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Class Conflict, Economic Stagnation, and the Road to Argentina’s Dirty War

By Taylor Marvin

The 1976 junta, architects of the Dirty War.

The 1976 junta, architects of the Dirty War.

Argentina’s Dirty War is one of history’s great tragedy. Between 1976 and 1983 Argentina’s military government killed between 9,000 and 30,000 Argentines in an effort to counter the perceived threat of leftist social activism, a crime supported by the United States government. Despite its infamy, the causes of the Dirty War are not clearly understood. This uncertainty is characteristic of the Dirty War– despite the passage of nearly thirty years it is difficult to even clearly say what, exactly, the Dirty War was. To some degree, it was a civil war – the junta orchestrating the violence certainly saw themselves as part of an existential conflict against internal communism and anarchy. However, this label does not fully express the history of the violence. Despite the violent aspirations of leftist and Peronist groups, the non-state actors that both opposed and supported the conservative junta never approached the organizational and military capacity necessary for serious action against the government. In this way the Dirty War was much more similar to a mass breakdown of civil society that sparked organized governmental violence against the Argentine population, and the Dirty War possibly shares more with the chaotic French or Chinese Cultural Revolutions than the more organized, bipolar conflict typically termed “civil wars”.

What is interesting about the Dirty War isn’t its brutality – its torture and fear were symptoms that defined 20th century state failure across Latin America. Instead, what is interesting about Argentina’s descent into chaos is that, on the surface, it doesn’t appear to have been predictable. Despite its deep structural problems, Argentina in 1970 was a fairly wealthy country with a developed and relatively educated urban population, largely free from the grinding rural poverty that characterized its northern Latin American counterparts. Similarly, despite frequent social unrest is seems reasonable to have expected Argentina’s relatively high consumption level to have moderated social unrest. However, there were signs that Argentine society in 1970 stood on the edge of a precipice. The Peronist movement of the 1950s and 1960s had overturned the established Argentine political equilibrium, and Argentina’s five military coups by 1970 were high, but not exceptional, by Latin American standards. However, what made Argentina exceptional was its extreme social inequality, which bred a class conflict whose violence and instability was extreme even by Latin American standards. This class conflict created the conditions that allowed Argentine society to become progressively more unstable throughout the 20th century, and created the economic conditions that encouraged social divisions to explode into the chaos and violence of the Dirty War.

Argentine society was founded on social divisions. Immediately after independence, Argentina was segregated between residents of the coastal cities and the interior provinces. This divide was rooted in the dramatic social and economic difference between urban Argentina and the mostly rural provinces, and expressed itself in the long dispute over the future of the Argentine state. Coastal urban liberal elites, or unitarios, believed that the Argentine government should be highly centralized and dominated by the growing capital city of Buenos Aires. Conservatives, or Federalists, disagreed with the Liberal Party vision for the future of Argentina and instead advocated a federal, decentralized government where most power rested in rural regional governorships. The unitario-Federalist conflict sparked repeated civil wars between rural and urban factions, with control of Argentina alternating between both sides throughout the early to mid-19th century.

The enmity of this conflict was intense. The Liberal elite saw the rural caudillos — rural warlords — and their guacho, or cowboy, supporters who strongly supported federalism as racially inferior barbarians who would have to be exterminated before Argentina could attain prosperity. Even in the decades immediately after independence Argentina’s urban and coastal populations was primarily ethnically European, and urban authorities were adamant about their desire that Argentina would grow into a culturally European state. While the exact ethnic origin of the gauchos is debated, it was commonly accepted in contemporary Argentine society that the gauchos drew much of their ethnic and cultural heritage from the native populations of the Argentine pampas, and were much less culturally European than the costal urban population. Because of the guachos’ indigenous cultural origin and habit of hunting cattle without the permission of the central government, liberal politicians typically viewed gauchos, and other rural workers, as no better than criminals. This hostility was clearly articulated by the liberal politician and later president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in his 1845 book Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism that framed the conflict between unitarios and Federalists in terms of a universal battle between savagery and the civilizing influence of the cities. While Sarmiento’s views were extreme, they were by no means unusual; most Unitarian politicians saw the entire rural class of Argentine workers as a tangible threat to the future prosperity of Argentina. The extreme hostility of the unitario-Federalist conflict would become a defining trait of Argentine class conflict: conservatives of the 1970s likely saw their working class political opponents in the same terms as the barbarian threat Sarmiento perceived. Despite its geographic origins, elements of classism were pervasive in the conflict between the unitarios and the Federalists. Gaucho resentment of the wealthy coastal elite and deep racial animosity between the two sides raised the intensity of the conflict, and contributed to its escalation into frequent open warfare.

Open warfare was common during the era of the unitario-Federalist conflict.

Open civil war was common during the era of the unitario-Federalist conflict.

The unitario-Federalist conflict waned by the 1860s. Federalist leaders and their rural gaucho supporters gradually became less politically influential, and a series of unitario Liberal Presidents successfully shaped the Argentine state into a centralized government based in Buenos Aires. Despite the consolidation of the Argentine government, the social divide between workers and wealthy elites remained. However, their political identities shifted to ones drawn from purely class rather than geographic divides. The newly dominant wealthy – mostly located in the rapidly growing capital but also in the provinces – held mostly conservative political views, while liberal leaders among the expanding poor and working classes agitated for social change.

The conservative elite that grew out of the wealthy unitario Liberals were able to dominate Argentine politics through a mixture of violence and fraud. While Argentina was nominally a democracy, the secret ballot was not adopted until 1873, making voters vulnerable to intimidation and retaliation for daring to vote against the dominant political force in their town. This vulnerability meant that elections were usually violent, and electoral outcomes in individual polls often depended on which group physically controlled the area. When working class Argentines did vote, their participation in the political process was negated by widespread electoral fraud by the elite. Undisciplined gangs commonly attempted to disrupt voting in political opponents’ districts, and wealthy Argentine politicians, most of them from dominant Porteño families, often organized gangs of thugs or former soldiers to accompany them to the polls and intimidate or disrupt opposition voters. These abuses were the result of systematic fraud by the leaders of the Buenos Aires political machines, and were designed to preserve the oligarchical rule of the wealthy elite despite their numerical disadvantage. Though democratic government theoretically gave the working class the power over elite politicians, the determined effort by wealthy conservatives to undermine and manipulate elections allowed power to remain concentrated in the hands of the Buenos Aires elite. The electoral violence and fraud of the oligarchical era set the standard for later Argentine democracy — though Argentina would remain nominally a democracy, the wealthy elites that emerged from the unitario-Federalist conflict understood that fraud and social oppression were now acceptable political techniques.

Despite dedicated efforts to maintain their control over Argentine society, the era of oligarchical dominance began to crumble in the 1890s. In the aftermath of a prolonged recession caused by decades of economic mismanagement by the oligarchy, working class liberals were able to win significant control over Argentine society from the elites, culminating in the establishment of universal male suffrage in 1912 – a reform that made election fraud by the elite much more difficult – and the democratic overthrow of the oligarchy by the liberal Radical party in the elections of 1916. During Radical Party rule Argentina benefited from a strong global economic environment, and liberal lawmakers supported by the working class and poor were able to make significant social gains. Not coincidently, this period of broadly democratic government coincided with the height of Argentine economic success. After the development of intensive trans-Atlantic trade Argentine agricultural exports to Europe rapidly grew the economy and supported a growing immigrant population. The strength of the export economy – which coincided with a series of world agricultural commodity booms – lasted until the 1929 Great Depression that effectively shut down international trade and devastated the export-dependent Argentine economy. During this era the Argentine economy grew to become one of the largest and the world, and despite chronically high inequality Argentine workers did see their incomes rise. Of course, despite the success of Argentine democracy civil discourse remained violent – anarchist attacks against the ruling oligarchy were common during this period – but the type of large scale political violence that characterized the earlier caudillo, and later Peronist and Dirty War eras was absent. Despite the large class divide between the oligarchy and the labor-based Radical Party the transition to democratic rule in 1916 was peaceful.

However, immediately after the crash of 1929 the democratically elected Radical government was overthrown by a military coup that returned the liberal turned conservative elite to power, and initiated the oppression and corruption of what became known as the ‘Infamous Decade.’ Conservative elites and their supporters in the military, alarmed by the Radical Party-era success of liberal, working class politicians resorted to widespread violence and political oppression to keep working class leaders out of power.

Despite this oppression and lack of durable political institutions, Argentine society remained largely civil in the post-unitario era. Transfers of power between liberals and conservatives in the oligarchy and Radical eras were not especially destructive, though they were not peaceful or orderly. While the unitario-Federalist conflict of the 19th century repeatedly led to open civil war, the conflict between the conservative oligarchy and working class liberals was not nearly as violent. This relatively calm period ended with the arrival of Juan Perón. The emergence of the Peronist movement in the 1940s fundamentally changed Argentine political culture by shaping working class anger over the continued economic stagnation of the 1930s and poor standards of living into a highly organized political force that unified the liberal and conservative poor into a coalition able to challenge elite rule. This coalition was unprecedented; much of the working class’ chronic failure to unseat the political hegemony of the conservative right was due to its inability to unite behind a common political movement. By building a political message based on populism and personal charisma rather than a defined political philosophy, Army officer Juan Perón was able to unite the competing political and labor movements of the working class into a unified block.

While the Peróns’ personal charisma was an important part of their political success, they also benefited from the deteriorating social and economic conditions that had been allowed to fester under the conservative civilian and military rule of the 1930s and early 1940s. The global depression and collapse of the global export market had severely shrunk the Argentine economy, and workers’ real wages plummeted. Rising levels of unemployment were accompanied by increased hostility towards worker rights and organized labor by the conservative government, which further strained Argentine society. The political and social philosophy of Peronism was deeply attractive in this economic environment. Peronism was able to articulate a message of universal citizenship, a concept of nationalistic identity that poor Argentines had been excluded from since independence. The genius of Juan Perón was his ability to take the deep resentment over social exclusion and poverty among poor Argentines and shape it into a common political identity that challenged the continuation of an elite-dominated social society. By making workers’ rights and dignity a central tenant of its philosophy and message, Peronism was able to cement itself as a social force within Argentine society in a way previous political movements – notably the rural Federalism of the guachos – had not.

The Peróns, 1951.

The Peróns, 1951.

However, while the impact of Peronism was unprecedented it was fundamentally a continuation of the class conflict that had divided Argentina since independence. Despite its revolutionary message, Peronism succeeded because it appropriated the same political tools of clientelism and identity politics that had dominated Argentina for generations, tools that had been previously used by both the Conservative and Radical parties. While Peronism irrevocably altered the status quo, it was a product of the same working class discontent that had spawned the Federalists and Radicals. Perón’s charisma and organizational genius were important parts of his rise, but he was not a magician — Peronism’s unprecedented disruption of the Argentine class-politics equilibrium was due more to Argentina’s worsening economic conditions than the man himself.

The arrival of Peronism struck Argentine civil society like a bomb. To the elites, both among the wealthy and the military, the arrival of Peronism was a disaster that threatened the conservative hegemony. Suddenly, the stakes of the unremitting Argentine class conflict were raised. Many wealthy Argentines could not understand this new and unsettling movement among the poor. While the leftist violence of the early 20th century and Radical democratic revolution of 1916 were setbacks for the oligarchy, they did not threaten wealthy Argentines’ positions and privileges at the head of society. The Peronist movement was different. The rhetoric and unprecedented organization of the Peronists threatened the wealthy’s place in society in a way that the Radical Party had been incapable of, and the civilian elite and military feared Perón as much as it despised him. When Perón was overthrown in the military coup of 1955, wealthy elites had no intention of allowing the working class to ever again threaten their place at the head of the Argentine government.

This conservative determination was unsuccessful. Deteriorating social and economic conditions among the Argentine working class and increasing political desperation precipitated Perón’s return from exile in 1973. However, Perón’s return did not improve Argentina’s economic outlook, which continued to collapse through the 1970s. Argentine industry and the formal employment sector began to disintegrate and real income levels fell as inequality rose, an economic decline worsened by ineffective government economic policies. These changes were also accompanied by deteriorating conditions for Argentine workers that retained their jobs. An increase in seasonal workers and short-term contracts increased the uncertainty the Argentine middle class faced, increasing the fear of, as well as actual, inequality. The loss of traditional labor rights and increased explicit exploitation of Argentine workers weakened the perceived affiliation poor Argentines’ had with the state, and rising inequality contributed to increasing polarization of Argentine politics. These conditions worsened under Perón’s administration, and accelerated after his death during the tenure of his third wife and successor Isabel Perón.

As Argentina’s economy spiraled towards collapse Argentine civil society, long strained by it endemic class conflict, began to unravel. The worsening condition of Argentina’s urban poor was exacerbated by government neglect, and at times outright hostility. Popular anger over poverty, obvious inequality and Argentine society’s growing climate of fear and mistrust precipitated the emergence of a variety of armed groups, which ranged from leftists to Peronist-supporting reactionaries.  The overthrow of conservative civilian rule by the military in the late 1960s further radicalized these poor and working class groups, convincing them that armed conflict was necessary for social change. The arrival of violent political fringe groups was if anything seen as an even greater threat to the status quo by the Argentine elite. Argentine civil society stood at the brink of complete collapse.

This environment of political chaos was exacerbated by the disintegration of the organized Peronist movement, which in Perón’s absence became more radical and ideologically splintered. Part of this radicalization was due to a gradual split in the Peronist movement; while the Peronists of the 1940s were a coalition of the left and right-wing poor linked by populism, a violent division in the late 1960s between leftist and conservative elements of the movement diminished the moderating effect of the coalition. This largely unprecedented bridge between the Argentine popular left and right did not survive the disillusionment and political stress of military government, which encouraged radicalization that made the Peronist coalition across ideological divides impossible. Once removed from the umbrella of Peronism, these groups grew more radical and more violent, a processes worsened by Perón’s failure to establish any type of formal succession structure within the movement during his lifetime. The reemergence of organized liberal political violence in the 1970s convinced the Argentine conservative elite that drastic action was required to stamp out the leftists. Elites saw the class conflict of the early 1970s as an issue of survival: after the trauma the Perón presidency the military was not prepared to risk further assaults on the social dominance of the wealthy elite by the poor. In an environment of increasing poverty and radicalized politics any room for civil compromise was quickly disappearing.

Even as late as the early 1970s there was still arguably room for political accommodation. Though the fuse of open civil conflict was lit, democratic reforms could have averted further violent escalation. The second Perón administration managed to united elements of the left and the right and moderated the emerging conflict, but after Perón’s death in 1974 this influence was gone, and open violence began. In the aftermath of Perón’s death reconciliation between the elites and working class activists became impossible, and Perón’s sucessor Isabel Perón was overthrown by the military in 1976. The new military junta immediately escalated the conflict against leftists groups into open government violence against the people, beginning the violence of the Dirty War. This decision was a product of the lingering trauma of Peronism, which caused the military and the elites they represented to severely overestimate the threat posed by a violently angry working class. Despite their lofty ambitions of social change, Argentina’s armed extremist groups were mostly limited to isolated kidnapping and small-scale terrorist attacks , and did not pose the existential threat the military perceived. It was this miscalculation that initiated the excesses of the Dirty War: the lingering psychological trauma of Peronism led elites to believe that they were already trapped an open civil war with the working class that threatened to overwhelm them, and that their survival rested on quickly and decisively destroying working-class leftist groups. When initially unsuccessful, the military rapidly escalated the tactics they were willing to utilize against elements of Argentine society they perceived as undesirable. The unprecedented brutality of the Dirty War grew out of the military’s frustration over its inability to decisively destroy the leftist movement.

The leaders 1976 military government.

The leaders 1976 military government, termed the "National Reorganization Process".

Despite its unprecedented brutality, the Dirty War was fundamentally a continuation of the liberal-conservative class conflict that had defined Argentine society through the 20th century. The conservative National Reorganization Process junta’s criminal violence was motivated by a desire to end this conflict decisively by destroying their liberal ideological opponents among the working class. Leftists groups’ resistance to “capitalism” were explicitly an attack on the wealthy elite, and conservative death squads targeting liberal political activists and trade unionists operated especially freely in the slums. However, despite its similarities to the long-running pattern of Argentine development the Dirty War was far more violent than any other period of political conflict in the 20th century. The legacy of Peronism – which convinced elites that their survival was at stake and working class liberal activists that violence could rapidly provoke social change – and the rising social inequality of 1960s and 1970s created the conditions necessary for a complete collapse of social order. While the core social conditions that led to the violence of the Dirty War were the same as those that had fueled earlier conflicts, by the early 1970s Argentina was an economically stagnant, socially divided society that was permeated by fear and resentment. These conditions created the tinderbox that the political legacies of Peronism, leftist activism and military frustration ignited. While the Dirty War was unprecedented, it was not an aberration – the social divide that created it had been a part of Argentine society throughout the 20th century.

This class conflict that culminated in the Dirty War has become much less influential after the 1983 return to democracy. While class remains an important part of Argentine political and social identity, Argentine society seems unlikely to suffer another violent collapse. Just as economic malaise has precipitated Argentine political unrest, the relative stability of the post-1983 is likely at least partially due to improving economic conditions. The contemporary Argentine economy is clearly comparatively weaker than during the export economy era, especially in comparison to other large economies. However, growth trends are stronger post-1990 than in other years of the post-1930 era. This growth likely has a moderating influence on Argentine politics. The popular anger of Peronism and the disintegration of Argentine society during the Dirty War were at least partially due to the social stress of wage stagnation and increasing inequality. Declining aggregate social stresses in the post-Dirty War period are likely responsible for the decline of class politics in contemporary Argentina. While it remains popular among poor slum residents, today’s Peronist movement has largely shifted its base away from unions and is a significantly less class-based party than the Peronism of the 1940s.

The contemporary moderation of Argentine politics is not wholly due to economic factors. The military lost much of its political power in the aftermath of the return to democracy, and its absence has removed the wealthy conservative elite’s most powerful tool for subverting electoral politics. Nearly all shifts to conservative ascendency in the post-oligarchy era were accomplished by military coups, and the decline of the Argentine military after its disgraceful conduct during the National Reorganization Process significantly lowered the stakes of Argentine politics. Importantly, conflict between political parties has a low likelihood of escalating into a future military takeover.

Together these two factors have largely defused the class conflict that dominated Argentine society. While class is still an important part of Argentine culture and continues to influence politics and personal identity, the divide between the rich and working class seems unlikely to lead to another catastrophic disruption of Argentine civil society.

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Friedman, Benjamin. The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (Knopf, 2005).
Gasparini, L., Guillermo Cruce and Leopoldo Tornaroll (2009). “Recent Trends in Income Inequality in Latin America.” Society for the Study of Income Inequality Working Paper Series.
Gillispire, Richard. Soldiers of Perón: Argentina’s Montoneros (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982).
Lewis, Paul H. The Crisis of Argentine Capitalism (University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
McGuire, James W. Peronism without Perón (Stanford University Press, 1997).
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Slatta, Richard. Gauchos and the Vanishing Frontier (University of Nebraska, 1992).
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