, many of the poorest members of society continued to support him, mindful of the work done by Eva and her Foundation.
Peron to some extent ‘benefited’ from the harsher attitudes of his predecessors, and their less skillful manipulation of institutional and media channels, but his major skill was creating a gigantic social mechanism, a ‘big lie’ that gave him the ability to control every aspect of the nation. Particularly effective were those mechanisms that affected everyday life, such as education and religion. Plotkin demonstrates that propaganda is both institutional in nature as well as symbolic. One cannot ask of propaganda is one or the other — using Peronism as a case study indicates that it requires both elements to be effective.
Although Plotkin’s view of Peronism is largely negative, he is careful to point out that Peronism is not merely fascism in Argentinean clothing. Peronism differed substantially from fascism in several ideological respects, most notably in its populism and its professed concern for the poor. It was widely supported by the urban and rural poor, and instituted many social services to better the lives of these groups. Although Peron wielded a heavy hand in controlling the media and state institutions, moreover, he never entirely dismantled the pluralist system of government, or professed a desire to do so. Peron’s persona as a populist democrat is why he is still beloved in some corners of Argentina today, even though most historians have condemned his legacy.
Plotkin, Mariano. Maniana es San Per6n: Propaganda, rituales politicos y educaci6n en el
regimen peronista (1946-1955). Buenos Aires: Ariel Historia Argentina. 1994.