Populism and Its Legacies in Argentina Joel Horowitz

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Populism and Its Legacies in Argentina

Joel Horowitz

Populism and its aftermath have dominated the political history of modern Argentina. Much of the style and rhetoric of politics derives from populism. More important, some seemingly unbridgeable schisms in today's society can be traced directly to populism. While populist movements attracted the support of masses of people, they simultaneously repelled major sectors of society. Populists defined themselves as the saviors of the nation and their opponents as enemies of the people. Thus politics revolved around movements that won strong allegiances but excluded their enemies. This contributed to a cycle of military takeovers that ultimately produced massive violence, involving both the military and civilians. Populism addressed certain problems, but it also produced new ones. The answers that it provided, or perhaps the style of the answers, deeply divided Argentina.

A key populist legacy is leadership style. The leader, whether in power or exile, dominates his party for long stretches. The party might undergo internal struggles, but once the leader has settled them, his rule is almost unchallengeable. Within the Peronist Party, this role of caudillo was borne by three men; the baton of Juan Perón was eventually picked up by Carlos Menem and then by Néstor Kirchner. This pattern of leadership is more noticeable within the Radical Party, which even after ceasing to be populist retains its style. Hipólito Yrigoyen was followed by Marcelo T. de Alvear, Ricardo Balbín and Raúl Alfonsín. They continued to dominate their party after their popularity had faded with the public at large. Even when the parties adopted attributes of “modern” politics, such as conventions, they continued to be dominated by strong-willed leaders.

At the outset, a working list of populist characteristics in Argentina will be helpful. Populist movements claimed not to be class based. Ideologically they were incoherent but they tried to be inclusive. Their leaders were overwhelmingly personalistic and also charismatic. Their style was nationalistic, so they drew on native traditions or at least pseudo-traditions of the country. They evinced a deep concern for reform, social justice, betterment of the working class, and integration of the poor into society. They portrayed class conflict as alien. The core populist message promised change without altering the fundamental nature of society. Populist parties also claimed to have the answers to the problems of the nation and argued that those who opposed them were unpatriotic. They tended to ally with unions and to build a strong centralized state with power focused on the president.

What is crucial is that the populists threatened the elites' control over their world more than their economic interests.1 It is the populists' style, their confrontation of the elite, and their rejection of the elite manner of behavior that sets them apart from other movements.


At the end of the nineteenth century Argentina underwent a prodigious economic change that transformed it from a relatively poor country to the richest in Latin America, and a wealthy nation by any standard. It became rich enough to attract large-scale immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

Argentina's economic miracle was made possible by the sudden opportunity to use the fertile lands of the Pampas, some of the best in the world. Rising world demand, the ability to attract hundreds of thousands of immigrants, and the building of railroads and other types of infrastructure permitted Argentina to become a major exporter of meat and grain. While this rapid economic transition went on, politics remained largely unchanged. Elite elements governed behind a facade of democracy, but fraud reigned in the voting process. This continued despite rapid urbanization, population growth, and the emergence of a middle class.

The modern political system began in the wake of a failed attempt to overthrow the government in 1890. The country's first modern political party, the Radical Party (Unión Cívica Radical, also called the Radicals or the UCR) emerged out of the coup. The Radical Party opposed the political system by refusing to participate in it and by calling for fair elections. Behind its push for fair elections lay the threat of revolution, which it attempted several times. The party's primary base of support was in the middle sectors of society. Much of the leadership, however, came from the elite, but appeals were directed toward the working class. The man who came to dominate the party was Hipólito Yrigoyen (1852–1933), a strange leader for a modern party. He was the illegitimate son of a Basque blacksmith and of a woman from the elite. He never married but had at least six children with different women. He used the title “doctor” without having earned it. He infrequently appeared, and even more rarely spoke, in public. He wrote little for popular consumption, and what he wrote was difficult to understand.3 There was little consistent political philosophy behind his utterances. When he reached the presidency in 1916, he seemed much more interested in power and expanding it than in any program.

Yrigoyen, however, was a master politician. He created the machinery of a modern political party and outmaneuvered all his rivals. Despite his quirky nature and his secretive behavior, he made himself into a symbol of the Radical Party. He represented the hopes of the party faithful. Crowds detached the horses from his carriage at his inauguration in 1916 and pulled it through the streets. A cult of personality developed around him.

The Radical Party apparatus generated adoring works. For example in 1929 the Radical Party daily, La Epoca, carried the following poem, entitled “To the Great Argentine President Dr. Hipólito Yrigoyen”:

The Country adorns itself with your name triumphant,

And the Fatherland praises you deservedly and with love,

Because always, your slogan was forward!

And your creed nobility, ideal and ardor.

I that knew to mock the people a moment,

Learned from your lips the best word,

The word that says: a brilliant Fatherland

I will leave as the inheritance of my effort and honor.

The workers of all the Argentine region

Today bless your name and the battle that culminates

In the supreme progress of this immense Nation.

The Nation that tomorrow will judge your memory

As the limpid page of your clear story

Of one who was an apostle and an eminent man.4

This poem was not unusual. Radical Party publications were filled with doggerel and statements that sung Yrigoyen's praises.

It is difficult to fully comprehend what evoked such popular support for Yrigoyen and whether his conduct can be called populist or simply popular. He did not campaign with the flamboyant gestures or oratory of most populists. In many ways he simply built a traditional political machine by dispensing patronage and creating jobs. The bureaucracy and the scope of government expanded quickly. His opponents considered this one of his chief defects. He used older political techniques and was not especially innovative, but he pushed those methods to their limit.

Police chiefs had always played central political roles in Argentina, and Yrigoyen strengthened the tradition. His chiefs of police of Buenos Aires, for example, functioned as key operatives, even settling labor conflicts. Their importance was shown by the career path of Elpidio González, a key Yrigoyen ally. He went from minister of war, to candidate for governor of the important province of Córdoba, to police chief of Buenos Aires, to vice president, and to minister of interior. A good police chief was a man for all seasons.

Yrigoyen did appeal to new groups and spoke about altering society without changing its underlying nature. His rhetoric stressed change. While scorning the idea of class conflict, he continually attacked the oligarchy, the ill-defined rural-based elite of which he was a marginal member. One way he attracted support was by treating the middle and working classes like true members of society. (This approach was later used by Juan Perón in the 1940s.) Under Yrigoyen, middle-class politicians held considerable power for the first time.

Sometimes Yrigoyen's gestures were obvious. During a 1917 strike at a meatpacking plant, he turned down an interview with the leaders of the Sociedad Rural, the cattlemen's association, the most important economic and social group in the country. One of the nation's leading newspapers lamented that these men were not received with the same attention as strikers.5 These type of gestures along with the opening of the political system created a special relationship with a large segment of the population.

Yrigoyen reached the presidency because the governing segment of the conservative elite feared a Radical Party revolt, the constant labor agitation, and believed that they could win a fair election. In 1912 they passed the Sáenz Peña law, which made voting obligatory for all male citizens and made voter fraud more difficult. Despite the conservatives' hopes, Yrigoyen won the first fair presidential election in 1916. His margin in the electoral college, however, was extremely narrow and therefore he needed to widen his base of support. Yrigoyen turned to the rapidly growing native-born working class as a potential source of voters. This was possible because Syndicalism had become an influential ideology among Argentina's vigorous labor movement in the years after 1910. The Syndicalists proclaimed their disdain for bourgeois politics and stated that the revolution would come through a general strike. They displayed a willingness, however, to deal with political authorities in an ad hoc fashion. This was perfect for Yrigoyen and the Radicals, since Syndicalists had no political ties and their growth would block the expansion of the Socialist Party, which had become a serious rival in the city of Buenos Aires.

Yrigoyen used a two-pronged approach with the Syndicalists. The initial thrust was to tolerate strikes led by Syndicalists and to be sure they were rewarded by favorable agreements. The most dramatic strikes occurred on the railroads and in the port of Buenos Aires in the first years of Yrigoyen's term. Government intervention considerably improved conditions and forced employers on the waterfront to accept the union's role in hiring workers for ships. As late as the 1927–28 presidential campaign, Yrigoyen's publicity stressed his role in settling these early strikes.6

Yrigoyen would not, however, pursue these labor tactics beyond a certain point. He did not support strikes from ideological conviction but rather from a desire for votes. When upheavals threatened to alienate key sectors of public opinion, he shifted directions. In January 1919 a strike in a Buenos Aires steel plant erupted into violence between strikers and police, which led to a general strike. Betraying labor, the administration tolerated and perhaps encouraged middle- and upper-class attacks on working-class neighborhoods, attacks that resembled pogroms against Jews and Catalans. The death toll rose to several hundred. This was the so-called Tragic Week. Threatened with losing middle- and upper-class support, Yrigoyen used force against the strikers.7

Despite the real danger to his regime's stability, however, Yrigoyen continued to back some labor groups, and unrest rolled across Argentina even after the Tragic Week. His tolerance ended, though, when strikes threatened to reduce export earnings and to undermine his coalition. With presidential elections coming up, in mid-1921 Yrigoyen shifted tactics. He abandoned the port workers and broke a general strike started in their support. Extreme violence was also used against workers in Patagonia.8

Yrigoyen's attempts to woo the urban working class went beyond supporting certain strikes. He pressed Congress to pass labor laws, especially in 1921 and 1922. This, coupled with the fact that he was more accessible to members of the working class than his predecessors, helped earn him continued popularity with the average Argentine.

The constitution did not permit direct reelection to the presidency, so Yrigoyen had to step aside in 1922. He chose Marcelo T. de Alvear to be his party's nominee, and Alvear won easily. An aristocrat, Alvear was far from being a populist. While desirous of obtaining working-class support, he preferred moving through bureaucratic channels instead of along the personalistic and populist trails that Yrigoyen trod. Soon a rift developed between Yrigoyen and Alvear, and the Radical Party split.

In 1928 Yrigoyen won reelection and attempted to restore the policies he had followed earlier, backing certain types of labor and expanding the state—for example, trying to make the national oil company a monopoly. He accomplished little, however. Aged and lacking in energy by then, he even appeared senile to some observers.9 The depression soon made any new initiatives unlikely, and problems mounted. Opposition to Yrigoyen surged, as many sectors felt threatened by the professional politicians who surrounded him and by the Radicals' use of the power of the state to increase their hold on the government. The anti-Yrigoyen political class felt threatened by the Radical expansion of power. With considerable civilian encouragement, the military overthrew Yrigoyen in September 1930.10

In many ways Yrigoyen set the pattern for future regimes, populist and nonpopulist alike. Perón was going to further expand the connection with labor. While populist regimes expanded bureaucracies and the scope of the state faster than other types of governments, all, until the 1990s, essentially accepted this populist legacy.


The regime that emerged from the 1930 military coup helped create conditions that, a decade later, produced the most celebrated wave of populism in Argentina. The neoconservative governments that ruled from 1932 to 1943 kept up a pretense of democracy but depended on voter fraud to remain in power. Members of the traditional landed elite ruled directly.

Paradoxically, the exigencies brought on by the Great Depression forced this ruling landed elite to favor a policy of import substitution industrialization (ISI) that not only undermined their own power but also produced rapid expansion of the urban working class. The number of blue-collar workers employed in manufacturing nearly doubled between 1935 and 1943, from 418,000 to 756,000.11 This surge in urban employment was made possible by massive flows of migrants from the interior to the bigger cities, especially Buenos Aires. Despite myths to the contrary, recent research has not uncovered any marked difference in political behavior between the migrants and longtime urban residents.12 The rapidly growing urban working class remained largely invisible to the political elite, shielded from public view by voter fraud and their own prejudices. Even leftist parties such as the Socialists and the Communists failed to recognize the changes that had occurred.

Organized labor, moreover, could not capitalize fully on the economic transformation underway. Many employers refused to negotiate with unions, and the government, although at times willing to mediate labor disputes, was inconsistent. Unions needed to use strikes or political mobilization to attract government attention, but they never could be sure of whether such actions would bring repression or help. By 1943 many labor leaders had become deeply frustrated with the lack of aid from left-wing parties. Many began to search for alternative sources of support.

The unions' political potential had grown significantly. Between 1936 and 1941 union membership had risen by nearly a fifth, to more than 440,000 members. While this represented only 12 percent of the economically active urban population, unions had spread from their original redoubts in transportation firms to manufacturing and services.13 This increase occurred despite great difficulties for unions. Frequently, nonideological workers preferred not to join unions, since belonging could mean dismissal and blacklisting. In addition, given meager salaries, dues represented a significant burden, especially because little immediate benefit could be seen. Still, by 1943, many workers had been exposed to what unions could do and were willing to join under the right circumstances. By the same token, many more were willing to go on strike when the situation demanded, even though they were not union members.

A sense of alienation gripped much of the urban working class, and the general population partly shared this sentiment. Scandals occurred in all major political parties. Disillusionment with democracy set in—this was shared by much of the Western world during the 1930s—but was also due to the nature of Argentina's political system. Some years later writers referred to the 1930s as the “infamous decade.” The general mood can be summed up by some lines of a tango, the popular urban music of the era:

Today it makes no difference

Whether you are honest or a traitor

Ignorant, wise or a thief, Generous or crooked;

All's the same, nothing is better.14

The working class felt even a deeper sense of alienation. In Buenos Aires the expected norms of behavior were extremely middle class. As early as the turn of the century, a Spanish visitor noted the lack of workers' distinctive dress, such as was seen in the streets of Paris or Barcelona. Men not wearing jackets were not permitted on the sidewalks of the fashionable shopping street, Calle Florida, until the Peronist era. Workers carried their work clothes rather than wearing them on the streetcars.15 Male workers venturing into downtown Buenos Aires dressed like the middle class, in a tie and jacket.


In June 1943, dramatic political changes were introduced by a group of army officers who seized power. Initially, the military cracked down on unions. While focusing on Communists, they also targeted other tendencies. One of the two major labor confederations was closed. The government took over the two railroad unions, the strongest organizations in the country, and appointed a military officer to run them. It became almost impossible to call strikes.

A countervailing force emerged from within the military, however, one anxious to deal creatively with labor issues. Almost from the beginning of military rule, a group of army officers began summoning union leaders to find out what workers wanted. They spoke with leaders of all ideological hues, even Communists. Their true motivation remains unclear, but they did want to block the spread of communism and solve problems causing social unrest before they became more serious. Argentina's next major populist leader, Col. Juan Domingo Perón (1891–1974), emerged from this group.

Perón, a tall, commanding figure and a powerful speaker, had the ability to charm people and win them to his side. He was one of those rare politicians imbued with genuine charisma. Perón's motivations in helping the working class were complex, since ideologically he was eclectic. He had been influenced by right-wing European ideologies and by a desire for order, but he also wanted power for himself.16 He excelled at the bureaucratic maneuvering by which one rose through the ranks in the army. Nevertheless, he always wanted to obtain power through popular support and legitimate means. While mostly unsuccessful, he did make major efforts to attract support from the largely middle-class Radical Party and from the business community. His real success came in recruiting support from unions and the urban working class.

With his bureaucratic astuteness, Perón became a major force in the army by late 1943. He soon became vice president and minister of war—a predictable trajectory for an ambitious, skillful, and lucky officer. He also concentrated his efforts in a surprising arena. In October 1943 he took over as head of the National Department of Labor, a post hitherto of little importance, since its powers were limited and it only had authority in the capital and in the more backward, underpopulated regions. Perón used the department of labor, however, as a platform from which to win over the hearts and minds of much of the working class. The position allowed him to legitimize his approaches to labor, and it provided him with a staff that had well-established contacts with unions and unsurpassed knowledge of their needs and desires. By the end of November 1943, Perón had transformed the agency into the Secretariat of Labor and Social Security, with expanded powers and national jurisdiction.

Prospects for the labor movement improved only slowly, however. Perón did place his close friend Col. Domingo Mercante in charge of the two rail unions. Mercante was in some sense a railroader: his father had been an engineer and a cousin belonged to one of the unions. He called internal union elections. The government created a hospital for railroaders and addressed several long-standing grievances. Still, the aid to the rail unions remained an exception and most unions received little or nothing.

Repression by government agents gradually became more selective, but it was only after May 1944 that Perón began seriously to favor unions. Labor leaders had been playing a difficult game. They opposed the regime while constantly seeking help from the secretariat. With unprecedented unity, almost the entire labor movement planned a May Day 1944 protest against administration policies. Not surprisingly the regime banned the rally. At this point Perón, stung by his inability to court the Radical Party and his seeming failure with labor, began a major effort to woo unions.17 He was remarkably successful.

Perón's policies always had two edges: assistance that permitted many unions to achieve long-sought goals, and repression against uncooperative organizations. On the pro-labor side, the government began enforcing labor laws for the first time. With state backing, the number of contracts between labor and management soared. In the last six months of 1944, 228 contracts were signed in the city of Buenos Aires alone. Many secretariat-mediated contracts merely set wages, but others addressed crucial issues. Contracts often stipulated seemingly minor changes in work rules but afforded workers more dignity, such as separate changing rooms for male and female employees. For the first time, workers had a say in setting shop-floor rules. In addition, contracts frequently contained clauses committing the secretariat to enforce them, and Perón saw that it did so.18 Labor contracts finally had meaning, and the balance of power between capital and labor began to shift. Real wages for the unskilled rose 17 percent between 1943 and 1945, while those for skilled workers rose 10 percent.19

Before 1944 it had been extremely difficult to organize and sustain unions outside of the city of Buenos Aires. This changed when the secretariat began actively to favor their establishment. For example, the telephone workers in Buenos Aires had long sought to help organize their counterparts in other regions, but with little success. In 1944 and 1945, however, thirteen phone-worker unions across the country were organized, some with direct help from the government.20

The other side of Perón's labor strategy was repression. All organizations close to the Communist Party had to go underground to survive. The government supported rival anti-Communist unions. This destroyed several important unions, including those in textiles, meatpacking, and the metal trades. Repression was used against any union that refused to cooperate. The Socialist-controlled municipal workers union was taken over and run by a government agent. Individual leaders always faced the threat of arrest or harassment.

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