Until Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope in 2013, the most famous Argentine of modern times was an army officer and politician named Juan Domingo Perón. Perón served as Argentina’s president from 1946-1955 and 1973-1974. Although Perón died 42 years ago, the man and the movements he inspired have cast a long shadow over many Argentines’ lives. Given his age, that definitely includes Pope Francis. But do Francis’ ideas and governing-style reflect anything of the thought and words of a man who remains a major reference-point for many Argentines today?
Outside Latin America, most people probably know of Perón because of an award-winning hit musical. First released in 1976 and composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber with lyrics by Tim Rice, Evita traces the life of Perón’s second wife, Eva Duarte (“Evita”). She died from cancer at age 33, but not before Argentina’s Congress declared her “Spiritual Leader of the Nation” in 1952. That underscores the iconic status she was accorded by many Argentines and which Weber and Rice used as Evita’s centerpiece.
Careful readers of Evita’s lyrics, however, soon recognize that it contains considerable criticisms of the Peróns. Evita alludes to widespread corruption associated with Perónist organizations, a cynical attitude on Juan Perón’s part towards his working-class supporters, pseudo-religious cults of personality surrounding the Peróns, and their intolerance of dissent. Nor is the musical shy about highlighting how the Peróns were out-and-out populists who used nationalist and class-warfare language to whip-up resentment against their political rivals and foreigners: specifically, British and Americans.
Like many 20th-century Latin American politicians, Juan Perón’s road to power began with the military. He first became prominent following a military coup in 1943 and his appointment as Minister of Labor. Then-Colonel Perón swiftly introduced labor laws that favored employees and trade unions: so much so that he earned an abiding loyalty from what were called los descamisados (literally, the shirtless ones) or, broadly-speaking, the working-class and the poor. Even today, Argentina’s powerful trade unions remain a bedrock of Perónist support.
Perón’s economic ideas are best described as a mixture of economic nationalism, extensive wealth-redistribution, efforts by the state to coordinate different groups from the top-down (also known as “corporatism”), and a suspicion of markets. This resulted in heavy tariffs on foreign products, subsidies for domestic businesses (especially those close to government officials), and nationalization of key industries.
After being elected president in 1946, Perón was initially elusive about his precise political beliefs. In 1948, he stated that Perónism “is not learned, nor just talked about: one either feels it or else disagrees. Perónism is a question of the heart rather than the head.” In an April 1949 speech to the National Congress of Philosophy, however, Perón outlined a political model called justicialismo. Its goal was what Perón called an “organized community”: one which sought to balance classes and interest-groups so that each exercises “its functions for the good of all.” Achieving this equilibrium, Perón maintained, required what he called a conductor: someone who, like a military officer, can exercise tactical flexibility in pursuing a strategic goal.
As one of Perón’s biographers Joseph Page observes, justicialismo essentially sought to rationalize the alliance which propelled Perón to power: the working-class, the lower middle-class, trade unionists, and farm-workers. This was accompanied by increasing authoritarianism on Perón’s part, the parodying and demonizing of opponents, and constant appeals to “the people” against real and invented adversaries. In short, Perón’s economic policies went hand-in-hand with increasing restrictions on freedom.
There was, however, another side to Perón’s politics. This had less to do with content than with style. Perón’s emphasis on el conductor’s need to be flexible involved him, Page states, “not only cultivating vagueness but also glorifying it as a virtue.” This in turn produced “flights of nonsensical obscurantism.” In 1950, for instance, Perón claimed that Perónism “is an ideological position that is in the center, on the left, or on the right, according to circumstances. We obey circumstances.”
Yet there was a method to this apparent madness. And that was a refusal to be limited by principles or the inner logic of ideas. On many occasions, Perón expressed impatience with intellectual abstraction. What mattered was movement and adaptation to existing conditions.
A Perónist pope?
Some of this will remind readers of expressions used by Pope Francis. Take, for example, Francis’s often-repeated statement: “Realities are greater than ideas.” Precisely what this means is unclear. After all, an idea is a reality. Moreover, the claim that “realties are greater than ideas” is an idea, just as Perón’s assertion that we must adapt to circumstances is a theory about how we should act.
But is Francis really a Perónist? Or does some of his rhetoric just happen to mirror that of Perón and his followers? These are difficult questions to answer, given (1) Perón’s gift for ambiguity and (2) the pitfalls involved in drawing correlations. It’s no secret, for example, that Francis is, like Perón, skeptical about free markets. That, however, doesn’t automatically make the pope a Perónist. Doubts about capitalism run the political gamut, ranging from royalists to Marxists.
On the other hand, it was impossible for an Argentine of Jorge Bergoglio’s generation not to have a position vis-à-vis Perón. Perón was in exile between 1955 and 1973. Perónist organizations were officially suppressed. Nevertheless, Perón and Perónism remained the alternative for decades to those dissatisfied with non-Perónist governments.
It would also be unsurprising for an Argentine Catholic like Bergoglio to have Perónist sympathies. Perón wasn’t a particularly observant Catholic. At one point, he was formally excommunicated. He also dabbled in Spiritism. Nonetheless, Perón wanted the Church’s support. He occasionally referenced Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno as one of his inspirations. At one point, a Jesuit, Father Hernán Benítz, functioned as a Perón advisor while serving as Eva’s confessor. He also administered the last rites before she died.
Perón turned against the Church in the early 1950s as his regime drifted down the authoritarian path invariably taken by all Latin American populists. The Church particularly resisted its organizations being subsumed into Perón’s corporatist state. Even so, Perón’s populist rhetoric about los descamisados in a highly class-conscious society struck a chord with Argentine Catholics concerned about poverty. This magnified as Argentina’s economic situation continued deteriorating throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.
Looking at Bergoglio’s life in Argentina, there’s no evidence of any significant personal encounters with Perón. There are conflicting accounts of Bergoglio’s views of Perónism as a schoolboy and young man. But according to Armando Rubén Puente, author of the revealing book, La Vida Oculta de Bergoglio (2014), Bergoglio grew close to one particular Perónist movement in the early 1970s: the Guardia de Hierro (Iron Guard).
This movement, especially active at the Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires, resisted many Perónists’ drift into Marxism and leftist violence. Though influenced by ideas from across the political spectrum, Guardia members worked with those living on the margins. This would have appealed to Father Bergoglio, as would their emphasis on being with “the people.”
It’s also clear that some of the Argentines who developed the teología del pueblo, which has influenced Francis’ thought, were close to Guardia Perónism. Bergoglio’s Guardia empathies were one reason, Rubén Puente suggests, that the young Jesuit provincial was asked in 1974 to join a small group involved in drafting Perón’s political testament. El conductor imagined this document would overcome the deep divisions in Argentine society after his death.
That very year, Perón died. Argentina was subsequently paralyzed by a violent leftist insurgency, swiftly succeeded by military repression. Such was the calamitous state in which Perón left Argentina. In a text circulated to Argentine Jesuits upon hearing of Perón’s death, however, Bergoglio noted that the deceased Perón had been thrice elected by the people and enjoyed their support. That’s undoubtedly true. And for someone like Bergoglio, whose theological outlook has invoked el pueblo since the 1970s, this greatly mattered.
Coincidence or parallels?
All in all, the evidence suggests that while it’s possible to describe Francis as a Perónist, one should hesitate before drawing too close a link between the pope and Perón himself. Nor should we conclude that Bergoglio embraced all Perón’s ideas or blindly supported anyone claiming the Perónist label. As Buenos Aires’ archbishop, for instance, Bergoglio often challenged Argentina’s Perónist presidents, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, who dominated Argentine politics between 2003 and 2015 and whose left-populist policies wreaked further havoc upon Argentina’s already fragile economy.
That said, Perón and Perónism were inescapable presences for any Argentine of Francis’ vintage. In this respect, Perón’s impact upon several generations of Argentines is comparable to that of Ronald Reagan’s ideas and rhetorical style upon many Americans in the 1980s, or Saint John Paul II’s personality and teachings upon many Catholics from the 1980s until the early 2000s.
Correlation isn’t causation. Yet parallels exist between the styles of el conductor and Francis. These include (1) an imprecision of language which strikes many as intentional; (2) a rhetorical tendency to caricature critics rather than seriously engage their arguments; (3) an emphasis upon action that’s inattentive to the fact that coherent action depends upon coherent thought; and (4) an attachment to el pueblo—something invested with almost mystical qualities by Perón and Francis, but which often morphs into populism.
Above all, it adds up to a shared penchant for unpredictability, sometimes, it seems, for unpredictability’s sake. In Perón’s case, it contributed to Argentina enduring decades of economic dysfunctionality, periodic violence, and deep political instability. What it indicates about Francis’s long-term impact upon Catholicism is anyone’s guess.