Ambassadors of the Working Class: Argentina’s International Labor Activists and Cold War Democracy in the Americas
2017, Duke University Press
314 pages, plates, paperback
AN ENDURING question that hangs over every discussion of Juan Perón like a bad smell is whether he was a fascist.
It’s a very reasonable question, given that the Argentine titan belonged to a cadre of military officers with Nazi sympathies; while serving in Europe formed a favourable impression of fascist leaders; made no secret of his admiration for Spanish Falangism; and gave safe haven after the war to Nazi war criminals.
It is also how Perón was depicted in the Anglo-American world, following a catastrophic war against fascism, during the election that brought him to power in 1946 and particularly by Spruille Braden, the US ambassador to Argentina in 1945.
Braden, himself an arch-conservative, is probably more responsible than any other historical figure for the odour of fascism that sticks to Perón’s legacy, openly encouraging the Unión Democrática opposition alliance in the presidential campaign under a mantra of “No Al Fascismo”.
But the question “Was Perón a fascist?” remains very difficult to answer, not least because there is as much evidence against this position as there is in support of it.
A lot of that evidence resides in the unique relationship between Perón and the Argentine working class that he invited into a broad and diverse regime that has since been loosely termed “populist” – but often simply for want of a better way of describing a sui generis political platform.
First and foremost, prior to his presidency Perón had served as Labour minister in the 1943–46 military government, passing extensive reforms to improve working conditions and in the process building a body of support, much of it among socialists and syndicalists within the Argentine trade unions.
Second, his praise for European leaders such as Mussolini and Hitler is often depicted as sympathy for their regimes, but Perón was drawn above all to the national syndicalism upon which fascism was constructed. While this eventually morphed in most cases into fascism, its origins were proletarian, and Perón became convinced during his period in Europe that this was ultimately a way of bringing workers into national political life and would give way to social democracy.
Third, Perón ran on a Labour party ticket; once in power was a genuine champion of the working class and put them at the heart of a comprehensive industrial policy; made social justice and economic independence his chief domestic goals; included in his cabinet prominent trade unionists and socialists, giving a massive boost to union membership; and increased wages and employment dramatically. Indeed, it was the fierce hostility of the Catholic church to Perón after his legalisation of divorce and prostitution which escalated into violence and came to a head in the brutal Bombing of the Plaza de Mayo that would signal his downfall in 1955.
The simple truth is that Perón’s ideology, such that it was, is hard to pin down using the categories of 1946 let alone today. He was intolerant of both leftwing and conservative opposition and advocated a “third way” in order to avoid binary Cold War divisions. If he was a fascist, it was mostly in terms of his authoritarian reflex and corporatist instinct, one that is shared by many European labour movements. Perón advanced a consistent vision of a form of corporatist pluralism under a shared nationalist banner coloured mostly by the familiar Latin American theme of sovereignty.
This helps to set the scene for one of the best arguments against the simplistic portrayal of Perón as a Latin American Mussolini in Ernesto Semán’s brilliant history of a hidden aspect of Peronism: the Argentine leader’s rhetorical co-option of the American New Deal and his creation of a unique international corps of worker diplomats that would directly challenge US efforts to monopolise working-class perspectives as the Cold War unfolded.
These, Semán notes, “helped to render meaningless the accusations of fascism that the Unión Democrática launched against Perón – not because the charges were not true, but because they were insufficient to describe the varied experiences of workers’ incorporation into Peronism and the worldview they developed along the way.” [p. 52]
From 1946 to 55, Perón’s government recruited more than 500 labour activists from small towns and the sprawling urban centres into Argentina’s diplomatic services and sent them to embassies and as envoys across the world. Perón’s network of worker attachés speaks loudly to the real complexity of his ideology, which was informed as much by the “exceptionality of the Peronist recipe” as it was by Argentina’s sense of predestination and quest for regional leadership.
Given the antipathy that had arisen between Perón and Braden – and deep hostility in Washington to the Argentine leader – Semán traces how the worker attachés confronted a rival network of US trade unionists sent out across the world after the end of the second world war working closely with their government, the CIA and big business as part of a larger effort to contain communism. The real competition in much of the developing world for the hearts and minds of workers in that period had three rival players: the US, the Soviet Union – and Argentina.
Semán records the diverse experiences of Perón’s worker attachés across the world, and notes their profound influence upon subsequent developments. He writes:
“They promoted Peronism as a path for the expansion of social citizenship for the emerging working class and denounced US foreign policy as an ally of local elites in obstructing that mission. With this basic toolkit of ideas, they allied with the leftist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 in Colombia and made sure that indigenous people in Peru had a copy of Perón’s Declaration of the Rights of Workers, which had been translated into Quechua by 1950. They funded an early venture abroad of a young Cuban law student, Fidel Castro, and befriended an equally young Argentine doctor, Ernesto Guevara. In 1954, a Peronist attaché sheltered members of the future leadership of the Guatemalan guerrilla in the Argentine embassy during the CIA-backed military coup.” [pp. 3–4]
Ambassadors of the Working Class is one of those rare hidden histories that come to light out of the blue to capture the imagination. Semán demonstrates that, if the worker attaché programme came to an end in 1955 when Perón was ousted, its influence was enduring. In his conclusion he notes its role in challenging US-led pan-Americanism to build a Latin American bloc that would reject free trade and social conservatism to promote a vision of regional cooperation in a programme for the industrialisation of national economies and the expansion of the welfare state.
That same vision was resurrected almost unchanged in 2005 when presidents of the western hemisphere met in Argentina to discuss George Bush’s imperialistic US vision of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA/ALCA). Perón’s ghost compelled the Latin American leaders to reject it – and when the then Argentine president Nestor Kirchner appeared alongside the Venezuelan socialist Hugo Chávez to pronounce “ALCA está muerto”, they were cheered by hundreds of thousands of Peronists.