The catastrophic failure of Peronist populism was sealed at last by November’s presidential elections and the victory of conservative free-marketeer Mauricio Macri. In the Vatican, however, one can only wonder if the brilliantined dictator’s direct and indirect influence lives on
History is a fair-minded goddess. The Soviet Union got nowhere in the seventy years it applied for, and which the goddess granted, to change the world. In compensation, a leader is now at the helm of the Russian government able to restore a sense of national pride and achievement which augurs well for the future and, all things considered, is vastly preferable compared to what the Soviets had to offer. German Nationalism and Socialism put the hand up, got the nod, but ran out of puff in less than the thousand years they had asked for. To make amends history showered the ruined country with more than a sufficiency of economic prosperity.
Argentine populism staked its claim in 1946, was given the call, and for the following sixty-nine years, in and out of government, with or without its founding leader or any of his wives, retained a pre-eminent political position mostly influenced by the Justicialista ideology bequeathed by Juan Perón and principally responsible for bringing the country to its knees. The catastrophic failure of Peronist populism was sealed in November’s presidential elections with the victory of the conservative advocate of free-market economics, Mauricio Macri, whose victory preceded by only a few days the equally decisive triumph of the opposition in the Venezuelan parliamentary elections. Taken together, these two events mark a definitive turning point in the political climate of Latin America, away from the clownish antics of Chávez and the corrupting populism of the Peronists towards a restoration of economic sanity and civic virtue.
Macri brings to his high office valuable experience gained during a successful career in business followed by three impressive terms as the elected mayor of Buenos Aires, which ranks as the principal political office outside the national presidency. It is also quite probable that the consolation that history has up her sleeve for Argentina’s melancholy populist twilight is the appointment of an Argentinian Jesuit to the Holy See, as many of Pope Francis’ public pronouncements are alarmingly consistent with what his Peronist compatriots have been uttering during the past seven decades and it is therefore apposite for his arrival in the Vatican to become immortalised as Perón’s last hurrah.
Neither a revolutionary nor a reformer, perhaps unknowingly, Perón pursued policies rooted in the stubborn centralist tradition that Latin America inherited from the formative imperial centuries of Spain. His intuitive inspiration was only partially and rhetorically indebted to Mussolini, Lenin and Garibaldi, owing its essential character to monarchs such as Charles V and Philip II who truly believed that the injustices perpetrated during their watch which they could, or should, have prevented, would weigh on their consciences for eternity and consequently the proper functioning of their Christian polity rested on their divinely ordained minutely interventionist and centralist governments.
Latin American politics and economics during the past century and a half seldom moved away from a creative embrace of this robust monarchical centralism with the statist prescriptions proffered by every emerging modern reformist or revolutionary movement, but such attempts to construct a modern structure starting from a tabula rasa merely piled up more barren bureaucratic centralism on top of the now almost derelict mansion inherited from the Spanish imperial moment.
What Philip II endeavoured to deliver, several centuries before the Industrial Revolution, was “an abundance of law”, justly rewarding obedience and piety while punishing or dissuading Moors, Protestants, heretics generally and sceptical troublemakers in particular. Perón responded to this majestic intimation with his Justicialismo, rejecting both capitalism and socialism in favour of an abundance of unambiguously populist and interventionist laws designed to achieve national greatness founded on autarchic economic and military power and the amelioration of the plight of what he described as underprivileged classes clamouring to be incorporated into his new and progressive society. At the heart of this Justicialismo was the conviction that the financial penury, deprivation, discrimination, personal woes or social postponement of any individual, family or group of workers was not the consequence of infirmity, misfortune, stupidity, alcoholism or plain indolence, but evidence of the injustice of a system in urgent need of reform.
To achieve this end Perón made full and undisguised use of the formidable machinery of statist patronage, unwittingly strengthening the centralist tradition that was ultimately responsible for the difficulties afflicting his country. The process started early, when he served as Minister for Labour and Vice-President in the military regime of General Farrell. With some judicious appointments and swift contractual reconsiderations, Perón earned the undying gratitude of the pre-existent and powerful trade union movement that reciprocated by presenting him with a landslide victory in the 1946 presidential elections.
At first, fate was also helpful to the populist cause by enhancing the government’s instrumental patronage muscle with a sterling balance of about 1.7 billion pounds (about US$86.7 billion in today’s currency) accumulated during the war years when exports of Argentine foods and raw materials continued but imports ceased almost completely.
Keenly aware of the need to be surrounded by contented armed forces, Perón swiftly purchased fifteen Avro Lancasters, thirty Lincoln heavy bombers and one hundred Gloster Meteors, all at enormous cost, in a decision that greatly pleased his uniformed colleagues and encouraged them to defend his regime against all manner of folk. More troubling and also very expensive was Perón’s embarking on a project to achieve nuclear fusion and an internationally recognised voice as an atomic power under the leadership of an unusual Austrian scientist, Ronald Richter, who convinced him that he could produce unlimited power to drive the wheels of industry with a device of his invention. This project came to nothing, but on its way to oblivion it managed to spend about $300 million and revive some particularly inane nationalistic aspirations to produce atomic weapons that had the expected favourable reception in military quarters and produced colourful posters with the slogan, Argentina Potencia Mundial, “Argentina World Power”.
Feeling adequately protected by a satisfied military establishment, Perón pushed forward with his autarchic economic policy by nationalising foreign-owned enterprises of consequence and erecting an almost impenetrable tariff barrier behind which import-substitution industries could prosper, heavily and gratefully dependent on state assistance. The President’s enmity towards the landed interest was reflected in the flash of steel that shone from under the silken glove when he established the notorious Instituto Argentino de Promocion del Intercambio to control the country’s exports, in Argentina’s case, overwhelmingly pastoral and agricultural, which the new entity was empowered to purchase at relatively low domestic prices and sell in the international market, earning the difference for the government. With more than a sufficiency of funds available, Perón then provided generously paid vacations for workers, free education, free medical care, six months paid leave for pregnant women, subsidised housing for the elderly and infirm and other popular, attractive and increasingly expensive benefits.
The massive spending spree was spiced here and there with well-aimed salutes to pacify the potentially reluctant participants in his Justicialista crusade. Two days after Perón assumed power, diplomatic relations were established with the Soviet Union, neatly spiking the guns of communists and other opponents on the Left. Because at the time the main opposition to the government came from an enthusiastically anti-clerical Radical Party that wanted to abolish religious education in schools and legalise divorce and prostitution, the traditionally inclined Catholic clergy, mostly of Spanish origin and decidedly pro-Franco in the Spanish Civil War, was more than pleased to give its important support to the nationalist and populist Justicialistas.
It took nine years of politically inspired profligate spending to empty the government coffers. By 1955 the government was out of money and apparently out of support. The Peronist economic absurdities were exacting a predictably heavy price with both agriculture and industry in steep decline and no prospects of a credible recovery. The Catholic establishment was now in opposition and the army, troubled by what seemed to be an imminent and irreversible institutional collapse, took over the reins of government once again. Perón narrowly escaped arrest and fled into a prolonged exile. Peronism in all its forms was outlawed and a campaign of de-Peronisation sought to purge Peronists from the positions they had secured through the presidential patronage machine.
What few realised at the time was that the Peronist populist moment had generated an informal new social and political clientele—a constituency?—that included not merely the trade unions and a multitude of recipients of welfare benefits, but also the protected industries and, most important, all manner of small ventures either directly related to patronage or principally dependent on state support for their survival. What Peronism accomplished was to substitute well-funded and sympathetic government intervention for individual effort; nothing could prosper away from the beneficial sun of Justicialismo and everything was possible for those who basked in its light; Argentina became an emphatically risk-averse society because initiatives and investments encouraged by the government could not fail, while those undertaken without central support and control could not succeed.
In such circumstances expediency makes mandatory the enlistment of the classical lubricants of bribery and corruption to ensure satisfactory results. If proof were needed that this was the case throughout the decades of the Peronist hegemony, the outcome a week ago of the trial of the former Peronist President Carlos Menem (four and a half years in prison), Raul Granillo, his Minister of Justice (three years in prison), and Domingo Cavallo, Minister for the Economy (four years in prison) provides a sobering reminder of what was presumably an unintended consequence of Peronist populism.
Far from vanishing, this informal Peronist constituency survived several military interventions and by retaining the allegiance of the trade unions and a sizeable proportion of the electorate has been responsible for the electoral result of practically every presidential election since 1955, often by virtue of unusually creative electoral pacts, as was the case with the election of Arturo Frondizi, the leader of the Radical opposition in 1958. Overwhelming evidence of this resilience is that the Peronist Partido Justicialista has governed the country continuously since 2001, under Presidents Adolfo Rodriguez (2001), Eduardo Duhalde (2002–2003), Néstor Kirchner (2003–2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007–2015).
At least as pervasive and influential has been the infiltration of Peronist nationalistic and autarchic tenets, slogans and ideas into the Argentine political mainstream, leading to the astonishing support extended to conflictive military ventures and the continuing popular acceptance of otherwise flawed nationalistic and autarchic economic policies. These trends coincided with the emergence of a Catholic Theology of Liberation movement some of whose intellectual leaders, especially among the Jesuits, firmly believed in the inevitability of the eventual universal triumph of Marxism-Leninism and sought to find ways in which to make those ideas as compatible as possible with the fundamental Christian tenets. Opposed to what they regarded as exploitative capitalist economic development and the resulting evil of materialism exemplified by rampant consumerism, they found themselves in unexpected agreement with similar considerations advanced by the Peronists. Given the very special circumstances of the moment, the possibility cannot be ruled out that such ideas may have reached the Holy Father during his apostolate in Argentina and this may be why they remain present in his recent public pronouncements.
Sixty-nine years of Peronist populism produced a surfeit of military coups, a catastrophic and humiliating series of financial disasters, a couple of melancholy military ventures, a sustained decline of the national economy, a disheartening deterioration of social harmony and of the very high previous cultural accomplishments of the country, a substantial lowering of the living standards of the population at large and an unprecedented loss of authority in the international community.
Given all these antecedents, it is not difficult to understand why Mauricio Macri’s victory is timely and auspicious because, as is the case in most free elections in the southern cone of South America, electoral results hide an intriguing folkloric dimension that finds expression in the oft repeated phrase, “I don’t want to waste my vote”. This does not mean that regardless of pressures or inducements the vote will be cast as conscience dictates, but that there is a strong disinclination to vote for a candidate unlikely to win. Invariably, victorious elections tend subsequently to attract votes and there is absolutely no doubt that in future local or national contests Macri’s proportion of the vote will strengthen his mandate by increasing significantly. More, Macri comes to the presidency at a time when much of Latin America is emerging bruised and penurious from various lamentable attempts to leave in the hands of statist bureaucracies the principal creative responsibility of bringing about the economic development required if widely distributed prosperity and an orderly social ambit are to be achieved.
Macri has the electoral legitimacy, the experience, and the intellectual and moral authority to lead Argentina precisely in the opposite direction to the one lamentably followed not only by the hapless Peronists, but also by the Castro dynasty in Cuba, Ortega in Nicaragua, Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, Bachelet in Chile and Rouseff in Brazil. This means that in a continent orphaned of credible guidance it is more than probable that with Macri at the helm, Argentina will become an exemplary model by conducting the affairs of the nation in a manner worthy of imitation, consistent with common sense, the freedom of the individual, the rule of law, the duties attendant to life in a civilised society and the legitimacy of hard work conducive to prosperity and social harmony.
Claudio Véliz was born in Chile and now lives in Victoria. Several of his books address the economic and political history of Latin America.