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María Estela Martínez Cartas de Perón (born February 4, 1931), better known as Isabel Martínez de Perón or Isabel Perón, is a former President of Argentinamarker. She was also the third wife of another former President, Juan Perón. During her husband's third term as president, Isabel served as vice president and following her husband's death in office, Isabel served as president from July 1, 1974 to March 24, 1976. She was the first non-royal female head of state and head of government in the Western Hemispheremarker.

In 2007, an Argentinemarker judge ordered the arrest of Isabel Perón over the forced disappearance of an activist in February 1976, on the grounds that the disappearance was authorized by her signing of decrees allowing Argentina's armed forces to take action against "subversives". She was arrested near her home in Spainmarker on 12 January 2007. Spanish courts subsequently rejected her extradition to Argentina.

Early life

María Estela Martínez Cartas was born in La Rioja, Argentina, into a lower middle-class family, daughter of Carmelo Martínez and his wife María Josefa Cartas Olguín. She became a nightclub dancer in the early 1950s, adopting a variant of her saint's name, Isabela or Isabel, as her stage name.

Career and marriage

Juan Perón

She met her future husband during his exile in Panamamarker. Juan Perón, who was 35 years older than she, was attracted to her beauty and believed she could provide him with the female companionship he had been lacking since the death of his second wife, Eva Perón. Isabel gave up her career in show business and became Perón's personal secretary.

Perón brought Isabel with him when he moved to Madridmarker, Spainmarker, in 1960. Authorities in that Roman Catholic nation did not approve of Perón's living arrangements with the young woman, so on November 15, 1961, the former president reluctantly married for a third time.

Early political career

Ambassador Isabel

As Perón began a more active role in Argentine politics, Isabel was as a go-between from Spain to South America. Having been deposed in a couple years before, Perón was forbidden from returning to Argentina, so his new wife would travel in his stead. The trade unionist José Alonso became one of her main advisers in Perón's dispute against Steelworkers' leader Augusto Vandor's faction in the General Confederation of Labour (CGT); Alonso and Vandor were both later assassinated in as-yet unexplained circumstances.

José López Rega

It was at this time that Isabel met José López Rega, an occult philosopher and fortune teller, who later founded the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (Triple A), a death squad accused of 1,500 crimes in the 1970s. Isabel was interested in occult matters (and as president reportedly employed astrological divination to determine national policy) , so the two quickly became friends. Under pressure from Isabel, Perón appointed López as her personal secretary.

Rise to power

Héctor Cámpora was nominated by Perón's Justicialist Party to run in the 1973 presidential elections and won. However, it was generally understood that Perón held the real power; a popular phrase at the time was "Cámpora al gobierno, Perón al poder" (Cámpora for government, Perón for power). Later that year, Perón returned to Argentina. Cámpora resigned to allow Perón to run for president. In a surprisingly uncontroversial move, he chose Isabel as his running mate. Perón's return from exile was marked by a growing rift between the right and left wings of the Peronist movement. Cámpora represented the left wing, while López Rega represented the right wing. Under López Rega's influence, Juan and Isabel Perón favored the right wing. Isabel had very little in the way of political experience or ambitions and she was a very different personality from Evita, who was more involved with politics and had been denied the post of vice president years earlier.

The presidency and descent into chaos

Juan Perón died on July 1, 1974, less than a year after his third election to the presidency. Isabel assumed the office and became the first non-royal female head of state and head of government in the Western Hemispheremarker.

Although she seemed to lack Evita's charisma, the nation at first rallied to the grieving widow in this, her role of a lifetime. Even extremist groups were publicly offering her support, it seemed, following their falling out with Juan Perón between May and June. Mrs. Perón, however, abruptly canceled a full agenda of meetings with these people, preferring to entertain the likes of Romaniamarker's Nicolae Ceaucescu, Libyamarker's Muammar Qaddafi and the Shah of Iran. The goodwill her husband's death had left her soon dissipated. Following a string of mysterious murders, public threats from leftist extremists and a wave of industrial strikes in September, 1974, she became unpopular for the first time since the public had become acquainted with her.

Her indolence aside, the real source of contention between her and the voters was the increasingly undeniability that José López Rega, nominally merely the Minister of Social Welfare, set the agenda over a broad swath of Mrs. Perón's policies. Vetting nearly all domestic and foreign policy, he became de facto prime minister, something not lost on the Argentine public, then benefiting from Latin America's highest access to newspapers, radio, television and education, itself.

Never liked by the public and loathed by the Roman Catholic Church and the Armed Forces despite his avowed right-wing views, López Rega was a man considered by others in the halls of power as a borderline psychopath, and, worse, the sport of being the "power behind the throne," which he leveraged to secure business partnerships with Qaddafi, Zaireanmarker dictator Joseph Mobutu and international terrorists like Italianmarker Fascist Licio Gelli.

More of a mystery at time was the extent of the Social Welfare Minister's involvement in the recently formed Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (Triple A), a seemingly unstoppable commando unit that, between late 1973 and late 1974, had already carried out nearly 300 murders, including that of former President Arturo Frondizi's brother, Professor Silvio Frondizi, Congressman Rodolfo Ortega Peña, activist Father Carlos Mugica, Buenos Aires Province Assistant Police Chief Julio Troxler, and former Córdoba Vice-Governor Atilio López among others. Other prominent public servants, such as moderate Senator Hipólito Solari Yrigoyen and left-wing University of Buenos Airesmarker President Rodolfo Puiggrós, narrowly escaped Triple A attacks with their lives.

Though clearer now, particularly since the 2006 capture in Spainmarker of Triple A death-squad overseer Rodolfo Almirón (then also in charge of López Rega's and Isabel Perón's personal security), the public at the time treated the subject with great trepidation and ambivalence, not least because the majority of the political beat press corps had themselves been intimidated (sometimes, worse).

Not that left-wing extremists were innocent during all this. Organized in 1968, the mysterious Roman Catholic-oriented anarchist Montoneros had already carried out the murder of former President Pedro Aramburu, popular CGT union Secretary General José Ignacio Rucci, construction workers' union leader Rogelio Coria, former Interior Minister Arturo Mor Roig and U.S. Consul John Egan, among other murders and kidnappings. Throughout 1974, moreover, the appearance of a new, nearly equally violent Trotskyite threat, the ERP, sped the vicious cycle of violence. Having gained notoriety after the murder of FIATmarker executive Oberdan Sallustro, they began the year with a violent assault on the Azulmarker barracks and murdered, among others, criminal court Judge Jorge Quiroga and the publisher of La Platamarker's centrist El Día, David Kraiselburd, as well as kidnapping Esso executive Victor Samuelson. Freed for a ransom of US$12 million, his kidnapping ignited what would become a rash of such crimes.

All this, if anything, led many in society to believe that, if Mrs. Perón was indeed encouraging López Rega to send his death squads after violent criminals, it was justifiable. This sentiment gathered traction after a bomb killed Buenos Aires Police Chief Alberto Villar and his wife, in November 1974.

Following the murder of Chief Villar (one of López Rega's closest collaborators in the Triple A, as it turned out) and increasing activity by the ERP in the Province of Tucumánmarker, Mrs. Perón was persuaded to declare a state of emergency (suspending, among other rights, Habeas Corpus) in that province on February 5, 1975. Drafted so they may (in her words) "annihilate the subversives," the decree led to Operation Independence, a military campaign notorious for the brutality it exacted on not only the violent; but also elected officials, magistrates and University of Tucumán faculty (even secondary school teachers). The Peronists' own political mainstay (the labor movement) was also subject to the "subversive" labels and consequent reprisals. The November 1974 election of a left-wing union shop steward at a Villa Constitución steel mill and its disapproval by steelworkers' leader Lorenzo Miguel (a leading figure in the paramount CGT), resulted in a brutal March 20, 1975 police assault on the facility. The raid, executed jointly with Triple A heavies, led to the "disappearance" of many of the 300 workers arrested.

López Rega, meanwhile, quickly took to dismissing many of the most competent policy makers Mrs. Perón had inherited from her husband's brief last turn at the presidency; by May, 1975, both Economy Minister José Ber Gelbard and Central Bankmarker President Alfredo Gómez Morales had been replaced with López Rega loyalists. Tilling the State Intelligence Secretariatmarker (SIDE) with Fascists loyal to him, this policy led the corrupt agency to engage in unprecedented intrigue, culminating in the kidnapping of Jorge and Juan Born, prominent local executives who paid US$60 million for their release (a world record at the time). Using contacts from among the Montoneros' many double agents (including the leader, Mario Firmenich), the agency kept the Born brothers in a known SIDE safehouse for nine months until their June 1975 release without public suspicion of SIDE involvement, a successful false flag operation that led to others (albeit less ambitious ones) in the following months.

Faced with record trade and budget deficits, though with an otherwise stable economy, the new Economy Minister, Celestino Rodrigo proceeded to apply "shock therapy," ordering a surprise halving of the peso's value and, by forcing those who could to stampede towards the U.S. dollar, destroying the fragile financial balance that had been maintained to that point. Consumer prices doubled between May and August, alone, and though sharp, mandatory wage hikes had been negotiated between the government, labor and employers, the shock ignited protest across Argentina, including a two-day general strike by the CGT (the first ever against a Peronist administration). Following a riot in front of his offices, the now hated José López Rega was hastily appointed Ambassador to Spain and boarded a flight into exile.

Fall from power

López Rega had left, July 19, and shortly afterwards, Mrs. Perón dismissed his protégés in the Economy Ministry, Celestino Rodrigo, and in the Armed Forces High Command, General Alberto Numa Laplane, whom she replaced for General Jorge Videla, a quiet career officer with an uneventful military record. By then, a sudden fall in business investment had sent GDP into a sharp recession (practically cancelling growth chalked up during the prosperous 1974) and her appointment of a pragmatic economist, Peronist wheelhorse Antonio Cafiero and her September 13 announcement of a leave of absence relieved ample sectors of society, from labor unions to business. Designating Senate President Ítalo Lúder, a moderately conservative Peronist, in her stead, it was widely hoped that her leave would become permanent; but, it was not to be.

Having claimed over 800 lives, violence between Trotskyite and Fascist extremists had abated somewhat since López Rega's July exile; the Montoneros, however, began a series of audacious attacks on military installations, including August dynamiting of a nearly finished Navy destroyer near the port of La Platamarker and the attack on a military base in Formosa Province on October 5. To make matters worse, these groups and (in a bid to control the agenda), the Triple A themselves, both began taking to midnight lightning strikes against civilian targets (such as banks, buses, yachts, parking lots and restaurants), each blaming the other and, as it turned out, both right. This, in any case, forced society into a state of terror very much alien to Argentina's upwardly mobile majority. Anxious to placate the exasperated public, hard-line labor leaders (particularly the steelworkers' Lorenzo Miguel) and most other Peronists, on October 6 she and Lúder signed new measures giving blanket immunity to the Armed Forces. The measure won her just enough support to return from "sick leave" and on October 16, (the day before Peronists' historically central "Loyalty Day"), Mrs. Perón appeared at the balcony of the Casa Rosadamarker, back at her post.

This was, in effect, an extension nationwide of the state of emergency that had been imposed in Tucumán. That operation's military success and the president's November 17 announcement that elections (scheduled for March 1977) would be held in November 1976 instead, again brought renewed hope that an increasingly rumored coup d'état could yet be averted.

Anxiety over inflation, meanwhile, continued to dominate daily life, generally. Monthly inflation did slow from the (then-record) 35% logged in July to 10-15% monthly between September and January 1976 (a level more familiar to the Argentine consumer); but, though the mid-year recession had reduced the trade deficit significantly, the government's 1975 budget had been derailed by the crisis and by earlier commitments to cancel its then still-modest foreign debt, something which, even so cost Argentina US$2.5 billion that year, alone. The resulting budget deficits (over US$5 billion, in 1975) began to reassert pressure on prices after November, leading to hoarding and shortages.

Counting on broader Air Force support following Mrs. Perón's appointment of Gen. Héctor Fautario, a loyalist of hers, to the branch's high command, General Jesús Capellini attempted a coup d'état by seizing the Móronmarker Air Force base on December 18, 1975; but, the military joint chiefs, who obtained Fautario's dismissal, stayed the mutiny's hand, secretly concluding that the timing was premature. Partly in response, the nearly defeated ERP besieged the important Monte Chingolo Armory on December 23. This, the most violent among the numerous such attacks in 1975, cost over 100 lives and marked the end of the ERP's violent campaign.

Economy Minister Antonio Cafiero was dismissed on February 4, 1976 and, within days, the head of the National Business Council, Julio Broner, left Argentina with his family, altogether. CGT Secretary General Casildo Herreras followed suit, announcing from exile that he had "erased" himself. Cafiero's replacement, Eugenio Mondelli, announced a new devaluation of the shredded peso, causing prices to jump by over 60% in two months. The President, who had been alleged to have embezzled large sums from a government-run charity into her personal accounts in Spain, had impeachment procedures opened in Congressmarker, a UCR motion supported by most of her own Justicialist Party. Near defeat, though still active, the Montoneros detonated a bomb at Army headquarters on March 15, killing 29, and even as the joint chiefs assured Mrs. Perón of their loyalty, the national media were already publicly counting down the days to the coup d'état, by then practically a foregone conclusion.

Calling it a day at the Casa Rosadamarker after working late into the evening of March 23, 1976, in the hope of averting an impending business lockout, Mrs. Perón celebrated her executive assistant's birthday with staff. Alerted to suspicious military exercises, she boarded the presidential helicopter shortly after midnight. It did not fly her to the presidential residence in the tony northside suburb of Olivosmarker as she intended, however; but, instead to an Air Force base in nearby Jorge Newbery International Airportmarker, where the distraught Isabel Perón was formally deposed and arrested.

Detention and Exile

After remaining under house arrest for five years, she was sent into exile in Spainmarker in 1981. She continued to serve as official head of the Peronist Justicialist Party until her resignation in 1985, nearly a decade after her fall from power. Though there were some who desired her return and wished for her return to power, she refused to stand for election to the presidency. She lived in Madridmarker, maintained close links with Francisco Franco's family, and sometimes went to Marbellamarker, a Spanish coastal city. Following the restoration of democracy in Argentina, she was pardoned from charges of corruption during her presidency and returned in May 1984 to participate in policy talks arranged by President Raúl Alfonsín and opposition leaders. Still nominally head of Perón's Justicialist Party, she played a constructive role in the talks - supporting cooperation between the restive CGT labor union (her party's political base) and Alfonsín. The talks concluded with a weak agreement, and she resigned her post as titular head of the party. Mrs. Perón resumed residence in Spain under a very low profile.

Arrest in Spain

In November 2006, a judge in Mendoza, Argentinamarker demanded testimony from Isabel, along with other Peronist ministers of her government, in a case involving forced disappearances during her presidency. On January 12, 2007, she was arrested in Madrid. In particular, she was charged by the Argentine authorities with the disappearance of Héctor Aldo Fagetti Gallego on February 25, 1976, and her issuance of decrees over her signature calling to "annihilate … subversive elements throughout the country". The Nunca Mas ("Never Again") report released in 1984 by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons recorded 600 disappearances and 500 assassinations under the Peronist governments from 1973 to 1976, and it is today acknowledged that the Triple A alone murdered about 600 people. The extradition to Argentina was denied in Spain on March 28, 2008.

See also


  1. Warrant for ex-Argentine leader, BBC, January 12, 2007
  2. Isabel Peron's arrest signals shift in Argentina, Los Angeles Times, January 13, 2007
  3. Extradition of Isabel Perón To Argentina Is Rejected By Court New York Times. 29 April 2008
  4. Binayán Carmona, Narciso, Historia genealógica Argentina, EMECE, 1999, 578 páginas
  5. 'Argentinian death squad leader' arrested in Spain, The Guardian, December 30, 2006
  6. Ball, Deirdre (ed.): Insight Guides - Argentina. Second edition. Hong Kong: APA Publications (HK) Ltd. 1992, p. 47
  7. Crawley, Eduardo. A House Divided. St. Martin's Press, 1985.
  8. Encyclopedia Britannica, Book of the Year, 1976: Argentina.
  9. Martinez, Tomas Eloy. La Novela de Perón. Vintage Books, 1997.
  10. Andersen, Martin. Dossier Secreto. Westview Press, 1993.
  11. Detienen en Valencia al ex dirigente de la Triple A argentina Almirón Sena, El Mundo, December 28, 2006
  12. Lewis, Paul. The Crisis of Argentine Capitalism. University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
  13. Río Negro online: propuesta a Acindar
  14. Encyclopedia Britannica. Book of the Year, 1985: Argentina.
  15. L'ancienne présidente argentine Isabel Peron arrêtée à Madrid, à la demande de Buenos Aires, Le Monde, January 13, 2007 .
  • Guareschi, Roberto (Nov. 5, 2005). "Not quite the Evita of Argentine legend". New Straits Times, p. 21.

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