After forty years, though more historical research is needed on the presidency of Isabel Perón (1974-1976), what we know today leads us to consider that her Peronist government was one of the most violent in the violent history of Argentina. To be sure, political violence was quite extensive prior to the death of her husband, President General Juan Perón. Violence was unleashed before and after 1974 to the left and right of the political spectrum in in those years. But the state violence generated from the Peronist government of Isabel Perón acted as a sort of historical preamble to the “Dirty War” of the military junta that ruled the country after toppling her by early 1976.
Commanded by the most powerful minister of Isabel Perón’s administration, José López Rega, the neo-fascist organization Triple A acted as a paramilitary arm of the Peronist government. Between July and September 1974, Triple A murdered 60 people, producing the gruesome statistic of having killed one person every 19 hours. Flushed with state funds, and with strong links with the security forces and the world of Peronist trade unionism, the Triple A Cold Warriors who openly stated that “the best enemy is the dead enemy” recognized Isabel Perón as their leader. In the history of global fascism, Isabel Perón has the dubious record of being the first female leader of a neo-fascist organization.
This was a peculiar turn because the differences between Peronism and classical fascism had always been important. In fact, Peronism was never a fascist movement but a post-fascist political formation that consolidated after 1945. Its emergence as the first post-war populist regime precisely marked General Juan Perón’s rejection of dictatorship as a model of government. Perón was at that time the leader of a military dictatorship that called for and won Presidential elections. The movement associated with his name emerged as a post-fascist rejection of fascist violence. Instead, Peronism created an electoral democracy between 1946 and 1955 and was characterized by low levels of political violence. In contrast, the military regime that, in the name of “freedom,” overthrew Peronism in 1955 was undoubtedly far more violent and repressive than the classic Peronism of 1946. It is clear from these facts that Peronism was not fascism. It was a form of authoritarian populism that expanded the social participation of citizens at the same time that it curtailed some political freedoms.
How, then, can we explain the belated Peronist engagement with Triple A and its neo-fascist violence? About 900 Argentinian citizens were killed by a Peronist organization supported by the Peronist state. In fact, Juan Perón had always maintained an admiration for fascism, even at the time that he strongly rejected in practice. And from 1943, he had recurrently used fascists and neo-fascists as hands for dirty jobs. When General Perón died in 1975, his wife and then vice-President continued with this Peronist tradition.
The New York Times reported in those years that the “spirit of fascism lives in Isabel Peron’s regime.” But what is the legacy of the government of Isabel Perón? Her relationship with fascism marks a unique moment, a momentary break, where the Peronism that was originally based precisely on a blunt populist rejection of fascist violence seemed to move backward on the path of its emergence as the first democratic populist regime after 1945. In 1974, the Peronist government seemed to undo this populism by forming what today some historians see as a prologue to the state terrorism of the dictatorship. The Populist synthesis of democracy and authoritarianism was lost and only authoritarian violence remained.
There is not much relation between the rule of Isabel Perón and the current Peronism of Argentina. The former implicitly rejects the legacy of the Peronist right of the Presidencies of Juan and Isabel Perón. However, it does so without critically and historically inscribing them in the history of the multiple metamorphoses of Peronist populism.
To mark its rich contradictions we must also remember that even many of the victims of Isabel Perón and her Triple A warriors were Peronists.
The historical analysis of this Peronist experiment with neo-fascism in the 1970s might help us understand the different ways and changing shapes of Peronism, its amazing transformations and contradictory contents throughout the history of modern populism in Argentina. These mutations include Peronism’s encounters with the populist Latin American left, its engagement with neoliberalism and the “Washington consensus” in the 1990s under Peronist President Carlos Menem, and its current “national and popular” phase.
The para-state terrorism that preceded the Dirty War (1976-1983) was one of the many historical developments of Peronism. It was one of its multiple possibilities.