Argentina: A Tentative Case for Democratic Populism

A look back at the factors that led to Peronism—and populism's—resurgence in Argentina. 

January 30, 2020

Casa Rosada (Véronique Debord-Lazaro/Flickr)

The leaders of the right-wing turn were hastily engraving the epitaph of Latin America populism. Then came October 18, when high school students jumped the turnstile of Santiago de Chile’s metro in protest for a 5 percent fare increase. The ensuing brutal repression set in motion one of the largest social protests in Chile’s history, shattering the neoliberal government of Sebastián Piñera. Just nine days later in Argentina, conservative Mauricio Macri lost his bid for reelection to Peronist candidate Alberto Fernández. Macri had promised that his liberalization policies would “put an end to 70 years of Peronism." They actually fostered its remarkable comeback.

The simultaneous events have independent reasons and national dynamics, yet they mirrored each other. Chile evaporated as the example of a democracy without conflict that enchanted the minds of liberals and conservatives. The city upon a hill providing “deep lessons of moderation, cooperation and innovation,” as economist Jeffrey Sachs said in 2010, proved to be an oppressive enclave of antisocial militancy in a region energized by collective action. “Chile matters,” as Sachs claimed—just not the way he thought.

The elections in Argentina, instead, didn’t crush the hopes as much as they confirmed the jeremiads of antipopulist wonks about a country cursed by plebeian politics. The narrative of a country ruined by too much conflict and too many free lunches was always validated by the tale of subordination and efficiency. The last four years of the conservative government stand as what they were: an experimentation with individualism and cruel discipline that left the country at the brink of collapse.

It is not the first time this happened. Each attempt at undoing the rights and policies that extended equality and freedom to the vast majority of Argentine society after World War II has been followed by a renewed allegiance of workers and the poor to the movement that materialized those ideals. The latest revival has little to do with the Peronist party itself or the bureaucracies that turned it into an efficient political machine. Rather, it reflects a vision engrained in social life, which considers that important parts of people’s lives belong to a non-commodifiable realm: health, education, housing, and even basic sustenance. At its core, the Peronist credo is not that different from the beliefs embraced today by democratic socialists in the United States. To understand how we got to this moment, it's useful to take a step back. 

The Roots of Peronism

Colonel Juan Perón was a member of the United Officers’ Group (GOU), a ring of nationalistic and pro-Axis members of the Argentine military who took power in 1943, putting an end to 12 years of a conservative fraudulent regime. Within the regime, Perón took charge of an unassuming, underfunded office: the Department of Labor. In a context of rapid industrialization, Perón enforced existing labor regulations and created new rights. He directed a group of nationalist and Catholic lawyers to design a set of workers benefits and protections at an unprecedented pace, delivering them to unions while co-opting most of their leaders, who for the most part came from the Left. In less than two years, workers conditions improved dramatically, labor activists and union leaders enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the government, and, based on his association with organized labor, Perón amassed enough power to become secretary of war and vice-president.

Seeking to destabilize the alliance between Perón and workers, the government discharged him and sent him to jail in October 1945. On October 14, from prison, he wrote to his girlfriend, Eva Duarte, telling her that he would cut a deal for his freedom if the two of them would retire to the countryside. Yet, three days later, hundreds of thousands of workers came from the suburbs to rally in downtown Buenos Aires, demanding his release. The feared multitude materialized. They looked different. They refreshed their tired feet in French-inspired fountains of the Plaza de Mayo. They waited. The government determination waned. By midnight, Perón addressed the masses from the balcony of the government house, the first speech of many. The letter to Eva with his unfulfilled promise of an early retirement was found only in 1955, when members of the military who deposed Perón ransacked his private bedroom, after a decade in which Peronism reshaped the country.

Perón won the elections in 1946, starting a successful experiment in social reform, comparable to the New Deal in the United States and the social democratic models of postwar Europe (in fact, Perón closed his campaign that year quoting FDR’s second inaugural address). Recently created labor tribunals solved disputes at the shop floor. Women voted for the first time at the national level in 1952. Labor bosses and activists became ministers, congressmen, ambassadors. By 1950, more than 80 percent of workers labored under a system of collective bargaining. Workers’ share of national income rose to 50 percent. Private property was not disputed, but, following Mexico’s example, the new constitution consecrated its social function over individual private profit. The average caloric intake of an Argentine worker was around 3,000 calories, second only to the United States. Massive projects changed the country’s infrastructure. Workers enjoyed maternity leave, paid vacations and free union hotels, healthcare and education. Many of these transformations are still in place in Argentina.

These changes contributed to a growing sense that a large part of social life was not, and should not, be commodified. This belief structured a distinctive populist worldview in Latin America. Massive government intervention in the economy and, for a time, the benefits of a surge in commodity prices, made the experiment viable. But the gravitational core of Peronism was the notion of social rights: the idea that economically disadvantaged groups were entitled to specific benefits and protections as a class, so that its members could achieve through their collective organizations the same influence in society that others had forged individually through their economic power. A cultural revolution that shook social hierarchies, Peronism was above all an attempt to improve workers position while preserving capitalist forms of production.

The Next Phase

These reformist ambitions, and not Perón’s militaristic and anticommunist undertones, caught the attention of leaders and activists of the democratic spring that swept across Latin America in the postwar period. In Cuba, a 21-year old lawyer named Fidel Castro received funds from Peronist labor diplomats to travel in 1948 to Bogotá to protest the 10th Pan American Conference. Castro found common ground with those attempting a fair distribution of the fruits of industrialization beyond liberalism’s meager promises. From Bogotá, he wrote to his father that his relationship with Peronism was so good that he would go to Argentina for six months on a government fellowship. Six days later, Bogotá was engulfed in flames after the killing of populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. For Castro, the limitations of merely reformist projects became immediately apparent. He lost interest in Peronism and embraced direct confrontation as a way to spur social change in Cuba.

Yet, the Latin American pendulum swings lopsidedly, and mild reforms are often followed by forceful counterrevolutions. Regional elites, today as ever, seem to make little distinction between moderate changes and the uprooting of entire economic structures: Both justify violent efforts not only to defeat populist and revolutionary projects, but to eradicate their ideas and sponsors.

By 1955, Peronism had survived three years of economic adversity while preserving most workers gains. Perón’s authoritarian impulse, however, alienated the middle classes and the Left. On June 16, military planes dropped some 13 tons of bombs over Plaza de Mayo during a weekday lunch break, killing over 300 people and injuring 800. Three months later, Perón was overthrown by a military coup . His ouster, long desired by the United States, was celebrated by liberals and the Left in the streets.

Liberal and conservative groups quickly worked to de-Peronize Argentina, in two concurrent ways. First, they thought of simply expunging Peronism from people’s minds by banning it from politics, a similar tactic to de-Nazification policies applied by the Allies in Germany. The other was to dismantle the social legacies of Peronism in Argentine social structure: power of unions, protections for workers and the middle class, and government intervention in the economy. The country set out on a slow but steady path towards a more unequal wealth distribution. Workers’ share of GDP plummeted, and remains between 7 to 19 points below the “50/50” of the late 1940s.

Of course, Peronism didn’t leave the scene as de-Nazification strategists hoped. After 18 years of proscription, Perón returned to Argentina in 1973 and obtained over 60 percent of votes. Voters expected that strong unions would reverse economic concentration and revive a national culture that placed workers at its center. What happened was tragically different: Perón—and his wife, after his death in 1974—tolerated and encouraged right-wing paramilitary death squads that murdered Peronist and non-Peronist guerrilla, leftist, and union activists. The oil crisis of 1974 triggered a recession, throwing fuel onto an already inflamed society, while the United States emboldened elites and the military to violently confront the Left throughout the region. In the end, a military coup deposed Isabel Perón in 1976.

Life After Perón

The ensuing 1976-1983 military dictatorship renewed the dreams of a world without populism. It was a fantasy rooted in functionalist sociology, which considered the masses’ attachment to the leader as a detour from normal political behavior. In a document justifying human rights violations, the dictatorship explained them as a “temporary” method necessary to terminate the “excessive economic influence of unions in political life”, before returning to a purified democracy, which they expected to accomplish within a few decades. Their mission was cut short in 1983 after the defeat in the Falklands War, the regional debt crisis, and, again, a movement of unions and human rights organizations that offered a robust resistance to the twin curse of liberalization and repression.

A meaningful idea of freedom emerged from those years. While the Reagan and Thatcher revolution upheld human rights as the individual exercise of political duties and economic liberty in the Anglo-Saxon world, the struggle against the dictatorship in Argentina reproduced a consensus around a “human and social rights complex.” The experience of state-terrorism and thousands killed, tortured, and disappeared led to an enhanced appreciation of democratic institutions, whose mission was perceived as the realization of an idea of freedom that could only be fulfilled collectively. In 1983, moderate leader Raúl Alfonsín became the first democratic president after the dictatorship. He defeated the Peronist candidate with a truly populist slogan that summed up the new moment: “Con la democracia se come, se cura, y se educa.” (With democracy one eats, one is cured, and one is educated.)

During the almost four decades since, the breakdown of the corporatist welfare state has been a violent endeavor. Massive loss of jobs, securities, and freedoms have been justified with a victim-blaming rhetoric that pointed to the atavistic attachment to stable jobs as the cause of the country’s shortcomings. Even some Peronists adopted the new jargon. Peronist Carlos Menem ushered in the decade of neoliberal reforms in 1989, dismantling rights and regulations enacted by his own party four decades earlier and opening a process of massive privatization of public companies. While Menem was able to co-opt unions, resistance to his government grew up around new forms of social organization, related to the unemployed or the recipients of government benefits.

The Kirchners and Beyond

The 12 years of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, from 2003 to 2015, showed the potential and limits of the new Peronist reincarnation. The Kirchners came from the fringes of the Peronist party—in the early years of their administration, they even considered leaving the party. They represented a common strand of the Pink Tide in Latin America that found it unfeasible to radically change the “reprimarization”—or renewed reliance on agricultural and mining exports—of the economy while the country was enjoying the monetary benefits of neo-extractivism and China’s growing demand.

The Kirchner’s embraced instead a populist belief in collective well-being, now expressed in relation to a fragmented social base that was no longer hegemonized by workers and organized labor. They used the profits of the commodity boom to extend benefits to the unemployed, created universal assistance programs, and nationalized utilities. Unemployment and inequality dropped significantly during their combined three terms. Above all, they had a populist sixth sense for detecting demands from vulnerable groups and transform them into rights and policies from gender equality to an appreciation of the Indigenous legacy in a nation where most people perceive themselves as white. Not a revolution, yet a relief to suffering. As María Esperanza Casullo argues in her book “Why Populism Works?”, populist narratives also help to find paths for “rapid, possible and decisive transformations,” inviting people “to participate in an epic” endeavor.

Macri’s rhetoric since 2015 was a brutal reaction against these modest but reasonable reforms. He was the first and only democratic president to attempt to undo the democratic pact erected in 1983. His administration mostly dismissed the trials against human rights violations committed during the dictatorship, argued that the poor took advantage of social benefits, limited the rights of citizens against the security forces, and sought to limit the benefits of undocumented immigrants.

The rightwing ideologues (identified as bearers of an Obamista form of liberalism) even invented a term to refer to poor people’s politics: choriplanero, a neologism made out of chori—a familiar diminutive of a sausage sandwich choripán—and planero, a term denoting those who receive planes (welfare benefits) from the government. They insisted that the poor who supported Peronism or unions or Indigenous activists—or any forceful change in their situation—were acting out of mindless hunger.

The rhetoric was not about Peronism as a political party. Macri ran for reelection in 2019 with a Peronist running mate, but campaigned on the idea that populism had restrained economic liberty. The young cadres of his administration used buzzwords like “entrepreneurship” and “opportunities”  to replace social benefits and to break the power of organizations more sensible to the pressures of workers and the poor. The end of Macri’s four years of deregulations revealed a fractured social fabric, with relative prosperity for those connected to the tradable sector, from the soy corridor to tourism, and some financial services, all unbounded from the tens of millions condemned to the of the fringes of the economy, labor, and consumption. Some 41 percent of people live below the poverty line, including six out ten children, while inflation runs at 55 percent and unemployment reached 10 percent.

The Resurgence of Peronism

Democratic populism has been a consistent alternative to liberal and right-wing violence against the poor. Analysts around the world overuse the term “populism” for any type of anti-liberal movement, dismissing the vision that these movements put forward in Latin America. But right-wing and liberal policy makers have a clearer understanding of populism as their nemesis. And Argentina is, again, a symbol of that threat. In 2018, when U.S. President Donald Trump asked his Brazilian counterpart, Jair Bolsonaro, how he could help Brazil, Bolsonaro did not hesitate: support Macri “so populism does not come back to Argentina.” On the U.S. Left, few have perceived their common ground with the populist regional tradition. The exception is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who once turned Trump’s “accusation” that she looked like Evita into an opportunity to tweet the speeches and writings of Eva Perón about social justice and collective action against economic power.

The persistent mobilizations in Chile have led analysts to argue that there, too, it is the time of populism, this time in order to save democracy. As the CNN journalist Daniel Matalama recently wrote, in Chile, “the problem is elitism, not populism,” calling for political leaders to embrace a populist program before an outsider does it.

That’s what Alberto Fernández did in Argentina. The new president is a byproduct of the democratic populism that has permeated the country’s political culture since 1983. Today, Fernández is more populist than Peronist. He littered his campaign with statements such as claiming that Bob Dylan shaped his worldview more than Perón. He repeatedly said that his dream is to finish his term in 2023 having fulfilled not Perón’s dreams, nor the Kirchner’s, but Alfonsín’s. It’s the kind of reformist project that today could stop, slow, or even reverse the dystopic social barbarism of the economic liberalization. Fernández has very little margin for error, with an economic, financial, and social crisis looming on the horizon and a region in flames. Then again, Argentine workers were unaware of the populist revolt they were going to lead on October 17, 1945. Argentina’s future, as always, remains uncertain.

Ernesto Semán teaches history at the University of Bergen, Norway. His forthcoming book is a history of anti-populism in Argentina.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.