The Third Term (1973–1974)
General elections were held on March 11, 1973. Perón was banned from running, but a stand-in, Héctor Cámpora, a left-wing Peronist and his personal secretary, was elected and took office on May 25. On June 20, 1973, Perón returned from Spain to end his 18-year exile. According to Página 12 newspaper, Licio Gelli, headmaster of Propaganda Due, had provided an Alitalia plane to return Perón to his native country. Gelli was part of a committee supporting Perón, along with Carlos Saúl Menem (future President of Argentina, 1989–1999). The former Italian Premier Giulio Andreotti recalled an encounter between Perón, his wife Isabel Martínez and Gelli, saying that Perón knelt before Licio Gelli to salute him.
On the day of Perón's return, a crowd of left-wing Peronists (estimated at 3.5 million) gathered at the Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires to welcome him. Perón was accompanied by Cámpora, whose first measures were to grant amnesty to all political prisoners and re-establish relations with Cuba, helping Fidel Castro break the United States embargo against Cuba. This, along with his social policies, had earned him the opposition of right-wing Peronists, including the trade-unionist bureaucracy.
Camouflaged snipers opened fire on the crowd at the airport. The left-wing Peronist Youth Organization and the Montoneros had been trapped. At least 13 people were killed and 365 injured in this episode, which became known as the Ezeiza massacre.
Cámpora and Vice President Vicente Solano Lima resigned in July 1973, paving the way for new elections, this time with Perón's participation as the Justicialist Party nominee. Argentina faced mounting political instability, and Perón was viewed by many as the country's only hope for prosperity and safety. UCR leader Ricardo Balbín and Perón contemplated a Peronist-Radical joint government, but opposition in both parties made this impossible. Besides opposition among Peronists, Ricardo Balbín had to consider opposition within the UCR itself, led by Raúl Alfonsín, a leader among the UCR's center-left. Perón received 62% of the vote, returning him to the presidency. He began his third term on October 12, 1973, with Isabel, his wife, as Vice President.
Upon Cámpora's inaugural, Perón had him appoint a trusted policy adviser to the critical Economy Ministry, José Ber Gelbard. Inheriting an economy that had doubled in output since 1955 with little indebtedness and only modest new foreign investment, inflation had become a fixture in daily life and was worsening: consumer prices rose by 80% in the year to May 1973 (triple the long-term average, up to then). Making this a policy priority, Ber Gelbard crafted a "social pact" in hopes of finding a happy median between the needs of management and labor. Providing a framework for negotiating price controls, guidelines for collective bargaining and a package of subsidies and credits, the pact was promptly signed by the CGT (then the largest labor union in South America) and management (represented by Julio Broner and the CGE). The measure was largely successful, initially: inflation slowed to 12% and real wages rose by over 20% during the first year. GDP growth accelerated from 3% in 1972 to over 6% in 1974. The plan also envisaged the paydown of Argentina's growing public external debt, then around US$8 billion, within four years.
The improving economic situation encouraged Perón to pursue interventionist social and economic policies similar to those he carried out in the Forties: nationalizing banks and various industries, subsidizing native businesses and consumers, regulating and taxing the agricultural sector, reviving the IAPI, placing restrictions on foreign investment, and funding a number of social welfare programs. In addition, new rights for workers were introduced.
The 1973 oil shock, however, forced Ber Gelbard to rethink the Central Bank's projected reserves and, accordingly, undid planned reductions in stubborn budget deficits, then around US$2 billion a year (4% of GDP). Increasingly frequent collective bargaining agreements in excess of Social Pact wage guidelines and a resurgence in inflation led to growing strain on the viability of the plan by mid-1974, however.
Perón's third term was also marked by an escalating conflict between the Peronist left- and right-wing factions. This turmoil was fueled primarily by calls for repression against the left on the part of leading CGT figures, a growing segment of the armed forces (particularly the navy) and right-wing radicals within his own party, notably Perón's most fascist adviser, José López Rega. López Rega, appointed Minister of Social Welfare, was in practice given power far beyond his purview, soon controlling up to 30 percent of the federal budget. Diverting increasing funds, he formed the Triple A, a death squad that soon began targeting not only the violent left; but moderate opposition, as well. The Montoneros became marginalized in the Peronist movement and were mocked by Perón himself after the Ezeiza massacre. In his speech to the governors on August 2, 1973, Perón openly criticized radical Argentine youth for a lack of political maturity. The rift between Perón and the far left became irreconciliable following the September 25, 1973, murder of José Ignacio Rucci, the moderately conservative Secretary General of CGT.
Enraged, Perón enlisted López Rega to target left-wing opponents. Shortly after Perón's attack on left-wing Peronism, the Montoneros went underground. The murder itself, a commando ambush in front of Rucci's Buenos Aires residence long attributed to the Montoneros (whose record of violence had been well-established by then), remains arguably Argentina's most prominent unsolved mystery. Another guerrilla group, the Guevarist ERP, also opposed the Peronist right-wing. The started engaging in armed struggle, assaulting an important Army barracks in Azul, Buenos Aires Province on January 19, and creating a foco (insurrection) in Tucumán, a historically underdeveloped province in Argentina's largely rural northwest.
Perón's somewhat precarious health complicated matters. He suffered from an enlarged prostate and heart disease, and by at least one account, he may have been senile by the time he was sworn in for his third term. His wife frequently had to take over as Acting President over the course of the next year.
Perón maintained a full schedule of policy meetings with both government officials and chief base of support, the CGT. He also presided over the inaugural of the Atucha I Nuclear Power Plant (Latin America's first) in April; the reactor, begun while he was in exile, was the fruition of work started in the 1950s by the National Atomic Energy Commission, his landmark bureau. His diminishing support from the far left (which believed Perón had come under the control of the right-wing entorno (entourage) led by López Rega, UOM head Lorenzo Miguel, and Perón's own wife) turned to open enmity following rallies on the Plaza de Mayo on May 1 and June 12 in which the president condemned their demands and increasingly violent activities.
Perón was reunited with another friend from the 1950s – Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner – on June 16 to sign the bilateral treaty that broke ground on Yacyretá Hydroelectric Dam (the world's second-largest). Arriving in Asunción during an autumn rainstorm, he refused an umbrella while reviewing the honor guard. Perón returned to Buenos Aires with clear signs of pneumonia and, on June 28, he suffered a series of heart attacks. The vice-president, on a trade mission in Europe, returned urgently, secretly sworn in on an interim basis on June 29. Following a promising day, Perón suffered a final attack on July 1, 1974. He was 78.
Perón had recommended that his wife, Isabel, rely on Balbín for support, and at the president's burial Balbín uttered an historic phrase: "The old adversary bids farewell to a friend."
Isabel Perón succeeded her husband to the presidency, but proved incapable of managing the country's political and economic problems, including the left-wing insurgency and the reactions of the extreme right. Ignoring her late husband's advice, Isabel gave Balbín no role in her new government, instead granting broad powers to López Rega, who started a "dirty war" against political opponents.
Isabel Perón's term ended abruptly on March 24, 1976, during a military coup d'état. A military junta, headed by General Jorge Videla, took control of the country, establishing the self-styled National Reorganization Process. The junta ramped up the "dirty war", combining widespread persecution of political dissidents with state terrorism. The death toll rose to thousands (at least 9,000, with human rights organizations claiming it was closer to 30,000). Many of these were "the disappeared" (desaparecidos), people kidnapped and executed without trial or record.
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