After a decade of rule, Argentine President Juan Domingo Peron is deposed in a military coup. Peron, a demagogue who came to power in 1946 with the backing of the working classes, became increasingly authoritarian as Argentina’s economy declined in the early 1950s. His greatest political resource was his charismatic wife, Eva “Evita” Peron, but she died in 1952, signaling the collapse of the national coalition that had backed him. Having antagonized the church, students, and others, he was forced into exile by the military in September 1955. He settled in Spain, where he served as leader-in-exile to the “Peronists”–a powerful faction of Argentines who remained loyal to him and his system.
Born into a lower middle class family in 1895, Juan Domingo Peron built a career in the army, eventually rising to the rank of colonel. In 1943, he was a leader of a group of military conspirators that overthrew Argentina’s ineffectual civilian government. Requesting for himself the seemingly minor cabinet post of secretary of labor and social welfare, he began building a political empire based in the labor unions. By 1945, he was also vice president and minister of war in the military regime.
In 1945, Peron oversaw the return of political freedoms in the country, but this led to unrest and mass demonstrations by opposition groups. Peron’s enemies in the navy seized the opportunity and had him arrested on October 9. Labor unions organized strikes and rallies in protest of his imprisonment, and Peron’s beautiful paramour, the radio actress Eva Duarte, was highly effective in enlisting the public to the cause. On October 17, Peron was released, and that night he addressed a crowd of some 300,000 people from the balcony of the presidential palace. He vowed to lead the people to victory in the coming presidential election. Four days later, Peron, a widower, married Eva Duarte, or Evita, as she became affectionately known.
In the subsequent presidential campaign, Peron suppressed the liberal opposition, and his Labor Party won a narrow, but complete, election victory. President Peron removed political opponents from their positions in the government, courts, and schools, nationalized public services, and improved wages and working conditions. Although he restricted constitutional liberties, he won overwhelming support from the masses of poor workers, whom Evita Peron called los descamisados, or the “shirtless ones.” Evita served an important role in the government, unofficially leading the Department of Social Welfare and taking over her husband’s role as caretaker of the working classes. She was called the “First Worker of Argentina” and “Lady of Hope,” and was instrumental in securing passage of a woman suffrage law.
In 1950, Argentina’s postwar export boom tapered off, and inflation and corruption grew. After being reelected in 1951, Peron became more conservative and repressive and seized control of the press to control criticism of his regime. In July 1952, Evita died of cancer, and support for President Peron among the working classes became decidedly less pronounced. His attempt to force the separation of church and state was met with considerable controversy. In June 1955, church leaders excommunicated him, encouraging a clique of military officers to plot his overthrow. On September 19, 1955, the army and navy revolted, and Peron was forced to flee to Paraguay. In 1960, he settled in Spain.
Meanwhile, a string of civilian and military governments failed to resolve Argentina’s economic troubles. The memory of Peron’s regime improved with time, and Peronismo became the most powerful political force in the country. In 1971, the military regime of General Alejandro Lanusse announced his intention to restore constitutional democracy in 1973, and Peron was allowed to visit Argentina in 1972. In March 1973, Peronists won control of the government in national elections, and Peron returned in June amid great public excitement and fighting among Peronist factions.
In October 1973, Peron was elected president in a special election. His wife, Isabel Peron, an Argentine dancer he married in 1961, was elected vice president. She was much resented by millions still devoted to the memory of Evita Peron.
Economic troubles continued in Peron’s second presidency and were made worse by the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that devastated Argentina’s beef industry. When Peron died on July 1, 1974, his wife became president of a nation suffering from inflation, political violence, and labor unrest. In March 1976, she was deposed in an air-force-led coup, and a right-wing military junta took power that brutally ruled Argentina until 1982.