Argentina’s slow descent into political madness and social dislocation must have started sometime in the 1960s when the country was at its second apogee.
Blessed with an abundance of natural resources, the country’s rentier elite had watched the money roll in for over one and a half centuries by then, from agriculture and – in the second half of the 20th century – from capital intensive investment in mining, heavy industries and oil exploitation.
The country was hailed as one of the huge social and economic success stories of its time and – branded “The France of South America” – attracted millions of immigrants from Europe in the late 19th century: Italy and Spain figured most prominently, but the huddled masses of Switzerland, Germany and Wales, were just as eager to become antipodes. Opportunities abounded, and always included the possibility of failure.
Consequently, not everything went swimmingly in the first half of the 20th century, and in the second half neither. But being the Western Hemisphere’s first nation to elect a socialist member to parliament in 1904 might be considered the first symptom of a malaise that broke out in full force sixty-five years later. Socialism was something the aforementioned huddled masses brought along with them upon immigration to “the new country”, much like today’s “refugees” often carry Islam along with them.
And just as consequently, after establishing itself among the five richest nations on Earth, a quick succession of politically unstable governments and the economic disaster of the Great Depression got Argentina run aground by the 1930s. The next decade saw Peronism saving the country, followed by the country saving itself from Peronism another ten years later.
Intended as a secular “Third Way” between Marxism and Capitalism, Peronism struggled for ideological purity but had a dazzling effect on the masses. It is a testament to the Argentinian people that they never quite envisioned Peronism as an easy fix for a life on “benefits” at somebody else’s expense: Peronism promised dignity of a kind that only hard (and preferably physical) labour would provide. Said labour was supposed to be well-paid, with health-care, education and a pension thrown in “for free” – or rather paid for by general taxation.
Poverty was supposed to be eradicated by state intervention via price fixing for most goods and services. It was a ham-fisted effort of squaring the economic circle of turning one peso into two while creating enough of a spill-over effect to significantly improve the living standards of masses. Impossibly, Peronism seemed to work for a few short years when Argentina supplied both sides of the conflict during the last war, but such good times could of course never carry on forever.
“Another triumph of The Justice Party!”, Grandma exclaimed after a delightful trip.
“Finally, I could see the beauty of my country!”
Peronism met its fate when a different government got putsched into power in 1955. Unlike under Perón, capital now was not “invested” in social programmes any longer, but in strategic heavy industries, and in an effort to achieve full import substitution in steel, oil and related products.
The Frondizi government’s “Forced Development” of conservative economic policy (low taxation, high employment, small public sector) proved to be quite successful and it might have put the country on a trajectory towards success had it not ended four years later, and before its investments in strategic industries started to pay for themselves.
Nevertheless, in the 50s and 60s, Argentina’s vast automotive industries put more than one hundred thousand people into work. After importing even its matches from England only fifty years ago, the country now built its own ships, trains and cars from its own steel and became fully independent of oil imports in 1957, freeing vast moneys.
There even was a fledgling aerospace industry, recruited mostly from Wernher von Braun’s B-list – some Jerrys who the Yanks were not too eager to take on for their Apollo mission, for some elusive reasons. They had already built the Pulqui II, the supposedly “autochtonous” jet fighter copied mainly from the designs of the Focke-Wulf Ta 183, so there.
In the 1960s, Argentinian universities printed their own trigonometry textbooks because staff found the problems presented in North American publications rather dull, apart from not being sophisticated enough for their liking.
It was maybe not the American Dream which was becoming a reality along the Río de la Plata, but the South American dream it was nevertheless. By the mid-1960s, the country had achieved living standards that were second to none in Latin-America and eclipsed honey pots such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, Austria and Greece by a long shot, and of course most Warsaw Pact countries.
By then, Argentina had become one of the most mid-class nations on Earth with full alphabetisation, rising life expectancy, low infant mortality and a highly literate, studious and intelligent workforce. A pity then that its governments were not always very democratic, what with one and another military dictatorship after the next every few years.
Clearly, something had to be done to stop this. This something appeared to be Marxism.
“Peronist activism for liberation – the day has arrived”
18 October 1973
Every socially equitable surge in living standards must come from value added to goods and services. One way of adding value is improved education. Especially its academic kind sometimes leaves people with too much time on their hands. In other instances, it puts surplus time in hands which can ill afford such luxury. Education, wherever it was available, has always been the province of people who wanted to better their lives – but what about the lives of others? It would be selfish not to improve their lot too, wouldn’t it?
Sometimes, studious people don’t always get their personal and social priorities quite right. This can make them open to abuse by Socialists, Marxists, Communists, and other anti-capitalist lunatics and hate mongers. Argentina of course made no exception to this rule and the easily impressionable among university staff and students were soon not only agitating in debating societies on campus – the 1960s were a decade of tremendous political upheaval after all – but started stirring up trouble in the streets too, all over the country.
The first famous incident of this kind, the so-called Córdobazo, had to be put down in 1969 by armed riot police at the expense of four lives lost in a failed attempt at a general strike brought about by the ill-fated alliance of labour and student unions that would become archetypal of the Argentinian armed revolutionary struggle in the next decade.
The Córdobazo was, in many respects, the starting point for further radicalisation that put the country on a war footing with itself. After a string of similar confrontations, strikes and a series of terrorist attacks against elected representatives, judges, police commissioners, captains of industry and generally anybody who wouldn’t buy into the Left’s utopia, the country was at breaking point.
It has been estimated that left-wing death squads between 1969 and 1977 assassinated about 6,000 people. This tidbit, though still known by the relatively trustworthy National Geographic magazine (vol. 170, p. 247) in 1986, has since been largely disappeared down the memory hole.
Contemporary sources now speak of “only” just under thousand casualties caused by Lefties, with two thirds of their victims being from military and police backgrounds. People who apparently count for less, and are of course wholly worthwhile targets in Leftyland. Someone who said something about omelettes and eggs springs to mind.
This breathtaking violence was brought about by the Left mainly through well-funded and well-organized home grown syndicalism in steel and auto unions, but also through guerrilla groups financed by the Soviet Union. The latter groupings attracted impressionable mid-class kids in the mold of Ernesto “Che” Guevara of T-Shirt fame, who also had a large fan base in his home country.
Rather ironically, the increasing radicalisation and militarisation of “civil” society, the rising number of “activists” and agitators, was another legacy of Peron’s syndicalist power base, and of the relative economic success Argentina enjoyed in the late 50s under Frondizi. His economic recipe paid off in the 60s when an increasing number of parents could afford to send their kids to universities across the country – and that’s where the commies got’em.
La Minifalda, you ask? Why, it’s the mini skirt of course!
The Onganía and Lanusse governments in the 70s both had scarce, if any, democratic legitimisation, but tried stepping up their game against the activists of what was then openly intended to be a full-scale socialist revolution supposed to happen all over “el cono sur” – the Southern tip of South America. This socialist power grab had already happened in Chile under Allende, before an even harder crack-down ensued under Pinochet a few years later.
The Left was getting more than they had asked for in Argentina too, along with a taste of their own medicine. Vigilante groups took things into their own hands and started hunting down communists – in education, medicine, journalism. And in the church which had become an obvious target for Marxist infiltration because Argentina was a devoutly religious nation, even by Spanish standards.
The state’s monopoly on violence was completely eroded a few years after the Córdobazo, the popular upheaval which the Left had tried to bring about. In the early 70s, it was open season for everyone to kill anyone at will. And when the government finally had to be seen to be doing something, someone in the Lanusse cabinet had what must have looked like a smart idea at the time: for the sake of placating syndicalism, let’s bring back the old man – let’s bring back Perón!
For Peronism, though proscribed during the last two decades, wasn’t only still very much alive in the unions, but also abroad: Perón wasn’t quite dead yet. All which had to be done was to put him and an entourage of 153 people on a plane from Madrid, and bring him and his Missus back to the old country.
But alas: it was only a few short hours after a chartered Alitalia DC-8 touched down in Ezeiza on this fateful 20th of June 1973, that 13 people were dead, and a further 365 lay injured on the tarmac, in the terminal building, its restaurants, on the parking lot and along the road to the capital. The effort to bring peace to the country had backfired bigly, and ended in an unmitigated disaster.
Second Peronism was not expected to be that kind of a smash. Armed factions of fanatics – the ideologically “pure” Marxist ideologues (the “caca tintas”, ink shitters) and the “hands-on” Peronist unionists (the “gorillas”) – were at each other’s throats with rifles, pistols, sub machine guns and everything else they could lay their hands on, even with forks and knives.
The unions had been Peronism’s power base during its 18 years of proscription, but times hadn’t passed them by gently neither: in the early 1970s, syndicalism was almost evenly split between Peronist and Marxist factions. This proved to be another recipe for disaster.
For everyone knew that Peron was dying. And the battle over his legacy, and power, had better be won while the body was still warm. That’s the trouble with policies of the “Third Way” – they lend themselves to either side. And people do tend to get caught in the crossfire.
The battle for ideological purity, or “the soul” of Peronism, was somewhat decided after the first cabinet meeting with Perón in the Casa Rosada, a ceremonial building famously painted pink in a somewhat misguided compromise between the “White” and “Red” factions of the Argentinian civil war about a century earlier. It became quite obvious then that the old man intended to bring about a compromise between the forces of capital and labour, again. What a pity that nobody wanted him to do this.
For Perón, the New Argentina 2.0 was supposed to be a corporatist social democracy just like the old “New Argentina” of the 1940s. A country just like the rest of Western Europe, a part of which Argentina still considered herself to be in the 1970s, culturally, mentally and ethnically. But due to the relentless civil warfare that had raged in the country for the last four years, Second Peronism never grew beyond the sheets of paper it produced.
For when Juan Domingo Perón finally died on the First of July, 1974, his legacy had been reduced to a bag of worms. The Anti-Communist Alliance of Argentina had, in the form of Isabel Martinez de Perón, installed a figurehead government which was never meant to be more than a front for what had been the true intention of this paramilitary vigilante group all along.
Six years after its Córdobazo, the Left ran guerrilla operations in the Argentinian outback and even staged a successful attack on army barracks at Monte Chingolo close to the capital. The latter especially left a lasting imprint on the public’s memory because they spent Christmas Eve watching it on telly.
But there were also the targeted killings taking out law makers, judges, journalists and police men. By 1975, there was at times one “revolutionary” attack per day, and the public stopped listening to the news altogether because they were sick of the violence and tired of watching just how impotent the state’s rhetoric was in ending the conflict.
“100 dead – attack on an army brigade by subversives” at Monte Chingolo
Second lead: “price increase: 1,850 for red wine, 90% for cigarettes”
A time for decisive action undoubtedly had come. The civil war between Socialists, Marxists, Communists and Anti-Communist vigilante groups finally escalated when “la Isabelita” proved herself to be a weak and ineffective president, treating government as a function of looking stylish plus being fashionable.
Which was exactly what she was supposed to do. La Isabelita was intended to be a figurine that could be pushed about in a chess game her ministers were playing. The most notable of them: Lopez-Rega, nominally the country’s welfare minster, but more to the point the head of the country’s Anti-Communist Alliance, the paramilitary vigilante group ready to destroy left wing terrorism one terrorist at a time.
The Triple-A was a semi-clandestine organisation, recruited largely from military and police ranks, and took what was later termed “state terror” into its own hands in what the military dictatorship du jour dubbed a “process of national reorganisation”. This resulted in a cruel crackdown on everything and anything that whiffed a bit lefty, and at the end of the 1970s, 20,000 people had died in “la guerra sucia” – the dirty war.
What had started with a failed attempt at a general strike in 1969 had ended in utter carnage ten years later. And it all had escalated rather quickly, too. There were plenty of turning points where this national disaster could have been averted.
Syndicalism could have compromised, contending themselves with what they had achieved. Marxist hardliners in media and education could have stopped denouncing compromise as treachery; politics, after all, is still the art of the possible. This strategy might have been effective in containing the crisis but the reality on the ground was against it.
Faced with news of ever more violent attacks, the public (not to be confused with academic ego trippers and student agitators) grew sick and tired of politics. There quickly came a point when it couldn’t have mattered one iota what the government did or didn’t do. And whether the state did something or nothing at all made no difference when the state was institutionally weak, and being strategically weakened from within.
By 1975, the time was ripe for the murderous Triple-A to take counterrevolutionary matters into their own hands and all parties to the conflict share responsibility for innocent civilians getting caught in the cross fire.
A few years before taking the war to the enemy, Anti-Communists could have engaged more eagerly to win the ideological battle against Cultural Marxism. It would have done everyone a favour if the dirty war had never happened. But did the Khmer Rouge refrain from killing their enemies? The Vietcong? The Maoists? The Kims of North Korea? Of course not. But does this justify being just as bad as them? Rhetorical question, I suppose.
What happened in Argentina in the 1970s, bears some resemblance to our present day and age, I think, and it wouldn’t qualify as a tragedy if this tremendous loss of life hadn’t been completely avoidable.
But a mature nation, much like a mature person, ought to be able to confront her demons and face up to the good times and the bad times alike – those moments when one’s lost one’s way. And should be able to do so without want for glossing over said past, or eradicating its remnants. Because irrespective of who or whatever passes itself of as moral judge or political police today, history will always inform us about who we are and how it all came about.