Perón and the People: Democracy and Authoritarianism in Juan Perón's Argentina

By Katherine J. Wolfenden
2013, Vol. 5 No. 02 | pg. 2/2 |

Smith suggests that Perón may have used – and Peronists may have tolerated – authoritarian action because it “provided the quickest and most rational means of satisfying the desires of the lower class,” but I believe this phenomenon can be best explained in light of a different understanding of democracy.33 Especially after the corrupt Concordancia, Argentines knew that formal democracies did not always provide for the people.34 On paper, Argentineans had an incredible array of political rights – universal suffrage, freedom of association and equality before the law – in the 1930s, but these democratic principles were not realized in practice.35 When Perón proclaimed his presidential candidacy in 1946, the secretary general of his political party stated in a speech, “Political democracy is a lie on its own. It is only a reality when it is accompanied by an economic reconstruction of the economy which makes democracy possible on the terrain of practical happenings.”36 Perón rejected the definition of democracy as a set of formal, political rights and institutions, and instead “he extended it to include participation in the social and economic life of the nation.”37 His regime was undemocratic in the sense that he used coercion and repression to achieve his aims, but Perón’s authoritative actions brought concrete benefits to many Argentine people.

Critics are correct in pointing out that Perón’s social services came with strings attached and that his political benefits had limits. When Evita created the The Eva Perón Foundation (abbreviated as the FEP, in Spanish), for example, in the former headquarters of the Beneficent Society that had refused to accept her, she said the space would no longer be used to deliver charity but instead “social aid, the rightful fulfillment of the nation’s obligations toward those underprivileged who appreciated the efforts made on their behalf by Juan and Eva Perón (emphasis added).38 Historians agree that the FEP’s principal aim was “expanding Perón’s social base of support.”39 Any Argentine could ask the FEP for aid, but this exchange would come with political consequences: “those who had to or wished to use these services, sometimes only available through the FEP, were forced to make an implicit political statement of support for the regime.”40 The Foundation gave away food, medicine, money and clothing, and through this aid, “in contradiction with the regime’s rhetoric, it established a personal link between the donor and the beneficiary that turned the benefits and services it provided into gracious gifts rather than social rights.”41

In addition to her Foundation, Evita also oversaw the women’s branch of Perón’s party, the Rama Feminista, and the story of this party and women’s rights in Argentina also shows the motivations behind and limits to Perón’s invocation of democracy. Just as Perón gave industrial workers political benefits and called upon them to become politically involved so that they could bring him to power, Perón wanted women to vote so that they could strengthen his coalition. The nationalist military government under which Perón first served would not give women an education or upper-level jobs in the government, but Perón “recognized the value of winning the support of working class women, so far an untapped political resource.”42 In 1945, Perón petitioned the country’s president for women’s suffrage by presidential decree, a move that angered Argentine feminist leaders. They wanted a constitutional amendment which would be difficult to revoke, instead of a decree that could be easily annulled, and they “saw [this petition] as a cynical attempt to gain women’s support for Perón’s presidential ambitions.”43 It was unsuccessful.

Eventually though, “It was Juan Perón who, motivated basically by the desire to build a loyal constituency of women to protect his political base, made suffrage possible” – ironically, no feminist leaders came to celebrate this victory.44 After a half-century of activism, they felt they had been rejected in favor of a demagogue, and although Perón had delivered what they wanted, they knew it was for the wrong reasons.45 Working class women were won over by Perón – he improved women’s educational and economic opportunities, but “even minor improvements were eagerly appreciated by women frustrated by ineffectual union leadership which never made good its promises.”46

Unfortunately, feminist leaders’ cynicism was not unfounded. Perón did pass women’s suffrage because he “needed to broaden his political base, and the recently enfranchised women were ‘fertile ground’ for the garnering of new votes” – he also hoped that if he brought women over to his side, they could serve as “domestic missionaries,” using their influence as wives and as mothers to convince their male relatives to vote for Perón, too.47 Evita herself insisted that newly-enfranchised women should still submit to men, particularly to President Perón. “‘For a woman to be a Peronist,’ she said, ‘is before anything to be loyal to Perón, subordinate to Perón, and to have blind confidence in Perón.’”48 No matter how successful Evita’s political party became, it always “remained subordinate to Perón’s wishes and its organization was stiflingly hierarchical.”49

Workers’ rights and benefits were also closely contained in accordance with the needs of Perón’s campaign. Between 1946 to 1951, unions grew from a little more than half a million to more than two million members, but these institutions were always subordinate to the state.50 The government organized the unions, oversaw them and often arbitrated between unions and industry management; as president, Perón gave his government the ability to decide if strikes were legal or illegal.51 The close relationship between Perón’s regime and the unions “implied a commitment on the part of the union leadership to the notion of controlling and limiting working-class activity within the limits established by the state and to acting as a political conduit into the working class.” Employers also made concessions; in return for expanded markets and economic stimulus money, they “had to accept a working class with a greatly increased institutional power and sense of its own weight.”52 Both unions and industry management benefitted under Perón’s rule, but he provided for their needs because it was politically expedient to do so. The management and union leadership knew that as they benefitted from Peronism, they would be expected to return the support by delivering votes on election day.53

The same approach he took towards labor was also applied to religion, and a clash between Perón and the Catholic Church was one of the events that led to his fall from power. Perón had supported religious education, not out of principle, but out of political expediency, but then after Evita died, Perón was reported to have an affair with a fourteen year old and the Peronist government amplified its attempts to indoctrinate Argentine youth into the movement – in response, the Church considered forming its own political party to oppose Peronism.54 Enraged, Perón stopped subsidizing Catholic schools and attempted to legalize divorce and prostitution.55 Argentineans were torn between their competing loyalties, and 100,000 chose to march with the Church – some were non-believers who joined the group simply as a protest against Peron’s extremism. Peron’s actions also alienated many officers in the military, who eventually took power from Perón in September of 1955.56

McGuire writes that “of all the factors that formed the background to Perón’s overthrow, perhaps the most important was the government’s failure to leave space for political opposition.”57 Perón gave the people political power so that they could use it to support his rule, but after Evita died, Peronism fell apart. As various groups fought for power and the labor federation refused to take a backseat, Perón was unable to keep his coalition under control, and after he was ousted from office, Perón went into exile.

Perón may have fallen from power, and his party may have fragmented, but his legacy still lives on today. “However cynical and selfish he actually might have been, it was he who gave the urban lower class a feeling of significance and strength,” Smith says. Peronism gave the Argentine working class its “existence and sense of identity as a coherent national force, both socially and politically.”58 Perón brought the powerless into politics simply so they could support his campaign, but the working class, women and unions remained important political actors even after he fled. Although “women have never since had as large a representation in Argentine government as they had under Perón … they had been brought by him into the political system and many of his reforms remain in place.”59 After Perón, various regimes came to power, but regardless of their policies and the benefits they did or did not provide to the people, the mobilized masses have remained active in Argentinean politics and they continue to assert their rights; in fact, Smith says, “That meaningful political participation has so frequently been denied to his supporters since 1955 might partly explain why Perón continues to stand as a symbol of their aspirations even today.”60


Carlson, Marifran. Feminismo!: The Woman's Movement in Argentina from its Beginnings to Eva Perón. Chicago, IL: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1988.

Dawson, Alexander. Latin America Since Independence: A History with Primary Sources. Routledge: New York, 2011.

James, Daniel. Resistance and Integration: Peronism and the Argentine Working Class, 1946-1976. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Karush, Matthew B., and Oscar Chamosa. The New Cultural History of Peronism: Power and Identity in Mid-Twentieth-Century Argentina. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Karush, Matthew B. "Populism, Melodrama, and The Market: The Mass Cultural Origins of Peronism." The New Cultural History of Peronism: Power and Identity in Mid-Twentieth-Century Argentina. By Matthew B. Karush and Oscar Chamosa. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

McGuire, James W. Peronism Without Perón: Unions, Parties, and Democracy in Argentina. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Plotkin, Mariano Ben. Mañana Es San Perón: A Cultural History of Perón's Argentina. Trans. Keith Zahniser. Wilmington, Del: Scholarly Resources, 2003.

Smith, Peter H. “Social Mobilization, Political Participation, and the Rise of Juan Perón.” Political Science Quarterly. Vol. 84, No. 1 (Mar., 1969). 30-49.

1.) Matthew B. Karush and Oscar Chamosa, The New Cultural History of Peronism: Power and Identity in Mid-Twentieth-Century Argentina (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010) 2.

2.) Peter H. Smith, “Social Mobilization, Political Participation, and the Rise of Juan Peron,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Mar., 1969) 34.

3.) Daniel James, Resistance and Integration: Peronism and the Argentine Working Class, 1946-1976 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) 14-16.

4.) James 8.

5.) Alexander Dawson, Latin America Since Independence: A History with Primary Sources (Routledge: New York, 2011) 171.

6.) Dawson 171.

7.) Smith 44.

8.) James 2.

9.) James 2.

10.) Smith 31.

11.) Smith 47.

12.) James W. McGuire, Peronism Without Perón: Unions, Parties, and Democracy in Argentina (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999) 51.

13.) McGuire 52.

14.) Smith 45.

15.) McGuire 55.

16.) Smith 48.

17.) James 24.

18.) McGuire 75-76.

19.) James 22.

20.) Smith 47.

21.) McGuire 51.

22.) James 29.

23.) James 24.

24.) Dawson 172, James 30-33.

25.) James 17.

26.) Matthew B. Karush, “Populism, Melodrama, and The Market: The Mass Cultural Origins of Peronism,” The New Cultural History of Peronism: Power and Identity in Mid-Twentieth-Century Argentina, By Matthew B. Karush and Oscar Chamosa (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010) 21.

27.) James 38.

28.) James 38.

29.) James 38.

30.) Mariano Ben Plotkin, Mañana Es San Perón: A Cultural History of Perón's Argentina, Trans. Keith Zahniser (Wilmington, Del: Scholarly Resources, 2003) 198.

31.) Plotkin 198.

32.) McGuire 72.

33.) Smith 48.

34.) James 15.

35.) James 16.

36.) James 17.

37.) James 16.

38.) Plotkin 193.

39.) Plotkin 163.

40.) Plotkin 157.

41.) Plotkin 193, 163.

42.) Carlson 186.

43.) Carlson 187.

44.) Carlson 196.

45.) Carlson 189.

46.) Carlson 191-192.

47.) Carlson 165.

48.) Carlson 195.

49.) Carlson 191.

50.) James 9-10.

51.) McGuire 59.

52.) James 40.

53.) James 38.

54.) McGuire 73.

55.) McGuire 73.

56.) McGuire 73-75.

57.) McGuire 73.

58.) James 37.

59.) Carlson 196.

60.) Smith 49.

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