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ARGENTINA: A Dictator Returns to His Past

8 minute read

JUAN DOMINGO PERÓN stepped from a chartered Alitalia DC-8 onto Argentine soil for the first time in 17 years last Friday, and into a steady rain. The weather was remarkably similar to that on the wet and dismal night in 1955 when he fled the country aboard an Uruguayan gunboat, after being ousted from power by a military coup. This time Perón, now 77, expected better on his self-styled mission of “peace and understanding.” His survival and return after all these years had the stuff of great human drama. But instead of the million-strong crowd that Peronistas had promised for the homecoming, only 600 people—half of them newsmen—were on hand. Thousands of his supporters, carrying banners and beating drums, were held back by troops at checkpoints along the road leading into Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza Airport.

In Buenos Aires itself, where a spontaneous demonstration might have buoyed the old caudillo, the streets were deserted. Not only was there a government-proclaimed day of “obligatory cessation of activity,” to limit Peronista demonstrations at the airport, but a general strike had been called by Peronista labor unions to allow workers to greet their returning hero. There was one mini uprising on Perón’s behalf. On the capital’s outskirts, 60 noncommissioned officers tried to take over an Argentine Navy mechanics school. Meeting resistance, they took four hostages and escaped in a truck and an ambulance, killing a school guard in the process. In little more than an hour, they surrendered.

Thus Perón limped rather than strode back into Argentine history. Indeed, the return had none of the historical impact he so badly wanted and needed. There was no echo of Napoleon’s dramatic escape from exile on Elba. Moreover, if Perón had planned to present himself as the instant solution to the troubles of Argentina and then ride off into the sunset like a gaucho De Gaulle with his charisma and place in history as a statesman intact, the scene was not quite right. Perón had, in fact, been forced to return to Argentina by the adroit maneuvering of Argentina’s current President and military strongman, Alejandro Lanusse.

Previous military governments had persistently refused Perón’s demands that he be allowed to come out of exile. Lanusse was willing to let Perón come back because he felt that without the cooperation of the exiled leader’s still potent followers there was no possibility of Argentina’s return to constitutional government. In September 1971, Lanusse suddenly announced that general elections, the first in ten years, would be held in March 1973. Perón let the Aug. 25 deadline for presidential candidates slip by, insisting that the ruling was unconstitutional. But with his supporters clamoring for his return, he decided to leave his home in Madrid. Remaining there would be tantamount to an abdication of power.

Intimations of mortality were apparent on the first leg of the trip, a flight from Madrid to Rome for a three-day stopover. Perón, accompanied by his third wife Isabel, several bodyguards and a secretary, boarded a sleek Mystère-20 executive jet emblazoned with the Argentine colors. The plane was said to have been donated by a German industrialist in Madrid.

After landing at Rome’s Ciampino airport, Perón greeted a moderately enthusiastic crowd of fellow Argentines with a smiling “¡Bueno, bueno!” But it was not exactly a triumphal arrival. Among those absent was Argentina’s anti-Peronist ambassador to Rome; he was at the Italian foreign office demanding to know why Perón, who is not a head of state, had been met at the airport by the public relations head of the government-run broadcasting system. The answer was that the p.r. man was a good friend of Perón’s, but this did not pacify the ambassador.

Perón, who is of Italian descent and speaks fluent Italian, had hopes that he would be received by Pope Paul VI. He had also intended to chat with President Giovanni Leone at the Quirinale, negotiate with leaders of Italian industry and then receive lesser lights from the Holy See, the government and the financial community. None of it happened. The Pope did not grant an audience; the reason, a Vatican spokesman told Perón, was “because of interpretations that could be given such a meeting.” President Leone, who had enough free time to preside over a reception for film stars (including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), sent Premier Giulio Andreotti in his stead. To emphasize the private nature of the meeting, Andreotti met Perón not in his office in Palazzo Chigi, but in a small room in the Parliament building.

After his somewhat underwhelming visit to Rome, Perón flew off to his homeland, which is as much a shambles now as when he left. Nearly two decades of weak Presidents and heavy-handed military government (nine since 1946) have all but ruined the economy. Inflation for the first ten months of this year is a staggering 67.3%. Foreign investors and Argentines who have little Confidence in the Lanusse government have pulled some $1 billion in capital out of the country. Foreign reserves have dropped from $739 million at the end of 1970 to zero.

The political picture is little better. Angered by inflation, high taxes and shortages of consumer goods—notably beef, which is available in shops and restaurants only every other week—the usually unflappable Argentines have been taking their grievances to the streets. Buenos Aires has recently been the scene of numerous bombings, as well as fights between Perón’s supporters and government troops.

Pressed last week by reporters in Rome to explain just what a Peronista government would look like, Perón said that he was in favor of a democratic state, remarking testily that “I was elected with 30% of the votes.” He vowed to uphold civil liberties and said that he would allow a plurality of political parties. He also insisted that “the industrialization program that I started must be refreshed.” He did not rule out himself as a possible leader of the government, even though he cannot legally run for President. “I am not a dictator, as some say,” he told reporters. “But if the Peronist movement, that is, the Argentine people, ask me to be a candidate for President, I will agree. I am a slave of the people.”

The Master’s Voice. Perón’s lavish, autocratic style in exile does not suggest that he would lead a new order much different from the old. Located in Madrid’s most elegant suburb, his rambling, fieldstone mansion, Quinta 17 de Octubre (from the date of his accession to power in Argentina), is tastefully furnished in Spanish style, surrounded by broad lawns, thick shrubbery and 12-ft.-high burglarproof fences. General Franco’s El Pardo Palace and Prince Juan Carlos’ Zarzuela Palace are not far away. Perón is reported to be a millionaire, with large sums stashed away in numbered Swiss bank accounts. His principal “business” in Madrid was receiving an almost endless stream of Argentine labor leaders, Peronist politicos and military men. They transmitted his demands and conditions for returning to Argentina to the Lanusse government, often on tape-cassette recordings of the master’s voice. Were it not for the constant traffic to and from the Perón home, a nearby hotel (dubbed “Hotel Argentina”) would probably have folded long ago, since it is too far from the center of Madrid to attract tourists.

At week’s end Perón’s future in Argentina was uncertain. His airport reception had been a disappointment; President Lanusse had flown out of Buenos Aires to lay the cornerstone of a petrochemical plant. No one could guess how he planned to react to el Líder’s return. In the next week Perón will meet with representatives of the Justicialismo movement, as well as with those of Argentina’s other political parties. Taunted and shunned as he was by Lanusse, Perón seemed to be asking instead of demanding that the Argentine people unite in a grand coalition that would restore the excitement and euphoria of his first years in power. Considering the obstacles ahead, it was highly possible that he might soon be forced back to Madrid in humiliation and defeat. But if Perón were to succeed in his mission, it would clearly have to be reckoned as one of the most spectacular comebacks in modern political history.

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