Unlike most of the military caste, Juan Domingo Perón (1895–1974) came from relatively humble origins in the Buenos Aires Province town of Lobos, about 100 kilometers southwest of the capital. During his youth, Argentina was prosperous, but certain sectors—most notably the oligarquía terrateniente (landed elite)—were far more prosperous than others. Many Argentines attributed the maldistribution of wealth to foreign “liberal” sectors, especially the British, who used Argentina as a source of raw commodities but discouraged the industrialization that would bring a broader-based prosperity.
Opportunistically or not, Perón shared this outlook. In the course of his military travels, he got to know most of Argentina (as well as Fascist Italy) first-hand, but his career was undistinguished until 1944, when he turned a moribund labor department into a power base as the Secretaría de Trabajo y Bienestar Social (Secretariat for Labor and Social Welfare). Ideologically, he appealed to labor bosses and their clientele (whom he co-opted with extravagant benefits), leftist intellectuals (who distrusted foreign capital), and conservative nationalists (who distrusted foreigners, period).
Thanks partly to his wife Eva, whose charismatic populism exceeded even his own, the demagogic Perón managed to convince both left- and right-wing extremists that he was their champion—even as they trained their rifle sights on each other. After the loss of his post and a brief imprisonment, he won the presidency in 1946 and 1952, and used his power to raise wages and pensions, improve working conditions, and guarantee job security. While Perón and his allies threatened their critics, “Evita” Perón capriciously dispensed favors to their supporters through her own private foundation until her death from cancer in 1952.
Meanwhile, Perón’s administration expanded the bureaucracy and splurged on pharaonic works projects, heavy and heavily subsidized industry, and unsustainable social spending that squandered post-World War II surpluses. By 1955, amidst growing social disorder and economy disarray, General Pedro Aramburu’s so-called Revolución Libertadora (really a coup) commenced three disastrous decades of dictatorships, punctuated by brief periods of civilian rule.
With Perón in Spanish exile and his “Justicialist” party banned, the downward spiral continued. By the early 1970s, several guerrilla groups (inspired by Fidel Castro’s Argentine ally Ernesto “Che” Guevara) had begun operations in the northwestern sierras, the pro-Peronist left-wing Montoneros had become an urban guerrilla movement, and bank robberies, political kidnappings, and assassinations were almost everyday events. From Madrid the aging Perón, with help from right-wing spiritualist José López Rega (known as El Brujo, “The Witch”), cynically manipulated leftist sympathizers (whom he later called “callow and stupid”) in Argentina.
After winning the presidency in 1973, Perón’s stand-in Hector Cámpora permitted the caudillo’s return on the chaotic night of June 20, when hundreds may have died in clashes between right-wing Peronists and leftist Montoneros on the Ezeiza airport road. Perón won the presidency again in September of that year, but he lived less than a year. His successor was his hapless “running mate” María Estela “Isabelita” Martínez de Perón, an exotic dancer whom he had met and married (after Evita’s death) while in exile. Meanwhile, López Rega’s sinister Alianza Anticomunista Argentina (AAA, Argentine Anticommunist Alliance) battled the Montoneros and other “subversive” organizations and individuals.