An army officer, Perón was the leader of a group of colonels that rose to prominence after the overthrow of the government of Ramón Castillo in 1943, a group which supported the fascist and Nazi movements in Italy and Germany. As secretary of labor and social welfare, and later as minister of war and vice president, Perón was the real power behind the administration of Edelmiro Farrell. By backing the labor unions and decreeing extensive welfare legislation, he won the allegiance of Argentine workers, who became the backbone of his support. Imprisoned in 1945 after a coup, he was released following mass demonstrations of workers, and was elected president by a huge majority in 1946.
His political program, which he called a third position between capitalism and communism, was strongly nationalistic, anti-imperialist and anti-United States. It was based on rapid industrialization and economic self-sufficiency. In power, Perón became increasingly authoritarian: opponents were jailed, the press was muzzled or shut down, and education was strictly controlled. With the aid of his popular second wife, Eva Duarte de Perón, he converted trade unions into a militant organization, known as the descamisados [shirtless ones], along fascist lines.
Peronist support weakened by the early 1950s as the price of wheat and beef fell and the economy deteriorated. The death (1952) of Eva Perón, who had commanded an enormous political following, also contributed to his decline. An anticlerical campaign launched by Perón led to his excommunication in June, 1955. The unusual coalition of labor, reactionaries, nationalists, churchmen, and military leaders that had supported Perón came apart. The military seized power the following September, forcing him to flee, first to Paraguay and ultimately (1960) to Spain. Peronismo nevertheless remained the most powerful political force in Argentina.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.