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Peronists: leaderless and disorganized

Former Argentine President Maria Estela Martinez de Peron, who was finally released July 6 from five years in prison and house arrest, never learned the art of political maneuver.

She was miscast as a surrogate for her late husband, three-time Argentine President Juan Domingo Peron.

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Although she managed to hold onto the Argentine presidency for two years in the mid1970s, she was unable to command the respect of even her husband's political cronies.

Known widely as "Isabel," she stayed in power because neither her husband's supporters nor other Argentine factions could decide on a successor. But as Argentina's economy sagged dangerously during those years and leftist guerrilla groups seized whole provinces and brought mayhem to the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina slipped into virtual anarchy. Eventually in 1976, the military took power, arresting her.

She will now leave Argentina for exile in Spain, where she and her late husband had a home. But first she is expected to visit Panama, as guest of Panama's strong man, Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera. It was in Panama in 1956 that she and Mr. Peron met, while she was performing with an Argentine dance troupe.

He was then in exile, having been ousted from the Argentine presidency the year before. They were married and spent most of the 1960s in Spain, returning to Argentina in the early 1970s when Mr. Peron staged a political comeback.

Isabel was always in the shadow of another Mrs. Peron -- Evita, Mr. Peron's second wife, who still commands loyalty and affection from millions of Argentines even 30 years after her passing. Although Evita never made the presidency, she remains more popular and is more associated in the public mind with Mr. Peron than is Isabel.

When the military arrested Isabel as they seized power in 1976, there was little public outcry on her behalf.

The Peronista movement dominated Argentine politics for more than a generation. It still has millions of followers, but the movement's leadership is in disarray today. The reasons are many. At his passing in 1974, Mr. Peron left no clear successor, except Isabel, whose coterie of admirers never commanded much respect within the labor-based Peronista movement.

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In fact, the sharp personal rivalries within the movement were one reason Mr. Peron had not decided on an heir.

Her one key adviser, Jose Lopez Rega, was a mystic who believed in visions. He was widely disliked by Peronistas -- and even before her overthrow he was forced to flee into Spanish exile.

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