Friday, August 09, 2019

Learning From History - Juan Perón

We've all heard, in one form or another, George Santana's warning "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

But figuring out what the lessons are isn't easy.  People interpret the past differently.  They take in some factors, but not others.  People applied a lesson of post World War II - how Russia took over various countries and made them part of the communist bloc  - to support the US going to war in Vietnam, which was supposed to stop the fall of SE Asian countries, like dominoes, to the communists.  It was the wrong lesson.

After spending a month in Argentina and learning a little about the history of the country, I decided to get some books on Juan Peron to learn more.  I'm just starting the first one - a series of articles about different aspects of Peron and his government.

But which lessons should one take away?  Chapter 2, "Evita and Peronism" begins
"Few political figures in the history of Argentina have aroused as much violent hatred or passionate love as Eva Perón.  To her followers, she was Evita, a selfless woman who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of workers, destitute women, and needy children .  . .To her enemies, however, she only an ambitious actress, a trollop who rose to the top by using countless men, a hypocrite interested in money, jewels, and luxurious clothes . . ."  
Juan Peron was, in the words of Frederick C. Turner,
"far more than the most important leader of Argentina in the twentieth century.  In many ways, he was a prototypical figure of this century.  His ideals were far grander than his lasting achievements;  he sincerely wanted to improve the welfare of the least privileged members of his society.  Yet, despite distrubitionist policies that made the poor unswervingly loyal to him, his economic initiatives spurred inflation and undercut the economic growth that might have been the surest aid to the lower classes in the long run."
We can argue whether he was a good man or not, or whether he was a good president or not, or whether his policies made Argentina a better country.  But what is clear is that he was a larger than life figure who apparently had the best of intentions, but even his supporters acknowledge that he didn't really succeed in improving the long term outcomes in Argentina.

There are parts that I can relate to immediately because of the trip.  Like this sentence:

"The descamisados (the shirtless ones) would gather in the Plaza de Mayo and Perón, the leader, would address them from a balcony of the Casa Rosada."
We went to the Plaza de Mayo on our second outing in Buenos Aires, when it was raining quite a bit.

Here's the Casa Rosado and the balcony from which he spoke is probably on the picture. The first time was 1945.  There were various factions.  He had been the Minister of Labor, but when one president was replaced he had been arrested.  But not for long (5 days) and the labor unions he had worked for marched to the Plaza de Mayo for his release.  And he got out and addressed them.  It was 17 de Octobre and that's still and important day.  There's even a street with that name.

This is the Pirámide de Mayo in the center of Plaza de Mayo.

It wasn't til almost our last day in Argentina when we went of a tour organized by our original host in Buenos Aires to La Boca, that I learned about descamisados.  We saw the words on this building and she explained it meant "the shirtless" (camisa means shirt) and these were the poor who were Perón's staunchest supporters.

When Turner talks about the bibliography, he mentions that it  omits
"references to one of the ways in which tens of thousands of people are currently obtaining a view of Perón:  through Evita, the malicious, one-sided, anti-Peronist musical that has been playing to packed houses in London and New York.  As theater, it is arresting;  as history, it is false.  The musical cheaply exploits the image of Evita as a harlot and perpetuates such myths as her great participation in bringing Perón to power in 1945.  It alleges the dangerous charisma, the essential opportunism of Perón. Yet, in a perverse manner, even this historical travesty underlines the importance and the continuing attraction of Perón and Evita;  its creators may occasionally touch upon the truth quite by accident rather than through design or understanding. . ."
I'm just starting on my Perón adventure, but it's already a reminder that history has many stories that can help us think about the present.  There's a force that tends to pull me toward comparisons between Perón and Trump.  (Turner looks at similarities and differences between Perón and Hitler and Musolini - only because they were alike as very powerful charismatic leaders of their countries.  There are similarities to Trump
"Without sufficient institutional limitations on his rule, choosing his lieutenants, like his wife, on the basis of their loyalty and submissiveness rather than their brilliance or their academic credentials, Perón did make too many major decisions personally.  Having surrounded himself with admirers, he did not benefit from the critical responses of insiders that might have improved the quality of those decisions and therefore also their public acceptability in the long run."
"Perón's failures were more prosaic than stupidity or cowardice:  unfortunately, like so many of us, he failed to understand economics and relied far too much upon his own judgment. . . Perón understood the warm, human issues of political symbolism and the generation of mass support, not the colder constraints of budgeting and sacrificial strategies for economic growth."

Marysa Navarro's chapter on Evita Perón includes this on personal loyalty to Perón:
"Stating unequivocally her fanaticism toward Perón, she demanded - and obtained - that same commitment from his followers.  In so doing, she was responsible for the creation of a cult of the leader that required absolute loyalty to him, complete trust in him, unconditional allegiance to him and blind obedience to his word."
But also serious differences.  Turner argues that Perón had a heart and cared about human beings.
"Noting that Perón increased the share of national wealth going to the workers from 38 percent in the early 1940s to 46 percent in 1948, Juan Corradi quite rightly points out that the workers' support for Perón came from a rational perception of their interests rather than simply from their admiration of Perón's special gifts of leadership style."

What I've got so far is that there is disagreement about Perón still. This first book was published in 1987, over ten years after Perón's death, but still a long time ago.  So I'm not sure what more recent books say.

I'd note that while General San Martin has squares and streets named after him everywhere we went, I didn't notice the same widespread presence of Perón.  We even had to ask people to find Evita's grave at the Recoleta Cemetery.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this post -- brought back memories of our visit to BBAA (don't you love that abbreviation?. We were at the plaza on the morning of Cristina Kirchner's inauguration as president. Cristina is kind of an Evita character -- loved by the poor and hated by the elites; she succeeded her husband as president when he could not run because of term limits.

    The ceremony was going to be in late afternoon but already the plaza was full of armed soldiers and crowd barriers. They brought in busloads of T-shirted supporters from faraway provinces to fill the plaza and cheer, because apparently there weren't enough local supporters to make a decent impression. I've always wanted to go back to Argentina but haven't made it past that one trip. Glad that you got to spend so much time there.


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