Argentina’s past: Peronism, revolution and counter-revolution

In late October, the body of Santiago Maldonado was found floating in the Chubut River in Argentina. This followed the activist’s forced disappearance in August during his involvement in a movement defending the land rights of the Mapuche indigenous people. In a country where enforced disappearances were once commonplace, Maldonado's death was both a remnant of Argentina’s counter-revolutionary past, and also exposed the corruption, rot and unresolved contradictions that remain at the core of the regime.

Once again, the Argentine state has demonstrated that capitalism knows no limits when the interests of the ruling class are at stake. Understanding the current sociopolitical context in Argentina and the events surrounding the forced disappearance requires a more comprehensive look at the role of capitalism in Argentina’s past; Peronism; the dictatorship of 1976 and its so-called ‘dirty war.’

The body of activist Santiago Maldonado was found in the Chubut River in Argentina Image MonoRenalThe body of activist Santiago Maldonado was found in the Chubut River in Argentina / Image: MonoRenal

Peronism and the “Third Way”

The economic and social origins of the rise of Argentina’s 1976 military dictatorship lie in the history of Peronism and the unresolved class conflict of that period. Thirty years before the ascent of the last military regime, Argentina was under the rule of Juan Domingo Perón—the military general who introduced the “era of Argentine Social Politics.” The so-called ‘third way’ policies of Peronism appeared, on the surface, to synthesize the interests of capital and labour by balancing class antagonisms.

In reality, however, it was a bourgeois bonapartist regime, which was able to prolong its life thanks to the favorable economic conditions created by the post-war boom. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, Perón leaned on the industrial capitalists and the working class simultaneously, juggling the left and the right by conceding to demands on both sides: he increased wages and implemented better working conditions, while taking no action to expropriate the landed oligarchy or nationalize the land; he organized five million workers into trade unions while protecting private enterprises; he instituted social security and reduced the work day to eight hours while collaborating with imperialist forces and foreign investors.

Perón was a Bonapartist who leaned on the working class and the Bourgeoisie Image AGNPerón was a Bonapartist who leaned on the working class and the bourgeoisie / Image: AGN

The Bonapartist leader was able to manoeuvre his way through the inherent contradictions of ‘third way’ politics specifically because Argentina held a favorable position in the world market at that time. Due to its vast expanse of fertile land and the international demand for meat and crops following WWII, the Argentine state profited from the high prices of its export commodities through a monopoly on grain and meat. With this income, it was able to grant social reforms to the working class.

In these conditions, and with the advanced degeneration of the Stalinist-controlled communist parties on a world scale, Perón monopolised all space on the left through these concessions. The effects of this were most discernible once the leader was ousted in a military coup in 1955 and Argentina’s economic situation declined severely. After a period of economic turbulence in the ‘60s (in which cultivation fell by 27 percent and agricultural output per rural inhabitant declined by 40 percent), the conditions of the Argentine masses worsened significantly. With wheat exports at less than 15 percent of world exports, hundreds-of-thousands fled the countryside for the cities where they lived in shanty towns stricken by poverty and hunger.

Isabel Perón Image Sin datosIsabel Perón / Image: Sin datos

By the early ‘70s, inflation had risen to 80 percent and the cost of living was at an all-time high. In a country with strong left-wing traditions, a radicalized new generation of Perónists was pushing the country towards revolt due to deteriorating living conditions. In October of 1972, a series of strikes were organized by the Perónist trade union federation and huge numbers came out for a revolutionary program. In light of the strikes, barricade fighting, and local insurrections erupting from below, the generals came under pressure to hold open elections. It was believed that only Perón could shield the ruling class from this wave of revolutionary fervour.

Without a strong working class party in place to organize and lead the revolutionary masses, the movement was channelled onto the electoral front, where the bulk of working class and the youth found a focal point in Perón. In the absence of a revolutionary alternative, they voted for the Perónist slate in the hope that it would restore previous conditions.

Naturally, the Perónist Justicialist Liberation Front did little to relieve their problems. After winning the election by mopping up left and right-wing votes alike, it put forward a so-called “national and Christian people’s socialism.” This was a demagogic attempt at portraying Conservatism and Socialism as twin tendencies: an attempt to portray the interests of the ruling class and those of the working masses as reconcilable.

But as always with this type of ‘third way’ or ‘national unity’, it was merely a cover to help preserve the status quo by way of state regulation, provision of subsidies, and an authoritarian system of social welfare.

Flag of Montoneros Image FaleristicoFlag of Montoneros / Image: Faleristico

In Argentina, the regulation of capital, credit, and technology inhibited the capitalist class to a certain degree, while at the same time guaranteeing the protection of this class’ privileges by purchasing social peace. At the same time, by calling for property and private initiative guarantees that "fulfilled a social function," the programme could encourage the exercise of entrepreneurship without shaking the basic capitalist social framework. In effect, this was a right-wing programme covered in left-wing phraseology.

With the aspirations of the working class still not satisfied, frustration set in, in particular amongst the vanguard of the movement. The far-left, Perónist, Montoneros and other guerrilla groups that had emerged out of frustration at the lack of real change multiplied their efforts. Angry at the impotence and betrayal of the Argentine left and the Perónist trade union leaders, they took matters into their own hands through sporadic acts of armed violence. Their actions, however, were isolated from the masses and only added to the general disarray, once again pointing to the need for an organized party to offer the workers a revolutionary alternative and mobilize the masses towards their own emancipation.

The rise of the far-right

Peronism, precisely because it based itself on capitalism, could not solve the economic crisis of the ‘70s, ease inflation, or provide economic growth. At the same time, Perón could no longer appease the workers with social welfare schemes by exploiting a set of particularly favourable economic conditions. As history has demonstrated time and time again through the experience of countries like Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, social reforms and welfare gains are ultimately unsustainable without a full socialist system in place.

As Ted Grant explains, “the middle course between socialism and capitalism never existed and never will exist. Either a government reflects the interests of the workers in which case it must expropriate the capitalists, or it must reflect the interests of the capitalists and attack those of the workers” (The Argentine Revolution, Ted Grant, July 13, 1973). As soon as favourable economic conditions end, the ‘socialist’ veneer is removed and the real underlying existing contradictions of reformism are exposed.

In Argentina, these political contradictions created an unstable political situation marked by social polarisation and a rejection of the establishment. Right-wing Perónists were terrified of the growing influence of the Montoneros and resented having to share power with the left wing of the Perónist movement – which included guerilla groups, academics, the youth, and other newcomers to Peronism.

In June of 1973, there was the infamous Ezeiza massacre (near Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires). The police estimated three and a half million people had gathered to welcome Peron back after a long period of exile. However, from the platform, hidden snipers, organised by the right wing of Peronism, started firing on the mass of people. The left-wing Peronist Youth and the Montoneros were the targets of the snipers. Trapped and unable to defend themselves, 13 were killed, and a further 365 were wounded. According to the Clarín newspaper, many more may have been killed, but no official investigation was ever carried out to confirm this.

Perón sided with the right; almost immediately, his administration expelled all Montonero office holders from government and placated the industrialists and the military. The country was now divided between those who spoke of a socialist nation and those who spoke of a Perónist nation. The movement was breaking down along class lines. Such events, and the fact that there were no real improvements after Peron returned, explain why the far-left radicalised and increasingly looked to guerilla tactics as a road towards socialism.

Jose Lopez Rega right Image Liepaja1941Jose Lopez Rega (right) / Image: Liepaja1941

When Juan Perón died in 1974, the country was grappling with an economic, social and political crisis. It was clear that his successor, Isabel Martínez de Perón, did not have the authority or agility to perform her husband’s tightrope-walking act. Instead, Isabel Perón’s increasingly open pro-capitalist stance only accelerated the process of class differentiation. It was not long before the Montoneros declared war on the government. In return, the minister of social welfare, Jose Lopez Rega, funded the Triple A (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance) death squads. Terror spread throughout the entire country in the form of bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations. While the splits and conflicts deepened within the Perónist movement, the Argentine left—fragmented and misdirected—could not fill the vacuum on the left after Juan Perón’s death. Thus, reaction began to gain the upper hand.

Crushed by fear, unemployment, inflation, and repressive measures, the petit-bourgeois masses swung behind the right wing in search of stability and respite from the pressures of the crisis. Meanwhile, the landowners and capitalists were looking for an end to strikes, protests, disruptions, sudden wage hikes and regulation. Fighting to regain competitiveness on the world market, they demanded order inside and outside the factories and estates. They wanted an end to the guerilla warfare, to establish order, and to quell the workers in order to defend their profits. In the military, they found the most effective force to carry out a counterrevolution. The revolutionary ferment had made bourgeois democracy an unusable tool and now the ruling class was looking to claw back influence and control over society – the Junta’s dictatorship would prove a better tool than unpredictable, democratic, bourgeois elections.

Thus, when Isabel Perón took over, the military saw an opportunity to prepare for power, forming a tight-knit relationship with the government in the interest of ‘public security.’ Having swiftly occupied the vacuum of power, with Isabel Perón, as its puppet, the Junta began cracking down on both trade unions and guerrilla movements. The military’s objective was to restore public order, combat inflation, and eradicate all forms of communist subversion, all done in the name of ‘Christian values’.

By 1976, with inflation at 600 percent, the petit-bourgeois layers were crying for a saviour to bring order to Argentina: the conditions were ripe for a military coup. On 24 March, the military came to power under Jorge Rafael Videla and brought an end to Peronism’s constitutional reign. Immediately, the generals launched a draconian scheme they called El Proceso de Reorganización Nacional to fight for ‘civilization’ and rid the population of all elements considered incompatible with the Junta’s interests; that is to say, the interests of the Argentine bourgeois and their imperialist backers.

What followed was a seven-year military police dictatorship characterized by intense nationalism, xenophobia and fervid, bigoted Catholicism. As many as 30,000 individuals were disappeared or killed, and 100,000 to 150,000 were kidnapped and tortured. Disappearances were the means of sowing panic and terror throughout the entire population, as there was nothing more terrifying than the idea that the state could make people vanish into nothingness. Seeing the strength of the revolutionary wave in the country and across the continent, the Junta, supported by US imperialism and the ruling classes of Latin America, was determined to break the revolutionary masses and wipe out the idea of revolution itself. Fabricating a utopia, free from class conflict and political dissent, required ridding society of any elements that contradicted the will of the ruling circles.

For the Argentinean bourgeoisie this was a chance to concentrate capital even more and break with the state capitalism of the Perón era. The economy was opened up to international investment, privatization was put on the agenda, and the welfare state, as well as economic regulation, was dismantled. Wealth rapidly concentrated in the hands of a small elite, while working and living conditions deteriorated for the vast majority of the population. The decline in living standards and the decline of conditions in workplaces dealt a hard blow to the unions and to the working class in general. Feeling that the revolutionary path was closed off, the working class retreated and the workers increasingly looked for individual solutions to their problems. The confidence of the class in its own collective power declined along with the culture of solidarity and popular movements. In its place, the individualism and liberalism promoted by the new regime temporarily gained the upper hand.

The ‘Dirty War’

When the military junta set out to destroy what had essentially been a protective state capitalist economy, the dictatorship’s immediate effects were to aggravate social inequality and undo the public programs that had raised the living standards of some of Argentina’s poorer families. As always, economic freedom for the wealthy and privation for the majority were two sides of the same coin. This coin would have provoked an extraordinary backlash without a system in place for eliminating resistance.

The first objective of the regime was thus to annihilate the organised labour movement. the Junta understood that in order to pursue its maximum agenda, it needed to wipe out all opposition. As the military junta turned Argentina into a capitalist utopia, it fabricated a threat to justify the repression being used to rob millions of citizens of a dignified life. The threat became the growing left and “its subversion against the state”. The real enemy was Marxism and the idea of a socialist Argentina, which could only be contained through the barrel of a gun.

Jorge Rafael Videla and the military junta Image public domainJorge Rafael Videla and the military junta / Image: public domain

As such, the ‘Dirty War’ was more dirty and less war. In fact, it was a one-sided war of annihilation of the left. the Junta presented the left-wing guerrillas as a towering threat to national security. In actual fact there were only two main groups that were coordinated enough to pull off attacks: 1) the Montoneros—far-left Perónists, and; 2) Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP)—former ‘Trotskyists’ who had moved in a Maoist direction.

The ERP had been set up as the armed wing of the PRT, (Revolutionary Workers’ Party): a group that adhered to the Mandelite international organisation, but which was also heavily influenced by Maoism and the Cuban revolution, believing that the guerrilla tactic was the way to achieve a socialist Argentina. In reality, given the conditions of Argentina, this translated in practice into urban guerrilla warfare: individual terrorism, with assassinations and kidnappings of government officials, foreign company executives, army officers and so on.

Considering that membership for both groups totaled less than 2,000 individuals by 1975, there was no real threat to state security. However, the mistaken methods of individual terrorism played right into the hands of the military junta, who used the attacks as an excuse to clamp down heavily on the whole of the left and the organised labour movement in general.

In any case, by the time the Junta came to power, only 400 of these guerrillas had access to arms, and the Montoneros were wiped out within the first six months of the dictatorship. Declassified U.S. State Department documents show that, in October of 1976, Argentine foreign minister Guzzetti declared, “the terrorist organizations have been dismantled.” Yet the killings and disappearances stretched on for seven years in a cruelly calculated plan to cripple those who refused to accept the injustices of capitalist society.

This confirms that the war against the guerrillas was an excuse for something else. State violence had little to do with the insurgency, as the majority of people killed were not terrorists or guerrillas, but individuals identified as posing an obstacle to the counterrevolution. Anyone who represented the idea of a society that puts people over profit could be considered subversive. Once the ‘terrorists’ had been wiped out, the military turned on students, professors, journalists, trade unionists, artists, singers, painters, writers or anyone who opposed in any way the new regime. the Junta proceeded to physically annihilate Argentina’s left.

Capitalism in practice

The ‘Dirty War’ was aimed at destroying Argentina’s strong left-wing and revolutionary traditions. This is why it did not stop with the mere elimination of the guerillas. Videla declared: "as many people will die in Argentina as necessary to restore order.” The real obstacle to the new order was collectivism within the public sphere. Thus, the ‘war’ set out to dismantle all forms of mass organisation and any sense of solidarity. It banned public spectacles, political meetings, strikes, theatres, carnivals, and non-military gatherings in squares or plazas. Independent media sources were shut down and education came under strict state control. The military established a 10-year prison sentence for any media propagating stories or images that intended to discredit the armed forces. Books by Marx, Lenin, Engels, Sartre, Neruda and even Freud were prohibited and burned. While the Junta publicly denied using mass violence for economic ends, the thorough ideological cleansing was the clearest indicator of an economic project that extended well into every home and affected every individual. A ‘dirty’ leftist culture was thus exterminated by the action of ‘soap and water,’ and replaced by the purified, sterilized culture of capitalism.

A main driver of this so-called ‘new culture’ was Jose Martínez de Hoz—the Harvard-trained economist in charge of fiscal policy. He took care of concentrating capital into conglomerates and deregulating the entire Argentine economy. In addition, he opened the Argentine economy to a flood of importations, removing the old import controls. Enormously reducing Argentina’s state regulation generated what economic historian Andre Gunder Frank calls “a runaway inflation whose consequences and intended effects are to shift income and wealth from labour to capital and from smaller to bigger capital.”

Jose Martínez de Hoz Public domainJose Martínez de Hoz / Image: public domain

Within his first year of service, De Hoz sold off hundreds of state companies, allowed employers to fire workers freely, and banned all forms of strikes and occupations. In came the Kawasaki motorcycles, the coloured televisions, and Honda automobiles. Out went price controls, small businesses, public housing, and public expenditure. Naturally, the targets of these policies were the workers and the poorest sectors of society that witnessed the spread of unemployment, soaring food prices, and their welfare state being dismantled by capitalism.

the Junta produced widespread misery. As the economic reforms transformed Buenos Aires into a shantytown of 10 million people, the human impact of capitalist deregulation was unmistakable. Within a year of military rule, poverty had spiraled, factories had closed, neighborhoods were left without water, disease and malnutrition ran rampant, and wages lost 40 percent of their value.

Before the Junta took power, Argentina had a lower poverty rate (4.7 percent) than France or the U.S. By 1983, the poverty rate was 19.1 percent. The cost of living climbed 140 percent in 1977 alone, which created a new pauperised layer of individuals whose income was insufficient to purchase basic needs. The economic policies further aggravated the situation through rising unemployment, malnutrition, typhoid outbreaks, and deaths caused in general by the breakdown of the old welfare state. In practice, people were not only being killed directly in the ‘Dirty War’, but also on a daily basis through the declining living conditions, a kind of murder which is often less visible and direct. In Argentina, the link between the capitalist economic practices and death was undeniable. The question is why these practices were carried out and at whose behest.

US and corporate involvement: making the planet safe for capital

The economic system to which the Junta pledged allegiance penetrated Argentina through the United States’ determination to uphold its hegemony in the Western hemisphere and secure an environment for profitability. The economic counter-reforms in Argentina, sustained by this latter objective, were thus a godsend for local landowners and the (inter)national financial elite. The fortunes of multinational corporations changed dramatically when they were unhindered by regulations and free to pay lower wages or flood the market with imports. Many firms expressed their gratitude by actively participating in the terror campaign: Ford Motor Company supplied the military with the vehicles that came to be known as ‘the death-mobiles’ and allowed torture centers to be set up inside its factories. Along with Acindar, Astarsa, Chrysler, Dalmine Siderca, Fiat Concord, Mercedes Benz and Ledesma, Ford played a big role in ‘turning a blind eye’ when shop-floor delegates were disappeared, thus clearing the assembly line of trade unionists.

For these reasons, to the U.S., the Junta was both a buffer against communist expansion and a guinea pig named ‘free-markets in the third world.’ Most of the economists running the country during the dictatorship were educated in the United States. At the same time, declassified documents have revealed the close-knit relationship between de Hoz and U.S. Secretary of State at the time, Henry Kissinger, who gave the green light for the ‘Dirty War’ in June of 1976 when he told the Argentine foreign minister: "We understand you must establish authority… If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly.”

Henry Kissinger Image US State DeptHenry Kissinger secretly supported the 'Dirty War' / Image: U.S. State Dept.

To the military junta on the other hand, the U.S. was a mentor for anti-subversive methods that provided advice for fighting communism. The (military) School of the Americas, in Fort Benning Georgia, where students were taught how to implement torture and murder for political ends, had graduated General Jorge Rafael Videla, General Roberto Viola, and General Leopoldo Galtieri among other Junta members. Through the Doctrine of National Security, the U.S. basically set the agenda for the Argentine military, on which it depended for the promotion of capitalist interests in the region.

Constructing silence

The terror in Argentina was aimed at terrifying the population as a whole, particularly because there were no limits —anything could be justified. This was the most effective way of enlisting the silence of entire cities. When a target was identified, the famous Ford Falcons appeared at the person’s home and the victim was killed or taken to one of several hundred torture camps. There are thousands of testimonies that describe being chained down, the agony of isolation, sensory starvation, and the process of interrogation. The most common methods of torture were electric shocks applied to a body often doused in water or to open wounds; el submarino or immersing a head in water; beatings with fists, rifles, or sticks; sexual abuse and rape; deprivation of sleep, food, and water, and setting wild dogs on prisoners. Torture was geared at dehumanisation—making prisoners forget their past, their values, principles, and sense of self. Here again, the purpose was to cure the disease of solidarity and secure a world where all would associate any impulse towards socialism with pain.

In Argentina, to be a leftist was to be haunted; to bear witness was to hang by a thread; to look the other way was to survive. The use of terror on such a scale was aimed at securing the majority’s silence, creating conditions where no one dared speak out. The massacres were covert enough to be denied; on the other hand, the Junta made sure to leave traces of its terror out in the open to ensure that people were conscious of its perpetration.

Dirty War memorial graffiti Image public domainNames of people disappeared in the 'Dirty War' / Image: public domain

It was on the basis of this terror that, the sayings of the time such as “por algo sera” (there must be a reason) and “no se meta” (don’t get involved), became widely popular. Preferring not to know was part of the thinking forcibly imposed by a methodical, violent, dictatorial regime. The Argentine press was a part of the whole counter-revolutionary campaign: the only newspapers that attempted to speak out on the ‘Dirty War’ were The Buenos Aires Herald and La Opinión of Jacobo Timerman. The rest of the bourgeois press played the role of covering up the crimes of the bourgeoisie, mainly by completely ignoring the massacre. They would like to pretend that, ‘a cog in a wheel cannot be accountable’, no matter how devastating the repercussions of their see-no-evil attitude. In reality the press was an important tool in the bourgeois campaign of vilifying the left, and spreading the terror. And that is perfectly logical, because major newspapers belong to the bourgeois and always peddle the line that their masters demand.

The violent imposition of silence and passivity in Argentina was so effective that it left its mark for years to come. The Argentine population was paralysed, but eventually the military regime collapsed in April 1983, after its defeat in the Falklands/Malvinas war: a war it had provoked in order to cut across the mass movement that was developing at the time. However, before exiting from power, the regime proclaimed victory in the ‘Dirty War’ and pardoned itself for all abuses or misconduct committed during its period in power.

Argentina today

Today, official sources never admit the real extent of the ‘Dirty War’, let alone that it was economically motivated. Most of the dictatorship’s true perpetrators have been able to get away unscathed. Kissinger sidestepped judgment for his involvement and continued to support abuses abroad. The corporations that participated in the terror faced charges that were mostly dropped due to ‘expired statutes of limitations.’

In Argentina, remnants of the dictatorship clearly still operate, as they are an integral part of the state. Reformism continues to disappoint the working masses, contributing to a strengthening of the far-right. Preserving economic interests through military might is still a method considered legitimate in certain circumstances, and capitalism continues to condemn the vast part of the population to crippling poverty.

The political consequences of both Peronism and the 1976 dictatorship have largely defined Argentine society, and the past resurfaces in many ways. In Argentina, a brutal and barbaric military dictatorship was able to come to power because Peronism was no longer able to conciliate the interests of two fundamentally opposed classes: the capitalists and the working class. The bourgeoisie needed to destroy the Argentine labour movement and do away with all the limitations imposed by bourgeois democracy. And, in turn, when the undisguised, brutal face of capitalism was no longer able to hold back the masses, the Argentine ruling class was forced to concede formal, bourgeois democracy again, without any real underlying changes to the way society was run. As a result, Argentina today (along with the vast majority of Latin America) remains a victim of capitalism upheld by American imperialism. Through seven decades, Peronism, then the 1976 dictatorship, followed by the present bourgeois democratic regime, have kept in place the social inequalities, the class divide and the rule of capital.

Freedom for Cesar Arakaki down with oppression enough with persecution Image Prensa OberaRecent protest in Argentina. Banner reads: "Freedom for Cesar Arakaki, down with oppression, enough with persecution." / Image: Prensa Obera

The crisis in Argentina today is part of a world capitalist crisis. The Argentine ruling class can shift from democracy to military dictatorship as easily as a man changes his shirt. The reason they cannot do so in the short-term is because of the present class balance of forces, which are enormously favourable to the working class. There is the added element of the memory of the working class. The workers have not forgotten the period of military rule and what it meant. Therefore, the Argentine ruling class will plod on with bourgeois democracy. But that does not mean that this will always be the case. We have ahead of us a period of intensifying class conflict, but in the long run, if the working class fails to take power, the monsters of the past can return.

Derailing Argentina’s wheel of capitalism requires a political movement that is independent of any capitalist forces and draws its strength from the organized working class. We must stand in solidarity with the Argentine people and unleash the social processes that can lead to a radical rupture with the capitalist system and the politics that serve it. Only then can the Argentine people have a say over the conditions that determine their lives, and break free from the shadows of Peronism and the military dictatorship.

As the anti-dictadura activist Rodolfo Walsh wrote: “Nothing can stop us. Neither jail nor death. Because you can’t jail or kill a whole people and because the vast majority of Argentines know that only the people will save the people.”