On Tuesday evening I stood in “their square,” in the middle, and watched the late officeleavers hurrying to get home. I wondered if right where I stood the beginnings of a historic change in Argentina had started.
Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1994-2007).
Tuesday, October 17, slipped by as a normal chaotic weekday, the hangover of a long weekend. It felt strange to some of us, something had to happen and for the first time in years it did not. I walked to Plaza de Mayo at about 7pm, called upon to do so by street posters pasted widely in town in the last two weeks. Nothing. Seventeeth of October, Day of Popular Loyalty, so declared by then President Juan Domingo Perón in 1946 as a sort of tribute to himself and a public holiday for his followers. His last living “17 de octubre” happened in 1973.
For most time, for two generations of Argentines that date was a public holiday and Peronism’s big day. This year it was planned to be so, in a way. The posters in white and blue called on the public to gather at 5pm in Plaza de Mayo “in our square,” i.e. the Peronist Square, to remember the beginnings or to express their distaste for the Mauricio Macri government. On Tuesday evening I stood in “their square,” in the middle, and watched the late office-leavers hurrying to get home. I wondered if right where I stood the beginnings of a historic change in Argentina had started (please excuse the tautology).
The signs of change may have first sighted some time ago. Each of my colleagues and each historian in the country will have separate interpretations.
A few weeks ago, the former head of the National Library, Horacio González, told the Spanish newspaper El País that he did not like Macri, but that he thought the president was behaving more and more like a Peronist. Figure that one out. I wished I had close to me my former colleague Rogelio García Lupo, who died in his 80s in August 2015. He argued that Peronism would end only when the last Argentine to shout “Viva Perón” had popped his clogs. That implied a long wait.
Mention of Horacio González brings to mind a related moment from some dozen years ago. We were both invited to be speakers at the Colegio Nacional Buenos Aires to launch a book of essays, 17 de Octubre (2005), collected by trade union and labour historian Santiago Senén González. We were promoting the writings of such well-known historians and academics as Juan Carlos Torre, Fabián Bosoer, Raanan Rein, Mirta Zaida Lobato and Oscar Troncoso (1925-2010), among others. My speech was the usual serious stuff about the date and the story in recent Argentine history. Horacio González held forth in an extensive and entertaining counter-factual search of what might have been if the events of October 17, 1945, had not taken place. Would Peronism even have been launched?
It is a simple matter now to recall that on that date 72 years ago, supporters of then-Colonel Perón stormed into Buenos Aires and filled the Plaza de Mayo to demand the release, from a four-day arrest, of he who had been the vice-president and Secretary for Labour almost since the June 1943 nationalist coup and up until a few days before. The crowd became Eva Perón’s “shirtless ones” (descamisados) and the natural followers of Perón. The 17th is the foundation day of Peronism. But what is easily forgotten is that while the chiefs in the military government and numerous conspiratorial politicians were planning early elections to securely put Perón in power, the crowd wanted Perón loose because he had signed decrees awarding workers pensions (for nearly two million people), farm workers contract terms, vacations, etc. And the specific item of that day was the demand for full pay for the October 12 public holiday. Many employers refused to pay this, sparking the rebellion.
Much has been written on Peronist developments since that time. My choice for that season of the rise of Peronism, aside from the afore-mentioned Santiago Senén González, are the writings of Socialist journalist Oscar Troncoso (also mentioned above), who had a gentle and tolerant understanding of all the matters (right or wrong) in this country. He was, however, quite impatient with Peronism. He had been a conscript on military service in those difficult days in the Spring of 1945. The prime motive was that he considered the military regime to be fascist and pro-Third Reich, hence quite unsympathetic to the rise of Colonel Perón. Troncoso remembered particularly going to the “War Ministry” on Paseo Colón, or call it the Army command, on some errand in the upper floors of what is now the Defence Ministry and finding a huge swastika painted on the walls, along with a succession of Nazi symbols.
And one of Troncoso’s muttered mysteries was Peronist behaviour. He recalled the days in October 1963, when Cordobán country doctor Arturo U. Illia took office as elected-president, the second head of state voted into power since the overthrow of Perón in 1955. Illia, the Radical party’s candidate, decided early on in his presidency that he would try to make peace with Peronism, which the military had banned outright. Illia took office on October 12 and five days later, on October 17, he authorised Peronism to hold their first “Popular Loyalty” day since 1954 in Plaza Once. The political gathering broke down into a rampage. The site around the mausoleum of Bernardino Rivadavia looked as if the place had been ploughed up, the paving tiles torn up and used as ammunition. For years after, Troncoso would ask in conversation, “How could they do that to Illia… and on their founder’s day.” That too was part of the history of “popular loyalty day.”