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20th century
     Radicals and reactionaries
     Perón and the Peronistas....
     Videla and Galtieri
     Falklands War
     The Menem years

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Radicals and reactionaries: 1916-1946

Irigoyen's success in 1916 brings his party fourteen years in office. It is a period which sets the confrontational pattern of Argentina's political life during the rest of the 20th century.

The Radical party wins wide popular support by representing the interests of the new urban and industrial classes in Argentina's first period of democracy. To a large extent the party fails to deliver its promised reforms, but the very existence of the promises greatly alarms Argentina's traditional ruling class - whose fears are strongly shared in military circles.


Whereas military coups have often occurred elsewhere in Latin America, they have not been part of the Argentinian tradition. Indeed no change of government has been achieved by force of arms since Mitre's winning of power in 1861. But the Radical period comes to an end in 1930 as a result of a coup. Thereafter, for six decades, the tension between populist demands and the military is a constant thread in the fabric of Argentinian life.

The crash of 1929, and the subsequent slump in the export of Argentinian beef and wheat, gives the army its first opportunity. Irigoyen is removed in 1930, half way through his second term as president.


The coup of 1930 introduces sixteen years in which the military either rule directly or use force to control the result of elections. Most of the military leaders incline to fascism, admiring the various European dictators of the time for achieving stablility by totalitarian means. Argentina is the last Latin American country to declare war on Germany in World War II, doing so only in 1945 (at the last possible moment to secure a seat in the new United Nations).

For the last two years of the war the republic is ruled by a new military junta calling itself the GOU (Grupo de Oficiales Unidos, Group of United Officers). The GOU seizes power in 1943.


Since 1930 the pattern of Argentinian politics has been the military attempting to hold in check the populist demands made on behalf of the poorer classes. But now one member of the GOU, Juan Perón, dramatically squares the circle to his own political advantage.

Perón has spent a year (1938-9) on secondment to the Italian army. He has observed at first hand the methods and the appeal of Mussolini, and he has learnt some lessons. After the coup of 1943 he takes the post of secretary of labour and social welfare, a relatively insignificant position but one which suits perfectly his own purposes.


Perón cultivates the support of the masses by intervening on their behalf in strikes, by building personal alliances with union leaders, and by pressing for improvements in wages and holidays, working conditions, health and pensions. He rapidly becomes the hero of the descamisados (the 'shirtless'). His political star rises accordingly. By 1945 his roles within the junta include vice-president and minister of war.

It takes no political genius to recognize in all this Perón's personal ambitions. These ambitions alarm a group of senior officers. They mount a coup in October 1945 and imprison the ambitious Colonel Perón. But they have left their move too late.


Perón and the Peronistas: 1945-1976

After a week Perón is released from prison. The reason is a mass demonstration of workers on 17 October 1945 on the streets of Buenos Aires. This alarming display of popular support is orchestrated by Eva Duarte, an actress known to her public as Evita. A few days after Perón's release, he and Eva marry. They prove a formidable double act.

Perón stands in the 1946 election and narrowly wins it after a campaign in which the electorate is terrorized by groups of his supporting descamisados. Over the following years Perón uses such gangs of thugs, much as Mussolini used his Black Shirts, to secure his hold on the nation.


Perón's policies, unlike those of conventional military juntas, are left-wing. He nationalizes the banks and the railways, spends state money to speed up industrialization, and puts social welfare high among his priorities. The agency distributing benefits to the poor is administered by Eva. This public largesse gives her in the public's mind the status of an angel of mercy (after her death from cancer in 1952, at the age of thirty-free, there are numerous calls for the pope to canonize her).

Perón has been re-elected president in 1951, but without Eva at his side he begins to lose his populist touch. In particular, in 1954, he makes the fundamental error of launching a campaign against the Roman Catholic church.


Measures to secularize the nation's institutions are accompanied by descamisado attacks on church property and even on priests. In June 1955 Pius XII excommunicates all government officials who take action against the church.

These events greatly distress a devout population. Combined with increasing repression and a collapsing economy, they provide a natural setting for another military coup. In September 1955 units of the armed forces begin a 'liberating' campaign in the provinces. The navy and the airforce jointly threaten to attack Buenos Aires if Perón stays. The dictator recognizes the reality of the situation. He slips away to exile, first in Paraguay and then in Spain.


Perón has gone but not the Peronistas. He and Eva, with the promise of a more just society (in the social welfare programme which they call justicialismo) have been the first to mobilize the political passions of a vocal but previously unrepresented class, particularly in the cities. Perón and Evita become rallying cries for the left-wing opposition to each successive military or military-approved government after 1955.

Terrorism forms part of this opposition until, in 1973, the military decide to risk a different approach. Elections are held in that year and the Peronistas are allowed to participate. Perón himself is even allowed back from Spain for a brief visit.


The result is that the Peronista candidate, Héctor Cámpora, wins the presidential election. A month later Perón returns on a more permanent basis. Cámpora is forced to resign. In new elections in September 1973 Perón is once again elected president. His second wife, Isabel, is returned on the same ticket as his vice-president.

The policies of the old man, now seventy-seven, have veered in his exile from the left to the right of the political spectrum (from either viewpoint his disregard for civil liberties remains undiminished). But he has only nine months in office before he dies of a heart attack. His widow Isabel succeeds him in the presidency.


Videla and Galtieri: 1976-1982

Isabel Perón remains in power for two years, presiding over a decrepit economy with inflation running at an annual rate of 600%. The outcome, in 1976, is another military coup.

The events of 1976 bring to power General Jorge Videla and the most oppressive regime in Argentina's history. In the purges known as the 'disappearances' thousands of left-wing opponents are murdered (some of them by being thrown alive from aircraft into the sea). But it is incompetence rather than brutality which finally topples the junta. By the end of 1981 the leader is another general, Leopoldo Galtieri. He embarks in 1982 on an adventure which he hopes will add lustre to the regime's tarnished image.


The Falklands War: 1982

On 2 April 1982 a force of 5000 Argentinian troops lands in the Falklands, claiming sovereign rights over them as the Islas Malvinas. The defending British garrison of eighty-one marines is easily overwhelmed. General Galtieri pays a triumphal visit to Port Stanley, the islands' capital.

In Britain the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, immediately mobilizes a fleet to recover the islands. An exclusion zone of 200 miles is declared around the region, with the warning that any ship or aircraft found within this zone will be assumed to be hostile. By the end of April the first units of the British task force reach the scene.


On May 3 the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano is torpedoed and sinks with heavy casualties (368 dead). This becomes the most controversial event of the war, because of allegations that the ship was outside the exclusion zone and was heading away from it. The following day the British destroyer HMS Sheffield is hit by an Exocet missile, with the loss of twenty men.

The first British landing is on East Falkland, where a bridgehead is established by May 21. Within the following week Port Darwin and the nearby Goose Green airstrip are captured. On June 14 it is announced that British troops are in Port Stanley and the Argentinians have surrendered.


The casualties in the war number 655 Argentinian dead and 255 British (the majority of the British deaths occur on the landing ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram, bombed while unloading supplies near the Fitzroy settlement).

In Britain the victory does wonders for the political fortunes of Margaret Thatcher (somewhat in the doldrums before these events). In Argentina the war has considerably more dramatic results. The military regime, already unpopular, is totally discredited by the embarrassing defeat - a self-inflicted one in the sense that the junta initiated the action. Galtieri resigns three days after the surrender, but this is only the beginning of the Falklands repercussions in Argentina.


The military junta retains a temporary hold on power. In October 1983 elections are held, but only after a decree in August granting the police and the military immunity from prosecution for their actions since 1976.

The presidential election is won by a civilian lawyer, Raúl Alfonsín, standing for the Radical Civic Union. He sets aside the junta's self-awarded amnesty. Over the next three years several members of the junta and hundreds of their henchmen are tried. Videla is sentenced in 1985 to life imprisonment for human rights abuses (he is released in 1989). Galtieri is acquitted in that trial but is convicted in 1986 of incompetence during the Falklands campaign.


The Menem years: from1989

Economic troubles soon disenchant the public with President Alfonsín. In the 1989 election the Peronista candidate, Carlos Menem, wins the presidential election by a wide margin. (The Peronistas have been known as the (Frente Justicialista), or Justicialist Party, since their first return to power in the 1970s.)

Although elected on a Peronista platform, Menem's programme to recover Argentina's economy involves unscrambling much of Perón's legacy. State enterprises are privatized in a move towards a free market economy. The support of the army is won by such measures as releasing the convicted generals (including Videla and Galtieri).


These measures are to some extent successful (inflation falls but unemployment rises). And the pattern of military intervention seems to be broken in December 1990. An attempted coup is foiled within twenty-four hours when a majority of the senior commanders remain loyal to the elected government.

Since the constitution of 1853 Argentinian presidents have served a term of six years, after which they are inelegible for immediate re-election. In 1994 Menem negotiates a revision of this law. In return for relinquishing some elements of presidential power, a revised constitution allows presidents to serve two consecutive terms of four years.


Menem has already served a first term of six years, but he is allowed to stand as a candidate in the 1995 election. He wins handsomely. 1995 also brings an agreement with Britain over the potential exploitation of oil around the Falkland Islands.

Public dislike of Menem's free-market policies and of high unemployment leads to a general strike in August 1997. In the mid-term elections two months later the Justicialist party loses its overall majority in the Chamber of Deputies but remains the largest single party. In the election of 1999, when Menem is ineligible to stand again, the Peronist candidate loses to Fernando de la Rua, formerly mayor of Buenos Aires.


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