If cats have nine lives, it would seem that Argentine ex-presidents from a certain province have nine decades (and counting) – the day before yesterday María Estela Martínez de Perón marked her 90th birthday, just eight months after Carlos Menem reached a similar milestone. Both hail from La Rioja (one of five small provinces where the Peronists maintain an unbeaten streak from the birth of their movement until now), which houses 0.7 percent of Argentina’s population but thus accounts for almost 15 percent of the elected presidential years since the introduction of universal suffrage as from 1916 (or even almost 20 percent if we exclude the “infamous decade” of 1930s electoral fraud and the years when Peronism was banned).
The birthday girl is, of course, far better known as Isabel Perón or just 'Isabelita.' A curious deviation – nicknames are one thing but using a conventional name other than your own is odd (she did the same with her surname, calling herself Gómez on stage – is there any real difference between Gómez and Martínez?). A bit like Edward VIII, who skipped the first six of his given names to insist on being called the seventh, “David” – if his reign lasted little more than 10 months and Isabel slightly over 20, might there not be a lesson here about identity confusion?
As the slug indicates, this column is supposed to be a personal memory lane based on a journalistic experience extending over a third of a century, but I have to admit that Isabel (president from 1974 to 1976) was a bit before my time. I cannot claim membership in the heroic generation of the Buenos Aires Herald which championed human rights against political violence and state terrorism even before Isabelita became vice-president or president – a rare case of a British immigrant to Argentina in the war year of 1982, I joined the newsroom just before mid-1983 right at the abject tail-end of the military dictatorship, which (shattered by its South Atlantic defeat among other failures) could not leave power fast enough, advancing elections by six months in my first days at the Herald (thus ironically emulating the woman they ditched since Isabel Perón had brought forward elections by seven months to the October of 1976 in a vain bid to preserve the republic).
Nevertheless, I can claim at least two personal links with the Isabel Perón era. Firstly, I remember where I was and what I was doing at the time of the 1976 coup with the same clarity others recall the Kennedy assassination or 9/11. The evening of March 24 I was eating an Indonesian dinner in the southern Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (any non-Dutch reader who can pronounce that correctly may claim a bami goreng) along with some Cambridge friends all heading for an Amsterdam art museum tour when my attention was seized by the local television news channel describing the coup in Argentina earlier that day, with President Isabel Perón being whisked away by helicopter from the roof of the Casa Rosada. At that stage of my life I had taken minimal notice of Argentina (neither in previous World Cups nor in any other context) but the Peronist landslide of 62 percent only 30 months previously had struck me as a possibly record margin outside the Communist world and I remember being sadly puzzled by how such massive support could evaporate against a show of force.
That is just a personal anecdote but the second link goes much more to the heart of the Isabel Perón presidency. One thing which surprised me in my early days at the Herald when still new to the country was the degree to which the industrial relations with our printers were entirely governed by the 1975 collective bargaining agreement despite Argentina having gone in and out of a military government since then – a feature shared with over 100 other trade unions – and this surprise only grew as the decades went by and the 1975 collective bargaining agreements continue to hold sway deep into a new century and millennium. Ditto for the trade union leadership who persisted while the presidents changed – thus the printers were headed by fully half a century by Raimundo Ongaro from 1966 until his death at 91 in 2016 (with the obvious interruption of the dictatorship years, of course).
Yet the 1975 collective bargaining agreements were not the only reason for Isabel Perón to be fondly remembered by organised labour – the first year of her presidency between mid-1974 and mid-1975 was almost the only year in Argentine (and indeed world) history when the famous “fifty-fifty” of Juan Domingo Perón, i.e. wage income forming half of the Gross Domestic Product, actually held true (1954 would be the only other such year). Yet those happy days were not to last – two years of frozen prices and exchange rates had to crack at some point and they did so in the winter of 1975 under Isabel’s third Economy Minister Celestino Rodrigo, whose long-overdue recognition of realities led to 450 percent inflation in 1975 with real wages falling by a third (Rodrigo was followed by no less than five economy ministers in the eight remaining months of the presidency as the wheels came off).
The importance of trade unionism to Isabel Perón – truly the spine of the Peronist movement in her eyes – has been perhaps insufficiently stressed in what has been written on the occasion of her 90th birthday. Her most recent contacts with Argentina have all centred on labour bosses – a warm tribute to farm hands union leader Gerónimo “Momo” Venegas on the occasion of his death in 2017 and an audio message to the CGT labour umbrella leadership last November.
The dominant figure of the widow’s presidency and its evil genius was, of course, her Welfare Minister José López Rega, the sinister mastermind of the Triple A organisation of paramilitary right-wing Peronist death squads, but this columnist does not feel qualified to write about him. My personal newsroom memories of him do not extend beyond his extradition from the United States in 1986 after 10 years on the run and his death in prison in 1989 while remanded in custody awaiting trial for his numerous crimes of state terrorism – his iniquitous career is best described in full by my outstanding colleagues from the dark years.
Isabel Perón cannot fairly be described as either evil or a genius – merely a not-so-innocent bystander.