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ARGENTINA: Some of the Old Magic

5 minute read

The impossible dream of Juan Perón seemed no longer quite so impossible. Shaking off the effects of a damp homecoming two weeks ago after 17 years in exile, the onetime Argentine dictator, now 77, last week was adroitly bartering among the country’s multitudinous political parties and keeping everyone guessing about his intentions. Would he find a way to unite the civilian opposition to Argentina’s military government, and then run for the presidency in the elections scheduled for March 11? Perón was typically Delphic, carefully sidestepping the question at a press conference that he held on Saturday. But a top henchman, Hector Campora, has declared that Perón is an “irreversible candidate.”

For the moment, he was following pure old-style Perón tactics: disarm the opposition before tackling it frontally. This he began to do last week in a meeting held in Buenos Aires’ drab Nino Restaurant, where he and his second wife Evita had courted nearly 30 years ago. By sheer force of the Perón magic, 28 political parties—almost the entire spectrum of Argentine political life—were brought together in the same room. Though they would have been at each other’s throats only a few weeks before, they listened attentively to his proposal that they join in a sort of united civilian front while the country made the transition from military to civil rule.

The politicos—including even the half a dozen or so who had been forced into exile or imprisoned by Perón—were willing to endure the five-hour meeting (in which Perón talked for an hour). Ricardo Balbín, whose Radical party is the second largest in Argentina after Perón’s Justicialista party, had been hooted and cursed as he entered the old man’s home for a preliminary meeting. But on leaving, he remarked calmly that Peronistas would probably have received the same kind of welcome had they attended a Radical party meeting. “We have spoken of the responsibility of political parties and the necessity of common action,” Balbín told reporters, which meant that no formal endorsement of Perón or Peronism had been given. But at a smaller meeting of party chiefs called later in the week by Perón (who this time did not attend), the party heads agreed on half a dozen demands to be presented to the military government of Alejandro Lanusse, including a key one that the junta relax a ruling that all presidential candidates had to be in the country by Aug. 25 of this year. That would allow Perón—who missed the deadline by nearly three months—to run for president.

There had been little indication earlier that Perón would achieve so much so quickly. The Lanusse government had treated his arrival in Argentina like the coming of the bubonic plague. Some 30,000 troops, backed by tanks, sealed off Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza Airport to all but a few carefully screened Peronistas and newsmen. Later, as troops continued to surround the airport hotel where Perón had taken a suite of rooms, his supporters began to grumble that he was being held prisoner. Perhaps fearing riots, the government removed the troops and allowed Perón to drive under military escort to a Buenos Aires suburb, where he set up headquarters in the posh, three-story house that Peronistas had purchased for him.

The Cuckoo. In two days, more than 100,000 people tramped across lawns, climbed trees or perched on walls and roofs around the Perón residence. “We feel it, we feel it! Evita is with us,” they chanted. “Lanusse, get off that chair! It is Perón’s!” By the time the crowd left, the area looked like a battlefield, reported TIME Correspondent David C. Lee from Buenos Aires last week. “Lawns around the Perón home were chewed into tracts of mud; trees looked as though they had been denuded by swarms of locusts; a wall had crumbled under the weight of spectators; nearby homes were covered with aerosol scrawlings that read ‘Perón and Evita’ and ‘Perón for President.’ Peronista spokesmen later said that Perón had apologized to his neighbors and had agreed to pay damages, estimated at $20,000. The price was obviously worth it to him. He appeared at an upstairs window so often that some disrespectful Argentines dubbed him ‘the Cuckoo.’ At one point, he wore a baseball cap, a kind of Perón symbol from the old days.”

Meanwhile Perón continued to push Lanusse for concessions. He asked that the government lift the “state of siege” imposed in 1969, and insisted that all political prisoners—mostly suspected guerrillas—be freed forthwith.

Lanusse himself seemed to be tiring of the headaches created by an unpopular military government, political schisms and the economic disarray that has characterized Argentina in recent years. But though he is willing to step down in favor of a civilian President, he insists that it be on his terms, not on Perón’s. At a press conference held in Buenos Aires last week, Lanusse declared that he would relax the August deadline and accept the candidacy of Perón if he received a unanimous request from Argentina’s political parties. Since parties like the Perón-hating far-right Nueva Fuerza are unalterably opposed to Perón, it seems doubtful that Lanusse will ever receive such a request.

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