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From the NS archive: Return of the dictators?

1 October 1971: In Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela there are signs that former dictators, Juan Peron, Rojas Pinilla and Marcos Perez Jimenez, will return to power as democratic heads of state.

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In this October 1971 article, Jo Beresford looked to Latin America and the increasing likelihood of former dictators in Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela making democratic comebacks. In Argentina, the author wrote, the military government wanted to hold elections, “but recognises that without Perón they would be a meaningless charade”. The reasons for these remarkable events included the countries’ absence of political freedom and increasing social and economic problems, as well as the former dictators’ sustained popularity with the people. Beresford concluded: “The rehabilitation of these three dictators shows just how short political memories can be.” In the end, of the three, only Perón returned to power.

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When Eva Perón died in 1952, her body was embalmed so thoroughly that it will last for 50 years. The way things are going, that may well have been prudent. Last month her body was disinterred from the Milan cemetery where it has lain since 1955 and returned to her husband in exile in Madrid. To a Western observer, the continuing cult of Eva Perón is bizarre, faintly gruesome and ultimately, perhaps, inexplicable; but her memory remains a force in Argentinian politics and the restoration of her remains may well bring closer Argentina's first elections for nearly 10 years.

It works this way. The military government of General Lanusse wants to hold elections, but recognises that without Perón they would be a meaningless charade – for the Perónists, with around a third of the vote, are the largest single political force in Argentina. Juan Perón says that he will return, but on his own conditions (which include the restoration of his wife's body and the abandonment of a rape charge which has been hanging over his head since 1955). That the presence of the ex-dictator should be essential to the holding of elections is remarkable in itself; that it should be seen as the first major step towards the restoration of democracy in one of the largest and wealthiest countries in Latin America seems almost as strange as the cult over Eva Perón's corpse.

Perón is not the only dictator of the Fifties hopeful of making a democratic comeback. In Colombia and Venezuela (two countries which managed an unblemished electoral record throughout the Sixties) there are signs that two former dictators, Rojas Pinilla and Marcos Perez Jimenez, will return to power as democratic heads of state.

In Colombia Rojas Pinilla very nearly managed a comeback last year. In the presidential elections he won overwhelming support in the towns but was unable to carry the more conservative country districts and went down to a narrow defeat. Since then he has formally established his movement – the People's National Alliance – as a political party and is using it to substantiate his political support. So far, the Alliance's platform consists of little more than slogans.

But, like the Peróns, Rojas Pinilla was popular with the poor and underprivileged. Helped by his daughter Maria Eugenia (who played a role something like that of Eva Perón) Rojas was responsible for several popular projects, including the foundation of the major institute for social welfare in Colombia. Since the mid-Sixties, Maria Eugenia has been responsible for organising Rojas's political support; and so successful has she been that his party now seems to have no serious rivals.

One reason for her success – perhaps the major one – is the strange mutual security pact reached in 1958 between the Conservative and Liberal parties. In the hope of putting an end to the bloodbath in which 300,000 people had lost their lives, the two parties agreed to suspend elections and share power for the next 16 years, each alternately forming governments for a four-year stretch . Deprived of any real political choice, the Colombian electorate is easily tempted by an old-style caudillo like Rojas.

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In these circumstances, it seems that only Rojas's failing health can prevent him carrying off next year's municipal elections and those for the presidency in 1974. Maria Eugenia has already announced that, if necessary, she will take over her father’s commitments, but could she maintain his charisma? Maybe she could arrange to have him embalmed.

The third dictator, Marcos Perez Jimenez, who fell from power in Venezuela in 1958, has already achieved some democratic success without even trying. Since his release from prison in 1968, he has been in exile in Lima and Madrid, but in the 1968 senate elections a party set up to support him – the National Civic Crusade – won in Caracas, polling almost half the votes.

Yet of the three dictators, Perez Jimenez undoubtedly offers the dimmest credentials for another term of office. Even his keenest supporters can hardly produce an argument – except that when he was president the country's silver coins really were silver. Caracas is Perez Jimenez’ monument; most people would feel he was welcome to it. But he has promise a government Peruvian style – populist, left-wing and anti-American. He was at Military Academy with the Peruvian president General Velasco Alvarado, and may have been picking up some tips on his regular visits to Lima.

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The Venezuelan elections, and Perez Jimenez' return to power, could well coincide with Perón's. The Argentinian military government has finally settled on March, 1973 for the presidential election. It is unlikely that Perón's party – appropriately named the Hour of the People – could lose an election with him at its head. Now 77, Perón has seen his popularity steadily increase as his dictatorship fades into history. The exclusion of his party from elections since 1955, followed by the prohibition of all political activities since the 1966 military takeover, has endeared Perón even to some of those who opposed him in office. Argentina may be more sophisticated than Colombia, but the recipe for political popularity is the same – absence of political freedom, coupled with increasing social and economic problems. Perón, like Rojas Pinilla, is neither young nor particularly fit; but unlike Rojas, has no obvious political heirs.

The rehabilitation of these three dictators shows just how short political memories can be. It may be that time will catch up with them all before they crown their careers with an electoral victory. But if they do win, the people will probably find a democratically elected dictator an even greater disappointment than the government of the Sixties.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)