Home » Biography » Juan Domingo Pern: Argentine Master Of Labor And Leader Of The Masses

Juan Domingo Pern: Argentine Master Of Labor And Leader Of The Masses

Juan Domingo Pern, born in 1895 in Lobos, Argentina, was the President of Argentina on two occasions separated by eighteen years. He first came to power by the election of February 28,1946. He ruled for almost ten years until he was pressured to resign by the Argentine military and in September of 1955 he left the country. He spent almost the next twenty years in exile but never lost touch with the Argentine people and especially the Argentine labor movement. In 1973, after eighteen years of exile, Pern returned to Argentina and was elected president again with his third wife Isabel as vice-president.

His power as a ruler came out of the special connection that he made with the working classes and unions before and during his first term. Pern was a military man by trade, attending the National Military Academy at age fifteen. He became a captain by 1924 and a professor of military history by 1930. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1936 and was named minister of war during the unrest and bloodless coup of 1944. Pern got his first experience with labor as the head of the National Labor Department. That position evolved into the head of the Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare just over a month later in December of 1944.

Right away Pern required that all employers give employees a one month’s pay bonus every year. This was the beginning of a series of policies that would make Pern the labor union’s president. His ability to come back to power after being out of the country for so long was the product of his close relationship with the labor forces and working class. There are however a few special factors that must be considered when making this claim; namely the background of the labor movement and the way in which labor continued to follow Peronist ideas even after Juan was gone from office.

These labor forces developed such tremendous loyalty to Juan Pern as a result of his special brand of politics which provided that the economic solvency of the working class was the biggest priority of the government. Organized labor in Argentina before the golpe of 1943 was in a state of constant change and motion. Beginning with the golpe de estado that overthrew president Hipolito Yrigoyen in September of 1930, the political climate of Argentina was a turmoiltuous backdrop for the labor movement. The formation of the Conferatcin General del Trabajo [CGT] took place in the same year.

The CGT was a conglomerate of the largest labor unions in the country, like railroad workers unions, construction workers unions and textile workers unions. This marked the beginning of a new type of unionization. The unions that formed between 1930 and 1943 were not only larger and more directed at labor than trades, but they were willing to cooperate with the government. They were bread-and-butter unions, now less interested in being in opposition to the state because they had gotten into industries that required more cooperation with the government like railroads for example. Barager, 1968) The unions started to establish some general trends in their practices in terms of labor management relations. The basic foundations for these relations were collective bargaining and trade-union social insurance, which Pern later adapted for his own use. The social climate in Argentina was also receptive to unionization in the decades prior to Pern’s first time in office. Immigration had all but come to a halt by 1930 which meant that the greater percentage of laborers were second generation Argentines and were more nationalist in leanings.

This was another factor that led to the cooperationist nature of the new unions. Unions in general were getting larger with the migration of large sectors of the Argentine population from the countryside to the urban areas as a result of a failing agrarian economy in the thirties. The global economic depression that took place in the thirties had the greatest effect on the farmers which when coupled with accelerating industrialization provided all of the necessary conditions for urbanization in Argentina.

Urbanization and it’s effect on the size and face of the work force also aided in the move toward unionization in the thirties. By 1942 the CGT, by then the largest union in Argentina, had split into two major factions. The first was in favor of the re-election of General Jose Domenech to the position of Union Secretary General. This faction had more socialist leanings and consisted mainly of the railroad workers unions. This first group became known as CGT1. The group that would be known as CGT2 consisted mainly of construction workers, metal workers and textile workers unions, which were communist led unions.

This second faction wanted the election of Francisco Perez Leirs who happened to be a socialist. This void revolved around the issue of the level of involvement in politics that the union should have. The majority of the CGT; namely the CGT2, were of the bread-and-butter mindset that their union should serve the economic concerns of its members only. The CGT1, whose ideological leanings were more socialistic were more interested in the political aspect of labor relations and did not believe that adequate representation of the workers was possible without becoming involved in national politics.

When Pern became the head of The National Department of Labor in 1944 he theoretically reconciled the two positions by bringing politics to the Unions as the CGT1 wanted, but only in a way as to aid directly in the economic situation of the workers, hence satisfying the communist union leaders of the CGT2. Although in theory his policy had been able to meld the two positions, as both the communists and the socialists needs were met, the middle level leaders of the unions could not be brought to agreement or compromise in their opinions. This dissent among the middle level leaders would never really go away for Pern.

On June 4, 1943 the military in Argentina, which had been serving as the ultimate law of the land since the golpe de estado of 1930, took control of the government. The reasons behind this golpe were mostly related to the circumstances of World War II. In Argentina prior to WWII the general sentiment was that of sympathy for the Axis powers. Pern himself had been an observer in the Italian army in 1939. When it came time for Argentina to take sides in the war, however, there was a general fear of becoming allied with either side given the already shaky domestic political situation.

The election scheduled for the end of 1943 showed promise that a president would be elected with some allied sympathies, Patron Costas. Costas was a pro-British landowner who many assumed would draw Argentina into the war on the side of the allies. The military intervened and took over the government to avoid this pro-ailed president coming to power. The military insurgence was led by General Pedro Pablo Ramirez, and Pern was among the higher ranking military leaders involved. Pern was rewarded with the positions of undersecretary of war, head of the National Labor Department and later vice-president of the country.

The first actions of the military regime were to suspend the constitution and the congress and to disband the CGT2. The communist sympathies of the CGT2 were the primary reason for it’s suppression. The military government had come to save Argentina from jumping into the war on the allied side and temporarily achieved that goal. The original goal of the golpe had been ignored by the end of March 1945 when Argentina declared war on Germany and Japan. This was a political maneuver to be sure, as the war was practically over by this time, but the declaration was still a departure from the original plans of the golpe.

By September of 1943 there were widespread demonstrations against the military government in Argentina. The military group was in need of some support from pockets of civilians. Pern had made the secretariat of labor so involved in collective bargaining agreements that the workers looked fondly on his power. He was often credited with improvements in the workplace more so than the employers who agreed to them. Through several successful interventions in bargaining Pern made the labor movement into a powerful political machine for himself, while at the time it served as the civilian support that the military government needed.

Despite his role in making the military government more palatable for the masses, there was still dissent within the regime and on October 9, 1945 he was forced to resign from his positions by President Farrell. He left the offices and was arrested by the state. By October 13 his friends and supporters were organizing a labor protest. On October 16 workers from all over the country began organizing in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aries. They had come from all over the city and around the country as well, as Pern had reached out to agrarian workers as well as urbanized factory workers.

By the end of the day Pern was released from his arrest on the Isla de Martin Garcia and the next day he appeared on the balcony of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aries before thousands of cheering workers. After his release he declined the invitation to return to his political positions so that he could run for president instead. He was responsible for the formation of three political parties, although only one directly. The Partido Laborista was the party under which he ran for office and it was made up primarily of trade union officials from around the republic.

Two other parties that spontaneously formed threw in their lot with Pern. The Renovated Radical Party was made up of a group of radical party leaders who left the mainstream liberal party. The Independent ticket as they called themselves were made up of random elements of the socio-political spectrum. The election was held on February 24, 1946. With the support of these three parties Pern won the election in a fairly convincing manner, with 52 percent of the vote and his nearest opponent received only 42 percent. It was the first truly honest election in Argentina since 1928.

The legacy of this rise to power for Pern was in the support that he gained in the working classes. The majority of common workers in Argentina in 1946 felt a stronger tie with Pern than with their union leaders because Pern had been so intimately involved in their struggles. In his presidency he continued to address the needs of the masses because he was very politically aware of the need to do so. He believed that one must adapt the country to the world’s evolution by bringing justice to the people. (Hodges, 1988) This focus on the people was a priority throughout Pern’s regime.

Pern’s motto for his system which he called justicialism was Political sovereignty, economic independence, social justice. (Whitaker, 1956) This motto conveys a sense of the perfect balance of the three elements included, but not accidentally, the element of freedom is missing from this characterization. Accusations that Pern had some elements of fascism in his politics come from the fact that many freedoms in Argentina were suppressed by his regime. He was, after all, a military man before he was a labor leader and his rule was a delicate balance of labor sympathy and military control.

He did suppress the voices of parties who opposed him beginning with any and all labor parties. Juan and Evita Pern eliminated union leaders who were anti-Peronist in their loyalties and replaced them with officials of Pern’s choice. (Barager, 1968) His regime was not without incident, which certainly comes as no surprise. He authored a new constitution that was accepted by congress in 1949 which allowed him to run for another term as president. It was during his second campaign that he established the Peronist Party.

He won a second term easily, but the end of his perfect control was near. He never truly reconciled with certain factions of the military and in September of 1951 there was a brief revolt against his regime led by officers of the army who had been jaded by Pern’s rule. The revolt was brief and was put down without major bloodshed. This incident served only to strengthen Pern’s position, as he had good reason to remove officers who had shown dissent. Many of these officers were imprisoned, leaving the army with less anti-Peronist sentiment than prior to the revolt.

Although the majority of the army was strictly Peronist after the September 28th unsuccessful uprising, there were other forces of dissent still alive in the social picture. At the beginning of his rule Pern had been seeking the support of the Church and had seen considerable success in that regard. (Whitaker, 1968) But after the first few years of his regime there developed a fair amount of tension between the Church and Pern. By 1954 Church officials were outraged by measures taken by Pern to legalize divorce and prostitution as well as the elimination of religion from education.

As the Church was more moved by Pern’s policies it began to develop some political machinery of it’s own which was quickly dismantled by Pern’s police. (Whitaker, 1968) After a series of political scuffles and a small riot in Buenos Aries, Pern was excommunicated on June 16th 1955. This may have been one of the final nails in the coffin of his second term in his first regime. Pern steadily lost his hold on the government from the time of his excommunication. The same day, June 16th elements of the navy and the air force began attacking property of Peronist loyalists.

The army was able to withstand this attack, but it would not be the last. In July Pern made attempts to save some order by calling for a stop to the political unrest and ten days later announcing an end to his revolution which had lasted twelve years. These attempts were met with strong resistance, especially from the leader of the Radical Party, Arturo Frondizi. On August 31st Pern offered his resignation but he soon withdrew it when the members of the CGT rose in a mass rally similar to that of the famous rally of October 17, 1945.

This resurgence of Pern’s power was again short lived as by September 22nd a military junta led by General Eduardo Lonardi had gained the support of parts of every branch of the military and had effectively removed Pern from office. Pern took refuge on a Paraguayan gunboat and wouldn’t return to Argentina as leader again for another 18 years. General Lonardi became the president of Argentina and promised a restoration of democracy and constitutional government. By the end of November the Peronist party had been abolished and Pern’s constitution of 1949 had been annulled.

The constitution of 1853 was restored as the framework for the government. The movement that had removed Pern from power was called the Revolucion Libertadora, but this liberating revolution would not be able to liberate itself from the chains of the workers who clung to Pern even in his 18 years of absence. From the start of the new regime it was quite clear that the ideological triumph of the liberating revolution didn’t mean much to the labor union members who had been supported and given support to Pern.

The bureaucrats of the CGT were eager to gain the support of the government and work with the new regime in a positive way, however the members were not nearly as cooperatively minded. The secretary general of the CGT, Hugo di Pietro, urged the members to remain calm and not act in a manner as to disturb the regime. General Lombardi didn’t last long as the leader of the new Argentine government; he was forced to resign on the 13th of November 1955 at which time General Aramburu assumed the presidency. The essential conflict in these early stages of the state was the reconciliation of Peronist unions in a non-Peronist state.

On November 14th the CGT called a general strike which was the last action that the government would allow the CGT to make legally. On that same day the government declared the strike illegal and two days later the CGT was intervened along with all other unions. It wasn’t long before Pern would begin to exercise his remote control of the movement to resist the liberal revolution. In January of 1956 Pern sent a message to the top militants in the movement which was smuggled into Argentina by Peronist exiles in Chile. Pern called for industrial sabotage and a political struggle against the dictatorship. Hodges, 1988)

Pern’s secret directive outlined the foundations of the movement. First, the workers were to undertake actions independently of their former leaders, many of whom had become caught up in the bureaucracy of the new regime. Secondly the workers were to refuse contact with the new dictatorship and reject those who made such contact. Thirdly, the home of each member was supposed to be turned into a single cell for the purpose of establishing an underground organization. Fourth, the directive suggested that trade unions replace some old leaders with more militant ones who would support clandestine activity.

Fifth and finally, the trade unions were to organize strike committees, work stoppages, breakdowns and slowdowns intended to demoralize the new regime. (Hodges, 1988) This call produced immediate responses from around the nation and by February of 1956 a Clandestine National Command formed the organizational backbone for all underground Peronist groups. The national command published it’s manifesto demanding the return of Pern in the same month. This group would prove to be the organization needed to demoralize the government, but only after the addition of some physical disruption to the ideological resistance.

The first organized physical move of the resistance took place under the leadership of General Juan Jose Valle on June 9th 1956. This small attempt at a golpe failed quickly and as a result of the failure many Peronist sympathizers were assassinated, not to mention the fact that Valle and other officers were executed at the hands of a firing squad. Pern began corresponding specifically with John William Cooke, the secretary of the Peronist Party in the Buenos Aries Province at the time. Cooke became a close advisor to Pern in his extended discourse with the resistance movement from his exile.

In a letter that Pern sent to Cooke in May of 1957 he said that he favored the use of psychological warfare. What Pern called an integral war strategically consisted of the perpetration of social disorders to prepare a new climate of hostilities. (Hodges, 1988) Clearly Pern had his hand in determining the policies and actions of the national command in furthering the resistance. The political power that Pern wielded was displayed in February of 1958 with the Pern-Frondizi Pact This agreement between the presidential candidate Arturo Frondizi and Juan Pern was a trade of votes for amnesty.

Pern demanded that in order for him to swing two million votes in Frondizi’s direction, the later would need to promise to legalize the Peronist resistance movement and the Peronist party in addition to a general amnesty for the imprisoned and exiled Peronists and a restoration of the CGT with Peronist leadership. Pern was able to give Frondizi the votes to win the election, a sure sign of the popular might that he possessed, and in return Frondizi did grant the general amnesty although he did not fulfill the rest of the bargain until 1962.

Pern was content that his deal with Frondizi had strengthened his position and continued to feel that insurrection was the best way to eventually regain power. In another letter to Cooke, dated September 16, 1958, mailed from the Dominican Republic, Pern said in the street power is in the hands of those who manipulate the massesraise problems in the street through an agitation without precedent (Hodges, 1988) Through a large number of small acts of resistance all over the country in addition to more strikes such as the general strike of January 17-19, 1959 the Peronist party made its presence known and kept the resistance alive.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.