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Dignifying Argentina

Dignifying Argentina: Peronism, Citizenship, and Mass Consumption

Eduardo Elena
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    Dignifying Argentina
    Book Description:

    During the mid-twentieth century, Latin American countries witnessed unprecedented struggles over the terms of national sovereignty, civic participation, and social justice. Nowhere was this more visible than in Peronist Argentina (1946-1955), where Juan and Eva Perón led the region's largest populist movement in pursuit of new political hopes and material desires. Eduardo Elena considers this transformative moment from a fresh perspective by exploring the intersection of populism and mass consumption. He argues that Peronist actors redefined national citizenship around expansive promises of a vida digna (dignified life), which encompassed not only the satisfaction of basic wants, but also the integration of working Argentines into a modern consumer society. From the mid-1940s onward, the state moved to boost purchasing power and impose discipline on the marketplace, all while broadcasting images of a contented populace.Drawing on documents such as the correspondence between Peronist sympathizers and authorities, Elena sheds light on the contest over the dignified life. He shows how the consumer aspirations of citizens overlapped with Peronist paradigms of state-led development, but not without generating great friction among allies and opposition from diverse sectors of society. Consumer practices encouraged intense public scrutiny of class and gender comportment, and everyday objects became freighted with new cultural meaning. By providing important insights on why Peronism struck such a powerful chord,Dignifying Argentinasituates Latin America within the broader history of citizenship and consumption at mid-century, and provides innovative ways to understand the politics of redistribution in the region today.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7738-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. INTRODUCTION: Peronism and the Midcentury Moment
    (pp. 1-17)

    Juan Domingo Perón reached a crossroads in November 1951. Facing reelection, Argentina’s president desired a strong showing at the polls to remind supporters and critics alike of his enduring popularity. To this end, Perón and his legendary wife, Eva Duarte de Perón, addressed massive audiences at open-air rallies, while speeches broadcast on the national radio network reached a larger public still. The couple offered a panorama of their administration’s accomplishments during the preceding six years: public works projects, nationalizations, social programs, and labor reforms—the types of initiatives that now feature prominently in histories of Peronism. Yet they also spoke...

    (pp. 18-51)

    In 1928 the newspaperEl Mundohired Roberto Arlt to write a series of observations about life in Buenos Aires. This was a promising arrangement: the newspaper offered a new tabloid layout aimed at popular audiences, and Arlt was an iconoclastic novelist who had worked as a store clerk, machinist, and jack-of-alltrades before earning his living as a journalist. His column, “Aguafuertes porteñas” (aguafuertemeaning “etching” and aporteña/obeing a resident of the port city Buenos Aires), provided everything from mock scholarly analyses of slang terms to vignettes of unusual urban scenes. High on Arlt’s list of fascinations was...

    (pp. 52-83)

    The dilemmas of constrained consumption figured only marginally on the agenda of state officials in the late 1930s, attracting sporadic attention during cost-of-living protests and justifying modest surveys of family budgets—yet how different the political landscape looked just a few years later. During the mid-1940s, the national government and its allies took bold strides to lift all Argentines above a minimum threshold of well-being. The combination of full employment and rising wages loosened the budgets of popular households and placed new commercial wares within the reach of the working class, enabling many to become not only purchasers of daily...

    (pp. 84-118)

    In Argentina the end of World War II was soon overshadowed by the start of Perón’s presidency. Whether this momentous transition represented the dawn of a new era or the further decline of the Republic depended on the side of the growing partisan divide on which one stood. While political tensions showed few signs of easing, the fears of postwar economic collapse that had long preoccupied observers soon vanished. For the remainder of the 1940s, Argentina entered a phase of impressive expansion, the benefits of which were felt widely. Naturally, officials in the Perón administration took credit for this prosperity,...

    (pp. 119-153)

    By assigning new political meanings to ordinary purchasing acts, Peronist campaigns illuminated the material aspirations of working households. There was much more, however, to the pursuit of the vida digna than buying plentiful wares in a regulated marketplace. State intervention was necessary in other areas where the play of capitalist forces failed to provide for the citizenry’s well-being. Beginning in the early 1940s, authorities responded by extending social services on a scale never before seen in Argentina. Perón’s administration presented itself much like other “welfare states” of the era: as an agent defending the common weal against overextended market forces...

    (pp. 154-186)

    As working Argentines saw their consumer horizons widen, both through enhanced purchasing power and access to social assistance, their everyday behavior elicited commentary from fellow members of society. In sizing up the significance of these changes, contemporaries told stories that drew moralizing conclusions about the relationship between consumer choices and Peronist politics. Take, for instance, a 1948 cartoon from a union newspaper, the meatpacker’sTrabajador de la Carne. The illustration presents a conversation between two persons standing in a doorway. A workingman in factory overalls criticizes an inebriated peer, dressed in a disheveled suit, who boasts that he spent the...

    (pp. 187-220)

    The average worker awakens refreshed just before 5 a.m., eager to begin a new day. After washing up and breakfasting with his family, he leaves a house in the suburbs of greater Buenos Aires and commutes to the city, where he earns his wages through skilled manual labor. Once the day is through, he journeys home again, pausing now and then to admire the displays at bookstores and newsstands. Unlike the downtrodden laborer of the past, this worker is happy to return to a restful domestic life, and he is greeted at the front door by a “smartly dressed and...

    (pp. 221-250)

    As the Perón Wants to Know letters flooded government offices with popular recommendations on national planning, state authorities embarked on their own revamping of the New Argentina. In the immediate postwar years, policymakers envisioned income redistribution and development as largely complementary aims. By the early 1950s, however, Perón’s advisers began to conclude that the country had hit an economic wall: deteriorating conditions demanded policy changes to ward off full-blown crisis and, equally worrisome, to ensure their political survival. Rather than present redistribution and development as mutually exclusive, state officials identified the incommensurable elements of each. Mass consumption came under particular...

  9. CONCLUSION: The Dignified Life and Beyond
    (pp. 251-260)

    Much has changed since Perón was deposed over five decades ago. Today the overwhelming majority of Argentines have no direct experience of life in the Nueva Argentina. With each passing year, less evidence of a once commanding regime remains, for subsequent administrations reduced its social programs, lifted commercial and labor regulations, dismantled the propaganda machine, and destroyed physical reminders of the era. The military rulers of the Revolución Libertadora went so far as leveling the Palacio Unzué, the belle-époque mansion where Juan and Evita had lived in Buenos Aires (and where she eventually died). After sitting vacant for years, the...