The past can reveal disturbing truths regarding the present

By Pedro G. Cavallero (for Safe Democracy)

Pedro G. Cavallero explains how, half a century after his downfall, General Peron, and the political movement he created, remain deeply rooted in Argentinean society. Recent research into Peron‘s inner circle has greatly facilitated the study of Peronism’s misguided understanding of leadership, and its disregard for democratic institutions. In Cavallero‘s opinion, while Peronism remains engrained within every aspect of Argentinean life, the negative aspects of Peronist government continue to influence Argentinean politics under the leadership of Nestor Kirchner. The study of the past can reveal some very disturbing truths regarding the present.

Pedro German Cavallero is a policy analyst based in Washington DC. He holds a master degree in Comparative Law and comments regularly on U.S. foreign policy and inter-American affairs.

WALKING BY THE MANY BOOKSTORES THAT flank Corrientes Avenue, in the heart of downtown Buenos Aires, Peronism still has an unquestionable prominence in every aspect of Argentinean society. The Movement, as it is popularly known, emerges through the colorful covers of a myriad of publications, perplexing analysts, historians, and journalists (both native and foreign) who struggle to reconcile this uneasy ideology that permeates Argentinean life.

Born out of a military coup that seized power in the early 1940s, Peronism soon emerged as a dominant political factor in Argentina. Half a century after being forced out of office, General Juan Domingo Peron (the movement’s founder and Argentina’s three-time President) continues to generate interest within popular and academic circles alike. And the mobilizing ethos and vast socio-political appeal of Peronism remains intact, deeply-rooted in the memories and sensibilities of Argentina’s population.

Peronism provides a unique prism through which to view Argentina’s uncertain democracy. Recently-published books dig deep into Peron’s personal life: his undeniable affinity for Italian Fascism, his clash with the Catholic Church and difficulty with the United States, and, most importantly, his wives; Eva Peron, wife number two, who became one of the countries most divisive historical figures, and Maria Estela (Isabel) Martinez, wife number three, who ruled over the madness of the 1970s.

Ultimately, it was Peron’s showdown with the religious hierarchy of the Catholic Church that accelerated his downfall. However, authors have tended to avoid the unexplored, though fertile, subject of Peron’s inner circle, a task only recently performed by Professor Raanan Rein, an Israeli historian and renowned Peronism expert, through his meticulous Atilio Bramuglia: Bajo La Sombra del Líder, La Segunda Línea de Liderazgo Peronista (Juan Atilio Bramuglia: Under the Leader’s Shadow).

Professor Rein dives into Argentina’s troubled post-WWII waters, rescuing one of Peron’s long forgotten collaborators. In the process, he dissects Peronism’s misguided understanding of leadership, while exposing other key players with access to the General’s inner sanctum, such as Colonel Domingo Mercante, Miguel Miranda, prominent Socialist union leader Angel Borlenghi, and Spanish émigré (and former Falange-member) José Figuerola.

In the early days of the first Peron administration (1946) Juan Atiliio Bramuglia made clear his high political aspirations: to head either the Interior or Labour ministries. Instead, President Peron placed this bright lawyer, with deep roots in the Socialist Party –and excellent connections within union circles– away from the very issues ebbing in the domestic front. Bramuglia would become the head of a then much less relevant Foreign Ministry. Despite his initial disappointment, he managed to build a base at the ministry, becoming a trusted, respected spokesperson for the regime abroad, as concerns doggedly clouded Peron’s image.

Serving as president of the UN Security Council, Bramuglia found himself in the eye of the storm during the crisis in Berlin in 1947, far away from the political battles of Buenos Aires. Entrusted with handling an extremely delicate situation, Bramuglia lowered tensions between the competing Allied powers, in the process, gaining wide recognition within international circles. Back home, the local press deliberately ignored Bramuglia’s performance on the world scene.

According to Rein, Peron resented his minister’s success and status on the international level. Anticipating –and perhaps fearing– the launching by Bramuglia of an independent political career, Peron was quick to undermine him, dropping him from the cabinet in 1949. As a result, the Presidency was left without the counsel of a well seasoned, widely respected, and hard-to-replace official. From that point on, the decisions made within the Peronist regime required complete subservience to General Peron himself.

Some years afterward, Bramuglia struggled to create a centrist political party, the Union Popular, which would serve as Peronism without Peron. But, following his 18-year-long exile, Peron returned and crushed any attempt to take the reigns of the movement away from him.

While untangling the dynamics of Peron’s first two mandates, Professor Rein provides a background that helps clarify Argentina’s uncertain present. Throughout his life, General Peron enjoyed a semi-God status among his fractious, irreconcilable, and at times, warring mass of followers. The movement demanded an unquestionable acceptance of his dirección (a phenomenon known as verticalismo), even when Peron routinely (and drastically) changed course.

Rein’s Bramuglia clearly exposes Peronism’s historic inability to foster genuine debate within its own ranks, as it discouraged the emergence of independent political leadership. Instead, those leaders who routinely surfaced tended to be mere authorized spokespersons for the one, all-powerful leader. Rein also observes Peronism’s problematic understanding of the freedom of the press, a key pillar of the democratic system.

Three decades after his death in 1974, those to succeed him have tended to exercise power with little consideration for institutional restraints and other formal limitations. Indeed, Peronist President Nestor Kirchner has vigorously strengthened verticalismo, silencing party circles and rigorously preventing any challenges from emerging. At times, Kirchner’s attempts to impose silence have reached far beyond his followers to the society at large, thus threatening Argentina’s fragile independent sectors.

As in the 1940s and 1950s, freedom of the press is extremely limited under the Kirchner administration. It is amazing how much one can learn about the present, by studying the past.

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